by Steve Lopez

A lot of players tend to see positional openings as being dry and lifeless -- a lot of maneuvering without tactical possibilities. While this is certainly true in some cases, this isn't the way it always works. To quote from a new ChessBase CD:

Many positions of the Meran have been thoroughly tested for years, giving rise to a definite evaluation about them. However, studying the Meran you will also notice that many topical positions are characterized as "complicated", "unclear", "double-edged" or "sharp". What we can say?! This simply means that, despite of nearly 80 years of employment and investigations, the Meran Variation is still full of possibilities for both parties and that, very important, in many positions Black can count on active counterplay. On the other hand, the Meran also holds many options for White as for Black to fight in a calmer, positional style - in any case, it has the reputation of being a solid opening.

I often hear beginning and intermediate players deride the Caro-Kann Defense as being "boring" or "overly defensive". As a longtime Caro player, I can assure you that this is far from the truth. The Meran Variation is a Black response to 1.d4 (part of the Semi-Slav family) that has some characteristics in common with the Caro, so it stands to reason that the Meran is also far from "boring".

This view is vividly brought to life on a new ChessBase training CD, The Meran Variation, authored by GM Alexey Dreev. The CD concentrates on the positions arising from the move order 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5:

As you may already know, an old maxim in chess is that a central attack is best countered by play on the flanks. The Meran fits this mold; Black develops Queenside counterplay in response to White's movements in the center.

The Meran Variation covers a lot of ground; many, many variations are discussed on this CD. But the material is well-organized into several main variations:

Each of these variations is further subdivided into additional sublines. So the best approach to take in utilizing this CD is to start with the text descriptions of each of these main variations, perhaps play through a few games from the database, and decide which variation to concentrate on. The task for a player of the Black pieces is a bit harder, as he'll need to learn at least three of these main groups (A, B, and his choice from C through E). The "building block" approach was discussed in a series here in ETN earlier this year and it will work well with this (or any other) opening training CD.

You'll start this approach with the chapter "The Theory of the Meran Variation -- Step by Step". After finishing this organizational section, you'll proceed to one of the five chapters listed above. Each of these chapters starts with a list of subvariations; each entry in the list is a "jump" that takes you right to the text discussion of that line. Each section lays out the ideas of that variation in plain text and gives you links to important annotated database games which illustrate the variation. The annotations are primarily in Informant-style symbology, but the text discussions given in the chapters themselves provide the main ideas for the variations. Each variation also has a "key link" which takes you right to the opening index key for that variation (so you can see all of the relevant subvariations and games listed at a glance).

The tutorial database contains over 900 illustrative games (the vast majority of which are annotated). An additional database contains 5471 Meran games; you use this as you would any other database (doing player or position searches, or using the keys to find the games you want to view). This database contains a wide range of games spanning the years 1907 to 2001. The CD also contains 18 training games (which utilize the standard interactive timed training questions which you've come to expect from ChessBase training CDs). You also get a huge opening tree on the Meran, which you can use to view statistics in particular positions or as an opening book for the Fritz family of playing programs (a useful training tool for forcing the programs to play just the Meran).

In short, The Meran Variation is your single stop for everything you'll need to know to play this opening effectively using either the White or Black pieces. As with all openings, it's a lot of work to learn all of this material, but the terrific organization of this CD makes the chore a lot less laborsome.

A second opening training offering is The Dragon for Experts by two-time Hungarian champion Attila Schneider. Statistically, if you play 1.e4 you'll see the Sicilian Defense about 25% of the time. And the Dragon is played very often by Black. Why? Again, let me quote from the CD:

The Sicilian Dragon rises above the other systems of Sicilian Defence because of the possibilities it presents for attacking White's position from the early stage of the game. The struggle is transposed to the fields of tactics very quickly and only one faulty move is usually enough to lose the game most times. This is equally true for both White and Black.

Dragon players are obviously ones who enjoy hair-raising chess adventures, so this accounts for the opening's popularity. But, if you're one of these Dragon devotees, do you play it well? If not, this CD will give you what you need to improve your skills with this dynamic (and often scary) opening. Be aware, however, that this CD is definitely not for the beginning or even average intermediate player. It covers a lot of territory and the text explanations are located in the games themselves rather than in text chapters like on many other ChessBase opening CDs. My estimate is that you should be at least a USCF Class A player (1800+) to tackle this CD (and "A" players might still find the material to be some tough going).

With this CD, you'll read the Introduction and examine the chapter called "The Opening Tree". Skip the remaining text chapters -- they're just a move order with accompanying diagram, useful for reference only. The meat of the tutorial database lies in the 34 replayable games. Each is a variation tree on a specific Dragon variation, full of game references, symbolic evaluations, and text where appropriate. These games are fairly small for the side lines, but the games for main Dragon lines are huge, with many nested subvariations. The idea is to find a line you want to explore and then search for it in the main database of 9316 games (a small percentage of which are annotated). The CD also contains a statistical opening book (as in The Meran Variation) which can be used to find and study positions or as an opening book for the Fritz family of playing programs.

I'll be blunt here: the CD's title The Dragon for Experts is no misnomer. The author assumes that the reader has a pretty fair amount of chess knowledge going into the work; he's not going to do any real "handholding" here. Schneider assumes that the reader is already an above-average player who is looking to expand his repertoire to include the Dragon or are an experienced Dragon player who wants to increase his knowledge. There's not a lot of text explanation on the CD -- the thesis being that a strong player will see the moves and be able to grasp the ideas on his own. Here's a sample text annotation:

White has a sizeable and lasting positional edge in view of the passive pawn configuration e6 and d5 fixed in light squares.

If you can look at a position and be able to determine for yourself why those fixed pawns are a positional edge, then this is a CD for you. Schneider's goal is not to teach positional concepts; he merely wants to point them out as guidelines for the experienced. That's the main idea of the CD -- to give strong players guidelines on Dragon theory, coupled with a huge searchable database for further research. In fact, I can already hear the question: "What sets this CD apart from a standard paper book on the Dragon?" The database is the key. If you're looking at a particular position and want to find games which contain that position (or similar ones, if you're doing a search for some characteristic position fragment), then you have a lot of grist for the mill here in the 9000 games in the main database (a pile of games that would be impossible to put between book covers [and wouldn't be fully searchable even if an editor was crazy enough to try to include them in a standard paper volume]).

Thus the beginner or intermediate player should steer clear of this CD, but the higher-rated experienced players among us (or even average correspondence players who won't mind the shortage of simple explanations) will find The Dragon for Experts to be a great one-stop compendium of Sicilian Dragon theory.

As always, these are standalone CDs -- no other software is required -- but ChessBase users and owners of one or more of the Fritz family of playing programs will likely want to use that software instead (due to the limitations of the Reader). The text on both of these CDs is provided in English, also, so North American players need not shy away on the basis of language.

Until next week, have fun!

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