by Steve Lopez

Happy belated Thanksgiving! For non-Statesians, Thanksgiving is a U.S. national holiday in which we get a day off from work to contemplate our blessings, eat way too much, and watch a whole pile of football/basketball/fighting robot competitions. In the spirit of the occasion, this week we present a veritable cornucopia of chess stuff (including a couple of leftovers), but there's not a turkey in the bunch.

Perhaps my all-time favorite ChessBase Magazine feature was the "Strategy" section written by GM Daniel King. Danny had a great gig for about five years, writing a regular column free from editorial interference (anyone who's a writer knows what a blessing that can be -- wink, wink, nudge, nudge -- as well as being quite rare). He was allowed to write about whatever he dang well pleased, so he always chose topics he found interesting and consistently wrote about them in an entertaining manner. Unfortunately the columns stopped coming a while back (for whatever reason) and I missed them immediately. I sometimes dig back through old CBM CDs to reread them and get entertained all over again.

ChessBase GmbH has put an end to my digging (and stopped a few of the frequent avalanches in my office) by gathering all twenty-nine articles together on a new CD: Secrets of the English Chess School. All of the old "Strategy" articles are here, accompanied by brand-new video introductions by GM King.

There are actually thirty databases on the CD, the first being the Introduction. Start here (duh) to find out how the CD is organized. As King states in the Intro, the CD is not a step-by-step structured chess course, but each article/database is a chess lesson in itself. For readers who absolutely demand some form of organization, King has grouped the articles together under several loose headings:

So pick a topic and click away. Each article consists of a text introduction accompanied by a batch of games (many of which are annotated), typically between ten and twenty in number, but some articles have up to fifty games in them.

Each of the sections listed above begins with a video introduction by GM King. He's a pretty engaging guy -- if you recall the old ESPN chess broadcasts in the mid-90's, you'll remember what a great team King and Maurice Ashley made. King is very enthusiastic about chess and this comes through in the video introductions.

But don't discount the writing, either. King's a rarity in the chess world: a chess writer who actually knows how to write well. His annotations are clear, informative, and often quite funny (in fact, Nigel Short writes the same way -- there must be something in the water over across the pond). I defy anyone to read the intro to "Refuting the Petroff" without cracking a smile.

And he doesn't pull any punches in his evaluations, either: "In spite of being an exchange up, Kasparov has a rotten position...", "I have always found something uniquely satisfying about marching one's king down the board, dodging enemy fire, and finally coming out victorious. What a wonderful feeling, flouting all the accepted principles AND getting away with it". For the intro to the article called "Under Lock and Key", King says, "The residence of certain members of the chess community? No, I'm referring to Aaron Nimzovich's original phrase concerning passed pawns." And later in the same intro: "They [passed pawns] have an inherent 'lust to expand', as Nimzovich put it (I don't know the original German phrase he used, but in English this has great resonance!)."

Come on, you know you want to read this stuff! I won't say that my game was drastically improved by Danny King's articles (though I sometimes find myself in a position he discussed, recall what he said about it, and then manage to screw the game up anyway), but I did learn a trick or two from him. For readers who missed the original articles in ChessBase Magazine, the CD Secrets of the English Chess School is an opportunity to read some top-notch chess writing. And for those of us who read the articles the first time around, it's a handy way to go back and re-read them without having to dig through a pile of floppies and CDs, risking knocking them all over the floor during the excavation (kind of like playing "Mouse Trap" -- pile of CDs falls over, knocking a Star Wars collectible figure into a stack of DVD cases, which fall over onto the desk fan, which hits another stack of Civil War books toppling them onto the Mauler 5150 Battlebots toy, which blows apart and a flying armor fragment sends the Godzilla and Ghidrah figures into the middle of a pocket chess set, trashing the position currently being analyzed. Yes, friends, this is what my office is really like).

A second new ChessBase CD is aimed more at instruction rather than entertainment. Queen's Gambit with 5.Bf4 is one of those nifty efforts aimed at the specialists among us: players who don't just have a preferred opening, but a preferred opening variation. GM Rustem Dautov has assembled 3657 games in this line and annotated 255 of them to illustrate the ins and outs of this opening variation.

Why 5.Bf4 instead of the traditional 5.Bg5? As Dautov explains in the Introduction, Black's been doing pretty well in the 5.Bg5 variations (5.Bg5 0-0 6.e3 h6 7.Bh4 b6 or 7...Ne4), forcing White to look elsewhere for ideas. After careful consideration, Dautov has decided to bank on 5.Bf4 and is sharing the ideas with us on this CD.

As with other ChessBase opening CDs, the ideas are what this CD are all about. The CD is divided into twelve sections, each explaining a different subvariation of this opening. Each section begins with a text introduction which explains the ideas and provides links to key database games in which the ideas are illustrated. The CD also contains an extensive opening key which helps you quickly locate the games of a particular variation without having to do a position search. After you've learned the ideas, a separate database provides twenty training games in which you can test your knowledge against preprogrammed timed training positions. And the CD also has a statistical opening book, useful for looking up the stats for a particular move as well as using it as an alternative opening book for the Fritz family of playing programs, forcing the engine to play from that book and giving you the opportunity to train in the opening under actual game conditions.

So why play 5.Bf4? It goes right back to the stats -- a 64% percentage for White looks pretty darned good. Players of the Black pieces will also find the CD useful: as stated in ChessBase Magazine 84, "Dautov...still tries to be very objective in his assessments. With the CD at hand, he presents us with the current status of an important opening."

As with all ChessBase training CDs, both Secrets of the English Chess School and Queen's Gambit with 5.Bf4 are standalone CDs -- both come with the ChessBase Reader program, so no other software is required to be able to use the CDs (although owners of ChessBase and/or the Fritz family of programs will certainly want to use them instead of the Reader).

Sid Pickard is driving me nuts. The man must never sleep. He writes and edits far faster than I can read. But I love the fact that much of his output is in the form of e-books, so they don't contribute to my aforementioned office avalanches.

In the past couple of months, Sid's company, Pickard & Son Publishers, has cranked out a lot of new publications using all three forms: e-book, CD, and traditional paper book. The first of these new items, a CD called The Ultimate Tarrasch Defense by Eric Schiller, takes the use of multimedia to a new level.

First off, I already hear some groaning coming from the back row. "Schiller??!? Awwww, c'mon man -- all of his stuff is crap!" Let me say immediately that I disagree with this generalization. The books he's been writing for Cardoza have been some damn fine work (see issues of ETN from late 1998 for my take on some of these books); in fact, you'll get my copy of Unorthodox Chess Openings away from me when you pry it out of my cold dead fingers. And, yes, some of Schiller's earlier work has been "crap". Some of every writer's work has been crap. I used to write and edit a chess club newsletter called Pawnography and I'm overjoyed that they had a circulation of about two dozen copies -- it makes it easier for me to find and burn them. And there are sections of at least three chess books I've written that I really wish I could take back. But even a blind pig finds the occasional acorn -- there are a couple of sections of Battle Royale with which I'm more than just satisified: I'm actually proud of them. Yes, it's true that Schiller has written some abysmal books (I own a couple of them), but the passing of years has most assuredly improved the quality of his work -- he's doing more these days than just finding the occasional "acorn". So let's just cut out the Schiller-bashing and take the CD on its own merits.

The Ultimate Tarrasch Defense is more than just a "Schiller database dump". Although Eric's name is on the cover, there are several other authors who contributed valuable material to the CD. There are articles by Sid Pickard, Raymond Keene (more groaning, I know), and A. Lilienthal included in the database. There are also some really nice photos of old Tarrasch and some biographical information included.

The CD is in ChessBase format, which allows the use of CB's various multimedia functions. In addition to the photographs, there are some links to interesting web sites related to the CD's content. Just get online, load the CD, and click on one of the links -- your browser fires up and takes you right to the web site.

There are so danged many features and aspects to this CD that I don't know where to begin in describing them. The CD contains a main database with over 15,000 entries. The first seven are the introductory and explanatory text files, with information on how to use the CD, on Tarrasch himself, and explanations of the ideas behind the Tarrasch Defense (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5!). Next follows 300 games annotated by Schiller. The style of annotation ranges from brief comments to long explanations depending on the game. The remaining 15,000+ games are unannotated and arranged in chronological order.

But there is so much more to this CD! A separate database contains a single game annotated by Schiller. But the annotations aren't given in text -- they're audio clips. Over fifty such clips explain audibly the ideas behind the main variations of the Tarrasch.

And it doesn't stop there. The CD also contains a ChessBase tree (usable for stats and as a Fritz opening book), three PGN databases (for users of non-ChessBase chess programs), a Bookup book on the Tarrasch, e-books on the Tarrasch in a variety of formats (including Acrobat files and a .LIT file for users of Pocket PCs with Microsoft Reader), a file for users of Microsoft Access, opening reports in HTML format (for users of Java-enable browsers), and information in XML format (for users of browsers that support this protocol). Whew! Even if your machine is only halfway state of the art, you'll be able to find great heaping gobs of useful information on this CD in a format that you can use.

I've probably left out a feature or three, but by now you have the idea. If you're even remotely interested in this opening, The Ultimate Tarrasch Defense will give you tons of information -- careful study can make you an unstoppable killer with the Tarrasch.

After all that, my head is spinning, so I need to lie down with a good book. I'm a total fiend for 19th Century chess; ask me who my favorite players are and you'll get Adolph Anderssen on the list. I did a little dance when I scored a copy of Blackburne's Chess Games at a used bookstore a couple of weeks ago. And I've been interested in Wilhelm Steinitz ever since he was the subject of the first chess book I wrote (back in 1992). So I was really happy to see that Sid Pickard has rereleased his book The Games of Wilhelm Steinitz, first published by Sid in 1995, and was even happier to see a copy arrive in my mailbox. I only wish I'd had this book back in '92 when I was unable to obtain all the games of the 1892 World Championship for my own book.

Steinitz is recognized today as the Father of Positional Chess. In an era of wild gambits and lightning attacks, Steinitz stressed proper pawn play and solid piece positioning. The man was on the right track: his ideas were rewarded when he became the first generally-recognized World Champion of chess. He was often scorned by other players for his ideas, but it's hard to sneer at success (unless we're talking about Prince, but that's a whole different rant. I'm glad he changed his name back, though -- I didn't have a high-ASCII key for his old name).

The Games of Wilhelm Steinitz delivers just what it says: his known games (1022 in all) from tournaments and matches, plus casual games, blindfold and simul games, and the odds games that were so popular during the period. And 227 of them are annotated by the man himself. Throw in nearly 250 diagrams and a text introduction by Sid Pickard and you have a wonderful addition to your chess library, especially if you have a passion for games from the 1800's. I'd like to say more about this book, but what else is there to say? It's Steinitz, for crying out loud! Sure, he ultimately went insane and challenged God to a match at Knight odds, but that's a tough one to handicap. I'd lay 3-2 (tops) on God and hope for the best, but I have my doubts about the outcome. Get the book and judge for yourself.

And rounding out our chess feast, you can download several new free items from the Members area at Pickard & Son Publishers; all you need do is register as a member at the site. Among these are a database of games from the St. Petersburg 1909 tournament (including the Brilliancy Prize game annotated by Emanuel Lasker), a database of all Steinitz Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 exf4 4.d4 Qh4+ 5.Ke2 -- ooooooo!) games played by Steinitz himself, and an article by Savielly Tartakower (translated by Victor Charushin). No previews required from me here -- just register and see them for yourself.

Man, that's a lot of new chess goodies, so be careful that you don't overindulge. If you do, Alka-Seltzer won't do the trick -- just take two pawns and call me next week. In the meantime, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes.