by Steve Lopez

This week, another batch of new CDs -- two from ChessBase and two from other publishers.

Our first ChessBase offering is Scandinavian by GM Curt Hansen. The Scandinavian (known to many Yanks as the Center-Counter) has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the last seven years or so, ever since Vishy Anand sprang it on Kasparov in the fourteenth game of their 1995 World Championship match:

Kasparov,G (2795) - Anand,V (2725) [B01]
PCA-World Championship New York (14), 03.10.1995

1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qa5 4.d4 Nf6 5.Nf3 c6 6.Ne5 Be6 7.Bd3 Nbd7 8.f4 g6 9.0-0 Bg7 10.Kh1 Bf5 11.Bc4 e6 12.Be2 h5 13.Be3 Rd8 14.Bg1 0-0 15.Bf3 Nd5 16.Nxd5 exd5 17.Bf2 Qc7 18.Rc1 f6 19.Nd3 Rfe8 20.b3 Nb6 21.a4 Nc8 22.c4 Qf7 23.a5 Bf8 24.cxd5 cxd5 25.Bh4 Nd6 26.a6 b6 27.Ne5 Qe6 28.g4 hxg4 29.Nxg4 Bg7 30.Rc7 Ne4 31.Ne3 Bh3 32.Rg1 g5 33.Bg4 Bxg4 34.Qxg4 Qxg4 35.Rxg4 Nd6 36.Bf2 Nb5 37.Rb7 Re4 38.f5 Rxg4 39.Nxg4 Rc8 40.Rd7 Rc2 41.Rxd5 1-0

Never mind the fact that Vishy lost the game -- the Scandinavian's frequently been seen at all levels of chess, from the park players on up to the elite, ever since. In fact, it's one of the most talked-about openings in the Internet discussion group that I run. So the Scandinavian's a natural choice for publication as a ChessBase opening training CD.

Hansen goes all-out on this CD. Though the opening is covered primarily from Black's viewpoint, White ideas are also discussed, and Hansen has all the bases covered: the CD contains over sixty text discussion of numerous Scandinavian variations! And both main branches of the opening are discussed in detail: 2...Qxd5 and 2...Nf6 (though the former gets somewhat more attention than the latter).

The database of nearly 29,000 games is arranged chronologically, spanning the years 1846 to 2002. Over 500 of the games are annotated by various authors, including Kasparov, Blatny, Danny King, the irrepressible Lubo Ftacnik, and, of course, Curt Hansen himself.

The CD also contains specialized opening index keys (which let you get to the variation you want with just a few mouse clicks), a statistical opening tree (containing over 400,000 unique positions) which doubles as an opening book for Fritz et al, and the ChessBase Reader program (making the CD entirely self-contained -- no other software is required).

So in the technical details, Scandinavian is comparable to other ChessBase opening CDs previous previewed in ETN. But what about the "meat" of the CD?

Hansen gives us a lot of text instruction on his CD -- the sheer number of text entries in the database bears this out. Each text is typically fairly short (two or three screens' worth at 1024x768), liberally illustrated with diagrams to make it easy to follow his analysis. Each text contains links to several important database games illustrating the ideas in practical play. Many of the texts also contain links to specific opening keys so that you can access all of the games of the variation in question with just a mouse click.

Like any opening reference, the value of the Scandinavian CD is what you make it. If you're looking for general ideas in this opening, you'll find them in the texts. The illustrative games show you the ideas in action, while the opening keys allow you to go "in depth" by viewing still more games. Though aimed primarily at players who want to add the Scandinavian to their arsenal from the Black side of the board, players who face it as White will also find lots of good information here. And (in my opinion), this CD is absolutely invaluable to correspondence players -- in my Internet correspondence games, I face the Scandinavian a lot and I'll certainly find this CD to be a valuable reference tool in my own chess battles.

I'll freely admit to having groaned a bit when I saw the title of the second ChessBase CD I'm previewing in this column: Nimzo-Indian 4.f3 and Saemisch Variation, written by Swiss GM Vadim Milov. "Man, how over-specialized can you get?" was my first thought. However, after reading GM Milov's introduction on the disk, all became much more clear:

This CD investigates two systems against the Nimzo-Indian Defence, one of the most solid and reliable openings nowadays. Many years of practice and thousands of games couldn't solve the problem of getting an advantage for White in the Nimzo. The most popular variations, such as 4.Qc2 and 4.e3 contain vast amount of material and are often being analyzed deep into the endgame but Black not only hold himself there but even scores well. That's why it probably makes sense for White to leave the well-researched paths from time to time and try some other, maybe not worse but less popular variations....The author firmly believes that the variations 4.f3 and 4.a3, which are analyzed on this CD, are neither worse, nor promise less chances for an opening advantage and are certainly not less interesting than the other lines of the Nimzo-Indian. On the other hand, the variations in question are quite dangerous for Black and it's advisable for a black Nimzo-Indian player to study them first.

After reading that, I felt much better. Yes, Virginia, there is a point here. A few weeks ago in ETN, I previewed Ripperger's ChessBase CD How to Play the Nimzo-Indian. An alternative title for Milov's CD would be How to Play Against the Nimzo-Indian. Milov admits to a White bias in his intro, but also explains that he's tried to be as balanced as possible; players of both sides will find something of value on the disk.

First of all, be aware that we're dealing with side lines of the Nimzo here, so don't expect to find an eye-popping number of games (though the more than 6900 games is still a pretty respectable number). Milov's emphasis is (properly) on ideas -- the ten texts on different variations explain what's going on in each of them. Note, though, that this is not a CD for beginners (also quite proper, as beginners should be concenrtrating on tactics and endgames anyway); a grounding in basic strategic concepts such as pawn structures is required for the user to get full benefit from this CD. The texts make liberal use of linked example games -- you'll typically be able to play through ten or more illustrative games in each text just by clicking on the links. Plus there's a comprehensive opening index key as part of the main database.

In addition to this main database of over 6900 games (381 of which are annotated), you'll also find a training database of twenty games. Each game contains timed training questions (see ETN for April 7th 2002) so that you can test your knowledge of these White Nimzo sidelines. There's also a statistical tree of more than 138,000 positions which can also be used as an opening book for the Fritz family of playing programs. And, as always, a copy of ChessBase Reader is also included.

If you're a player of the White pieces looking for an "antidote" to the Nimzo-Indian, or a Black player trying to keep from being surprised in your chosen opening, GM Milov's CD Nimzo-Indian 4.f3 and Saemisch Variation will provide you with just what you're looking for.

First impressions were also misleading in the case of our next CD, published by Pickard & Son Publishers. I opened the package from Sid and saw the title of his latest CD: The Big Bird Powerbase. I'll admit that I was a bit disappointed when I opened the database and didn't hear an audio clip of Oscar the Grouch saying: "I'm opening with 1.f4 -- have an awful day!" I should have been tipped by the CD's cover art (which conjured up images of Hank Williams Jr., the Nighthawks, and the team logo of my beloved DC United) that the CD wasn't going to tell me how to get to Sesame Street.

Joking aside, Sid's added a lot of value to this disk. The database contains over 35,000 games, with over 500 of them annotated. Sid's annotated most of them himself, but he's also included a generous sampling of annotations by great players of the past (particularly the 19th Century): Steinitz, Henry Bird, and Blackburne are among them.

He's also included a comprehensive opening key as well as his own specialist keys, such as Best Games, Brilliancies, Blunders, and Instructive Endgames. There's also a really cool key called "False Results"; typically this indicates that a player misanalyzed a position and resigned prematurely.

The CD also contains a special database of twenty "odds" games, that is, games in which a player started the game with some material off the board as a handicapping device (see ETN for August 15, 1999). Several databases in PGN format are also included. Sid has also created multiple opening trees on different Bird variations, plus a "master" Bird opening tree consisting of over 2 million positions.

While the Big Bird Powerbase contains a lot of material, the only real "knock" I can give this CD is the lack of a structured approach toward teaching the user this opening. The "key" to using this CD is the collection of index keys provided, but the user is sort of left on his own to figure out the best way to utilize these keys, since there are no database texts detailing the "whys" of each Bird variation. That information is present on the CD, but is to be found in the annotations within the games themselves instead of within separate database texts. If you're willing to do the extra work to ferret out this information, the Big Bird Powerbase is definitely worth a look. But if the Bird is totally new to you, it might be better to look elsewhere for instruction on Bird ideas and use this CD as an adjunct to that separate source.

Pickard and Sons (a.k.a. Chess Central; see link above) is one of several distributors of our final previewed CD: the somewhat ungrammatically titled The Gambitingly Way. While it's true that the CD's author, Franco Pezzi, is not a native English speaker (and that makes the text a bit tougher than usual to decipher at times), that shouldn't deter you from giving the CD a try. Pezzi has created an electronic catalogue of all major chess gambits, providing brief text introductions to them and collections of relevant games. Included are the King's Gambit, gambits in the Sicilian, French, and Ruy Lopez, the Benko, and various lesser gambits for both King- and Queen-Pawn openings. A large number of opening trees are included on the CD as well, to be used for statistical study as well as opening books for the Fritz family of playing programs. There's also a separate section based on a gambit list by Eric Schiller, with links to games of some very minor gambits (such as the Troon). The gambits are delivered in separate databases on the CD, each of which also contains a comprehensive opening index key.

We can sample the typical way in which the author covers the material by looking at his treatment of one of my favorite gambits: the Danish. Opening the database for the 1.e4 gambits, the introductory text to that database opens. Clicking on the "Danish Gambit" link opens the text for the Danish. After a few paragraphs of description and analysis (with which I don't agree, but that's a separate rant), we see a link for a ChessBase-generated opening report providing us with a means of accessing Danish Gambit games in a number of variations. Pezzi has chosen to create this text in Italian instead of English, but if you're familiar with the structure of ChessBase opening reports (see ETN for February 25, 2001) you should have little trouble navigating around in the report screen.

The Gambitingly Way does contain more database text formatted instruction than the Big Bird Powerbase, but it can be a bit sparse in places, and the author uses a curious mix of English and Italian in the texts. The ideas are presented in English, but the section headers and picture captions are often in Italian as though some sort of breakdown occurred in the editing/proofreading process. And, like the Big Bird Powerbase, this gambit CD is definitely not designed as an introductory CD on gambit play -- it's best used by experienced gambit players or as an adjunct to a separate source which describes basic gambit ideas. Also, many of the games come directly from ChessBase's Mega Database and ChessBase Magazine (included with ChessBase GmbH's permission), so owners of that database and/or subscribers to the Magazine might not find very much new material among the annotated games.

So I guess you'll need to take my preview of this CD with more than a grain of salt. I was pretty delighted by The Gambitingly Way, but I'm an experienced gambiteer -- pawns tremble for their lives at my touch. I found this to be a pretty good CD, but if you're looking for a single-CD gambit encyclopedia in English you'll have to wait longer. I know of two electronic gambit overview CDs -- The Gambitingly Way and ChessBase's Gambit Lexicon. The latter is in German and the former is in an odd mix of English and Italian. There's not yet (to my knowledge) been a totally English-language "gambit encyclopedia" CD, but The Gambitingly Way comes closer than anything I've seen to date.

Until next week, have fun!

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