Chess Assistant 11:
Maybe a Great Product, but with Many Little Bugs
by Lance Martin
I remember sitting in a cafeteria with my friend and co-worker Ron Boroussa back in 1985. We had just played a tournament in Stamford Ct. the previous week-end, and we were going over our games with a little leather wallet-sized chess set. I remember asking why Ron we didn’t buy one of the chess programs that had just come out. I really don't remember if ChessBase was a choice but there were Excalibur tabletop computers on which we could set up a position and let it think overnight for the best move available. That model was kind of expensive at about $500 but I talked my chess buddy into making the purchase; after all, he had no children to support and it was the best product available for chess analysis at the time. After a trip to a great Long Island chess discount shop we had a new toy with which to play. After that day whenever I had a really difficult choice in a game I would give Ron the position and he would set up the pieces for me. I took the computer's response very seriously as it was usually a really good move which was rarely one of my choices. Now, twenty-five years later. I don't know where Ron is; he's not in the USCF database and hasn't played in the World Open for many years. This was the highpoint of his life. It is sad to know that he is not part of the chess community any longer and I really don't know if he is alive. I make this point because a great deal can happen in 25 years. We now have products like Chess Assistant 11 and ChessBase 10 to do in seconds what used to take 12 hours (for a result which was not nearly as good as today's output).
I was given the download (demo) version of Chess Asssistant. My first recommendation is not to go near this demo version. You're furnished with a URL from which you can download the demo, a sample version which is supposed to be good for five days;. mine expired after two. I was so angered by this that my email to Russia elicited a reply which provided me with a new link for a (supposedly) 15 day trial.
On the subject of digitally downloaded and heavily-protected software: why would somebody buy them when you run the risk of a hard drive crash, taking out all of your data including your downloaded Zip files for Chess Assistant? Your license is limited to three computers, so you can't install it a fourth time, even when you purchase a new computer. Chess Assistant also uses registry information from your computer, preventing you from installing it on an external hard drive (and then connect it to another computer). Upon launching it, you will receive the first of many error messages (which you may grow accustomed to if you use the product frequently).
Yes, there are quite a few bugs in the product. Sending just the error code to the company's technical support does no good as "the programmer" cannot interpret it to determine the reason for the error; he needs a copy of the complete error file. You have to send the file to "the customer representative", who then passes it on to "the programmer". Notice I am using the singular form. Yes there is one programmer and I think maybe two customer representatives. Always bear in mind this is a Russian-born product, a country in which the consumer population is accustomed to such problems. The German company which produces ChessBase understands the Western consumer: we expect software that works with no errors. That is what you receive when you purchase ChessBase.
Let’s move on to the manual. The Microsoft Word version of the documentation contains old errors and their replacements, carried over from version to version. No, the company did not even bother to create an error free document. It would be easy to level an accusation of bias against Russian products. But these problems are not limited to CA. Chess Informant is also a company based in Eastern Europe and shares a similar reputation to Chess Assistant's. They just do not understand the expectations of the Western consumer.
What of the product itself? It is great. It is superior to ChessBase with more functionality and better ease of use. When I opened CA11 a moment ago, this is what I saw:
The last thing I was doing about 14 hours ago (and after I had rebooted my computer at least twice) was a World Championship game between Kramnik-Anand. CA11 remembered exactly where I was. This is quite an improvement over ChessBase. When I right click on this screen I have the following options:
* Invert Board
* Enlarge board
* Shrink board
* Show board cursor
* Set start position
* Define position
* Save position
* Search for current position
* Always Queen
* Smart Move
* This Window's properties
Obviously there are subordinate components to many of the choices. All of this just from the game screen. I think this is impressive. And, as far as my testing went, all of this actually works. When you purchase CA11 you receive several databases including a "Guru base" that contains photos of the players. Their "Hugebase" contains over 4 million games and is the equivalent to ChessBase's Mega Database or Big Database. Many of the games, especially the important ones, are annotated. These annotations are tested and contain games of similar move orders. In the window shown I moved the pieces up until Black's 10th move in this version of the Semi Slav. It took four seconds to find 1,178 games in that position, producing the following screen:
I was going through the games in Raymond Keene's "The Battle of Bonn" and was using CA11 to help me play through them. I used Deep Rybka 4 (which comes with the product) to analyze Black’s 14th move which I'd questioned. The move that I would have played (which was different from Anand's) is the one recommended by Rybka. Indeed, the analysis was far better: our move of 14…b4 gave White less of an advantage than the move which Anand played. I really enjoy reviewing games in this way, and CA11 makes a great partner for this purpose.
As far as game searching is concerned, there is no contest between the programs: once you get used to the search functions, the data choices are much easier with CA11 than they are with ChessBase. As you input search criteria the next data entry spaces are conveniently shaded so you will know where you are. CA11 also contains an internal list of strong chess players so that after three letters are typed into a "player" field, the software begins to provide name choices (thus you will never misspell a name again!). It also provides for ECO code input, either singly or within a range. Dates operate in a similar way. All you need remember is to click ADD so that your choices remain in the header search screen:
There is no comparison between this and ChessBase.
You can also use the Rybka chess engine at any point in a game for analysis. Here's an example of how I read chess books. For openings, there is a separate CA data base called Comprehensive Chess Opening. Let's say you want to look for the Marshall in the Ruy Lopez. You get the moves of the opening plus commentary:
I have to admit I really like this feature. It far exceeds anything that I have seen in any other database product.
You will notice when you download or copy the files there is a huge one which contains images. This is supposed to be part of the Player’s Encyclopedia. I have tried to use it by referencing both their manual and their "Help" file but I cannot get the Player’s Encyclopedia to appear on the screen. I have shot off an email to ChessOk (Chess Assistant's parent company) two days ago and have not yet received any response. This just should not happen with a twenty-first century software product. CA's manual is cryptic and apparently was written by someone for whom English is not a primary language. The other possibility is that the text was dictated by a technician to someone who speaks fluent English but knows nothing of the product.
The idea of Chess Assistant is a good one - maybe even a great one. Unfortunately the product is not produced and marketed by a Western nation. There are unfortunate cultural differences between the East and the West. If you are looking for a database product that is intuitive and will not break down no matter how hard you try then ChessBase is the product for you. If you are looking for a wonderful product with tremendous innovations over anything the West has to offer, then Chess Assistant is the product for you – but with a very large caveat. Many of the functions are difficult to use and some may not work at all. There are bugs in the main program that the "one" programmer on staff simply cannot fix. The only direct support with the manufacturer of the product is through email and, although they do make an effort to be helpful, there is a language barrier in play that simply cannot be shattered. For those of you who understand the problems with the product I recommend it without reservation as it is head and shoulders above its competition.
© 2010, Lance Martin and ChessCentral. All rights reserved.