Are Databases Important for the Beginner?

There was a time in the not so distant past, when we had to keep track of important games, both our own and the games of others, by carefully copying each move into a paper notebook. If you were serious about improving, you’d often find yourself copying dozens of games into that notebook that were centered around a specific opening you were trying to learn or a tactical idea you were trying to master. This was a daunting task at best. Incorrectly writing down a move from one of those games made the game worthless! Thanks to huge advances in technology, you can now purchase software that gives you immediate access to millions of games with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger. You can easily have ten thousand examples of a specific opening or a huge collection of games representing many different openings neatly stored on your computer. You can compare an individual move you might be considering to hundreds of thousands of previously played games to see if that move has any merit. The database is an extremely powerful and useful tool for anyone wishing to improve their game. However, do you really need a database as a beginner and when should you invest in one?

Before investing in a database program, which can be quite costly, you have to determine whether or not it’s really going to help your game, in other words, help you improve. While the database is an essential tool for serious/professional players as well as coaches and instructors, the beginner should understand that a database is not an instructional tool in the way a training DVD or software program is. With a training DVD or software program, actual lessons are being taught aimed at helping you learn the topic at hand. For example, a DVD on how to play the Ruy Lopez is just that. The DVD teaches you how to play this opening and is written and presented by an individual who has expertise with the Ruy Lopez. A database, on the other hand, might have a collection of ten thousand games featuring the Ruy Lopez opening, which is far greater than the number of example games featured in the DVD. However, there’s no instruction within the database so you just have the games themselves with perhaps a little annotation that is far above the beginner’s comprehension level. Therefore, the database expects you to already know the opening, or at least a bit of it’s mainline and variations. If you’re new to chess and don’t fully understand the opening principles, for example, you’ll quickly become lost and frustrated trying to figure out what’s going on within the database’s games. A database may show the opening principles in action but it doesn’t teach them.

Now, this isn’t to say that beginner’s can’t benefit from a database, but the beginner is better off spending their hard earned money on instructional material and, once they’ve improved, acquire a database program. I rely on my database program for teaching and coaching for very obvious reasons. I give at least ten chess lectures per week. I give roughly four hundred lectures per year (I work year round). Since I rarely show the same game twice during an academic year, I need to have easy access to a large number of games. All I have to do is consult my trusty database to find the games I use. The other advantage to databases, such as ChessBase 14 which I rely upon, is that it allows me to compare lines from a plethora of other games to the game I’m presenting to my students. For a teacher or coach, it’s an indispensable teaching tool. It should be noted that in order to get the most out of a database such as the one I use, you have to do a lot of reading and tinkering with the database. The user manual for ChessBase 14 is 487 pages long and you have to read quite a bit of the manual to get the most out of the software program. This alone, is too much for the beginner to deal with. Is there a happy medium for our intrepid beginner regarding the database? There sure is!

Cost is very prohibitive for many of us who love the game. I can write all chess related chess equipment off on my taxes. However, if you’re not teaching chess for a living and don’t have a good accountant, spending three or four hundred dollars on software can take food off the tables of many of my fellow chess players. Would you be happy if I told you you could either download a free database program or spend roughly twenty to fourty American dollars on an all in one chess program? I’d be happy!

Let’s look at the free database program first. It’s called ChessDB and can be found here: http://chessdb.sourceforge.net/ This is the homepage, so read the page and follow the instructions for downloading, which is a link button in the upper right hand corner of the page. The Beta version with the endgame tables is only 36 megabytes in size so it won’t put a strain on your computer’s available memory.

ChessDB is a great little database program because not only is it free, but it comes with a small database of 27, 681 games. I say small because my latest database has over 6,800,000 games. However, the beginner doesn’t really need six million games to have a decent database (I don’t even need that many games). Beginner’s just need games that they use for a reference for their own studies. If you want to add a larger database of games, you can add an additional 3.5 million games (see the ChessDB website for more on this) The only real downside to this program is that you’ll have to do a bit of studying to learn how to navigate the program and take advantage of its many features. However, you’d have to do that with any database and the good news is that you don’t have to pay any money for this program.

If you’re willing to pay around twenty to fourty American dollars for a program that not only has a large database (600,000 plus games), but a built in playing program and roughly one hundred hours of training and instructional material, try Chessmaster’s Grandmaster Edition or Chessmaster 10th Edition (both are essentially the same with the Grandmaster Edition having one additional section, Josh Waitzkin analyzing a series of games). This is an excellent program for the beginner wishing to not only improve but to have access to a decent database. I highly recommend this program to all my beginning students. It’s a great all in one program. Seldom do you find all in one programs that are great all around programs since most of these tend to be be weak in one area or another. While this is not the best program for more experienced players, it’s first rate for those new to the game. You can’t beat the price either! While not free, it’s close to it considering the fact that a beginner will be able to get a great deal of training in a single software package. Note, you’ll have to do a bit of searching online to find it for the price listed above because, original versions of this program, brand new, in the box and unsealed can sell for as high as three hundred American dollars. Just search around and you’ll find one for a decent price. The company that put out the game no longer makes it so you’ll have to buy it used or find a new copy someone has lying around in their closet. However, the search is well worth it. You can find free demo downloads (do not download full versions online because it’s internet piracy which is illegal) online to try it out. However, always exercise caution when downloading any program onto your computer (which is why I will not provide a downloading source. That risk is yours and yours alone).

So there you have it, a few ideas on acquiring a database should you feel the need for one. As a beginner, don’t worry about having a fancy database even if all your chess playing friends have one. It’s better to invest your money into training materials because, after all, if you really improve your game and beat your friend who’s always bragging about their fancy database program, you’ll have the last laugh. You might find yourself thinking, after beating your friend, “I guess those six million games didn’t do as much for you as my wise investment in my own training.” However, if you want to delve into the world of databases, try one of the above suggestions. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys are old school. They had to write down thousands of games into their notebooks which just goes to show you that technology doesn’t necessarily mean you have the advantage on the chessboard or off the chessboard in life!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).