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Review of Comprehensive Chess Endings and Nalimov Tablebase DVD!
keywords: Averbach, Averbakh, Endgame, Reference, DVD, Nalimov, Tablebase, Chessbase
Robert Pawlak
Thursday, July 17, 2003

The Preliminaries

It is true that there's no shortage of chess references available in software form. But this offering from Convekta is really something special. It contains both the electronic version of Averbach's "Comprehensive Chess Endings" (CCE), and a full set of 3-5 man Nalimov tablebases on DVD. These two products constitute a reference work that will see you through your entire chess development.

Like many software manufacturers, Convekta has gone to the DVD box format for packaging their software. This particular box is packed full of good things, including:

The CCE program contains over 4100 thoroughly annotated endgame examples, CAP data, a library of about 3000 master games which are linked to the 4100 examples, and a couple of chess engines (Crafty and Dragon). Laptop users should note that a total install of CCE takes up about 62M of hard drive space, which is really incredible when you think about it. While CCE is really thrifty with space, the 290 Nalimov tablebase files take up quite a bit more (7.5G). There is no way around the latter requirement, except to install a smaller subset of the tablebases, which is easily done with the tablebase install program.

Ok, now that I've covered the preliminaries, it is time to dig a bit deeper into the program...

Comprehensive Chess Endings (CCE)

Like most Convekta offerings, the CCE program uses a so-called "lite" version of Chess Assistant (CA). This particular lite version is based on CA 7.1, and as such, inherits many of the features from that program. While most functions of CA are supported, this version of CA exists only to access and analyze the material in CCE and the tablebases, it does not support storing and managing your own games (you need the full version of CA for that). Existing CA users should note that there are some minor differences between the layout of the material in the Averbach CD, and in CA. And, if you already own CA, then you can use that to view the material on the CD, but I think the visual tweaks that were made to the Averbach program make it slightly preferable to use.

When you first start CCE, you see that there are two databases shown on the left hand side of the screen, and  a hierarchical view of the main CCE reference database on the right hand side. Practically speaking, there are several ways in which you can search for material in CCE. For example, let's say you've got the following position that you are trying to understand:

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Since you are dealing with a R vs. N+P endgame, the most direct way to find appropriate endgames would be to simply move through the tree of the endgame classifier by clicking on the appropriate nodes. But, you could also use the material search dialog As we see from the screenshot below, I've clicked through the tree to the Rook vs. Knight+Pawn endgames, and a number of graphical boards are now displayed with all the relevant positions (note, I have turned off the browser pane, to improve the clarity of the graphic). A quick visual scan through the list provides an example which is relatively close to position we are interested in (the second game on the right, in the top of the list).

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In cases where you are interested in general ideas or rules, it almost always pays to take a look at the very first example position, since that is where general guidance is provided. If we bring this example up by double clicking on the first diagram (see graphic below), we see that in this type of position, mating threats and domination of the knight is a popular theme. Now a strong player would not need text to point this out, since he would be able to see that the knight is dominated in the game continuation. But CCE explains the winning technique in the beginning of the article in words, which makes it easier for less experienced players to understand. As an aside, note that the Endgame Tablebase engine is running on the lower right - it tells us that this position is a mate in 25 for white.

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Of course, there is the rare instance where you might not find the guidance you are after in the CCE articles. If you should also have less than six men on the board, and have tablebases installed, then you can use something called  "Endgame Zones". This feature is accessed from the right-click context menu of the move list for the current game. In the above example, the following screen would pop up. Now right-click over the white king.The different color-coded zones show where, if you put the king there, a win, loss, or draw would result.  Since this is a function of the side to move, you can also adjust that using the drop-down menu. In this example, we see that the king could also be placed on the h-file near the pawn, and the position would still be won for white (and it is obvious that placing the king next to the knight also results in a win ;-)). The diagram also shows that if the king is moved to c6, a draw would result.

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In addition to examples like the one I just discussed, there is also a game collection which is linked to all the relevant examples. These appear under the board whenever they are present. You simply double-click on one of the entries, and it will open in a new window. Within the game bodies you will also see blue-highlighted numbers with arrows next to them; these numbers are links back to the appropriate theoretical articles. With this feature, I don't know how it could be easier to navigate the material on the CD. For an example of this, take a look at the following position, which is similar to our original. You will notice that this position has occurred twice in the game database, and the games are shown in a small list below the chessboard.

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Double clicking on the first game (Fillipov vs. Van Wely), results in display shown below.  Note the blue highlighted numbers. Clicking on these takes you to the appropriate instructional article on that particular type of endgame.

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Of course, there will be instances where you need some advice on a complex endgame position that is not in CCE. In this instance, you simply link the tablebases to one of the compatible chess engines, and start the engine in an analysis window. But note that one always needs to be careful when using an engine to analyze the endgame, since the horizon effect can be a great limitation. But frankly, having an engine's opinion (as opposed to no opinion) can be a life-saver in many circumstances.

In addition to using the program as a reference tool, you can also use it for self test. This is because all the features of CA's solitaire chess functions are supported by the software. These are quite easy to use, and have been the subject of a previous article devoted to the subject. One test feature which is unique to the Averbach classifier is the ability to test your positional evaluation skills. The program keeps score of your results for each theme, for those of you that are competitive.

You may be wondering what kind of positions are represented on the CD. In one of the introductory articles, GM Averbach points out that there were two criteria used when choosing the positions for this work. For positions where there were a small number of pawns, they attempted to cover all the material that they could collect or synthesize. For cases where there were a larger number of pawns, they've concentrated on presenting key themes and practical advice. This approach makes a great deal of sense, and has resulted in what is arguably the most complete and comprehensive endgame reference on the planet.

While this reference is an absolute necessity for pros, it is also a work which will prove invaluable to the club player as well. The material contained in this program progresses all the way from simple concepts like the opposition and square of the pawn, to corresponding squares.

Tablebases on DVD

The Convekta Tablebase DVD allows perfect evaluation of any endgame position with five or less pieces on the board. For a more detailed discussion of what tablebases can do, I would suggest a visit to Aaron Tay's site. I have also written an article for Chess Life magazine on the topic, and it goes into quite a bit of detail. The bottom line is that chess engines can use the tablebases to improve their play in the endgame. In addition, the CCE program can also use the tablebases for some special features, like the endgame zones that I discussed earlier in this article. Almost all modern chess engines have tablebase support, and the files provided by Convekta are compatible with a wide variety of commercial and freeware engines.

Since I already owned a set of tablebases on CDROM, I was surprised to see that Convekta had not used their previous install program, which was fairly bare bones. The new installation procedure is, I think, much better than the old. The reason is that the user can now pick between three subsets of files to install: those that are critical, important, or exotic (along with having the ability to easily install individual files). Furthermore, the install procedure will also automatically integrate the tablebase files with the chess programs you already have on your system, even Chessbase ones. Note however, that tablebases must be manually installed for CA engines; the procedure for doing this is covered in some depth in the instructional pamphlet that comes with the DVD.

There are a couple of other capabilities of the tablebase install program that are worth noting. One is the ability to check for any tablebases that you may have already installed on your machine, and to compare those against the full set on the DVD. In this manner, you can quickly and easily see which tablebase files you need to put on your hard drive. Furthermore, you can verify the MD5 checksums of those tablebase files already on your drive, to see if any have been corrupted. The reason this is important is that most engines do not check the integrity of the tablebase files (which can be corrupted if you get them via download, or even on some CD collections). However, if there is a problem loading or reading a particular file, strange problems (like lockups) can occur with the engine. So, with the new install program, you should be very sure of getting a tablebase installation that is complete and 100% correct.

And it goes without saying that installing the TBs from a single DVD is much superior to swapping ten or so CDs out of your drive. When you add all these advantages up (improved install, error checking, DVD convenience), you get the best tablebase collection available.

Conclusion - Best Endgame Reference on the Planet

Very rarely does a product like this come out on the market, especially at this price point. The total cost for the CCE and Nalimov package is only $59 USD, and it gives the user an incredible body of painstakingly analyzed study material. CCE has long been recognized as the reference work on the endgame, and great care has been taken in converting, correcting and updating the material.

As many of you are aware, there are quite a few products that offer massive collections of data, with little value added in terms of plain-language explanations. CCE is not like that at all. All the material is explained in great detail. And, in the rare instance where there is not a CCE entry for the endgame you are interested in, you always have the endgame tablebases and chess engines to fall back on.

If you need an endgame reference, then you absolutely must consider this software. I am not exaggerating when I say that there is nothing else like it, and the program has absolutely no serious competition.

P.S. If you want some other opinions of this software, check out the ChessReviews yahoogroups, you'll find plenty of very happy CCE owners there.







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