Posts Tagged ‘Chessbase’

I first came across Sam Collins in a book he wrote giving a repertoire for White starting with 1.e4. At first, I wasn’t very impressed. I found the book to be superficial. There wasn’t much explanation of the chosen lines and he was very dismissive of what he called “rubbish” responses from Black.

It’s all very well for the national champion of Ireland (and Japan! — how did he manage that?) to be dismissive of “rubbish” but amateur players like me have learnt to show a great deal of respect for rubbish moves, especially when Fritz plays them.

However, I was very impressed by his commentary on the Slav opening on the Chessbase Openings Tutorial #3 DVD, so I decided to buy this one on the Carlsbad structure.

From his book, I’d imagined a thick-set thug in Doc Martins and denim jacket but it turns out Sam is a very soft-spoken intellectual with refined manners and impeccable presentation.

For those who don’t know, the Carlsbad structure arises from the exchange variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5) and is one of the most important structures in classical chess.

It quite clearly says on the cover of this DVD that it is Vol 1. However, in the DVD itself, Sam refers to it as Vol 2, following on from where he left off in Vol. 1 because there is just so much material to cover. In fact it appears to be 2 volumes combined and is packed with information and analysis on 7 hours of video.

Sam’s analysis is very clear, very enlightening and very thorough. Thanks to his quiet, thoughtful and articulate delivery, this is quite restful to watch at the end of a busy day wrestling with non-chess-related matters and has become one of my most-watched DVDs for this reason alone. He presents full games from the very best players and his comments are very insightful.

I’ll certainly be buying more of these Know The Terrain DVDs.

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Being an avid reader of both New in Chess and Chessbase, it is very exciting to see these two chess media giants having a fight. I have weighed in with my own opinion, which was published on the Chessbase site. (It’s there somewhere, don’t give up!) But it wasn’t without a sense of guilt for ignoring Nigel Davies’ excellent advice to spend more time on chess rather than chess news.

There are far too many polticial arguments in chess. I gave up trying to understand them years ago. I have no idea how the world championship works, who the world champions are, or even how many there are.*

I wonder what Nigel thinks about writing chess blogs. Are they a waste of valuable time, Nigel?

Nigel doesn’t allow questions or comments on his blog, so I thought I’d ask it here.

*Only joking, Vishy.

I have now finished watching all of my dear friend Rustam Kasimdzhanov’s Chessbase DVD called Strategy Step by Step.

Why do I call him “my dear friend”? It’s because he has the endearing habit of calling all of us, his viewers and pupils, his dear friends, and I feel very honoured and privileged to be amongst this select group of chess players.

It is difficult to know from the blurb on a Chess DVD who it’s going to appeal to. When I ordered this I thought it might be too advanced for me. In fact Rustam makes everything very clear, whatever your level of playing ability. He has selected the games to illustrate some general strategic principles but he explains almost every move. Even in the opening.

For example, after introducing the first game (a win aginst Anand from San Luis, 2005), he shows the first moves 1.e4 c5 and he says “And this is the first place where I’d like to stop.” He then begins an explanation that he continues throughout the game showing how White is fighting on the light squares and Black on the dark ones.

There are only six games on this DVD but Rustam breaks them down into several parts and gives a very detailed commentary throughout. He talks quite fast but I just about managed to keep up with him most of the time. In fact his language is very attractive. I like to listen to him because his words are very well-chosen.

I was a bit surprised by the way in which Rustam approaches teaching strategy. I was expecting topics like control of the centre, blockading, open files, isolated pawns and so on. Rustam does mention these things but he mentions them almost incidentally. He is a very concrete player. He talks about strategic themes only in so far as they provide a basis for a concrete plan. Much of his analysis is focused on specific variations, with the strategic considerations simply providing the backdrop to the action.

For example, in his game against Dautov, Rustam, who is playing Black, has an open file occupied by two rooks. A winning advantage, you might think. But the rooks can achieve nothing on their own. Black needs to whip up some action elsewhere on the board and that’s why Rustam is looking at the d5 square, where he’d like to place a knight. Knowing this, it’s not hard to guess his next move.

Position after 23.f4 (Black to play)

But you need to do the analysis.

By the way, like many Chesbase DVDs it seems to have been put together in a bit of a hurry. This is no reflection on Rustam, who has prepared his commentary very thoroughly, but on the Chessbase production team. The order in which the videos are presented does not appear to be the order Rustam intended.

This doesn’t diminish the instructive value of the material but makes the presenter look a little bit confused when he says “Finally, I would like to present…” and follows it with a final game at the end of which he says “… and so we will proceed with some other examples in the next lessons.”

Now here is the rest of the game against Dautov.

23…. Ne4 24.Nxe4 dxe4 25.Qxe4 Nf6 26.Qe5 Nd5 27.Qxc7 Rxc7 28.Ra1 Rxa1 29.Rxa1 Nxe3 30.Ra8+ Kh7 31.Nc1 Rd7 32.Nb3 Nc2 33.g3 Nxb4 34.Kf2 g5 35.Kf3 Kg6 36.Rg8+ Kf5 37.g4+ Kf6 38.fxg5+ hxg5 39.Ke4 Ra7 40.Nd2 Ra3 0–1

I suppose there are those who like to read chess books and those who don’t. I love reading chess books. I like to think I read them purely for pleasure but at the back of my mind there has always been the dim hope that one day I might benefit from all the reading I was doing and become a better player.

For years it didn’t happen and I’ve come across the same complaint from other people. For twenty years they had read chess books and followed master games but their chess skill remained largely unchanged.

Last year I found myself in the position of having no spare time. By January the situation had improved slightly but reading chess books was still out of the question. However, I was missing chess badly so I decided to buy some videos from Chessbase. I found I could spend between 10 and 20 minutes every night watching a video clip.

Something miraculous occurred. I got better at chess. I could measure this in two ways. First of all, I could play rapid games against Shredder at increasing levels of difficulty and occasionally win. And secondly I got pretty pleasing scores when I played against test positions or games of the sort provided by Igor Khmelnitsky, Daniel King and Jeroen Bosch.

I suspect my chess has also got stronger because I have stopped using Fritz. I used my own judgement instead of checking everything with the computer. I used to be always in the habit of using Fritz to check what I read in books. I have always been sceptical about experts in the past but the players who present these videos are chess legends: Nigel Short, Viktor Kortchnoi, Alexei Shirov, Garry Kasparov. I’ve learnt to trust them. I’ve also found that it is easier to find strong moves if you are trained in human chess thinking rather than trying to follow the correct but sometimes unfathomably complex advice of the computer.

But another measure of how much I’ve improved might be my growing taste for endgames. Endgames are difficult, in my view, because you need to calculate precisely. You can’t rely on instinct or strategic concepts.

There aren’t many good chessbase videos on endgames. Not that I’ve found so far anyway. The best endgame lessons I’ve come across have been in the collected games of Kortchnoi and Short. Short’s commentary is particularly clear.

But I’ve recently started to read a book that I bought because it was half price. It’s called Endgame Virtuoso Anatoly Karpov by Tibor Karolyi & Nick Aplin. It’s not as effortless as watching a video but neither is it as dry as I expected.

Here’s a position that arises from analysis of Karpov’s game against Vaganian in Leningrad, 1969.

Black to move

Karpov was Black. The correct moves, according to the book’s authors are

49…e4! opens the passage for invasion. In opposite-coloured bishop endings you often have to play aggressively. 50.fxe4 Ke5! (White must go one way with the king, then the Black king invades in the other direction. Just like taking a penalty in soccer).

Like soccer, yes. Pretty easy, really, isn’t it?

One of the better books on tactics

One of the hardest things about studying chess is finding material that helps you improve. I love reading chess books but many of the ones I like best are way above my playing level, while books that might actually help me improve can be very tedious and unappealing.

Improving your tactical skills is especially hard. You need to study positions that stretch you but if they are too hard your brain seizes up and you get discouraged. I’m convinced also that a lot of chess professionals don’t understand how to teach tactics.

Chess trainer Martin Weteschnik noted that asking his pupils to solve a huge number of tactical problems didn’t help them improve. So he wrote a book called Understanding Chess Tactics. It’s not a bad book. But it’s not a complete solution either.

In this book Weteschnik gives an example of a game played by Holger Witt before he had read the book, in which he made a tactical blunder. This is followed by an example from a game where Holger played well after absorbing the lessons in the book. But the two examples are very different. The first is quite hard because there is a lot going on. The second is very easy because the tactical motif is very clear.

There is a problem with this book because none of the diagrams show whether white or black is to play. So it is difficult to use it interactively. The diagrams are there quite simply to illustrate the text. You are shown things and you need to absorb them. This is a very passive way of learning and is not very effective in my view. I become bored and tired of this very quickly, although the tactical insights Weteschnik imparts are no doubt worthwhile and helpful.

He also makes the mistake, in my view, of trying to explain simple points using difficult examples.

But my main problem with this kind of approach is that you don’t learn something as concrete as chess by reading a lot of abstract explanation about what is theoretically possible. It is a bit like trying to learn a language by studying a grammar book. It’s too dry and too remote from real life.

Training from Tiger Lilov

The worst example of the academic approach that I’ve seen is on a recent training DVD from Chessbase. It’s called Tactics: From Basics to Brilliance by Valeri Lilov. It sounds great, doesn’t it? From basics to brilliance. Who doesn’t want to be brilliant? There are a little over 100 positions on this DVD. Quite a lot of them are brilliant, there’s no doubt about that. And, unlike in Weteschnik’s book, you get the chance to work out the moves for yourself. But the explanations from Mr. Lilov – or Tiger, as apparently, we should call him – drive me mad. He quite often spends three or four minutes talking very fast about what you need to know before showing you the position and, I have to tell you, what he tells you you need to know is not what you need to know at all. Forget what Tiger says you need to know. What you need to know is not whether the advantage is static or dynamic; or whether what you are about to execute on the board should be referred to as forcing play, a forcing move, a tactical break or a tactical operation; or how many different sorts of sacrifice or combination there are. What you need to know is where the pieces are and where they can go. That’s what you need to know.

Moreover, these tactical combinations, though often brilliant, are not good for beginners. Some of them are quite stunning simply because they have a logical inevitability that is many moves deep and far from obvious. It’s hard to imagine using similar motifs in your own games.

Ivashchenko's book for beginners

What I recommend for beginners, or even very mature players who need help with tactics, is Chess Tactics for Beginners from Chessbase’s rival ChessOK.

Chess Tactics for Beginners 2.0 has just been released and can be bought on CD or downloaded straight to your laptop or PC. It is based on a book of 1,320 positions by Sergey Ivashchenko and it’s comprehensive, progressive and interactive. You are not given any explanations but you learn by doing. You learn to see in fact, which is very important.

But once you’ve started to master the basics, it’s helpful to have a top class player talk you though how tactics can be applied in your games. This is where Rustam Kasimdzhanov comes in.

Kasimdzhanov - a brilliant mind

Rustam Kasimdzhanov has presented a few training DVDs for Chessbase but the only one I have seen is The Path to Tactical Strength. His explanations couldn’t be more different from Tiger Lilov’s. First of all, all the positions he presents – and there are only 22 – are from his own games. Secondly, he shows you each position before he begins talking about it. And thirdly, which is most important, everything he tells you is of direct relevance to the position in front of you. He does an outstanding job of dissecting the tactical possibilities that are inherent in the position, what to look for, what he saw himself, what he tried to achieve with his pieces and how he solved his problems.

I love Kasimdzhanov’s explanations. I have watched and listened to them many times because I’ve had this DVD for a few years, and the more I watch it the more I appreciate it. But I’m under no illusion that this DVD will make me as brilliant as Kasimdzhanov or even help me improve very much.

I think Weteschnik’s book is more likely to help with that. I have been reading and re-reading his book recently because I think it does help when you are studying tactics to understand the mechanics and nuances that regularly occur.

But I think the key to becoming stonger is to learn three things. One is to calculate without looking at the board. The second is to learn to calculate more variations. And the third is to calculate longer variations. Some books have been written about how to acquire these skills but they don’t actually teach them, or teach them very badly. It’s something, it seems to me, that all strong chess players have to learn to do for themselves.

But I have a few hints that can help and I will write about them next time.