Five Chess Tech Tips for the New Year: Part 1

What is the single best thing you can do to improve your chess in this new year?

(Besides increasing your solving, of course…)

 Answer: Make use of chess technology in your improvement plan.

It never fails to amaze me when I talk to someone trying to improve and learn that they aren’t using chess software and engines to do so. Not everyone is a computer savant, of course, and there are obvious economic barriers for some folks. That said, I am of the opinion that judicious use of modern chess tech can bring great benefits to most players, and in this article, I’ll try to provide some ideas as to where to begin.

Having used some of the software described here since the days of DOS, and knowing the limits of my expertise, I have tried to maintain a sense of ‘beginner’s mind’ in my writing. I assume only general computer competence on the part of the reader, and my guiding question has been: “what five things would I want to know if I were just dipping my toes into chess technology?”

1. Get the right hardware.

To begin: you need a computer. Apps for phones or tablets are nice, and can be very useful in a pinch – if you want to quickly analyze a position, for instance – but they’re not robust enough for serious work. More to the point, you should have a computer that runs the Windows operating system, and you should seriously consider getting ChessBase.

I can hear the Mac fans and Linux geeks groaning as I write this, and in some ways, I’m with you. If there were comparable software packages available for either OS, I’d be thrilled to recommend them, and I will mention a few cross-platform options as we proceed. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the best software is Windows based, and much of what follows assumes that you’re using a recent version of Windows.

So what should you be looking for in a chess computer? What I’m about to say is fairly heterodox, but I believe that even lower-end laptops and desktops would suit the majority of players quite well.

A chess computer has no need for a fancy (and expensive) graphics card – chess is represented in two dimensions on the screen. Most modern processors (CPUs) are adequate to basic analytical needs, although Intel processors are better than AMD, and Core i3, i5, and i7 processors are preferable, and in that order. Faster processors (i5 or i7) will speed analytical tasks, but you can always compensate for a ‘slower’ CPU by letting an engine run for a longer period of time.

More critical, in my opinion, are a computer’s memory (RAM) and hard drive. Engines require a lot of memory for optimal functioning, as they can store the results of their analysis in a “hash table,” removing the need to reanalyze positions already seen. Most low-end computers now come with 4 GB of memory, but for best results, I’d recommend a minimum of 8 GB, which would give the operating system 4 GB to work with and allowing 4 GB for hash tables. Updating the RAM on an existing machine is an excellent and inexpensive way to dramatically boost performance.

The hard drive can also be a place for a potential upgrade, particularly if you want to study endgames. Most chess engines can make use of tablebases (TBs), or databases of endgame positions with up to six pieces on the board, in their analysis. Some of these files, particularly the six piece TBs, are huge – the largest one on my computer clocks in at well over a gigabyte! – and engine speed can drop while accessing them. With new ‘solid state’ hard drives (SSDs), however, access times are much faster, and engines can use the TBs without a performance drop.

2. Get the right software.

You also need software. More precisely, you need three software ‘components:’ a graphical user interface (GUI), a database of master and Grandmaster games, and an analytical engine. The GUI allows you to access and search the database , and the engine plugs into the GUI to provide analysis. Clearly, then, the choice of a GUI is an important one, and the vast majority of top players around the world have settled on one software provider above all others: ChessBase.

Chessbase 14

ChessBase offers two types of GUIs – a database manager (ChessBase 14) and an engine and playing interface (Fritz 15; note that Houdini 5 and Komodo 10 share the same GUI). The two have historically been distinguished by their function. ChessBase has primarily been used for database creation / maintenance / analytical work, and Fritz has been oriented more towards playing against engines and automatic game analysis.

The most recent versions of both programs are, curiously, beginning to incorporate some of each other’s features. ChessBase 14 has a new ‘tactical analysis’ feature that automatically analyzes games, and Fritz 15 has added some important database functions. That said, the two programs are not the same, and in choosing which one (or ones) you’ll want, you’ll need to have some idea as to what you’re trying to do with the software.

If you have to choose between ChessBase and Fritz, I’d recommend ChessBase, and for two reasons. First, very few players play games against their computer, at least at full-strength. (I fully believe that there are training situations where it is valuable to play against a weak or weakened engine, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.) Second, the difference between ChessBase and its competitors is much, much bigger than the difference between Fritz and other playing programs.

So what can you do with ChessBase?

What can’t you do with ChessBase?

I can’t begin to offer a full feature list, but here are the basics. With ChessBase 14, you can:

  • Read / store / edit databases of practically any size.
  • Maintain these databases – find and remove doubles, reorder games, etc.
  • Analyze games (with engines if desired) and save the results of analysis. ChessBase 14 now includes an automatic analysis feature.
  • Search databases by opening, position, structure (middlegame and endgame), player, annotator, tournament, etc.
  • Prepare for specific opponents with specialized tools.
  • Teachers can create sheets of training positions for students and e-mail games in multiple formats or as part of a website. They can also create text files or ebooks with custom material.
  • Access ChessBase Online services, including high powered ‘cloud (analytical) engines,’ online databases, and openings and tactics trainers.

While there are other database management programs available – ChessX and SCID vs. PC are open-source alternatives, and the Hiarcs and Shredder engines come with GUIs that include some database tools – none matches the ChessBase feature set. [Non-Microsoft users should note that ChessX, SCID vs PC, and Shredder are all available for both Mac and Linux, and Hiarcs is available for Mac.]

ChessX, for example, is a perfectly functional GUI for many basic tasks. You can read and write .pgn (specialized text) database files, analyze with (and play against) engines, and even compete against other humans online at the Free Internet Chess Server. Because it is limited to .pgn databases, however, database functions are slow and limited, and specialized searches are not possible.

While Fritz can do much of what ChessBase, but its database management functions are clunky and limited in comparison, and there are free and open-source GUIs that compete with Fritz’s playing abilities. You can use ChessX to set up positions and play them against the computer, but I particularly like the Tarrasch Chess GUI for this purpose. Both ChessX and Tarrasch Chess write to .pgn files readable by ChessBase and Fritz.

3. Don’t skimp on data!

Computer scientists and statisticians know that outputs are only as good as the inputs used to create them. If your data sets are poor, your results will be poor – ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ as the saying goes. This is also true in the chess world, where having a good database at your disposal can be the difference between fruitful preparation and total frustration.

Megabase 2017

ChessBase offers two main databases for purchase, as part of various ChessBase 14 bundles and also as stand-alone products. Big Database 2017 comes with 6.8 million unannotated games in the native ChessBase format, while Mega Database 2017 includes the same 6.8 million games but with 70,000 of them being annotated.  Both come with a year’s worth of weekly updates. The three main Fritz GUIs include databases with 1.5 to 2 million games, all unannotated and without an update feature.

If you are looking for another source of data, or if you are working with a non-ChessBase GUI, I would highly recommend that you investigate Mark Crowther’s website The Week in Chess (TWIC). Crowther is one of the unsung heroes of contemporary chess, having put out free weekly news games collections in ChessBase and pgn formats every Monday since 1994. Almost every strong player worth their salt studies Crowther’s work each week, and some go much further – Kramnik, for instance, is said to play through nearly every game.

Visitors to TWIC can download back issues beginning with #920; when joined together, those 238 issues (through #1157) can be merged into a free database of about 650,000 games. This is the start of a good reference database, but for a £30 donation, Crowther will send you his complete TWIC database with about 1.96 million games included. You’ll surely also boost your karmic standing by supporting Crowther’s continued efforts.

Having an up-to-date reference database like Big/Mega or TWIC is an essential tool for the improving player. With a bit of effort, however, you can scout out your own sources of data, dramatically improving the pertinence of your research materials and giving you an advantage over lazier opponents.

Large databases like Mega Database or TWIC will usually contain games from international events and big money tournaments, but they often lack relevant games from club players. Finding and saving the games of local opponents can be a huge time-saver when preparing for games, so it can be useful to look at websites for clubs and state associations to see if they offer databases (most often .pgns) of past events. Case in point: I’m playing in a tournament in San Diego soon and I found five thousand games for free download on the Southern California Chess Federation homepage, most of which were not in TWIC.

A database of correspondence games can be tremendously useful for opening research, but neither Big/Mega or TWIC contain them. While ChessBase does sells a specialized correspondence database, you can also go to correspondence federation websites and download archived games directly. The International Correspondence Chess Federation (ICCF), the largest and most important correspondence group, offers over 570 thousand games for free download to registered users of their site.

John Hartmann is a columnist for Chess Life Magazine and the Chess Journalists of America winner for the “Best Review” category.

Tomorrow, look for Part 2 of Hartmann’s tips, including his thoughts on the power and limits of computer analysis.

Comments

  1. It may be correct that an engine plus a grandmaster produces better analysis than an engine alone. But the average player is not making a choice between relying solely on chess engine analysis or combining it with his own super grandmaster level analysis. He is not a super grandmaster. The question should be; ‘how can chess players use engines and technology in general to improve their play and enjoyment of the game?’. What settings and procedures should the player use to maximize benefit. How can we best use technology to improve. This article does not really address the issue properly.
    Although probably true, the observation that GM + Engine is better than Engine alone is quite meaningless for the average player and is off little practical value.

    Also scid and scidvspc are completely viable alternatives to Chessbase for basic database work and analysis. Scid has been around since the 1990s and has many features. It does not come with games. But using the pgn files from the week in chess you can create an excellent database. Other games are also available online, including one with two million games. Many may prefer chessbase. It is an excellent program and it may provide additional features. Which some may want. But solid database functionality and world class engine analysis (stockfish) is available for Linux as well as Windows users. And it is totally free. Scid or Scidvspc may be all many people need.

    This article is interesting in an academic sense. However, I would like to see an article the discusses the optimal ways for average players to benefit from the technology and not one seemingly directed at Grandmasters.

  2. I don’t believe that Big database comes with a year of upgrades. It used to but I think that this got discontinued several years ago. At the least I can’t see any reference to free upgrades to Big on the ChessBase site while there is confirmation that Mega comes with upgrades.

  3. Due to lack of ambition I have not gotten an engine or my own database, but I still am using technology to increase — greatly increase — my appreciation and enjoyment of the game.

    I use WinBoard to play over games from tournament websites. I find tournament websites by looking at chess news websites like theweekinchess or even Chess Life Online. This is hog heaven! There just is no comparison with the way I used to find tournament games, and play them over, when I was an aspiring player in the 1970’s and 80’s.

    When I have a question about developments in the openings, I use the database at chesslabs.com to look things up. I realize that I’m not going to find recent games by my hometown rivals there, but I can find out what the GM’s have been playing and — equally important — what they’ve stopped doing, and that can be my starting point for investigation.

    I don’t have my own engine, but tournament websites with engines, like chess24, make me a happy fan. “Why didn’t he take that pawn?” — now I can just ask the computer! Of course, if the tournament website doesn’t have an engine, I’m back to using my own analysis. Too bad, but at least it’s a little exercise for my brain.

  4. John.H wrote:
    {
    “What can’t you do with ChessBase?”
    }

    There are several important things that neither ChessBase nor Fritz 15 can do. All ChessBase reviews are also this one-sided, implying there are no possible improvement to ChessBase that are worth mentioning. This one-sidedness bothers me.

    For instance (unless my older versions lack major new features), I believe that neither enables the user to *easily* re-step through one of many move variation branches. An opening bifurcates and trifurcates at almost every half-move. During my first step through I must navigate a move choice list at every half step. After tunneling many half-moves deep, I naturally want to see again this same precise variation, to really understand it. But after I go back, to go forward again I must again navigate move choice lists at every half-move! This is a UI ease-of-use fail, and I believe IS worth mentioning.
    This UI fail spreads to the new dynamic chess ebook formats of ForwardChess.com and probably some others, which are authored in ChessBase (which was never well designed to be a chess book authoring environment).

    The options for visual formats of the whole-game analysis outputs is severely limited and utterly pathetic. The slightest imagination skill can design better formats.

    When I tell Fritz to perform a whole-game analysis, I want to tell it to mark every move which qualifies as an “ONLY” move (no decent alternative available). The Fritz programmer would have to spend a couple hours implementing this feature, but to date he has not bothered.

    I would like the whole-game analysis feature to offer the option of also calculating the “threat”: more precisely, when it is Black’s turn to move, report what White’s best move would be if magically White were allowed to move twice in a row (say the Null move was entered for Black and then White moved again); and tell me what the evaluation would be as a result of the threat move. (Info about threat moves, for every half-move of the whole game, can be obtained manually, but the effort level and time commitment is highly inefficient.)
    Dan Heisman wrote a whole book about threat moves, and game annotators often discuss threats. Threat moves are interesting and informative. Yet…
    Fritz and ChessBase are incapable of automatically producing a whole-game analysis report with this rather basic info about threat moves. That is worth mentioning, instead of saying – “What can’t ChessBase and Fritz do!”.

    Komodo 9 uses the Fritz GUI. When I tell Komodo 9 to perform a whole-game analysis, it starts at the end (good), but stop sometimes 30 half-moves before the end: aggravating.

    – – – – –

    I agree with your point that Fritz etc make chess study more efficient. But the feedback an engine gives us about threats, Only-moves, evaluations etc, do go beyond what we can get elsewhere.

    Several professional chess trainers have written than it is good to practice winning “won positions” from Fritz. Start with an overwhelming advantage, and replay a few times to get more efficient at finishing the win. Then downshift to a less-then-overwhelming won position, and so on. Non-tech options cannot provide this enjoyable form of training.

    Thanks.
    GeneM , 2017-01-16

    I don’t mean to pick on John.H in particular, because nobody ever writes about the frustrating limitations of ChessBase and Fritz.

  5. Even though CHESS BASE is at version 14 I still think it has a terrible search feature.

    Unless you spell a player’s name exactly it won’t bring up the player. To find KORCHNOI you have to spell it the German way, filled with a “j” instead of an “i.” FISHER won’t bring up FISCHER.

    You would think by now it would start giving choices after you have typed in KORC.

  6. re: GeneM

    With all due respect, I think some of your “CB flaws” are just nitpicking, or can be achieved with newest Chessbase 14…

    1. navigating through a game with many variations:

    I’m not sure what do you expect the software to do.. to anticipate which variation choice you want to skip and which not? To follow the 1st variation on first go, the 2nd on the second replaying, and so on? I’m not sure how would this be possible from a programming perspective (I’m not a programmer), but frankly it is not needed at all in my opinion.

    Please note that if you want to skip the variation choice dialog, you can use the mouse wheel to replay moves, and then the main line will be followed. So on 2nd replay for example, you can first choose the (2nd) variation you want to look at, and then use mouse wheel to follow the main line for that variation.. with having the added option at every move to use right cursor key to display the variation choice dialog again, should you desire.
    Moreover, in the latest version of CB (14), the variation branches are nicely colored when you enter a variation, thus showing visually where you are in analysis and enabling you to explore associated branches with a single mouse click… please see chessbase site or youtube videos, which show this feature nicely.

    2. not exactly sure what you mean by “visual formats of whole-game analysis”, but I would suggest again to look at the chessbase site, CB14 product site in particular, to see how the feature “tactical analysis” looks like these days. In my opinion it produces a nice game analysis, with diagrams, arrows, “human-like” commentary, training questions etc.. Again, not sure if this what you look for but it might be..

    3. Not sure why the critical need for marking “only moves”.. but in essence, doesn’t marking of blunders do the same thing? I believe there’s an option to include engine’s “PV” variation in the analysis, and it should show you what it thinks was the best move (along with its evaluation), thus showing “the only move which wasn’t played” in the game. The blunder should also have its evaluation attached, hence showing the difference between the only move and mistake in the game.
    For other moments where “only moves” were played and no blunder occurred, I would think this is not so much necessary, e.g. you can easily see yourself what would not recapturing the queen during an exchange lead to, right?
    If the feature is still needed at other moments of a game, you can run a kibitzer and have it show 2 best lines, thus seeing the difference between two best moves…

    4. displaying the threats – the tactical analysis feature does that sometimes. not for every move for sure, but I would personally use common sense for easier threats, or try and find them myself 🙂 sure, displaying threat for every move would be fine, but this can be done manually if needed… run a kibitzer, press “X” and go through the game this way. at every move, engine will calculate the threat instead of the best move. Not automated I know, but can be done pretty easily..

    I agree with you that the reviews of Chessbase and Fritz are pretty “rosy”, especially at their site. Of course this is mostly just marketing, putting forth the best features of each program.
    On the other hand, there are indeed several pretty amazing functions that the software already has, and which help making our chess training incomparably easier to what had been possible in the pre-computer era. One example for all – the similarity search functions. This, coupled with some elo-specific searches/sorting allows you to find how strong players play the structure, openings or endgames you had in your weekend game, and it helps your learning immensely; more than a first line of an engine could ever provide…
    For sure there are functions that are still missing and improvement is always possible, however some requests might not be so critical, especially when they can be done at this time with a little effort by the user.
    The programmers might ask us in such cases “will you play your chess games yourselves, or would you like us to have Chessbase do it for you, as well?” 🙂 Hope you get what I mean by that; in other words sometimes it’s pretty useful to not have everything spoon fed to us and to make some effort…

    Dominik

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