Jan 8, 2010

Mark Morss' Gift List -- 1999

Ten years ago Correspondence Senior Master Mark Morss wrote a holiday letter asking for a few chess items that he, and for that matter, all chess players and especially correspondence chess players, might want as holiday gifts. The original letter is here. As you might guess, the list is now out of date. Although I'm a couple of weeks late, I've taken a moment to update the list. I show Mark's original gift request first in italics, and then a proposed revision for 2010. I don't pretend to improve on Mark's list, which was excellent, but rather provide an update here and there, along with a quibble or two.

1. Bookup. If you aren't familiar with this software, you can still google "bookup" and find it fast enough. It's in essence a chess position organizer, particulary useful for learning openings. The new version is called Chess Openings Wizard. I find it most useful for reviewing/drilling your repertoire before an OTB tournament. It's less useful to correspondence players in this massive database age. Mark was especially high on its ability to find transpositions; however, I'm not sure that it does this better than the large commercial database products in 2010. As for "backsolving," one of Bookup's big features, it's benefit has always been overstated with respect to serious analysis. I find "backsolving" most useful as a way to explain why you simply can't rely on database statistics when choosing a move. When I see, for example, 7.Nd5 scores 72% for White, I understand that I need to look further. A few clicks deeper into my database tree will usually tell me whether there are issues with the move. Simply put, there may be a distortion of the statistics (the 72% in the example) caused by a significant number of weaker players choosing infeior moves, or there may be a bust or a TN that makes the statistics meaningless. I prefer to look for these distortions manually so that I understand what's going on, over relying on software tree analysis. It's really not that hard. Despite the quibbles, I own it and use it.

2. Hiarcs 7.32. Hiarcs is still a top-notch program. Today you'll be looking for Hiarcs 12 and you'll be asking yourelf if you want the single- or multi-core version. Having confirmed Mark's choice to some extent, I would certainly want to say more. First, if you're a correspondence player, I don't recommend one engine for conducting analysis. I would likely put Hiarcs near the end of this group of engines: Rybka 3, Shredder 12, Naum 4, Fritz 12, and Zappa Mexico II. Where there's a choice, go with the "deep" (multi-core) version, and note that some engines are programmed such that they will benefit from a 64-bit (vs. 32-bit) machine. Rybka is one of these. Now, feel free to argue with the choices or the order. Respecting GUIs, by the way, there's nothing better than the relatively new Fritz 12 GUI (which will run all of the mentioned engines).

3. and 4. Nunn's Chess Openings and Basic Chess Openings. Good books I'm sure. If you want a compreshensive, high quality compilation of moves today, however, look for the separately available Rybka 3 Opening Book by Jeroen Noomen. (If you're into Advanced Chess, you'll know that there may even be better compilations available.) These computer chess books will provide virtually zero increase to your understanding of opening theory. For that, see Fundamental Chess Openings by van der Sterren or John Watson's Mastering Chess Openings in multiple volumes.

5. and 6. Basic Endgames, Balashov and Prandstetter; and King and Pawn Endings, Fishbein. Endgame theory is more durable than opening theory (fashion), so these books are still good. Nevertheless, computers make inroads into endgames in ways they can't in openings. A modern work that has been computer-assisted is thus preferable. These were fairly easy choices: Silman's Complete Endgame Course and Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual. If you really have no patience for endgames, at least read Jesus de la Villa's 100 Endgames You Must Know.

7. Sharpen Your Tactics. It's hard to improve here, but I'd add Chess Tactics for Advanced Players by Averbakh. It is an old book and was likely hard to find when Morss wrote his list. It's easy to find now.

8. The Art of Combination by Blokh. No one does it better. Readers in 2010 may recognize the name and a way to improve on the book, however. Blokh is the author of CT-ART 3.0 (now 4.0), and I'll say it again: it doesn't get any better for tactics.

9. Finally, I have to add Chessbase 10. I use it more than any piece of software I've ever owned by several multiples, and I don't even use it to store my ongoing games. It will do many things for you, some of them quite impressive, but foremost it will find opening theory, especially if you keep it updated, which takes 2-4 hours and $100-150 a year.

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