ELECTRONIC T-NOTES


CHESSBASE USA'S WEEKLY ON-LINE NEWSLETTER


FOR THE WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 8, 2002


THE FINE ART OF ANNOTATION -- PART FOUR

by Steve Lopez

In the last three issues of ETN, we looked at the "nuts and bolts" of annotating games using ChessBase and the Fritz "family" of playing programs. In this issue, I'll share some final (albeit somewhat random) thoughts about doing the actual writing. All of these suggestions/ideas assume that you're annotating a game for potential publication (either in print or on the Interrant), as opposed to annotating your own games for the purpose of becoming a stronger player (as we discussed in Part One of this series).

1) Choose your games carefully. If you're annotating a game for actual publication make sure it's a game that's worth playing though in the first place. Annotating an eight-move "GM draw" from the last round of a tournament (you know the type: "Hey, Sergei, let's play a quick draw, split the prize money, and head for the hotel bar, OK?") is pretty pointless -- unless your intention is to make fun of the players (that's always A-OK in my book). It would be better to choose a game that you find interesting (but be sure to tell us why you find it so) or that does a good job of illustrating a particular chess concept.

The right games to pick will depend a lot on your target audience, which brings us right to:

2) Know your audience. If you're writing a chess book for total novices (people who just learned the moves last week), you don't want to stick a five paragraph discourse on prophylaxis right in the heart of the game; your readers won't be able to make head or tail of it. Stick to the basics, like opening development and simple tactics. Likewise, if you're annotating a game for players rated Class A and up, you don't need to waste time explaining the virtues of 1.e4 -- your readers will already know this.

Your choice of games (Point #1 above) should be dictated to some extent by your target audience. I once read a book which contained a ton of good advice (allegedly) aimed at intermediate players -- but the illustrative games were awful. The example games were all from recent top-level grandmaster tournaments and most of them were incomprehensible to the average player (and, to make matters worse, the author would sometimes illustrate a chess concept in his variations rather than the actual game; i.e. "The players didn't actually overprotect a central pawn in this game, but they could have if this variation had been played". Pee-yew.). The author would have done better to use older games (say, pre-1930) which would have been more understandable by intermediate players, and furthermore used games in which the concept appeared in the actual games as they were played.

On my personal web page I offer a downloadable book called Advice for Beginners; in it I annotate online chess games in which one or both players make typical novice errors (sort of a "learn by bad example/don't do this" approach). I watch games online and download the moves, then annotate the games and add them to the book. I end up rejecting about 50% of the games I watch/download because I decide that the concepts they illustrate are too advanced or just plain inappropriate for beginning players.

3) Write clearly. Another way to put it is, "Write the way you talk". If you say, "White ameliorated his position by playing 32.Bd2", nobody's going to be impressed by your vocabulary. And if you actually do use words like "ameliorate" when you talk, I hope you're not surprised by all of the head scratching you see. The purpose of annotating a chess game is to make the game more clear to the reader; don't bury the message under a lot of language that you think is mellifluous, but which is actually obtuse and will cause your readers to become bellicose (heh).

And, as a related side rant, chess writing has developed a lot of doofy annotation forms that are ungrammatical or just deserve to be lost. I have two personal pet peeves in this area. The first is the use of the phrase "Better is..." If you've read more than one chess book or magazine, you've seen this one; the annotator begins a sentence or variation with the phrase "Better is" (for example, "Better is 23.Qc4"). Why not simply "23.Qc4 is better", which is more natural and grammatical? I'll tell you why not: back in the Dark Ages of chess writing, some guy thought that starting a sentence with "Better is..." made him sound more authoritative and "pedagogical" (i.e. the "I am the Professor of Chess" Syndrome). Other people read it and thought it was cool as all get out and they, too, adopted it. Hey, nobody talks that way anymore (if they ever did). As a Usenet poster (hilariously) put it several years ago, "Clumsy is the convention". It deserves to die a dog's death, but it's become a part of chess' lexicon (heck, I've even used it myself, much to my shame), so I guess we're stuck with it.

The second crappy convention is when the annotator's last words in a game are "The rest is a matter of technique". Hey, teach, would you mind showing us how that "technique" works? Older chess books really drive me nuts in this regard; they'll sometimes give an incomplete game and cut it off late in the middlegame with "The rest is a matter of technique". This just suggests to me that either: a) the player who's "ahead" went on to lose the game, or b) the annotator was just too damn lazy to finish the job (or possibly didn't understand the rest of the game himself). Please, please don't ever do this to your readers!

4) Be prepared to back up your assertions. I remember an annotated game from a state federation newsletter in which the kid (I know his age because I played him once; I even wrote a "Chess Embitterment" article in a past ETN about that game) who wrote the notes says at one point: "After this, Black is now losing", but failed to support his point with either concrete variations or any kind of verbal argument. We were supposed to just take his word for it. The problem was that no one could see where Black was losing; at worst, White had a slight edge. The kid marred what was an otherwise creditable annotation job by making a totally unsupported (and, as it turned out, false) statement.

If you're going to assert that one side or the other is "winning" or "has a definite advantage", support the statement with some variations or by verbally describing the advantages that side has in the position. This is particularly true if you're writing for weaker players -- trust me, they'll appreciate the elaboration. But remember that most chessplayers are very skeptical and analytical; few readers are going to take unsupported assertions at face value.

5) Go for quality instead of quantity. You don't need to annotate every move of a game (unless, as is the case with Chernev's Logical Chess: Move by Move or the first third of my own Battle Royale, that's the "hook" you're using to attract the reader). And, for crying out loud, don't go crazy with annotation forms such as colored arrows and squares (usually one to three arrows and a single colored square is enough to make the point in a particular position), pawn structure popups, medals, and Informant-style symbols attached to every move. As I mentioned in a previous ETN, Najdorf was more instructive with a handful of Informant symbols scattered through a game than most writers are with paragraphs of text. In other words, don't annotate moves just because you can -- make sure that your notes and variations actually mean something, that they make the game more clear to the reader. It's way too easy to "bury" a game under a ton of annotations and actually lose the point, rather than make it.

It's also too easy to go crazy using diacritical symbols (such as "!" and "?"). I've played through several games from chess books in which some guy is annotating his own game and gives 90% of his moves a "!!". Nobody plays more than a couple or three moves in a single game that deserve the double exclam, and that's only if he's a Super-GM playing the game of his life. Annotators that mark almost all of their moves with "!!" also mark themselves as hopeless weiners. Go easy with the diacritics; typically a dozen moves or so in a game deserve this kind of a notation regardless of whether it's a "!", a "?", or a "?!".

6) Throw away your copy of Bartlett's Quotations. I've seen way too many amateur annotators (and a few pros, unfortunately) "tart up" a game by tossing in some Shakespeare quotes. Lame, man, very lame. It's OK to quote occasionally, but it's better (and funnier) to quote Nimzo or Tal, or even a bad sci-fi movie (I'd love to see a game in which the annotator says, "That thing in there is not the Goose!" when referring to a stranded major piece -- bonus points if you can identify the flick), than to quote the Bard -- nobody's going to believe that you actually read "Two Gentlemen of Verona" anyway (even if you did).

And, from the Bad News Department: yes, I actually did this myself once (using a Shakespeare quote in a game I annotated, very early in my [chess] writing career). You get more bonus points if you can correctly identify the game. The good news: I doubt you can. It was a game annotated in an obscure club publication, it was read by (maybe) ten people, and it has never appeared online. Whew! I cringe when I think about it. So trust me on this point -- you'll be a happier person later in life if you take my advice here.

7) Don't let a chess engine do all the work for you. If the only variations you give come directly from Fritz, you're gonna get caught. Dang near everybody has Fritz and some folks make it a hobby to double-check every variation they see in print or online against Fritz' analysis. My general rule of thumb is to credit the engine when I pilfer its analysis. It's OK to use engines for guidance, but don't get lazy and have them do all the work.

OK, so much for the easy stuff. Now we get to the hard part: how to write. I really don't mean to sound like Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, but writing is damned hard work. I've been a professional writer all of my adult life and, to be honest, it stopped being "fun" around twenty years ago. It's a real grind at times (especially when it's Sunday morning, you had a little too much fun on Saturday night, and you have about three hours left to bang out an article and an annotated game to beat your deadline), but the only way to get decent at it is to do it. And here's a major point: no one can teach you how to write. I wasn't supposed to let that secret slip (and I refuse to describe the secret "Writer's Handshake"; if I do, the other writers will kick me out of the club and I won't be allowed in on $0.25 Draft Night at the conventions anymore), but it's the truth. You can take classes, study technique, and blow your money on correspondence courses, but they won't teach you how to write. The only way to learn to write is to write.

I've known too many people who literally agonize over every word and phrase they type, trying to make it "perfect". Hey, man, nothing in life is perfect (although Kathy Ireland comes danged close), so don't sweat it. This is especially true in the world of chess annotating. No matter what you write, somebody's going to find fault with it. It's going to be "Your notes are too basic", "Your notes are too complicated", "You say 'dang' too much", etc. -- all of which I've heard at one time or another. I even had an English instructor tell me (when I was 18) that I "must" write from real-life experiences (yeah, right, as if I even had a "life" at 18). If Isaac Asimov was writing from "real life experiences", I'll have some of whatever he was having. While it's great for a writer to be criticized (it really does help you), don't let a couple of bad comments stop you from writing. Listen to the criticism, try to determine if it has merit, and act accordingly. I got slammed a lot when I was starting out as a writer; if I'd been persuaded by those folks back then, I'd be slinging burgers for a living today instead of slinging words (or, worse yet, be hacking out a sports column about the local Little League for some small-town weekly). On the other hand, I still get popped by a reader occasionally when I do something especially stupid and I often find that to be helpful. So weight criticism in the balance but don't let it cripple you.

Don't try to make it perfect. Just write your ideas, then go back and polish it up a bit. Finally, proofread it for spelling and syntax errors. Toss it out there for people to read and let 'em criticize what you say, not the way you said it. There's a difference between writing for a school grade and writing something that people will actually read. You don't get an "A" or an "F" for an annotated chess game or a chess article -- but if you're lucky, you get responses from readers and maybe even a check you can cash (plus you know you're really doing well when people either quote you out of context on their webpages or else plagiarize your work and try to pass it off as their own on their web sites).

Bottom line: do the best you can. It doesn't have to be "perfect" (either analytically, gramatically, or structurally) and the more you write, the better you get at it and the "easier" it becomes. And, since we're talking here about annotating chess games, it actually improves your play. Crawl into the players' heads and try to figure out why they played what they played. Try to find ways that they could have played better, or at least differently. Describe what you discover as clearly as you can. It'll help your analytical skills immeasurably, as well as your writing skills.

And, by all means, read other players' annotations. If you really like someone's writing style, try to figure out what you like about it and then use that in your own work. If you hate the way somebody else writes, figure out why and avoid that in your annotating. Every writer has other writers who have influenced them (both positively and negatively) and it's OK to crib a bit from these people (I owe a particular debt in this regard to IM Michael Wilder, Michael Stean, and technical writer Dan Gookin). Eventually you develop your own writing style and you run with it.

So much for my cheap advice. Now it's your turn -- open up a game in ChessBase or Fritz and start annotating!


NEW CHESSBASE CDS

by Steve Lopez

DeepFritz7 is the latest multi-processor version of our popular playing program. However, there's more to this than meets the eye. DF7 is a different engine from Fritz7; programmer Franz Morsch is always tweaking up his brainchild by adding more positional criteria to it. This latest version has new positional motifs that have been introduced since Fritz7, so the new program is stronger (even on single-processor machines) and "understands" more chessically.

You can test this out yourself on a single-processor machine. Load some "quiescent" positions (those not containing any immediate tactics) and run both engines to the same search depth. You'll often see DF7 come up with a different variation from its single-processor counterpart.

If you have a multi-processor machine, you'll need to "tell" DF7 how many processors you're running. Hit F3 to open the Engine selection pane, highlight the Deep Fritz7 engine, and click the "Engine Parameter" button. Among the various settings, you'll see a box where you can set the number of processors for DF7 to use.

The interface is identical to Fritz7 (and the other current chessplaying programs from ChessBase), so users familiar with one or more of these programs will have no problem finding their way around DF7's interface.

DF7 also comes with its own opening book. This is different from the opening book that comes with Fritz7; the new book has been tweaked up to take advantage of the newer algorithm.

DF7 also comes with a large database of over 350,000 games; this is the same game database that accompanies Fritz7. DF7 also uses the Nalimov endgame tablebases, just as do the other chessplaying programs we offer.

Now comes the question that I'm frequently asked: "How do I know if I have a single-processor or multi-processor machine?" That's simple -- if you have to ask, then you have a single-processor machine. You can always tell if you've just bought a multi-processor system by the smoldering wreckage that was once your wallet.

I also get asked if DF7 is worth buying if you have a single-processor machine. That's one of those "let your conscience be your guide" issues. DF7 is almost double the price of Fritz7, so it's up to you to determine if a 20 to 30 (possibly a bit more) Elo point jump in playing strength is worth the extra bucks. I have a single-processor system but I've always found the DF series engines to be worth having; of course, this is easy for me to say, as I get them for free. So it's really up to you whether or not you want to spend the extra bucks for the stronger (and more positionally-knowledgeable) Deep Fritz engine.

Correspondence chess is the great "laboratory" of the game. Correspondence players are often talented researchers and tend to be willing to try unusual lines of play that don't often appear in over-the-board games. And their analytical abilities are excellent -- while an over-the-board player has (at best) just a few minutes to decide on a move, a correspondence player can takes days if he so chooses.

Am I implying that correspondence players are stronger than over-the-board players? Not necessarily, but I am definitely saying that the two forms are entirely different disciplines (I know this from experience, as I've been heavily involved in both forms of the game) and that a good correspondence player can (and will) certainly examine a position much more deeply and is often able to unlock secrets in a position that go undetected by players constrained by the clock in an over-the-board event.

All of this is a preamble to the news that the new version of our correspondence database, Correspondence Chess Database 2002, has just been released. Like its predecessor (the 2000 version), CCDB 2002 contains the games of all the (completed) World Correspondence Championships. as well as thousands of games from national correspondence championships. But the 2002 version has been considerably beefed-up. The previous version contained 295,502 games. Correspondence Chess Database 2002 adds a lot of new material, bringing the total up to 400,620 games.

There are a lot more annotated games in the 2002 version, as well. While the database still remains largely unannotated, the new version has over 700 games with notes, a large increase over the prior version.

Among the new additions to the database are a lot of correspondence games from the "Romantic Era" (the mid to late 1800s), a time in which city vs. city correspondence matches were quite popular. The "Golden Age" is also quite well-represented, with scores of new games from the pre-WWII period added. Recent European championships have also been included.

As correspondence players are aware, e-mail and online correspondence is the "brave new world" of "postal" play. Easier and cheaper than snail-mail correspondence, electronic correspondence games are all the rage. Thousands of games from electronic correspondence play over the last two years have also been added to the database.

So why should you be interested in Correspondence Database 2002 if you're not a correspondence player? I don't believe in reinventing the wheel, so allow me to quote myself from the October 8, 2000 issue of ETN (from my preview of the 2000 version of this database):

I'm an avid correspondence player and, as such, I find this database invaluable for a number of reasons. There are openings here that are not played at the top levels of chess (such as the gambits I love, for example) and which you won't find in databases of top grandmaster games. One of my close friends is a rated correspondence master who believes that even badly played games by lower-rated players have value: you save time by finding easy refutations to substandard play, refutations which someone else has already worked out. And in a database like this I can find plenty of games played by people I actually know or might possibly face in a correspondence game. So even though this database has a generous helping of games played by average players, I find having such games to be beneficial rather than detrimental.

And there it is, friends. You'll find stuff on this CD that you won't find anywhere else (including an all-new feature -- a seperate Player Encyclopedia made up exclusively of correspondence players, specially designed to be used in ChessBase 8 with Correspondence Database 2002). But this CD is especially good if you're into oddball opening lines that typically don't appear in top-level chess (for example, there are nearly 400 Cochrane Gambit games on this CD). So grab a copy of this CD and get ready to lick some stamps or click the "Send" button -- correspondence chess is a great way to play and really is the "laboratory" of chess.

Until next week, have fun!

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