Harold van der Heijden has released the fourth edition of his study database, and it contains a whopping 76,132 studies. This is a huge number, and indeed, the database is in a class by itself. His database has no competitors, and there’s no need: van der Heijden makes every effort to make it as complete as possible. He has studies going as far back as Al Adli in 800 A.D. and as recent as earlier this year (2010). (In fact, there are more than 160 studies from 2010 included.) All the greats are here: there are 694 studies by Kasparyan, for instance, and you’ll find plenty by contemporary greats like Pervakov (202 studies) and Gurgenidze (929). To name some other figures, there are 392 studies by Wotawa and among players known for their over the board (OTB) prowess there are 183 by Timman, 151 by Smyslov and 129 by (Pal) Benko. If you can think of the composer and have seen him published, it’s almost a dead certainty you’ll find his work here.
So there’s no question: for what it is, it’s a fantastic product. The question that matters is: should you get it? To answer that, let me say a little about what studies are and how to use them. Studies (generally “endgame” studies) should not be confused with problems. Chess problems, especially to the uninitiated, are what you have when the position looks like the cat swallowed the chess pieces and then vomited them on the board in what looks like a random or nonsensical configuration. One is then informed that it’s mate in three – or worse, helpmate in four or a series helpmate in 62. It’s bizarre to many of us, but there are those who find this riveting, and they have turned this niche into a real art form.
Problems are not studies. Studies are designed to be game-like, and it’s not surprising that studies are often based on game positions. This gives us a first hint as to their value. If study composers can benefit from following OTB chess, OTB practitioners can benefit from solving studies as they would from studying and analyzing actual games. This occurs in at least two ways. First, there’s the benefit we get simply by working hard on calculation. The more we do it, the better we get at it, and that pays off above all in tournament play. Second, studies are full of spectacular tactical ideas, and by getting exposed to these ideas we become more likely to spot and use them in our own games.
Solving studies isn’t just useful, though. For many (and I’d include myself here), their aesthetic qualities are at least as important as their practical value. Let’s look at three classic examples.
Korolkov 1951: White to move and win.
Mitrofanov 1967: White to move and win.
Timman 1994: White to move and win.
(Full information about these studies will be given in the solutions, which I'll post in a day or two. It's very much worth your while to try to solve them [on your own, of course!], and whether you succeed or not you'll be transfixed by the solutions.)
Not all studies are so beautiful, but many are, and even those that aren’t are instructive and – at the very least – good for practicing on or using for training material. Because they have - or are at least supposed to have! - single solutions, one way to solve them is to play the positions against the computer. If you don't get to the desired outcome, you'll know you missed something. (There is at least one downside to having the engine play Black, however: part of what makes the best studies great is that Black often has some brilliant tries too, and it's worth trying to spot them as well.)
In short, I highly recommend the database to all chess lovers. You can purchase and download the studies from Dr. Van der Heijden's website - this is the page you want.