by Steve Lopez

Over the last month or so we've taken a look at the basic level settings in Fritz6. Hopefully you've played a few games against Fritz6 by now. And, chances are, you've lost more than your share of them. This week we'll look at ways to even the odds a bit by getting help from Fritz itself. Much of this material has been covered in depth in previous issues of ETN and I'll give the references where appropriate.

The biggest problem beginning players face is that they have trouble seeing and reacting to what's happening on the board. They miss their opponents' threats and have trouble coming up with constructive moves of their own. I wrote extensively on this subject in the ETN issue for May 9, 1999; a game with a friend taught me a lot about how novices view the game and showed me the value of the coaching tools in Fritz. There are a number of features in Fritz which will help a player spot threats and find useful moves in non-threat situations. These features are located in the Help menu at the top of the screen in Fritz6.

The first one we'll consider is "Threat" (shortcut: SHIFT-T). What is a threat in chess? It sounds like a dumb question, but it's actually pretty significant. What's a threat?

A threat is what one player could do to another if that first player could make two moves in a row.

It's that simple. And that complex. The best moves are often the ones that threaten something. Your opponent as Black has castled. You as White have a Bishop on c3 and a Queen on e3. You play Qg3 -- what's the threat? What would you do if you could make two moves in a row? Qxg7# of course. You're threatening mate in one. It's now up to your opponent to see it and stop it. If he misses your threat, he's toast.

As described in ETN for May 9, 1999 I played a friend who is a chess novice. She couldn't spot threats on her own, but as soon as I pointed them out to her she would find the correct move to thwart my plan and do it nearly instantly. Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge. I've often played chess with casual players who will look at the move I just played and say aloud, "Now why did he play that?"

The "Threat" function in Fritz6 answers that question. You just activate it and the program will show you (by means of a colored arrow on the board) what it would do if it was allowed to move a second time in a row -- our basic definition of a threat.

Not all threats are viciously threatening. Quite often the "Threat" function will just show you a developing move -- maybe Fritz wants to move its Knight to a better square closer to te center. In that case, you need to determine of you could and should prevent the Knight from going there. Maybe you can push a pawn so that it guards that square. Hmmm...

Admittedly, clicking on "Threat" every time Fritz makes a move can be a real grind. That's where the "Spy" function comes in handy (described in detail in ETN for May 2nd, 1999). "Spy" is basically a permanent version of "Threat" -- it's always on so that you don't have to keep clicking the "Threat" feature everytime Fritz makes a move.

Please allow me to quote myself from the May 2nd, 1999 ETN: "According to the ChessBase International web site, using "Spy" will tend to increase one's performance by about 200-300 Elo points. I think this is a pretty fair estimate. A typical 1100 player will certainly play at least a 1300 game if he knows what his opponent is planning on his next move." You can't argue with that; Kreskin-like abilities would certainly come in very handy to a chessplayer. It would be great to be able to read your opponent's mind. "Threat" and "Spy" allow you to do just that.

Absolute beginners will get a lot of use out of the "Spy" function. After a while, you can wean yourself off of it by turning it off and using "Threat" only when you don't understand the point of one of Fritz' moves. But don't get too dependent on it -- your real-life human opponents usually won't be accomodating enough to tell you what they're thinking.

Let's flip the coin around and look at what you can do when you're stuck for a move. It's your turn and you have no idea what to do next; Fritz isn't making any obvious threats, so you don't see anything critical that causes a forced reaction from you. What do you do now?

The basic form of soliciting Fritz' advice is to use "Suggestion" (the keyboard shortcut is the ? key). This is similar to "Threat" in that Fritz calculates for a while and then shows you what to play by means of a colored arrow on the chessboard. It's as simple as that.

A more elaborate means of getting this information is to use the "Hint" function (shortcut: F2). This provides a lot more information than does the "Suggestion" function. A window titled "Hint" appears on the screen with a number of buttons and an information box. The box contains natural language advice (that is, advice in plain English); for example, right now I'm looking at the message "Move the Queen".

At this point I need to look at the board and try to find a good Queen move. If I can't spot it, I can click the "Suggestion" button that's provided in the Hint window. This will show me a colored arrow on the board to display what move I should make. This is exactly the same information I would have received had I clicked "Suggestion" from the Help menu instead of "Hint", with the extra bonus of another text comment being displayed in the information box.

There are additinal buttons in the Hint window. "Fritz' plan" does the same thing as "Threat" -- it shows you what Fritz is planning to do on its next move. The "Attackers" button displays Fritz' pieces and pawns that are in a position to capture some of your material. Note that this doesn't take into account the relative values of the pieces, so if Fritz' Bishop is attacking one of your pawns (which is defended by another one of your pawns), the Bishop will still be highlighted as an attacking piece even though the capture would actually cost Fritz material. Clicking "Attacked" will highlight any of your pieces and pawns which are subject to capture, again with no regard to relative material values. The "Undefended" button will highlight all of your pieces and pawns which are not defended by any of your other pieces or pawns. If you click "Attacked" and then "Undefended" and see the same piece or pawn highlighted by both functions, it's a pretty safe bet that the unit in question is a target and likely to be copped off the board on Fritz' next move.

There are two more basic functions that you should know about. Clicking "Threatened squares" shows any pieces that are subject to attack. Once again (as with the "Hint" function) this disregards material values. Let's look at an example:

In this example, we see several pieces and pawns highlighted in different colors. The a3-pawn is highlighted in green, A green highlight means that a piece is defended more times than it's attacked. We see that the c5-Bishop attacks the pawn, but that it's defended by both the a1-Rook and the b2-pawn.

Three pawns are highlighted in yellow. A yellow highlight means that the unit is defended the same number of times that it's attacked. So, for example, the f7-pawn is attacked by the c4-Bishop, but the Black King defends it. The g2-pawn and h3-pawn are both attacked by the f4-Knight; the White King defends the g2-pawn, while the h3-pawn is defended by the pawn on g2.

Finally, the c2-pawn is highlighted in red. A red highlight indicates that the piece or pawn is attacked more times than it's defended. In this case the d4-Knight attacks it and there is nothing defending the pawn.

Keep in mind that these colors do not take into account the relative values of the pieces. If you push a White pawn to attack a Black Queen, but the Queen is defended by two Black pawns, the Black Queen will be highlighted in green. At first glance you might think the Queen is safe, but if Black ignores the threat from the pawn White gets a winning material advantage.

"Threatened squares" has a secondary function. When you click on one of your own pieces, every square the piece can move to will be highlighted. The colors tell you what can happen if you go to those squares: "green" means that the piece can safely move there while "red" indicates that the piece can be captured if you place it on that square.

Another interesting tool is "Explain all moves". By clicking on this, the program will load Fritz5.32 (because it's a much faster analyzer than Fritz6) and provied you with rudimentary natural language explanations of every possible move in that position. First of all, don't expect miracles from this function; the explanations are very basic. But this is a very handy tool for beginners (and I've used it occasionally in my own analytical work and discovered ideas that I'd overlooked -- so the results may sometimes surprise you!). Fritz provides you with a list of all the possible moves in the position, ranked from best to worst. It's interesting to watch the relative rankings (as well as the text commentary) change as Fritz goes deeper into the search and reevaluates its ideas.

There's one more tool we need to look at, which is bit more involved than the others. This is the "Coach". Go to the Help menu and click "Coach is Watching". This allows Fritz to coach you automatically during a game, just as a human chess teacher would stop a game as soon as you made an error and tell you what you did wrong.

First we'll look at how to configure the coach. Go to the Tools menu, select "Options", and clcik on the "Game" tab in the window that appears. You'll see a section marked "Coach". There are two settings in this window. One is "Calc. time". This allows you to set the amount of time the coach will analyze a position when you ask it for help. The longer you set this for, the better the analysis will be. Keep in mind, though, that you don't want to go overboard with this. The considerations discussed in ETN for January 2, 2000 concerning using "fixed time" also apply here. Setting the coach for 60 seconds does not mean that you'll get your hint once 60 seconds is reached -- the program may calculate for a much longer time until it finishes the ply it's examining when it hits the 60 second mark.

Note that this time setting also affects the behavior of other functions such as "Threat", "Hint", and "Suggestion".

The other value you can set is called "Threshold". This is a value givin in 1/100ths of a pawn and affects how often you'll see the coach window appear. If you set it for 100, you'll only see the coach appear when you make a move that loses a pawn or more. This alerts you to tactical errors you've made. If you want a more positional approach, set it for a lower value. Be aware, however, that the lower you set it, the more often the coach window will pop up during your game. If you set it for something ridiculous like 5 or 10, you can expect to see the coach appear on nearly every move (or at least every two or three moves). My personal preference is to set it for 50. That's a half-pawn and I think that's a significant enough threshold -- if the last move I made causes my position to deteriorate by a half-pawn or more, I'd like to know about it. This also means that the coach isn't bugging me all the time. I'll sort my tactics out first and worry about the positional stuff later!

Once you've set the coach's parameters, start your game. Each time that you make a move which causes your position to be worse (in 100ths of a pawn) by your threshold value or greater, the Coach window will appear. It will show you a text box with a warning "Nd4-c6 will cause you no end of problems, Steve"). You have four buttons from which to select:

This is a pretty valuable tool and one that I use myself. I don't play Fritz for blood, I play it to improve my game. With the Coach function on, I'm able to spot my errors as I make them and, over time, begin to identify repetitive weaknesses in my play. This clues me in on what I need to be tartgeting in my chess studies -- middlegame tactics, endgames, positional play, etc.

Judicious use of "Spy" and "Threat" will train you in spotting threats. "Suggestion" and "Hint" will aid you in selecting moves. "Threatened squares" increases your board vision, while "Explain all moves" can show you why certain moves are made. Finally, "Coach" acts like a teacher/advisor, alerting you to mistakes you're making while playing a game. So Fritz isn't just a strong playing program -- it's a strong teacher as well.

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes. If you love gambits and sacrificial play, stop by my Chess Kamikaze Home Page and the Yahoo Chess Kamikazes Club.