The latest version of Chess Assistant was previewed at the 2004 Chess Olympiad in Calvia, Spain. The look and feel of version 8 is definitely similar to previous versions of the program, and many of the usual updates that come with each new yearly Chess Assistant release are present (i.e. updated CAP, Hugebase, Opening Encyclopedia, Tiger Engine, etc).
There are also some major changes as well. Probably the biggest one is Convekta’s decision to stop supporting ICC. Yes, you heard that correctly. Instead, Convekta has decided to support their own server, and incorporate the client software into Chess Assistant. I will discuss a bit more about this decision, and why it was made, later in the article.
Update (12/10/04): Due to overwhelming user response, Convekta has recently added ICC support back into CA 8. So CA 8 now supports both ChessPlanet and ICC.
Long time watchers of the program have grown to expect new features with each release, and these are present as well. Probably the most important of these is a new tree visualization mode that was developed based on user input. This mode has also been integrated with existing CA capabilities to annotate chess trees, and the results are very useful.
Maybe the most interesting feature is the incorporation of CQL searches into the program. For those that don't know, CQL stands for Chess Query Language. It is essentially a programming language that can be used to construct extremely sophisticated searches that would be extremely difficult, or impossible to construct with 'normal' search functions. I'll have more on this in the rest of the review as well.
Since CA has such broad functionality, people have been asking for improved documentation. This is now present in many respects in the program, from the addition of Flash instructional videos, to the greatly improved help file. These additions and enhancement definitely make the program much easier to use for newbies.
In the course of this review, I'll first discuss the basic features of Chess Assistant, for those that are new to the program. I'll then follow up with a more in-depth examination of the newer features.What is Chess Assistant?
Simply put, Chess Assistant is a tool for analyzing games (your own, or others), managing chess games and databases, playing chess on the internet, viewing electronic texts in Chess Assistant format, or playing chess against the computer.
For game analysis, Chess Assistant provides various chess trees for opening study. These trees provide statistical information, GM/IM evaluations, and computer assessments of much of the opening phase of the game. In addition to this, Chess Assistant also has an electronic ECO of sorts that contains GM and IM analysis. You can use these tools manually, or you can rely on the built in Chess Assistant tools that will automatically comment the opening phase of the game for you, using all the above sources of information (!). It is widely said that Chess Assistant has the best chess tree functions of any commercial program, and this is no exaggeration. Below you can see all black's responses in the Trompowsky. Starting just to the right of each move, we see the master evaluation, number of times that move was played, success of that move (as a percentage), the last year the move was played, the highest rated player's ELO for that move, and the CAP (computer) evaluation of that move (expressed in centipawns).
For middlegame study, the program provides analysis by a wide variety of chess engines, including all the commercial versions of Chess Tiger, Crafty, and Russian Dragon (all included with the program). Furthermore, there are a host of different analysis modes that the program supports, including automatic blunder checking, deep analysis of positions or entire games, time based analysis on positions, etc. You can use multiple engines at the same time to analyze a position. And you can analyze games in the background while you do other tasks with the program. Furthermore, the game analysis modes go far beyond what is offered in other programs. For instance, the user has full control over various multipass analysis modes, where an engine will make multiple passes through a game - refining and rechecking its analysis with each step. Here's an example of some of the settings that can be used for this mode:
Some infinite analysis settings are shown below. This dialog box also illustrates one design philosophy of CA, which is to provide the maximum number of features for serious chess study. Here, you can select the engine(s) you want to use, and whether you want them to examine the K-best moves (Chess Assistant calls this "multivariation mode"). You can also tell the program only to analyze specific moves, or ignore other moves. Overall, it is the most flexible infinite analysis mode available in any program.
For endgame analysis, there is support for tablebases, and tablebase information is also incorporated into the chess tree as well. All major chess engines now can access these tablebase files. The Mega Paket of Chess Assistant 8 also ships with all the 3-5 man tablebases, so these do not have to be purchased separately.
And of course, you have all sorts of search tools at your disposal, like search for material, pawn structure, position, players, sacrifices, piece movement, statistical analysis, etc. etc. These features, are of course, present in other professional database programs. However, Chess Assistant 8 goes an extra step with a feature that no other commercial program has. They have incorporated a very sophisticated search function based on the Chess Query Language. This function allows you to search for very complex piece maneuvers and formations on the board, or to look for things like the control of certain squares. I have more on this mode later in the article. Below I have shown a conventional search that Chess Assistant can automatically construct for the current game position, which is a search for pawn structure and material (all the fields in the dialog box below were filled in automatically, with no user intervention needed). This search allows you to find plans in positions that might be similar, but which you would not find via a search by exact position.
Database and game management is also facilitated by a drag and drop interface, and navigation/database browser window, which should be standard for programs of this type. There are also tools for keeping player and tournament names consistent, and removing doubles from your game collections. And to keep your data current, Chess Assistant gives you free updates of Hugebase (their large game reference database). Commented games can also be downloaded via a subscription service, if so desired.
Electronic multimedia chess texts can be constructed with Chess Assistant. This text system is implemented very much like the Explorer in Windows, and because of this, is fairly intuitive to use.
There are tons of other useful features as well. Stronger players will appreciate the ability to automatically, and instantly build a tree of their opponent's repertoire. This tree is then color coded to show strengths and weaknesses. Add this function to Chess Assistant's ability to automatically update its reference database, and you've got an incredible weapon:
In terms of internet play, Chess Assistant provides a client interface to RussianChessClub.com. This is the official chess server of the Russian Chess Federation (RCF), and Convekta writes all the code for the server. The interface allows you to play games online, or watch the games of others. There are also lessons, bulletin board systems/forums, and a whole host of other interesting capabilities.
And as for playing against the computer, you can use Chess Assistant with its built-in engines (Tiger 12/13/14/2004, Delfi (for handicap play) Gambit Tiger1/2, Crafty, Russian Dragon), or with a wide variety of other engines. Chess Assistant also works with a wide variety of third party engines, including those that use UCI, Winboard and MCS protocols. Note that this last category includes engines like Shredder and Pro Deo (which is the now freely available Rebel engine). Chess Assistant also supports the DGT, Novag UCB and Shahcom electronic chessboards.
The bottom line is that Chess Assistant provides the most functionality for the least amount of money. Take a look at how much you'd have to spend on other software to do everything that Chess Assistant does, and you'll find out that it will cost three or four times as much. If you're at all concerned about value, then you need to seriously consider Chess Assistant. Let's enumerate some main features here:
Well, that concludes the top-level overview. If you're interested, I would refer you to my reviews of Chess Assistant 6 and Chess Assistant 7, for more amplification of the program's existing capabilities.
It was with great anticipation that I waited for Chess Assistant 8 to arrive. I'd been using a beta version for some time, and did not have access to much of the updated data that comes with the program - due to the accursed lack of broadband access in my area. So in mid-November, Chess Assistant 8 arrived in it's non-descript brown wrapper (!), of which you can see a picture below. It bears mention that parcels from Moscow come very carefully wrapped by Larissa, with layers of bubble wrap, brown paper and twine.
Inside the package were two DVD boxes. The first contained the Chess Assistant 8 base installation with a 112 page printed manual, and the second had correspondence data, Mega CAP (with 12 million analyzed positions), and the Nalimov DVD. While the minimum requirements for installation are only 128M of RAM, and 1G of hard drive space, installation of all the data will require a bit more space (and there is quite a bit of data). There were four CDs and 1 DVD all total! The initial setup screen looks something like this:
For the full install of all the Mega Packet data (except tablebases), you're looking at about 2.4G of space on your hard drive. If you then install all the tablebases, you can tack on another 7.5G (approx). Note that the tablebase install program is very powerful, and offers a whole host of options for installing subsets of the data (as well as checking the integrity of TB files). The Nalimov tablebases are also offered as a stand alone product, or with the Comprehensive Chess Endings Package (reviewed here).
After the installation is complete, there were a couple of new icons on my desktop, one that linked to the Chess Assistant 8 program, and the other that allowed access to the video tutorials (I have more info on these later in the review). But now I'll start discussing some of the new features.Opening Tables, or the New Tree View
It’s no secret that Chess Assistant provides a huge amount of information in its normal tree display. While this is great for experienced users of the program, new users often have difficulty sorting through the plethora of data that are presented. Furthermore, because so much data are visible in the standard tree display, it became a challenge to add new functions and features to it. Even some of the useful, more established functions tended to get buried.
Readers of my chessreviews group may also remember that there was a request made to make additional data viewable in the tree. As it stands right now, every chess tree on the market shows you only the next move (and in CA’s case, moves leading to the current position as well). The problem is that looking at the success statistics for the next move doesn't tell you if that move is really good or not. For instance, there may be a refutation of that move, but that refutation is not widely known, and not played that often. The end result is that success statistics tell you that move is good, when it really might turn out to be "bad" once several more moves are played. To address this, and other issues, Convekta added two things to the tree, the first of these is the ability to view human evaluations of a particular move. This data is stored CA’s so-called “Eval” tree. This is data compiled by Convekta’s masters, and is very similar to what you'd find in ECO. The second thing that was added was CAP data. CAP shows computer analysis for positions, and is especially handy for positions that have not been played yet, or for finding tactical refutations.
So fast-forward now to CA 8. You've got CAP and Eval, which help with the problem of only being able to see one move into the tree. They do this by either using human insight to look ahead from that position, or computer calculation But you've also got requests from new users to make the tree easier to use or interpret, and you've got requests from existing users to display even more data!
Enter the new opening table mode. It walks the careful line between presenting too much data, and not enough. What it does is allow you to look several more moves deeper into the tree, while eliminating variations that are inferior. It does this via an intelligent examination of existing data (CAP, success statistics, move frequencies, and human evaluations), and selecting the top candidates to display in an ECO-like table.
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, so here is a screenshot that might shed some light on things. In the screen shot, small icons are used for terminal positions, and to indicate when there are more branches that can be displayed. Bold entries are used to indicate places where there is text commentary present. You can also see where information has been left out because there is an inferior continuation. These variations are shown in the lower right hand corner of the window. Note that you can also view conventional tree information at the same time. Since you may end up constructing multiple opening tables for a single game, Chess Assistant remembers all the previous positions that you created tables for, and allows you to navigate between them. There is also a settings dialog box that can be used to adjust fonts in the table, depth of variations, etc.
Chess Assistant 8 introduces something that Convekta calls “Composite search”. This meager title belies a very powerful function that can be used to locate games using criteria that would be impossible to construct with a normal search dialog. This is done via CQL (Chess Query Language), more information on which can be found here. Much like SQL, CQL is used to construct structured queries for finding games that meet specific criteria. However, in addition to searching for positions or specific material balances, CQL allows one to search for positions where certain squares are attacked, or where certain types of moves occur. Transformations can also be applied to the board to look for piece configurations/clusters that may be shifted or transposed.
In addition to providing a “raw” interface to the CQL search engine, Chess Assistant 8 provides a whole host of pre-built queries. The latter is a capital idea, since building these queries takes some time and study. For instance, here is a query that looks for strong control of the center with pieces and pawns. It is clearly not something that most people are going to want to construct. However, when you access this search in CA, you do it via a friendly dialog box that appears as below:
You can see that each query includes an example chessboard diagram, which greatly facilitates the usage of this feature. All told, there are 161 different pre built composite CQL searches included in the program. Rather than enumerate them all, I've listed below a few of the more interesting pre built queries that Chess Assistant 8 includes:
Try to search for something like a weak square in any other commercial program (hint: it can't be done). Incidentally, CQL can also find more mundane things like mates. The CQL code for this is very simple:
It also appears as though the queries are stored in a combination of XML and text files, which theoretically, should allow you to add your own pre-built queries, if you so desire. So it looks like this dialog can be extended to display other queries as well. Furthermore, you can also open CQL files directly if you want. The only significant limitation of this function is that it can be slow to execute (depending on the particular CQL query). This is to be expected because of the complexity of the searches that can be constructed.
Tim Krabbe wrote an article about CQL which you can find here. While many types of chess players will find CQL to be valuable in their studies, it is of special appeal to problemists and study fans.ChessPlanet or RussianChessClub.com
ChessPlanet is Convekta's vision of internet chess. But rather than simply copying what is being done in other servers, they've added a whole new set of functions and features. These include such important things as support for games containing variations, correspondence modes, online tournaments, lectures, bulletin-board forums, and electronic messaging.
The decision to move from ICC to ChessPlanet was an extremely difficult one, and was only made after much reflection and thought. I don't pretend to have insight into the various licensing agreements that Convekta and ICC may have entered into. But it stands to reason that one or both parties withdrew from the agreement once Convekta decided to open their own server. Convekta had the opportunity to be the official server of the Russian Chess Federation, which had to be weighed against the relationship with ICC, and the former won out.
My perspective (and that of others) is that Convekta could have taken the path of least resistance here, and simply continued on with ICC. The problem here is that ICC has been resistant to change, and they are not really interested in significantly enhancing the server. And while it is a great server, it is obvious that many people are flocking to Chessbase's alternative. Don't get me wrong, I continue to support ICC, and will maintain a membership there. But, the technology behind online chess is changing, and one has to change along with it.
Probably the most important distinction that ChessPlanet has over the other big servers is that it accommodates both Russian and English speaking people. It turns out that supporting two languages within the interface is not trivial, and has been something that has demanded both time and resources. The only significant issue that I see for English speakers is that there is not much chat going on in their native language, and there is currently no English help file for the client (correction - CA 8 ships with English help, but this file is currently not included in the download version of chessplanet) . This may change in the future, but we will have to watch and wait. Lately, all I do is just play chess on the servers, and I've never been one for much chat. Furthermore, anyone that's ever played on a server should have no trouble using the interface. So Convekta's server is good for me.
I also find that there is one other very powerful reason to use this server. People that are familiar with me, and have read my articles on computer cheating in Chess Life, know that I am extremely opposed to cheating. Convekta has taken the cheating issue very seriously, and they have automated server software who's sole function is to flag suspected cheats. I cannot go into the details of their implementation (nor do I know them all), but it does work, and I have seen it running when I was in Moscow. Incidentally, I have yet to encounter a person on their server that I even suspected was cheating. Another anti-cheating measure is that the server does not allow the use of other clients to connect to it, so it makes it harder for people to use established clients which facilitate (either intentionally or not) using an engine to cheat.
While I've discussed the ChessPlanet interface briefly in previous articles, I think a summary will be helpful as an overview. I'll start with a discussion of the main interface elements. You'll note that the ChessPlanet interface has five buttons along the left hand side of the window. They correspond to the following functions:
Playing Room - This is where players are listed, and where you can place an ad for a new game if you wish. The program has things like a seek diagram (handy for finding the proper time control), and formulas (which control the type of games and opponents you are willing to play). If you've used any other internet chess client, these two functions should be fairly familiar. Of course, Convekta's server supports timeseal-like functionality, so network lag will not cost you time in a game.
Tournament Room - Convekta constantly runs new tournaments, and using this function, you can see which tournaments have been run previously, and which ones are in progress, or have yet to be run. One great enhancement here is that you can click on a tournament, and get a nice tournament table showing the results. This is far superior to a bunch of typed commands with ASCII output.
Database - From this window you can see which games you've played. All played games can be automatically logged to a local database that is stored on your hard drive (at the bottom of the screen). This database can then be accessed from Chess Assistant when you are offline. Games that you are particularly proud of can be stored on the server as well, this is called a player's library. You'll also see in the upper right hand part of the screen that there is another unique feature. Selected games on the server have computer commentary added to them automatically.
Simply clicking on any game in any window will pop up a board, which you can then use to examine a game. Comments and variations can be added to the game very simply and easily. The tool palettes used for this will be instantly familiar to users of other Convekta software. There are also two built-in chess engines that can be used for analysis if so desired (the capability to add others will be added). This feature can also be used to arbitrate any disagreements which might arise in a post-mortem analysis :-).
Lectures - Convekta has a number of internationally known instructors that give lessons on the server. So far, these have been free.You can see a list of available lectures, instructor bios, and the like. As of this review, this function was fairly new.
Association - This function provides a couple of methods for talking with other members on the server. One is the use of a bulletin board-like forum. The format of this is pretty familiar - it's web based, and provides for threaded comments.Text can be formatted, and pictures can be included as well. There is also a built-in mail client that you can use to send messages to other players. Right now, this function is being enhanced for English speakers.
Correspondence - Most servers offer either real-time play or turn-based/correspondence type play (but not both). Convekta is the first (that I know of) to integrate both functions into the server. This window is similar to the Tournament window in that you can enter new tournaments here, and see tournament cross tables as well.
A couple of other features in the correspondence mode bear additional discussion. Frankly, I am not one to play much correspondence chess. I have always considered it a little bit of a hassle, and have never been satisfied with the implementations that I have seen. Convekta has done something very interesting, and has made correspondence play about as easy as can be.
When you join a correspondence tournament on the server, you'll be paired up against every other person in the tournament simultaneously. So that means if there are 5 people in the tournament, you'll be playing 4 games at once. When you log on to the Convekta's server, you simply go to the correspondence tab, and it will list all the games that are waiting for moves (you can also see all your games if you want). They can also be color coded as well, to that you can see which games need to be responded to first. As games are played, the moves can be automatically recorded in a Chess Assistant format database. You can then add analysis to the game in question, and when you go to transmit your next move, it is then merged into the game automatically, with all analysis preserved (but your opponent never sees any of your analysis). Essentially, it makes playing correspondence chess into a very easy and painless process. You no longer need to maintain multiple copies of games, and do the merging operation manually - it is all done automatically for you. Frankly, I have only played a handful of correspondence games before this point, and I consider myself to be a neophyte at it. Convekta's software was very easy for me to use, and the integration with Chess Assistant 8 makes it even better.
Below you can see a screen shot showing the main elements of the correspondence mode - there is a game that my opponent recently played a move in (about 1 hr ago), and I have it displayed on the screen. Above the board, you see a number of buttons which are pretty self explanatory. The "Make move" button flashes after you've made your reply, and if you click it, it will ask you if you're sure you want to make the move. If you answer in the affirmative, the move is then transmitted to the other player, and saved in your local database.
Below is a screen shot of the various options that you can configure in this mode. You can see some of the settings for the features I talked about earlier. This is a very simple and elegant implementation.
The ChessPlanet client program is invoked from a new icon on the menu bar, which occupies the same spot that used to be taken by the ICC icon. You'll also notice that there are entries for a Chess Assistant forum, and online support. Both menu options start the internet client and take you to either a bulletin-board like discussion forum, or an IRC-like chat channel for help on the program.
Anyone that's used any of the other internet chess clients will find ChessPlanet easy to use. It has a number of really interesting and unique new features, and there is no question that Convekta has introduced an element of innovation into this capability. Yes, English is a second language for the interface. But you'll meet a lot of new players there that you won't encounter anywhere else.New Engines and Chess Data
Last year, Convekta introduced their new player's encyclopedia function. While this function provided quite a bit of important data about a player's ELO history and tournament performance, it did not contain any pictures of the players. This is now present in Chess Assistant 8 (this feature was added by request from former Chessbase users). Furthermore, the load/unload time for the encyclopedia has been improved over version 7. Below you can see a photo of the photogenic WGM Alexandra Kosteniuk from the player's encyclopedia. It should be noted that there are many players without photos, and some with more than one, but there are about 400 photos all total.
One data addition which is not evident at first glance is the incorporation of text comments into the opening tree. This data is viewable when in the new opening table mode, as was discussed previously. You might not find your particular opening commented with text, but a great number of them are. This particular feature should make it easier to pick up the main ideas of new openings, some of which can be difficult to convey with only informant symbols. As is the case with all new Chess Assistant releases, GM Kalinin (and others) have added additional theoretical material into the build in ECO-like opening reference (now called Openings 2004).
Tiger 2004 is also included with this release, which is the main engine used for most analysis functions. How strong is this new version? Frankly, I have no idea, and we will have to wait for the engine testers to do their thing before we find out. My subjective impression is that the quality of analysis provided by the engine has improved. As usual, Tiger supports all the analysis modes within Chess Assistant. A good complimentary engine to Tiger is Shredder, which provides a second opinion which usually differs significantly.
One welcome addition is the Delfi engine, which can be used when you want a game against a weaker computer opponent. Current computer engines are simply too strong for 99%+ of the players out there, and this alternative makes for a less demoralizing playing experience. In previous versions of Chess Assistant, one usually had to download one of the freely available UCI or Winboard engines to accomplish the same thing. For an example of this, see my article on configuring Crafty SE to run under Chess Assistant. If you do decide to use this new engine, I would also suggest tweaking the opening book settings, to make opening play commensurate with the engine's weakened middle- and endgames.
And finally, if you decide to go for the Chess Assistant "Mega"", or "Whole Enchilada" Paket, you'll get all the three, four and five piece tablebases as well. The table below summarizes what you get with each package.
|Chess Assistant 8.0|
|Program files and folders - 91 Mb||X||X|
|Direct tree - 480 Mb||X||X|
|Demo versions and folders||X||X|
|Chess Assistant 8.0 database
with 2675000 games (October 1, 2004)
|HUGEBASE - 662 Mb||X||X|
|Chess Assistant 8.0 Media|
|Video Help - 99 Mb||X||X|
|GURU database with Players
encyclopedia and photographs - over 328 Mb
|Abridged CAP - 122 Mb||X|
|A correspondence games database
with pre-built tree - 108 Mb
|Full CAP data - 451 Mb||X|
|DVD with Nalimov Endgame
Tablebases (all 3-4-5 pieces)
One oft-requested feature for Chess Assistant has been "better documentation". This year, Convekta has done a couple of things to address this issue. First, they've updated the help files to reflect the new features that were added with this release. Then to complement the help file, they've created a series of flash videos to illustrate how some of the features of Chess Assistant. The latter is no mean feat, since the program is extremely wide in scope. The topics in the videos range from the very basic (e.g. the browser pane, opening games), to the advanced (e.g. background and endgame analysis). All total there are 50+ separate videos that can be viewed. Below you can see a screenshot from one of the background analysis videos, which is in seven(!) parts. This video is a must-see for those that aren't comfortable, or don't know why they should use this feature.
Other Features and Enhancements
There are also a few minor changes and tweaks that you might want to be aware of. Some long time CA users will have to get used to these. All these interface changes were necessary to make way for the new opening tree function. Since it is intended to be one of the major new modes of operation, Convekta wanted to add a button for it to the main button bar, but since this was already full, they had the choice of either making it larger, or replacing a little used icon. They chose the latter, and hence the "Reload current game" button has been replaced with the one for the opening tables function. This function is still available, but not from the button bar. Instead, you can find it on a new right-click context menu that is present when you click over the moves of a game. You'll also find that test and demo modes have new toolbar icons.
In fact, this context menu has been reorganized to better accommodate all the functions that it can perform (it was getting quite long in CA 7). Here is a screen shot of the new context menu. As you can see, it has better organization, but the menu is now deeper as well.
Additionally, when in game view mode, there is now an indication of when a position in the game has been repeated, or when the same position arises from a repetition of moves (a small "R" icon appears).
Test mode, which made its first appearance in CA 7.1, has now been tweaked as well. One welcome modification is the ability to automatically place CA into test mode, if a test mode marker is inserted in a game. This facilitates the creation of electronic materials containing training and quiz positions. Incidentally, the beauty of this mode is that it does not require any additional work on the user's part to create training questions. Simply annotating the game is enough to produce quiz positions for you to test yourself on. Also, the program will automatically move from one test position to the next, without user intervention.
Blunder checking has been improved, it now automatically employs informant symbols in the annotation process. This function also works a bit differently as well, since different output options can be selected, based on the number of passes that you want to use in the analysis process. One could easily conceive of using the newly tweaked three-pass blunder check in conjunction with the new test mode for fully automated training.
There is now a new command on the dataset menu to automatically take a list of games and combine them into a single game. This could be done before using drag and drop, so this minor addition eliminates a couple of extra steps.
The last year that a variation was played and the highest ELO of the person that played the variation is also displayed in normal tree views now. This was a much requested feature. As you can see in the picture below, this information is also color coded to help you pick it out. BTW, it looks like the Trompowsky is quite popular this year.
Finally, DHTML export compatibility has been improved to keep pace with recent browser development efforts (i.e. Firefox 1.0). This should make webmasters happy.
Major new features in this release include the new opening table mode and composite searches, both of which are firsts in a commercial program. Convekta has also made the move to their own server, which provides one of the best playing environments out there, with a whole host of new innovative features, including their killer correspondence mode. All the standard upgrades are also present as well: the latest version of Chess Tiger, Updated CAP, hugebase, and Openings 2004. It all adds up to the most comprehensive package for chess analysis (and play) that is available at any price. Individuals that are serious about their game know that they need the best tool available for game study and analysis. Without a doubt, Chess Assistant 8 is that tool.
Program must be installed from original CDs. No refueling necessary.