An unexamined life is not worth living.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Book Review - "Mastering the Endgame" by M. Shereshevsky and B. Slutsky

This title, which consists of two volumes, is a somewhat unusual and tremendously useful book for any chess player between 1600 and 2200. For me personally - reading this book was an essential part of getting from 2000 to 2200. The topic discussed is the relation between the opening and the endgame. The first volume deals with all 1.e4 openings, the second one - with 1.d4 ones. The authors discuss the characteristic features of an opening and try to explain how those features affect resulting endgame. They usually give the most typical pawn structures and provide several practical examples from grandmaster games to illustrate the plans of both sides in the endgame.
A very simple idea, is not it? Yet there have been very few really serious attempts to cover endgames with all most popular pawn structures in one book. Edmar Mednis has been discussing these issues in his "Transition to the endgame", but effectively has done an opening analysis of 4 theoretical lines. What we see in "Mastering the Endgame" is different as it covers a much broader range of positions. The authors give games from different time periods, so we can see how the themes developed over time. By reading this book a chess player will inevitably get a very clear idea about the strategic value of an opening. As cleverly pointed out by A. Yusupov in the foreword, this book also should make us think about the middlegame, how the opening problems are resolved throughout the middlegame, which endgame positions are we going to land into by move 40. Often the authors say that a certain structure, while being generally favorable for White in the middlegame, can lead to a worse endgame. Not only do they make such claims, but usually clear strategic explanations are given to such statements.
The only problem with this book is that both volumes are rather difficult to buy. The paradox is that the first volume is easier to find in Russian, the second one (1.d4) - in English. The English version of Volume 1 seems to be out of print.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Moving the real pieces - over the board tournament

Last weekend I came out and played 3 games in a weekend tournament. Great to see some people still organizing these kind of events, as well as others showing up to play. Tension in rated slow time control tournaments is much higher than during online blitz games, but satisfaction from playing games without obvious blunders is also much higher. I did miss some nice tactics, but was overall happy with my result. Bindi Cheng, Lucas Davies and Pavel Trochtchanovitch tied for first with 4/5; I scored 2.5/3 and with 2 byes was tied for fourth place.
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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Chess Opening Explorer (web 2.0)

In my previous post I described the issues with different file formats for storing chess games for viewing on a local PC. The need to constantly refresh references databases by downloading weekly game updates, copying and pasting annotations between databases to keep notes up to date, re-building opening trees, etc only add more to the challenges of organizing one's game collections. Maybe web 2.0 is the answer to all those issues? has become sort a youtube of chess games. Their latest feature - opening explorer is also quite neat! Some lines require paid subscription to be able to see beyond move 3, but this line of Sveshnikov that I am interested in is available up to move move 15. Quite a teaser; just enough to get me interested in their services.
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Another interesting feature is collections of games - sort of like playlists in youtube - lists of games selected by users. For example - here is a collection of games from one of Kasparov's volumes. Paid members can download entire collections in pgn. I like where this is going! Having discovered RSS only last year, I can't help thinking that next step would be for websites like TWIC to provide game updates in rss feeds. That way anyone who wants to get all games played in the last few months can conveniently get their updates via an RSS client, instead of having to manually click and download on a hundred zip files on their page.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Chess database formats - PGN vs. Chessbase

In what format do you store your chess data? This question has plagued me for years, so I finally decided to blurb it all out. There are at least popular 3 file formats I can think of - Chessbase (CB) binary format (cbh, cbv, etc), Chess Assistant (CA) binary format, and standard text pgn format (with the spec here). Most other chess databases, such as SCID, Jose, etc also have their own binary formats, but I am not as familiar with those. There have also been a few efforts to represent chess databases in some open XML format, but of all schemas proposed, none has really gained enough popularity. At least most chess games available on the net are still available only in either PGN, Chessbase, or CA formats.

So what tools are available for dealing with each format? Virtually every chess tool can read pgn. Chessbase does not handle Chess Assistant at all, Chess Assistant allows you to read Chessbase format, which is pretty impressive, given that no other non-chessbase tool does that. So what are the advantages pgn format versus say, chessbase?

PGN advantages: 1) it is free to in the sense that you don't need a proprietary software to view its contents (SCID would do the job), has an open spec, so 'anybody' can implement a parser. There are few parsers available in source code (I managed to find c++, C# and perl parsers, there are probably others). That being said, I suggest you do not write your own parser, because it is not a trivial task, but rather take an existing one (of course as long as license is not an issue).

2) since PGN is text-based - one can just load them in notepad, as long as the file size is not prohibitively large. Pgn is also very readable - the moves are just in algebraic notation. If you store your personal games in PGN, you can version control them as well, and look at the differences between revisions. It is also trivial to merge multiple PGN files into one via a one line in DOS.

3) A lot of free command line and GUI PGN tools are already available. pgn-extract is a great command line tool for filtering pgn games for material, position, or tag information (e.g. ECO, or Players). Palview is great for generating html with javascript for replaying games. In fact I use pgn-extract and Palview together to generate content for this blog, but this is worth another post. This site is a great resource on chess database utilities, most of which operate on pgn.

So if PGN has so many advantages, why use anything else for storing chess databases? Why create all these compatibility issues between multiple chess database vendors? Same reason as why XML is not used as a backend storage for storing data in SQL databases - performance.

Chessbase format provides more than performance improvements though: 1) In addition to performance, filesize is also smaller - chessbase splits up databases into multiple files, and that allows for some normalization of headers, etc.

2) Multimedia support - one can embed audio and video into games.

3) it can be a real database - in addition to raw moves, chessbase stores other metadata, such as opening and endgame keys, allows to tag positions with so called "medals" and so on.

I have been using Chessbase light for storing my games since around 1998, and just don't want to lose all the tagging that I've added to my games for many years. So currently I maintain keep old databases in Chessbase format, and whenever I create new smaller databases (say, for selected games by Kramnik in the Sveshnikov), because Chessbase light can still edit them, performance is not an issue, and I don't have to re-export all games into PGN for using Palview.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Book Review - Five Crowns (K-K 1990 match)

I recently picked up an old looking book from the Vancouver public library - "Five Crowns" by Yasser Seirawan and Jonathan Tisdall. Seirawan has provided detailed annotations for each game. He was apparently following the games live from the press-center during the match, so the notes are not just a boring analysis of different possibilities, but also a description of what Seirawan and other GM's thought about each move as it was played.
In 1990 there was no computers that could quickly evaluate the position and determine if a move played on the board had been good or bad - instead people had to figure out things on their own. Game databases were not really around either (Kasparov's brain does not count). Computers are only mentioned when game 16 was adjourned, and there was a rumour that Kasparov could have used Deep Thought to find a plan for breaking a fortress in a simplified endgame. Of course that's the kind of task that a human can still with computers at, so Kasparov found the plan on his own, but the whole episode is a bit amusing.
When I was teaching chess at the learning center about 5 years ago, the owner gave me a BOX of old Inside Chess magazines. I was living a chess player's dream for a couple of weeks, going through Seirawan's great annotates of top tournaments; this book has similar quality analysis (or even better).
As for the match itself, I did not know much about Karpov-Kasparov's last match until recently, other than the fact that Kasparov won, and that some games involved Zaitsev variation in Ruy Lopez. So indeed, two wins in Zaitsev were crucial for Kasparov's overall victory. As black Karpov was struggling to find solid defense against 1.e4, and was jumping back and forth between several variations. Kasparov made things more complicated by playing the Scotch game a couple of times, also winning one game in it. With Karpov being White, most games went into Saemish King's Indian. Kasparov tried to deviate with the Gruenfeld a couple of times, but also got burned when he lost game 17, where Karpov got to show off his great positional skills. For more details - checkout your library - maybe it also has a copy of "Five Crowns".

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