by Steve Lopez

The ChessBase CD World Champion Emanuel Lasker has been out for about a month, but there's a reason why I've not previewed it earlier -- everytime I take a look at it, I have to go lie down.

Readers of my netbook Battle Royale already know that I'm a big fan of Herr Doktor, but it goes well beyond his success at the chessboard: I'm a great admirer of the man. Well-read and accomplished in a variety of disciplines, he also proved that a player can treat chess as "a fight" while simultaneously never losing sight of his opponent's (and his own) humanity. Emanuel Lasker was one of the greats of chess' "Golden Age", remaining World Champion for 27 years, but he never let chess consume him. He always remained profoundly curious about the world around him and, through it all, seemed always to be a "nice guy".

Interestingly enough, you can ask ten top players to describe Lasker's playing style and you're likely to get ten different answers. I've read all sorts of comments about the way Lasker played the game and have found precious little agreement among them. One player will describe him as a top tactician. Another will point to his strategic play. Yet another will remark on Lasker's endgame play. And many people have commented on Lasker's "psychological" style of play (so many, in fact, that it's become something of a cliché) -- that Lasker often altered his own playing style to present one that his opponent found disagreeable.

Where does the truth lie? Decades after Lasker's death, we're still searching for answers. The new ChessBase CD World Champion Emanuel Lasker might just help provide them at long last.

The CD is much more than a standard chess biography/game collection. This new CD goes one step beyond them in attempting to provide an analysis of Lasker's style -- what made him tick as a player and what made him so phenominally successful over the chessboard.

The CD is loaded with texts, written by a variety of authors: Albin Pötzsch, Johannes Fischer, Manuel Fruth, Dr. Thorsten Heedt, Rainer Knaak, Karsten Müller, Hans-Dieter Müller, Dorian Rogozenko, Igor Stohl, and André Schulz. Together they analyze Lasker's games in an attempt to finally pin down a description of his playing style. Rainer Knaak has written a scholarly (yet readable) analysis called "Lasker's Unfailing Concentration", providing the basic thesis for the CD. Other authors provide analyses of Lasker's play in specific tournaments: Rogozenko discusses the famous St. Petersburg event of 1895-96, Fischer concentrates on London 1899, Stohl focuses on the other St. Pete event in 1914, Heedt picks apart one of my favorites, e.g. New York 1924, and Knaak chimes in once again with a discussion of Nuremburg 1896.

Albin Pötzsch provides the obligatory biography of Lasker, presented in five chapters (complete with photographs). He also provides separate chapters on each of Lasker's World Championship matches. Additional authors provide texts on Lasker's other major tournaments (and these are a treasure trove of photos and drawings as well). These texts go far beyond merely a crosstable and a couple of photographs; each can be compared to a chapter in a (paper) book. These chapters give further detail on Lasker's life and chess.

The main biographical database contains 506 entries (texts, plus well over 400 games, dozens of which are annotated and some of which contain timed training questions). This database is not a complete record of every known Lasker game -- in the biographical database, simuls and offhand games have been omitted. This main database concerns itself with analyzing Lasker's tournament and match play; the other types of games fall outside the work's thesis.

However, a separate database contains all of Emanuel Lasker's known games -- 1182 of them, including the simuls and other games that were left out of the biographical database. Over 150 games in this database contain commentary or replayable variations.

As an English-speaker, I did note one disappointing thing about this CD. A third multimedia database contains several video interviews with the participants of a conference on Dr. Lasker. Unfortunately, all of the speakers (with the exception of Yuri Averbakh, who speaks in English) are speaking in German in these clips. An English text transcript of these video clips would have been a valuable addition to this section of the CD.

But that's the only real gripe I have with this CD. World Champion Emanuel Lasker is much more than just a biographical game collection. It's actually a scholarly (though quite readable) work on Lasker as a player, in which the authors search for the reasons why he was so successful over the chessboard. As an amateur historian (regarding chess and other areas of historical research), I find this CD to be quite enjoyable and a valuable addition to my chess library. The CD doesn't just present the "whos" and "whats", it goes far deeper -- into the "whys", and that's what sets the CD apart from standard chess biographies.

I'd love to see many more players receive this kind of exhaustive treatment on future ChessBase CDs. If I'm allowed to cast a few votes, I'd go for Morphy, Anderssen, Capablanca, Reti, Nimzovich, and Tal. As always, your mileage may vary. But I'm pretty sure you'll agree with me that this CD, World Champion Emanuel Lasker, is one of the most remarkable chess works around, either on CD or in the paper medium. It makes my head spin -- seriously.

Another new addition to the ChessBase library of instructional CDs is Dmitri Oleinikov's Bird Opening. I'm well-acquainted with the Bird -- I've played scores of games on the Black side of this opening (the guy who ran the local chess club a decade ago played the Bird as the only White opening in his repertoire). So I was gratified to see that the author of another ChessBase CD on one of my favorites (the Budapest) has selected yet another opening with which I'm intimately acquainted.

The Bird Opening starts with 1.f4. Right away, Black is thrown on his own resources if he's not spent time studying the ideas of this opening. While the Bird could be considered a flank opening (though I wouldn't go so far as to call it "hypermodern"), it does have central aspects as well -- the f-pawn now controls the key central square e5. But the opening is seldom seen; Black could find himself in trouble early if he's not careful (I know this from hard experience -- *sigh*). However, a skilled (or just "booked up") Black player can give White fits, so the Bird is often a pretty exciting, double-edged opening.

The core of the Bird Opening CD is an instructional database of 214 annotated games, texts, and analyses. While Oleinikov's CD on the Budapest approached the opening in a chronological sequence (which followed the historical development of the opening), The Bird Opening follows the more traditional breakdown of opening subsystems, organized by Black's choice of reply:

These texts provide much more useful information than a mere cataloging of variations. Each text provides the key ideas for both White and Black; I'll spare you the usual rant about the importance of opening ideas over rote memorization of moves. Typically, the author gives a listing of key ideas in a variation, some text elaboration on that idea, and a link to a key game (or sometimes two) which illustrate the idea in practical play.

After you have a handle on the ideas behind a particular variation that interests you, it's time to dive into the main database. You can do a position search or use the opening keys to find the games you want to study. And there's a lot of study material on this CD -- the separate Bird database contains over 15,000 games, from the 1600's through 2001. There are also two separate training databases in the CD, each containing timed training questions (see ETN, April 7, 2002) that allow you to test your knowledge. The Tactics database has 23 training positions, while the Strategy database contains 24 tests.

If you're into looking at statistics, you can have a look at the opening tree on the CD, which was generated from the 15,000+ games in the main database. The tree contains more than 300,000 individual positions, and can also be used as an alternate opening book for Fritz and our other playing programs -- just load the opening book, and you'll force your playing program to play the Bird and nothing but the Bird. The tree also provides statistics on every move, including success rates and the averaged ratings of the players who played a particular move.

From the above list, you can see that Black has a lot of options against the Bird. The trick for Black is to learn the ideas of his selected response. White has a tougher row to hoe -- he'll need to learn the ideas for each of the Black responses. But The Bird Opening CD makes this task much easier for both players -- ideas are clearly presented and explained for both sides. So whether you want to add the Bird to your arsenal as White or (like me a decade ago) you have a regular adversary who's partial to the Bird, you'll find loads of useful information which will lighten your burden considerably.

Both The Bird Opening and World Champion Emanuel Lasker are standalone CDs -- they include ChessBase Reader, so no other software is required to access the games and texts on the disks (but owners of ChessBase or any of our numerous playing programs will obviously prefer to use them instead of the Reader).

Until next week, have fun!

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