by Steve Lopez

The timed training questions on various ChessBase CDs are a pretty cool feature; they give the user a chance to test the knowledge he's gained from the disk. When a training question pops up on the screen, the user has to "beat the clock" and come up with the solution before his time runs out. The Fritz7 program (as well as our other playing programs) will also generate such questions as part of its full game analysis once every twenty or so games (see ETN for March 12 and 19, 2000 for more details). A lot of users see these questions and say, "Cool! How can I make these?" It's not too hard; in this week's ETN, I'll show you how.

First of all, you need a copy of ChessBase 7 or 8 -- you can't create training questions in our playing programs. This article will deal specifically with ChessBase 8; users of version 7 should be able to adapt these instructions with minimal difficulty.

The next thing you'll need is a game from your database. Note that the game/database must be in CBH format in order for you to be able to add a training question -- you can't do it in PGN or CBF format databases. For the purpose of this article, I've selected the following short game:

Iglesias,A - Rodriguez Gonzalez,J [C86]
Havana Panamerican, 1966

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Qe2 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.a4 Rb8 11.axb5 axb5 12.Nxe5 Nf4 13.Qe4 Nxe5 14.Qxf4 Nd3 15.Qf3 Bb7 16.Qd1 Bd6 17.Ra7 Bxh2+ 18.Kxh2 Qh4+ 19.Kg1 Bxg2 20.Kxg2 Qg5+ 21.Kh2 Rb6 22.Bxf7+ Kh8 23.Bh5 Rh6 24.Qg4 Qxg4 0-1

The next-to-last position of the game looks like this:

It's Black's turn to move and he sees a two-move mate starting with 24...Qxg4. If you check the gamescore above, that's exactly what he played. If you're a chess teacher, this position is a prime candidate for a training question. If you want to follow along at home, you can cut and paste these moves into ChessBase 8 by using the technique described in ETN for January 17, 1999 ("Inserting ASCII Notation into ChessBase 6 & 7", which also works wonderfully well in ChessBase 8).

To create a training question, start by clicking on the move 24...Qxg4 to highlight it. You always start by clicking on the move where you want the training question to appear, not on the move previous to it. This will become more clear in a moment.

You can bring up the training question dialogue in two ways:

  1. Hit CRTL-ALT-M on the keyboard
  2. Right-click on the move, select "Special annotation" from the popup menu, and then "Training annotation" from the submenu

Either way, you'll see the following dialogue appear:

This is where you'll do the work of creating your training question.

You can add information to your training question in any order you choose; you don't have to do things in the exact order I'll give in this article. I'm just going to show you how I would tackle creating a training question for this position to illustrate the procedures.

The first thing we notice is a large white box marked "Question". This is where you'll type in the actual question, posing the chess problem to the user. Note the file tabs across the top of the box. Select the tab for the language in which you're writing, then click on the large white box. You'll see a flashing cursor appear; you can now type your question into this box. In this case, I type: "Black sees the opportunity for a mate-in-two. What's the first move of his mating combination?"

Note that you can also insert an audio comment here, by clicking on the microphone button. You'll see this dialogue appear:

This allows you to record an audio comment (provided that your computer is equipped with a microphone, of course). Clicking the red button starts the recording process. The black "square" is the stop button -- you click this to stop recording once your comment is finished. The "arrow" button lets you play back the audio clip. There are also four radio buttons that let you select the audio quality of your clip. The slower the speed in kB/s (kilobytes per second), the lower the quality of the audio. Selecting "CD" gives you the best quality sound, but also dramatically increases the storage size of the clip. Once you've recorded the clip, click "OK" to save it into the training question.

Clicking the "default wrong" button brings up a dialogue that lets you write (and/or record) a generic comment that the user will see if he makes an incorrect move. This will be seen or heard when he makes any move for which you've not created a specific comment (more on this later). In this case, I just type in the comment: "Sorry, that's not the correct answer. Try again!" and I click the "OK" button at the bottom of the dialogue. An asterisk appears on the "default wrong" button to remind me that I've added a comment into this dialogue.

Next we can add two "hints" that a player can ask for when he feels he needs some help. Clicking the "Help1" button lets you type in or record a basic hint to give your student. In this case, I type "Black must move a heavy piece (his Queen or a Rook)" and click "OK". Again, an asterisk appears on the button to show that a comment has been added. For "Help2", I type "Black must capture a White piece with his Queen" (which comes pretty close to giving away the store, but Black does have three moves that fit the bill). I again click "OK" and see an asterisk appear on the "Help2" button.

The "Seconds" dialogue lets you set the timer for the training question, i.e. how many seconds the player is given to solve the problem. The default is "300" (that is, five minutes). I don't think this question is too tough, so I reset the timer to "120" (two minutes).

Now we come to the hairy part of the process -- the place in the dialogue where we create commentary for the actual game move and insert additional moves and commentary:

Depicted above is the part of the dialogue where you control this process. Note that the actual game move (and, in this case, the correct answer to our training question) is already displayed in the move list window. I can add a congratulatory comment to this move by clicking the "Feedback" button. I can type in or record a comment that will appear or be heard when the player makes the correct move on the chessboard. In this case, I type: "Correct! Note that the White Bishop can't take the Queen -- it's pinned by the Black Rook on h6. White is now powerless to prevent the mate; no matter what he plays, Black responds with 25...Rxh5#." After clicking "OK", I again see the ubiquitous asterisk appear on the "Feedback" button.

We can also add a score to this move -- how many points a correct answer is worth. You can set this for any value; the default is "10". Note that this maximum value decreases with each incorrect move that the user makes; asking for hints by clicking the "help" button in a training question dialogue also decreases this maximum point value. In this case, I leave this setting at "10". You'd typically use this value if you've created multiple training questions at different points in the same game. A technique used by Danny King on his Check and Mate CD was to give ten training questions in a game; each question was worth ten points, for a maximum of 100 points per game. If you create such a game (or a database of such games) and are feeling especially ambitious, you could include a point scale telling the user how well he did according to the total number of points he scored (i.e. "95-100 points: You should be challenging for the World Championship" down to "0-10 points: You should have gills -- you're such a fish").

Now comes the fun part -- adding new moves and providing commentary for them. In the small box above the move list (see the diagram above), you just highlight the move appearing there (in this case it's Qxg4), hit the Backspace or Delete keys on your keyboard to remove it, and then type in a different move. Then click the "New" button and you'll see it added to the move list. In this case I remove Qxg4, type in "Rxh5" (without the quotation marks, of course), and click "New":

...and, as you can see in the above graphic, Rxh5 is added to my list of candidate moves. I can then highlight it and click "Feedback" to add a comment ("This lets White off the hook. He plays 25.Kg3, the mate threat is stopped, and the game continues."), and give the move a point score (in this case, I give it a "5" -- Black does win material, but there's no longer a mate threat if White plays Kg3). I can also add Qxh5 (giving it a "1", because the best Black can do after this is draw by repetition) and explain the move in the "Feedback" box ("An awful move. After 25.Qxh5 Rxh5+, White plays 26.Kg3 and the best Black can do is draw by repeatedly checking White (Black's second Rook can't get into the game -- it has to stay on the back rank to guard against White's Ra8#)." I could even add Qf4 and Qxd2, but (unfortunately) I can't award "negative" points (like "-10") for these abysmal moves.

Note the "D-E" button at the bottom of the dialogue. Some users find themselves typing their comments under the "De" tab (for "Deutsch", i.e. German) when they mean to be typing them with the English tab selected. If you do this and later discover your error, you can click this button to copy your comments from the German tab to the English tab. Note that this does not translate German comments into English!

When you're finished creating your training question, click the "OK" button at the bottom of the training question dialogue. You'll see a set of asterisks appear in the gamescore in the notation pane -- this shows that there's a training question in the game at that point.

But there's one final very important step -- you must now go to the File menu and select "Replace"! If you fail to do this and exit the game, all of your hard work will be irretrievably lost! Please please please save yourself some serious embitterment and always remember this step!

So how do you get the game to your student(s)? You can copy it into a new database (along with any other training games or other lesson material) and then archive it as a CBV file (see ETN for April 29, 2001 for instructions on how to do this). You can then slap that sucker on a floppy or CD, or attach it to an e-mail.

When you student opens the database, double-clicks on the game, and advances to the training question, he'll see a popup dialogue that looks like this:

He can then make a move on the chessboard to attempt to answer this question. If he gets it right (in this case by playing ...Qxg4), he'll see the feedback you typed in (or hear the audio clip you recorded and associated with that move). If he makes a different move, he'll get either the generic "wrong answer" message (if it's a move for which you didn't provide commentary) or else the specific comment you entered (if, in this case, he made the move ...Rxh5 or ...Qxh5). He also has the opportunity to click the "Help" button -- the first time he does so, he'll get the general hint you typed in the "Help1" dialogue; if he clicks it a second time, he sees the more specific hint you added in "Help2". For a few more tips on using training questions, see ETN for April 30, 2000.

A final note on audio files -- these things can be huge. I've recorded thirty second audio clips in CD quality mode that have been over seven megabytes in size. If you plan to use a lot of audio clips in training questions (or especially in multi-question games), be aware that using higher-quality audio settings will result in enormous database sizes (even after a database is compressed into CBV format). A single game containing multiple high-quality audio files could actually wind up using more disk space than a whole database containing tens of thousands of unannotated games -- so go easy. Audio clips are cool, but if they don't add much value to the instructional quality of the game, you're better off not using them. If you're going to say something, make sure you're actually saying something.

Until next week, have fun!

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