Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Dutch steps in the English opening part 2

6 years have passed already since I published part 1 on this blog. As I recently made some interesting discoveries, I thought this would be good to share in a follow-up. Besides I see many theoretical developments speeding up lately in a lot of openings which should be linked to the ever increasing strength of the engines. In 2015 I already forecast this effect in the article computers achieve autonomy. I notice in the last couple of years a clear progress in the domain of opening-strategy of the top-engines. Computers are able to find more often the right ideas also in openings which don't involve much tactics. They start to find critical setups. I expect in the next years we will see the impact of this in master-practice. A number of strategically dubious openings will almost completely disappear.

Indeed the Dutch defense should be categorized under the dubious openings. Till now I managed to fill the gaps but it becomes harder and harder. By the way it is not only the frequency of the problems but also the magnitude. I believe it is unwise to ignore and hope nobody would play those annoying lines on the board against you. For sure such narrow view will hamper the own development. The future of the Dutch opening is dark. So some people will wonder why I keep playing this opening and don't study something new immediately. On the other hand I don't think it matters a lot for my career if I play another year the Dutch. I am almost 43 so there isn't much reason for creating big changes suddenly.

In the article to analyze using the computer part 3 I gave a hint already by telling that I studied the classical Dutch. At that time I didn't go into details of why and what I eventually concluded. Today a year later I am willing to share my analysis as information has already been leaking. Let us start where we ended last time. Since 2012 I answered 1.c4 f5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Bg2 every-time with Be7 which maintained the option to choose between d6 or d5 dependent of how white would continue. I played 10 official games with it. I never found the resulting positions easy in this opening but it was the last game played in the 6th round of Open Leuven 2017 against the Belgian IM Stefan Docx which broke the system.
Whites opening-advantage is not big. However black can't neutralize it. Besides black has zero counterplay so this means a very long and difficult defense for maximum a half point. It is no surprise that I failed to achieve the draw in the game. It is normal to defend a bit in a game with black but equality should be reachable.

The classical Dutch is the most obvious solution but after several weeks of analysis, I didn't like it. The correctness of the opening is currently under discussion. It is also not just 1 line which bothers me but several critical lines are annoying. Finally it looked absurd to swap one dubious opening with another one.

All my work wasn't a waste of time as I was able to help my student Sterre Dauw to prepare for a critical game in the Flemish youth-championship category -18 which he won. In the 5th round he met the Belgian FM Jasper Beukema, his strongest rival and specialist of the classical Dutch. Sterre asked me if I knew an interesting anti-dote which I obviously did. At chesspub that idea was already mentioned but in practice it is rather unknown as was the case for Jasper.
There are a number of errors in the game but we can't deny that white has a clear edge out of the opening which black never was able to fully neutralize. Jasper already alternates the classical Dutch with other openings but I think it is smarter to just ditch the opening at least in serious games.

Maybe Jasper should once consult his older brother and IM Stefan as he is a specialist of the Leningrad. The Leningrad is the most reliable opening in the family of the Dutch. It also has the advantage that you can play it against a wide range of white setups which does include the English opening contrary to other Dutch lines.

In 2012 I wasn't ready yet to use the Leningrad. Today I don't have a choice anymore if I still want to play the Dutch against the English opening. Meanwhile I already tried it out twice in standard-games. My most recent one was played in the last round of Open Leuven 2018. After the game my opponent Marc Kocur told me that he plays the Leningrad himself already for years which explains why I didn't get an easy position from the opening.
I had definitely troubles in the opening. I clearly miss experience. Nevertheless it is a relieve to play this kind of dynamic chess compared to e.g. the stonewall. Although I regularly lose control, this is much more fun. Theoretically this still looks reasonable. Anyway this is likely the final step in the Dutch defense against the English opening.


Monday, February 18, 2019

Big Database

Less and less players are still willing to invest into a big database. You can find today a lot of free online (see the introduction of my article ultracorr-x) and without the (too) expensive updates most don't have enough energy to keep a database up to date. Besides the current top-engines offer in most cases much stronger moves than the ones played by any grandmaster.

In Chessbase part 1 I wrote that many CB users never use 95% of the features. I am convinced that this is largely because people don't have easily access to a good database. CB15 and in a lesser extent Fritz lose (almost) all flexibility without a database.
  • Automatic game-analysis with references to games played with the same opening
  • Opening-reference-function
  • Creating an opening-book from a selected database
  • Searching themes
  • Plan explorer
  • Endgame function 
  • Automatic preparation against an opponent
  • Calculating elo-ratings in a database
  • Speed of research and maintenance of databases
  • Exploring databases
Anyway it is weird to buy CB when you are not going to use any of the features mentioned above.

Therefore I advise CB- and Fritz-users to maintain a database which can be used as reference. The next question is of course which database. For this we need to check a number of criteria:
  • What is the price not only of purchasing the database but also keeping it up to date?
  • How often are updates done to the database?
  • Can we find games of amateurs so it is possible to prepare for them?
  • Of which countries games are stored in the database?
  • Are pure engine-games, anonymously online played games (mostly blitz),... added to the database just to pump up the size?
  • Can you find old, historical games in the database? Are efforts made to expand this archive?
  • Are names, ratings, places ... correctly inserted for each game in the database?
  • Can you get automatic updates of the database?
  • Are the games annotated?

Well it is impossible to compare all available databases in the world. At chessgameslinks.lars-balzer.info you can find more than 100 links to different databases and I am sure this summary is not complete. On the other hand if we ignore the price then I am sure that the Mega Database upgrade (from the previous bigbase or previous mega database) is the best choice. Quality, quantity and service is not equaled by any competitor. However 120 euro each year is not cheap. Also you could wonder how much value do have annotations. Within a couple of years the analysis are outdated  see my article of 2016 in which I indicated that the top-engine gains averagely each year 55 ratingpoints.

So I recommend to not spend lots of money for annotated games. CB-users have a much cheaper alternative with the online update reference-database for only 60 euro per year. Fritz interface-users should choose between big database 2019 for 70 euro per year or otb-openingmaster for 59 euro per year. The otb-openingmaster is somewhat cheaper and on top you get 3 updates per year. However you can only get the database via a download-link and it is not a CB-product.

Finally the cheapest alternative without losing much quality is probably still good old TWIC. By investing 10 minutes per week, you can download and add a nice collection of recently played games to your reference-database completely for free. If you don't find it critical to get each week the newest games then you can choose to bundle the downloads twice per year like I do. That way you only need twice 1 hour per year. So in 2 hours I saved 60 euro or is this too optimistic? This would be nice to find out so I bought Big database 2019 and compared that with the Mega database 2016 complemented with the twics of the last 3 years. I think there were about 1-2 weeks difference in favor of twics which can explain some small deviations. Below table shows a detailed comparison of the numbers in different categories: total, + 2500, + 2300, world-top 10, Belgian top 10, Belgian players and history. Just for information I also added the numbers of the free online database chess.db although you can't use this as a reference-database.
More games in a database don't mean a more interesting database. We see chess.db claims to have 2 million games more than the Big Database although it lacks many relevant games of Belgian players.

Concerning twic it is remarkable that you don't miss any games of grandmasters. Still we can't ignore the 650.000 missing games over 3 years. Chessbase clearly makes an extra effort to also include games into their database of the amateurs. They know that their customers are in most cases not top-players but clubplayers interested in what is played by their direct rivals.

Despite few will consider the 1800 "new" historic games as valuable and likely it is not interesting financially for Chessbase, I do like the nice bonus. Fortunately Chessbase not only focus to the commercial interest of the database but also takes the role of archivist of the chess-history. It takes a lot of time to digitize old newspapers and magazines contrary to the few clicks needed to download a new collection of games from a website.

Personally I find it rather expensive to buy each year a new big database for the extra you get compared to the twics so I only do it once every 3 years. Also I detected another advantage of the big database. Twic only shows the first initial of the first name and often goes wrong with the spelling of surnames (especially Chinese players). The data of the games is in the Big Database much more complete which allows to search quicker and easier.

This year I bought a new big database while using the prize-vouchers of my son. Beside hereby I also got a new up to date powerbook. Few players are aware about it but the powerbook 2019 offered by Chessbase for 70 euro is something you can create from the Big database by yourself. I even created 2 different ones:  1 openingbook with games of which 1 player has at least +2300 elo and 1 openingbook with games of which both players have +2500 elo. You must have patience as on my 4 year old laptop it took 12 hours to create the first and a bit less than 2 hours for the second.
Openingbook of games with at least 1 player +2300 elo, filtered from the big database 2019
Openingbook of games with both players +2500, filtered from the big database 2019
It is funny that the rating barely influences the popularity of the first move. I guess most amateurs like to copy what the professionals are playing. However we do notice that the advantage of the first move increases slightly for the higher ratings. We see the advantage goes up after 1.e4 from 62 elo to 78 elo, after 1.d4 from 60 elo to 74 elo, after 1.Nf3 from 42 elo to 64 elo and after 1.c4 from 40 elo to 60 elo.

Naturally statistics are one of the main assets of a database. Anyway most of the treasures are hidden in the games. I started my article by telling that some people think engines are sufficient to get a good evaluation of an opening. Well I think this is a bit too simplistic as we have a very rich history of chess. Many ideas can be discovered again in a database which are still valuable today and which engines won't able to show you. No don't think engines know always more. Just look at the ongoing TCEC superfinal of season 14 in which the so called invincible Stockfish is at this moment a point behind while we are less than 1rd from the finish. LeelaChessZero (derived from Alphazero) is busy writing history.


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Chessbase 15 part 2

Using CB15: some first experiences

First I must say that I came from CB12 (and before CB7) so probably I will like some features which a lot of readers already are used to. I also have Fritz 12 and 13 so this will not always be the best comparison with the latest Fritz-GUI. I am already a customer of Chessbase since Fritz5.32 and a reasonable early version of Chessbase (with dongle-security - how long ago was that). Before I had already Fritz2 which I used quite regularly and liked very much. After that I worked with Chess Genius 3 (very strong), Rebel 6, and many other good and less good DOS-chessprograms. I also still possess a Big/Megadatabase (1980-1994) with no less than … 215.000 games. In other words I saw practically the complete rise of computer-chess.

Anyway this review is personal as everybody has other preferences. Something which I find interesting will be disregarded by somebody else and vice versa. I am not going to talk about the most obvious things here of CB15. Neither will I try to cover everything. I want to discuss some things which impressed me good or bad in my daily usage of the software. On the internet you can find other reviews of CB15 so this is my contribution based on service pack 7.

First CB15 has improved one of their old features. I remember in the old CB-releases (and still in the Fritz-Gui) it is not easy to filter a database with positions to get only white (or black) to move despite this was already available in the 90ties by Nicbase. I see they solved this issue in CB15: in the search-mask you click next to maneuvers white (or) black. See the next figure in which I tapped on “B” (black). It is a pity that not everything in the window has been translated to Dutch. If other languages are offered then you would expect the translation in release 15 is done more professional.
OK, so that is one thing which I like about the new search-mask. Still Chessbase has not yet included Chess Query Language (CQL) contrary to their concurrent Chess Assistant. In Chessbase you can only use what has been programmed. That is a lot as you can see in the window above. If you click on examples then you can find 10 extra themes - see picture below. Only 10 yet so there are still a lot of other things to develop in the next releases: e.g. what about different sacrifices or exchanges?
Let us try the next search-task (*) “queen decoys into fork”. That gives 10 hits in my database of Belgian games. Funny if I use the search-task “rook double check” then I get the same 10 hits (so wrong obviously), for which I sent a mail to Chessbase. With that filter (*) I found below interesting game from my period in the liga of West-Flanders. White messed up after move 17 but that makes it just more juicy to replay the game.

For those not knowing CQL, Tim Krabbé wrote a good article about it, and you can also read about it on wikipedia. The advantage of CQL is that you can create some very detailed search-masks like "white rooks sacrifices itself, starts from a white square, after that the white king runs from h1 to a8 in the rest of the game". This doesn't work in Chessbase but can be done with CQL. Of course who needs such searches besides Tim Krabbé J.

Also annoying is that CB15 always creates a search-accelerator after each search - the best to get rid of the complaints is just to accept it. Better would be that the program creates one in the background autonomously or not at all. These searches should be something basic for a programmer to develop. Chess Assistant is very fast so why isn't Chessbase? Is this linked to the messy structure of the database? Some bugs of the formatting are well-known. Today these bugs are sometimes called features (before you could therefore enter illegal moves in CB). An example of inefficient coding is a search on the won games of Michael Adams, played between 2015 and 2018, against opponents higher rated than 2600 elo in the Big database 2019. We see Chessbase checks the complete database while it is already chronologically ordered. A big improvement of the speed would be just to check the last 1.100.000 games or so. It seems to me that the search can be much faster.

A positive thing is that when you search for a theme (e.g. sacrifice on h7) then all the games start from the position where the sacrifices happens so making it much more efficient. On the other hand CB15 is often very slow and stopping a long search isn't always easy. Often it takes quite a while before the program reacts and sometimes you even get the window below:

I would expect some more stability for the 15th edition of the program but maybe my hardware plays a role here too (hint: my old HP desktop is not very stable with a new Windows). When I wanted to start using CB15 then I first needed to install service pack 5 as I couldn't save any games in any database. You would wonder if anybody tests Chessbase before releasing. Also after the necessary service pack updates, my version still crashes sometimes but ok this can maybe be caused by my computer.

Let us return to the filter (*) after the move-sequence Qxa8 Qxa8 Nc7+, for which there is no need of a specific search in the filter. You can also use a more common method to find such themes. Go to the position in which the theme occurs, click "report" and "similar moves". This immediately generates a list of games with the same theme and similar pawnstructure. It seems Kurt used something which happened already in a game of Lerner-Tseitlin played in 1973. You could even state that because of the popularity of the theme that it is a rather common trap. The advantage of this second method is that you also get other sacrifices than Qa8: like the one happened in the game Sorgic-Petrovic with Ra8.
Another plus of the search-window: if you ask Fritz to give you the won games of a player than you have to select separately white and black. In CB you can do it with one click: "only won games" and "ignore colors". This is useful but what about "only lost games"?

Searching, filtering this everybody can do but why is CB15 special? What makes a new release of MS Office, Fritz or any program again better? Well "replay training" and "planexplorer" look nice but I don't use it a lot. It are nice ideas especially for <2000, having troubles to make a good plan or to find the right squares for the pieces. The replay-training offers the possibility to guess the next moves by showing a diagram of how the position looks 3 moves later. The plan-explorer tells you which moves occur the most often in a position and what most likely should happen with your pieces in the future. Anyway this is only useful for the opening when there are still grandmaster-games in the database. Once you left theory then you can't compare anymore. So these 2 features exist for the player willing to work at chess. I doubt this is the best way to do as I learned more from the video's of Herman Grooten.

Another positive thing is -when I wanted to erase some variation and I accidentally erased everything - that I could use in CB15 ctrl+z”: which put everything back just like Word. If I want to copy a game (I often do from BB2019 or any other big database when I added comments as that would demand that BB2019 to be indexed again - read slowing down) then it is now much easier as I can just choose from a list of databases. Also nice is that you don't get anymore a popup window when adding a new line (main/side-line/ overwrite/ cancel or other stuff), as CB15 immediately inserts the new move as a new line which saves time.

So the search-tasks are fun but what else is possible? Statistics is the other great pillar of CB15. We know already for a longtime statistics of one player but now you can also find out the probability to where a piece will be played (can be useful to know in an opening where the queen-knight should normally be). You best use such statistic on a limited database of openings like www.pgnmentor.com – as a general search in BigBase2019, won't be useful). You can also ask the "surviving-probability" of a piece in a specific opening. That will tell you which pieces are normally exchanged. This is of course pretty similar to how Alpha Zero is playing chess. Sometimes more information is also too much information.

After the 11 moves of the game Belkadi – O’Kelly I checked which endgames occur in a standard-position of the Caro-Kann. Left-below you see the probabilities of the different type of endgames B vs N, N vs N or R vs R. That can be useful to know which endgames can occur in an opening. The figure right shows the same search after 6.f4 in the Sicilian Dragon: so mainly rook-endgames. Be careful as only endgames with pieces are shown and no pawn-endgames (because of double counting). It could give you an extra incentive to study rookendgames or also that you will exchange the queens and lighter pieces quicker. But again this more sounds like statistical chess.
The tab "players" in the database-window is the place to be when you want to prepare for an opponent. I wonder why they put the search-window for the name below (would've been better at the top) but ok it works. Not much changes since last releases. I still don't like that the 3-part-window of "player statistics" see picture below is still very small. It can not be very difficult today to increase the resolution and to enlarge the pop-up window so you don't need the scrollbar. The buttons below the windows (“N”, “A-Z”, “Result”, “Date”, …) should be working in both directions like Explorer in Windows: 1 click on the button (Aà Z) sorts alphabetically while a second click is the revert order  (Z à A).
And why are the sequence of the pictures in the ID-card of a player from "most recent" to "oldest". Ok maybe people are more interested in the most recent picture of an opponent so it is a detail.

CB15 clearly puts more emphasis on statistics. It is no surprise as we live today with Alpha Zero and data-mining. Eventually CB1 gave Kasparov the tool to take a sweet revenge against the team of Hamburg in his second simul. It is logical that Chessbase has chosen this path as there is still a lot to develop in that domain. The strength of a novelty can be shown by the performance (typically very good at the beginning but after some games it drops as good anti-dotes were found - when this happens fast then it mostly indicates the weakness of a novelty).

The 3rd pillar of Chessbase is publishing. Chessbase has adapted to the modern world: publishing to the internet (connection to facebook): one click. Publishing to gif which replays the game automatically (e.g. to publish on twitter): one click. Or just copy/paste to Word is still possible. Chessbase has all the modern tools so that is good. To copy paste a diagram to Word can be done in different ways: you can use the diagram in figurine font but also as bitmap with the more beautiful look and feel of CB15 (something which is also possible in Fritz).

Another good thing of the game-window is the bar with read- and evaluation symbols. Also fun is that Chessbase now immediately adds an evaluation of the moves when you upload a game so you see instantly how well the game was played. By the way this feature existed before in Fritz.

First I thought that “ctrl+shift+r” doesn't work which is something I liked a lot. Automatically some games are added to a game in which the same opening was played. It was very easy to check which master-game you followed the most moves. There is now a standard button (Novelty Comment) in the ribbon "Report". The tab "Reference" in the game-window looks similar but then you have to select yourself the right position and hope not too many games are existing (not too many but also preferably played by masters). "Opening-report" is also something similar but it is a different report and I want to have it in the game popping up. "The reference search-window" is part of the same family (drag&drop could be used in my game-window) but it is not done automatically. So I decided to consult the help-function (that small circle with “?” above right) but the following page popped up (still not corrected in CB15 sp7).

In the end I downloaded the very complete Dutch manual from their support page. A pdf of 691 pages! In that manual I found the command “shift+f6”, but that result looked very similar to above option "reference search-window". It seems they replaced the automatic reference till I discovered some new options when clicking right at the board. One of them was "search novelty" but also I noticed "novelty comment: Maj+ctrl+R”: that was the command I was searching. It was still there but only we are used to shift+ctrl+r and not maj+ctrl+r). For those wanting to know what I was talking about see the next picture: that command searches the most relevant games in the reference-database, so the ones matching your played opening.

I also want to add that I very much appreciate the support from Chessbase. They answer all your questions in a polite way and yes they also play chess. The support-pages of Chessbase are also good and on the chessbase-wiki many questions are answered already.

One other critic I have but not on CB15, but on Fritz interface: when you add a diagram where an interesting move is played, then this should be done after the previous half move (the diagram is shown in the move after move "x"). In CB15 this logic is used but not in Fritz and co as when you copy it to Word then the diagram pops up before the previous half move so ("x-1") even if you work the same way as in CB15, so putting the sign "#" after the move. It is very annoying when you mix Fritz and Chessbase for the same article so I sent another mail to Chessbase.

Maybe somebody wonders how you can have a diagram in CB15 before the first move of a game. Well you click on the first move and type “ctrl+shift+a” (= comment before the first move) and add [#] in the window. The next figure shows a diagram before and after the first move (if somebody wants to practice tactics then what do you play (after Qf6-f5) to win?). Also nice is that you don't see the diagram as “#” in the notation on the screen but like a real diagram which is easier to remember ("where did I put that diagram again") but also the layout is better, you want a diagram visible to show the actions, but also not too often diagrams.
I do consider it weird that the colored arrows and squares are not available as a ribbon command in the tab "insert", and only are possible with a combination of keys and mouse. I had to search but I found them (press alt / alt+shift / alt+ctrl and use the mouse). We are now talking about graphics which can be used also as a search-criterion. It is a bit lame but possible. Maybe some people analyze their games and like to use this search-mask to find those games. The Chessbase help-pdf also offers the possibility to add medals to your own games to find them back quicker.

I didn't cover in this article how to create and adapt openingbooks (OB) which is rather something belonging to Fritz as it is more simple there. Sure CB15 allows you to make a much more selective filter of games like games played by +2700 players between 2000 and 2015 which include exchange-sacrifices but I do wonder if an openingbook will benefit of such filters. An openingbook should preferably contain a large spectrum of variations played in the openings.

Yes, Chessbase is a good program and it is much easier to use than Chess Assistant which is maybe more efficient for users very intensively working with databases, publications, research and preparations. Only the look and feel of Chess Assistant is very different. Chessbase feels more familiar, it is like MS Office of Chess, while the Chess Assistant is more like the Star or Open Office: similar but just a little less familiar. You start up Chessbase and 90% of the features are very intuitively.

It is clear some imperfections are still to be solved so the work is not yet done. But for million of players in the world, this database-program is the only big investment you have to do - the return is for years. The small defects feel like you bought a new car and then you find out that the media-system doesn't allow you to play mp3's or the windows in the back are not electric. Fact is that CB15 offers many possibilities and in this release the developers really looked to how you can improve your chess, but every user still needs to check what is useful for him/ her.

Those who only use Fritz & co for their games, do they miss something? Yes the maintenance of the databases is much easier with DB, you have more options to filter and search in CB. You just work quicker with CB, you maintain a better overview. CB15 has many features which Fritz doesn't have so you have an edge compared to your opponent during the preparation.

Do you miss a lot? No not that much - maybe 20-30% of the features in Chessbase I miss in Fritz but the rest is for me not very useful. I was e.g. not waiting for a 3D-raytraced board. If I would ask 3 extensions of Fritz to bring it closer to CB (kind of intermediate solution between Fritz and Chessbase) then those are:
  • The more expanded search-features of Chessbase: not all of them but certainly some more
  • The usage of multiple (game-) windows in Fritz
  • And of course my ctrl-shift-r please
A Fritz "CB" with those features would be the birth of an extra product in the portfolio of Chessbase ... does somebody in Hamburg read this review....? Nobody interested in a "real" Chessbase Light (so not the junk which is limited to about 8000 games)?

The other way around, what would I like to have in CB15 which is now only in Fritz? The cr-analysis which is automatic now, but maybe I would prefer to define the parameters. And the database-keys (middlegame, tactic, endgame) which Fritz has, are also nice. But for the rest no, the Fritz-Gui is a Mercedes SL roadster, a luxurious two-seater racemachine – who can drive well, will get along with it quickly but it has some limitations. CB15 is a Mercedes GLS SUV: a very versatile car, which you can use for different purposes: sportive, multifaceted, chic; something you use for years without getting the feeling that you miss something.