by Steve Lopez

Hiarcs has been one of my favorite chess programs for many years. My first exposure to Hiarcs came in 1993, when I received a copy of Hiarcs2 as a Christmas gift (thanks, Mike!); I was immediately struck by its human-like play. At that time I was used to the wild attacking play of Fritz2, which was completely relentless and often terrifying. But I was always aware that I was playing a computer when I was playing Fritz2; although I was fascinated by Fritz2's "over the top" style, it always struck me as very computer-like. In contrast, Hiarcs2 often played quieter, more positional moves, getting its proverbial house in order before launching an attack that did me in. (And, as an aside, Hiarcs2 was the first program I'd seen that included the now-popular Fischer time increments).

I've watched the development of Hiarcs with great interest over the years. Hiarcs4, 6, and 7.32 were all released as ChessBase engines, thus making them available for use in the Fritz and ChessBase interfaces. I often used the Hiarcs engine for positional analysis, as it gave pretty decent advice in quiescent positions; my usual method for using the engine was to set it up as one of three engines in the "Comparative Analysis" function in the Fritz interface. I'd have Fritz, Hiarcs, and Junior anaalyze the game. In non-tactical positions, Fritz and Hiarcs typically provided variations that were very different from each other, and I often found Hiarcs' analysis to be more understandable and better than Fritz' from a positional standpoint (though in tactical positions, all three engines typically agreed with each other). I often described Hiarcs as the most positional of the ChessBase engines until Shredder came along; these days I'd describe Hiarcs and Shredder as being very comparable as far as their respective positional abilities go. While no chess engine provides the user with "Steinitzian" positional play, Hiarcs has always been very strong in this area.

Of course, Hiarcs is no slouch at tactics, either. In fact, the print supplement to ChessBase Magazine 87 shows a position (Ortueta-Sanz, Spain 1934) which requires an exchange sacrifice; Hiarcs8 finds the move easily (I tested it myself last night).

Hiarcs' programmer, Mark Uniacke, is a methodical man; it's consequently taken three years for a new release of the Hiarcs engine to appear. But the wait is over at last -- Hiarcs8 is out now. It comes "wrapped" in the same GUI as Fritz7, but has its own opening book (created by Eric Hallsworth) and a new set of engine parameters unique to Hiarcs. Among these are:

And, according to Mark Uniacke (in his article in ChessBase Magazine 87), the Hiarcs8 engine is now more selective in its searches (the search focus has been narrowed, so that more moves are cut from the search tree early in the search, resulting in search depths up to three plies deeper than those attained by Hiarcs7.32), plus additional positional knowledge has been programmed into the algorithm.

Hiarcs just keeps getting better and better. The latest version is an interesting and valuable addition to your "stable" of chess programs, particularly as a compliment to the more tactical engines such as Chess Tiger and Nimzo. I've just begun to explore the possibilities of Hiarcs8, but the results I've seen on positions in which positional (moreso than tactical) knowledge is required have been very good. After nine years, I'm still a Hiarcs fan. If you've not yet tried Hiarcs, I strongly encourage you to give it a try; I've no doubt that you'll be as impressed as I've been.

The Slav Defense is one that I've been horsing around with for a long time. But I've never added it to my regular repertoire for two reasons: first, I find it hard to tear myself away from my usual Budapest Defense, mainly due to my love for gambiteering (read: due to the fact that I'm impetuous and reckless, despite my advancing years). The second reason, though, is more critical: I've never found a good explanatory reference for the Slav. What I know if it has been gleaned from a variety of sources as well as transferred from the Caro-Kann (a close cousin to the Slav), with which I'm intimately acquainted.

Enter GM Dorian Rogozenko with his new ChessBase CD The Slav Defense. Apparently, GM Rogozenko has also noticed the lack of a good single-volume reference aimed at the average player. As he explains in his introduction to the CD:

The present CD is a complete representation of Slav Defence and is first of all addressed to chess amateurs. All lines have introductory texts with explanations, links to the opening keys or other lines and the most important games. I tried to explain the main ideas of each line to a level understandable even for players to whom the Slav Defence is a rather unknown territory yet. With the help of the introductory texts from this CD, one can learn the modern theory of the Slav Defence in an easy manner...My task was to present the big amount of lines, variations and subvariations in a way accessible to everyone. Step by step, by following the introductory texts, the user can learn many popular lines and become familiar with different ideas of the Slav Defence. I hope that everyone will be able to deal with the way I presented the material...and find his own preferences, choosing those lines which suit his personal chess style best.

And there you go. Not only is The Slav Defense a single-volume reference, but one in which the material is presented in a structured manner with the average player in mind.

The Slav (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6) is a close relative of the Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5); although the central pawn structure differs for White, Black's is identical and many of the same principles apply between the two openings. This is what interested me in the Slav; as a Caro-Kann player, the Slav was recommended to me by several strong players who assert that the task of learning the Slav would be easier due to my familiarity with the Caro-Kann (giving me a "leg up" as it were). In fact, many of the positions discussed in The Slav Defense's chapter on "General ideas and directions" seem very familiar to me.

After the aforementioned Introduction and chapter on "General ideas and directions", we're provided with a chapter titled "The arrangement of material", referring to the material on the CD, not to piece placement. This chapter acts as a table of contents, letting the reader find a particular variation easily through the use of chessboard diagrams. I can't stress strongly enough what a benefit this is, as GM Rogozenko has provided eighty-five separate chapters on different Slav variations and setups! Each chapter is loaded with text explanations for the variation in question, as well as links to critical games from the database showing these ideas in action.

The database itself could be described as "extensive", but this would be an extreme understatement -- nearly 32,000 Slav Defense games are provided, with nearly 1,400 containing annotations. The CD also contains a database of 22 games which contain timed training questions allowing you to test your knowledge of the opening. An opening tree is also included on the CD, usable both as a source of statistics on opening variations and as an opening book for the Fritz "family" of chess programs. The tree contains nearly a half-million individual positions.

The Slav Defense CD stands as the definitive single-volume reference on this opening. If it's not on this CD, it's not worth knowing. And now I can stop my "dabbling" with the Slav and begin to play it in earnest.

Another new CD from ChessBase is the curiously-titled How to Play the Nimzo-Indian? by Reinhold Ripperger. Why is there a question mark in the title? I believe I can answer that one. Years ago, I began a study of the Bogo-Indian, but was constantly frustrated by the numerous chessbook references to "transpositions to the Nimzo-Indian". I had a look at the Nimzo and saw that it's covered by forty separate ECO codes! Overwhelmed by the possibility of "information overload" (i.e. needing to acquire/learn way too much information), I abandoned the Bogo except as an occasional opening against computer opponents.

Ripperger apparently recognizes the problem and has come up with a simple, elegant solution. Rather than bombard the reader with endless variations of the Nimzo-Indian, he concentrates on structures rather than variations. The meat of this CD lies in his attention to describing the various pawn motifs that occur in the Nimzo; once you've learned the ideas behind these structures, you're largely freed from the need to memorize endless numbers of lines of play. Once again, the concept of learning ideas rather than memorizing variations comes to the fore (and, if you're a regular ETN reader, I don't need to remind you of how often I've harped on this very theme).

After an introductory chapter and a short section on Aron Nimzovitch, Ripperger launches into several sections on pawn structures and how they relate to the Nimzo:

And he then follows these up with seven short chapters on the various Nimzo-Indian sub-systems.

The instructional database contains a selection of over 300 annotated games, showing these strategic themes in action. Two additional reference databases are provided, containing about 47,000 additional games. There's also a database of thirty-five timed training questions, allowing you to test your knowledge of the Nimzo-Indian.

While the CD is geared toward the average player, some pre-knowledge of positional motifs is assumed; the CD is not intended as a "short course" in strategic chess. If you're not sure of your strategic knowledge, a perusal of the three CD set Basic Principles of Chess Strategy or the book Modern Chess Strategy by Ludek Pachman may be in order before you dive into this CD on the Nimzo.

Overall, I like Ripperger's approach. The Nimzo-Indian is just too overwhelming to be approached on a variation-by-variation basis, even if the ideas of these copious variations are plainly explained. For large systems like the Nimzo, the structural approach is much easier and more useful. And Ripperger delivers such instruction in spades on the CD How to Play the Nimzo-Indian?

Both of the opening CDs descibed in this preview contain extensive opening index keys to help you find a specific variation quickly and easily. And both come with the ChessBase Reader program (for those who don't own ChessBase or one of the Fritz family of playing programs), so each is a standalone product, with no other software required (though, as always, ChessBase and the playing programs offer more features allowing you to get even more out of these opening CDs).

Until next week, have fun!

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