by Steve Lopez

Strong players tell us that analyzing and annotating games is a good way to improve our chess skills. I'm no titan over the board, but I can attest to the truth of that statement. In the course of annotating over one hundred games for my book Battle Royale I discovered that my own visualization and computational skills improved, as well as my ability to evaluate positions and describe what the players were likely thinking. And I also found that I had a much easier time developing plans in my own chess games.

Annotating games is actually pretty fun when you go at it the right way. I tend to look at a game as a piece of history and the act of annotating as being somewhat akin to solving a mystery. Why did Capablanca make a particular move? Why did Henry Buckle play a certain Bishop move when a c-pawn push was obviously better (and what would have happened if he'd pushed that pawn instead)? Annotating games is an interesting pastime, much like "Monday morning quarterbacking" or "armchair generalship", and it has the additional bonus of helping to improve your chess play. An extra benefit can come weeks, months, or even years after you've annotated a game -- you can go back and review your notes, perhaps spot errors or oversights in your previous analysis, and realize that your chess knowledge actually has improved over time.

Electronic tools like ChessBase and the Fritz "family" of programs makes the fine art of chess annotation easy and even more fun by offering a wide range of handy means for storing your thoughts and ideas as part of a chess gamescore. It makes no difference whether you're annotating one of your own games or a classic game of the past -- the art of adding comments to a chess game has never been easier.

This issue of ETN begins a series of articles in which we'll examine ways to add notes and comments to games from a database. The specific features and techniques differ between ChessBase and the Fritz family of programs (ChessBase is a much more "feature rich" environment for this purpose) and many of these will be covered in this series. Most of these features have been discussed individually in previous issues; in this series, we'll try to pull it all together to demonstrate how you can use combinations of these techniques. Along the way, I'll also sneak in some tips on the "art" of annotation itself; I'm certainly not Caissa's gift to the world of chess annotators by any means, but I've annotated a couple of hundred games in my dozen or so years as a chess writer so I'm pretty confident that I've learned a small nugget or three over time.

If you missed last week's ETN, go back and have a quick look. You'll need to know how to enter a game by hand and save it, as well as how to replace a game so that your annotations aren't lost when you exit the program.

I've sometimes heard new players ask why chess variations are so important when games are annotated and presented in chess books, magazines, disks, etc. In his commentary in the PBS broadcasts of the 1987 World Chess Championship, Shelby Lyman put it quite succinctly when he frequently said: "Chess is a game of ideas". Nearly every chess position contains many ideas, multiple plans (both good and bad) that can be followed, numerous paths that the game can take on its way to the ultimate resolution. Chess variations are a way to illustrate and describe these alternate plans.

ChessBase and the Fritz programs make it easy to add these additional variations to a game. In fact, it's almost ridiculously simple in ChessBase 8. Let's say that you're playing through a game in CB8 and you come to the following position (with White to move):

In the actual game, White plays 30.Nfe5. But let's say that you want to explore the possible lines of play after 30.Nce5. How would you add such a variation to the game?

Advance the game one move so that the actual move (30.Nfe5) has already been played (that is, so that the f-Knight has moved and it's now Black's turn); the move 30.Nfe5 will be the move highlighted in the Notation pane. Now hit the "T" key on the keyboard. You'll see that CB8 takes back the move (to the position in the illustration above). Now just move the c3-Knight to e5. When you look in the Notation pane you'll see that ChessBase has added a bracketed variation, with 30.Nce5 within the brackets. You've just started a new variation with Nce5 as the initial move. You can now enter additional moves that show what could possibly happen from that point.

Note, too, that you can add variations from any point in the game, even adding variations "nested" within other variations. Just click on a move that you want to take back, hit the T key, and make an alternate move. You'll see the new subvariation appear within the gamescore. You can "nest" subvariations to any depth, creating a huge "tree" of possibilities if you keep at it long enough:

You can even enter a "null move". Let's say you want to show a threat -- what White can do if Black doesn't respond properly. Click on Black's next move, hit the T key (to take it back), and then hit CTRL-ALT-0 (zero). You'll see a new variation appear but instead of starting with an actual move for Black, it starts with three dashes in place of a move, and the board position is identical to the one after White's last move. You can now enter a move for White (as though White could make two moves in a row, which is actually the definition of a threat in chess) and show exactly what White is planning to do to Black. This is a truly astounding (and extremely underutilized) feature of ChessBase 8.

I'm often asked how to add variations to the end of a game to show how the game could have continued if one player had not resigned. In ChessBase 8, click on the last move of the game and hit the T key. Now make the same move again; you'll see a bracketed variation appear that begins with that same (final) move of the game. You can now enter additional moves to illustrate the game's resolution had both players decided to play on.

There's actually an even easier way to start new variations in ChessBase 8. If you're a chess writer or annotator (or aspire to be one), let me introduce you to your new best friend:

This is called the Annotation Palette and we'll be coming back to it several times over the next few issues of ETN. It's a quick way to access the most often used annotation functions in ChessBase 8. You bring up the palette by going to the View menu and selecting "Annotation Palette" (or by hitting CTRL-ALT-S on the keyboard -- unless you have an HP Pavillion computer, in which case you get HP support info instead. $#@%^%&$).

The Variation section of the annotation palette gives you several options for controlling variations in a game. "Start" what we've been discussing, the same thing as hitting the T key: it takes back the current move and allows you to start a new variation by entering a new move on the chessboard. "Delete" will delete the current variation; click on any move of a variation to highlight it and then click "Delete" to wipe out that whole variation (and any subvariations nested within it). "End variation" kicks you back to the last move in the main line before the start of the current variation.

"Promote" requires a bit of explanation. Suppose you've entered the following set of variations and subvariations:

(16...dxe5 17.Rxe5 d5 [17...a6 18.Ra5 d6 19.Be3 f5 20.Nbd2 e5] ; [17...d6 18.Ra5 a6 19.Be3 f5 20.Nbd2 e5])

You'll notice that in the 16...dxe5 variations we have three variations at Black's seventeenth move. We want to change the gamescore so that 17...d6 will be Black's main move in this variation, instead of a subvariation under 17...d5. Click on 17...d6 to highlight the move and then click the "promote" button. This will bump 17...d6 up to the main variation and demote 17...d5 to subvariation status, switching the hierarchy of the two variations. So now our variations will look like this:

(16...dxe5 17.Rxe5 d6 [17...a6 18.Ra5 d6 19.Be3 f5 20.Nbd2 e5] ; [17...d5] 18.Ra5 a6 19.Be3 f5 20.Nbd2 e5)

You could even bump a variation up to the main line; for example, you could interchange 16...dxe5 with 16...Bb7 (the move actually played), which would then display 16...dxe5 as the main line move and turn the whole previous main game score into a bracketed variation.

And, in case you haven't tried it yet, these variations are replayable, meaning that you can play them out on the onscreen chessboard just as you would the main moves of the game. This makes them superior to variations that are typed into the Annotation window; this window is best reserved for actual language text (i.e. words) rather than strings of moves. Replayable moves can also be checked by using the "Blundercheck" analysis option in Fritz.

The procedure for adding variations in Fritz is similar to that of CB8, but requires some additional explanation. You need to understand that Fritz (or any other loaded engine) will reply to moves you make on the board (i.e. make a move in reply) unless you first put the program into "Infinite analysis" mode (Game menu/Infinite Analysis). Once it's in Infinite analysis mode, the program will not reply to moves made on the board. See last week's ETN for further elaboration on this point.

Once the engine's been put in Infinite analysis mode, the "T" key will work as described above for the purpose of taking back moves. If you make an incorrect move on the board and want to retract it and replace it with another move, the "red arrow" button in the VCR panel will allow you to do this. (This is also the case in CB8; see last week's ETN).

If you input a move in Fritz without first hitting the "T" key, you'll see the following dialogue pop up:

This gives you five options for the disposition of the move:

You can also use a somewhat more elaborate feature to enter variations in Fritz7: the analysis board. See the ETN for December 16, 2001 for more on this function.

After you enter new variations using either ChessBase or Fritz you can use "Save game" to save your work as a new entry in the database or "Replace game" to replace the old version with your newly revised one. Once again, last week's ETN goes into further detail on the differences between these two commands.

New variations are great but have somewhat limited value without some additional explanation as to why they're good or bad. Both ChessBase and Fritz give you options to provide both verbal and non-verbal (i.e. symbolic) commentary to games. We'll start looking at commentary options in next week's ETN. Until then, have fun!

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