Entries in computers (14)
Jon R. Edwards, ChessBase Complete: Chess in the Digital Age (Russell Enterprises, 2014). 350 pp., $34.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
Once upon a time most chess players didn’t have enough information. Some of us can even remember that time, but now it’s in the distant past. Nowadays there’s an information glut. On average there are between two and three thousand new games available for download each week from TWIC, and that doesn’t even count what’s going on in correspondence chess. Being able to process all that information would be impossible without a computer and a database program like ChessBase, but even with them it’s a great challenge. And what if one doesn’t know how to use ChessBase, or doesn’t know how to use it very effectively?
Enter Jon Edwards’ new book, ChessBase Complete: Chess in the Digital Age (henceforth abbreviated as CBC, while ChessBase [the program, not the company] will be abbreviated as CB). While not commissioned by ChessBase, it’s liable to do them a lot of good, as the book is immeasurably more helpful than their manuals or help files. CBC very methodically tells the beginner all he needs to know about CB, and even very experienced CB users (like yours truly) picked up a few useful tips about the program. Computer-savvy CB users may not need the book – though I’d recommend that they at least have a look at it when they get a chance – but everyone else who uses CB or is thinking of doing so ought to consider picking up a copy. At $35 CBC isn’t cheap, but it’s worth the investment if you’re spending at least a couple of hundred dollars on CB and one or more big databases (especially the MegaBase).
The book has 14 chapters (called “Scenarios”) and five appendices, plus a foreword by Karsten Mueller, an introduction, the table of contents, a short page about the author and an index. The materials pretty well runs the gamut of everything you can do with ChessBase, from researching with pre-existing databases, creating one’s own material, using the analysis engines, and doing various things on their PlayChess server (playing, watching games, and giving/taking lessons). Let’s elaborate on the contents:
Chapter 1 offers a very quick overview of some fun and useful search functions – how to create your own “book” of Bobby Fischer’s games, for example.
Chapter 2 is a short chapter whose main idea is simply this: don’t add your own games to the MegaDatabase! I did glean one neat tidbit of which I was completely unaware, and it’s that one can search CB’s Online Database for players or rating ranges and not just as a sort of opening book tab.
Chapter 3 discusses basic database management (opening databases, opening games, entering games, copying and pasting from one database to another, editing games, save vs. replace, etc.). This will all be very familiar to experienced users, but new users without a great deal of familiarity with computers will appreciate having the ABCs clearly spelled out for them. One thing worth noting is Edwards’ frequent use of screen shots. These are helpful for anyone, but especially for those who aren’t old pros with CB or computers.
Chapter 4 shows how to look up a potential opponent’s games and offers various ways of statistically analyzing the information – primarily but not just their results in various openings. Edwards wisely notes that one can also perform such an investigation on oneself, which is useful not only for the insight we can gain into our own play but to help out-think our opponents as they prepare for us.
Chapters 5 and 6 are about playing on ChessBase’s Playchess server. Chapter 5 is about playing in general, while chapter 6 is about tournaments on the server.
Chapter 7 shows the tools one can use to annotate one’s own (or other) games. This includes text commentary and Informant-style symbols, and a few other options as well.
Chapter 8 is one of the longer chapters in the book (30 pages) and offers a lot of guidance and advice regarding opening preparation. There’s a good deal of discussion of ChessBase’s Online Database, one’s Reference Database (typically the largest database one has, optimally the Mega database) and Repertoire Database. There’s a discussion of using and modifying opening keys, there are some comments about opening statistics, and a good deal else besides. Many CB users will quickly gravitate to this chapter.
Chapter 9 is even longer and more valuable, and covers the use of engines and the different ways CB enables us to analyze with them. There’s also a considerable discussion of how to use others’ engines (or to allow others to use our engines) through the “Let’s Check” feature or in the cloud. There is much else besides, so this too is a chapter one should quickly and deeply peruse.
Chapter 10 revisits the topic of searching from chapter 1, but at a deeper and more sophisticated level. In addition to various do-it-yourself searches, which are covered in details, there are also pre-formatted keys for the Mega database: 16 under “Themes” (with sub-keys under almost every one of the main themes), five under “Tactics” (with sub-themes), nine under “Strategy (same comment) and 12 under “Endgames” (ditto).
Chapters 11 and 12 return to the Playchess server. Chapter 11 offers a brief overview of watching games there, and chapter 12 is meatier, covering the taking and giving of lessons on the server. (I give lessons there, among other places, in case anyone is interested!) He also covers the premium channels there, which include many pre-recorded videos. (Including almost five years’ worth from yours truly; it was an interesting surprise to see a screen shot from the list of videos I had done on page 228!)
Chapter 13 covers some of the tools CB has for the correspondence chess player (Edwards is a Senior IM with ICCF [that’s a title between IM and GM; it has nothing to do with age] and a former US Correspondence Chess champion), and chapter 14 closes out the body of the book with coverage of writing about chess using CB’s tools.
The appendices are useful as well, for both beginners and more advanced users. Still, the foregoing should be enough to let the prospective buyer know if the book is of interest, so I’ll close here with the suggestion that if you’re a ChessBase user it probably ought to be.
And in other news: ten is greater than five and Usain Bolt is faster than I am. Still, the story is more interesting and the match was closer than one might expect.
In fact, the match between the latest version of Stockfish and Hikaru Nakamura (currently #7 in the world; more precisely the #7 human chess player in the world*) was quite close, the 3-1 score notwithstanding. It wasn't an even fight, as Nakamura had help in the first two games while Stockfish had handicaps in all four, but it was a close battle all the same.
In the first two games Nakamura was helped by an older version of Rybka (rated approximately 200 points lower than the version of Stockfish he was facing), while Stockfish wasn't given access to either an opening book or tablebases. Nakamura drew game one with White, and in game two it seemed that he was headed for a draw by the 50-move rule before playing 83...Bh6. Stockfish ground that one out in 147 moves.
In the next two games Nakamura was on his own - no Rybka - but was given White and an extra pawn. In the first game Stockfish played without an h-pawn and the game was drawn, and in the second game the computer started without its b-pawn. Nakamura wasn't in any danger when they reached the endgame, but he'd need to win to tie the match, and once he opened the board he was gradually outplayed, losing in 97 moves.
Overall, Nakamura acquitted himself well. It's hard to remain vigilant and not miss anything when a game lasts 97 or especially 147 moves, and all four games were on the same day - there were more 10 hours of play in all. So while the computer played with a handicap, the human did too: computers don't suffer from fatigue (or at least not in the relevant sense)!
* Then again, as computers don't play chess (in part because they don't exist**, in part because there's nobody home "upstairs"), we can dispense with the qualifying adjective "human".
** In saying that they don't exist, I don't mean that they are illusions but that they aren't unities in their own right. Think of a cup sitting on a table. Is there a further entity we could call a tablecup, comprised of the table and the cup put together? Most people would say no, and I agree. The table and cup are not subsumed into a further whole. By contrast, an atom of hydrogen or a molecule of water is a genuine whole in its own right. Its parts are genuinely subsumed into the whole and are defined as parts of that whole. Those parts do not act independently, but in a behavior that's determined by their function within the hydrogen atom or water molecule.
So is a computer more like a tablecup or a water molecule? Both, really - but it depends on one's perspective. As a purely physical object, it's like the tablecup. Its parts interact with each other, but there is no intrinsic principle of unity to the computer's constituent parts. There is a unity to the computer, however, but it comes from us, from our purposes. What the computer does it does only if there are intelligent outside interpreters to understand its results. Otherwise, it is just an unnatural collection of heterogenous parts. It is not a thing in its own right, and thus doesn't exist per se.
(HT: Jason Childress, by way of Allen Becker.)
A few posts back I mentioned computer cheating, and in the comments section "Icepick" noted that the ability to consult with the silicon oracle even once in a game could make all the difference in the world. He alluded to one of his own games to illustrate the point, noting that the engine later found a particularly striking winning move at one moment. (To be fair, he was winning easily without it, and had many wins until a couple of blunders at the end led to a most unfortunate loss.) He had White, and hints only that the notable blow occurs somewhere between moves 25 and 35. Here's the game:
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O d6 5. Re1 Be7 6. h3 O-O 7. c3 Nb8 8. d4 c6 9. Ba4 Nbd7 10. Nbd2 Qc7 11. Nf1 Nb6 12. Bc2 Be6 13. Ng3 Rad8 14. Qe2 h6 15. Nf5 Bxf5 16. dxe5 Nxe4 17. Bxe4 Be6 18. exd6 Bxd6 19. Nd4 Bc4 20. Qg4 Kh8 21. Qf5 g6 22. Qf6+ Kh7 23. Qh4 Rh8 24. Bg5 Rde8 25. Bf6 Rhg8 26. Nf5 Bh2+ 27. Kh1 Bf4 28. Nxh6 Bxh6 29. Bg5 Rh8 30. Bxh6 Kg8 31. Qg5 Qe5 32. Qd2 Qh5 33. Bg5 Nd5 34. b3 Qg4 35. Kh2 Rxe4 36. bxc4 Nf4 37. Bxf4 Qxf4+ 38. Kg1 Qxd2 0-1
If you're curious to see the strong Russian GM and well-known commentator Sergey Shipov at work, here's your chance. All the videos are in Russian, but enough excerpts are translated to make it worth at least a glance.
(Two side notes. First, I've never seen anyone type so quickly with one finger in my life. It's a pretty awesome sight. Second, I recently read someone describe my analytical work as that of a cyborg. I don't deny that I use a computer to check and extend my work, but let's get real here. Practically all responsible commentators are cyborgs now, and Shipov is using three computers simultaneously! Of course, the person describing me as a cyborg didn't refer to Shipov in the same way. Grr. Of course Shipov is a terrific player, certainly stronger than I am, but we're all cyborgs now. I haven't checked all his match commentaries yet, but I've compared a number of other ones by GM/cyborgs with my own work, and I'm not embarrassed but what I've done. Very occasionally they've found a nice line that I missed, but the vast majority of the time I've found what they have and then some - and that "some" has been relevant, not padding or irrelevancies. The point isn't to blow my horn [especially compared to Shipov, who I'm happy to praise as a player, analyst and author!] but to suggest that a decent player who is experienced with using chess engines can do very good work if he puts his mind to it.)
Believe it or not, Vas Rajlich of Rybka fame claims to have solved the King's Gambit, and the alleged result is that after 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 only (the utterly unprincipled) 3.Be2 even allows White to draw; 3.Nf3 will eventually lose to 3...d6 4.Bc4 h6 5.d4 g5 (but not 3...g5, when White again escapes with 4.h4) while 3.Bc4 is refuted (eventually) with 3...Nf6. Shortly after I started reading this article, I assumed it was an April Fool's joke, but the ChessBase page dates it April 2. So maybe it's serious?!
Assuming it's true, readers, do you find this:
(a) Inevitable, so we might just as well get used to it.
(b) Depressing, a big first step to the final death of chess.
(c) Invigorating: Go technology!
The title is a bit too strong, as Ken Regan's program can certainly provide strong statistical support (or disconfirmation) for accusations of cheating, but not proof. Nevertheless, it's a useful tool with some nice fringe benefits (intrinsic performance ratings, for example, offer a comparatively objective metric for comparing past and present players). Read all about it in this New York Times profile.
Here's a summary of a talk Garry Kasparov gave for Palantir Technologies. One interesting remark comes in the context of computer chess, where he wishes that the triumph of chess programming had come from an artificial intelligence breakthrough rather than by brute force. What's interesting is that this echoes the approach taken by his great teacher Mikhail Botvinnik. Botvinnik was not only a world chess champion, but an engineer and programmer whose desire was just what Kasparov wished for: a truly AI-based chess program.
HT: Brian Karen