Monday, February 07, 2011

Chess Pub: A Review (Part II)

After a week away to ponder the state of chess journalism, today sees the completion of my review of Chess Pub, the chess theory website.   Consider TIFE XIV and Part I the preamble and general overview respectively and this post a more detailed look at the Chess Pub world.  Indulge me for a moment, though.  I want to begin with a conversation that I witnessed several years ago:-

5 year old boy: Mum, I need some crisps.

Mother: You don’t need some crisps, you want some crisps.

The mum – a friend of mine – then turned to me and explained to me that she was trying to teach her son the difference between needing something and wanting it. “Good luck with that”, I thought but didn’t say, “I’ve got thirty years on the nipper and I still struggle to distinguish one from the other.”

Not much has changed since then. As I write these very words, for example, I’m sitting in Earl Grey and Rose, just over the road from Streatham Hill station, enjoying a cup of tea and eyeing-up the cakes they have on the counter. There’s a layer cake (heavy on the icing), a lemon drizzle and at least three different kinds of cupcake up there. All of them look extremely tasty; all of them I want; none of them can I, in any way, claim will do me much good.

As it happens this is also pretty much how I see Chess Pub - a tasty cake that I want, but don't need.  In what follows I'll try to justify that position, for the most part referring to the website's French Defence section for the simple reason that that's the one that I've looked at most closely.  Initially I'll look at the Chess Pub archive and updates then move on to consider the question of whether internet based products like this one mean the end of books and DVDs.  Hopefully, what I have to say will be relevant to people who are considering subscribing to other areas and not just those who like to play ... e6 in response to 1 e4.


As I mentioned two weeks ago, Chess Pub first opened its doors more than a decade ago its archive of annotated games has grown into something quite substantial. At the time of writing some 1,338 annotated games are available in The French section alone.

1,000+ games is all very well, but it won’t do you much good if they’re all in lines that don’t interest you. After checking out the French Exchange, the first thing I did was have a look at what material they had on some of the variations that have caught my eye of late.

First I took a look at a sharp line recommended for Black by Simon Williams in the DVD on the French that he released last year (reviewed here).

Winawer Poisoned Pawn: 12 ...d4!?

… Bd7 is probably the traditional mainline, but 12 … d4 seemed the perfect place to begin. It’s one of those lines that can be completely destroyed (or rehabilitated) by a single new move, and since Kamsky played it in a couple of super-GM tournaments at the beginning of last year, it’s become highly fashionable.

You’d have to wonder about the value of a website dedicated to opening theory if it didn’t have much material devoted to this line. In the Chess Pub archive, though, I found 62 games that followed the main lines and no fewer than 14 games in this newer variation, many of which were played recently (6 from 2010 and 5 from 2009).

Next I checked out a basic variation in the Advance - 1 e4 e6, 2 d4 d5, 3 e5 c5, 4 c3 Nc6, 5 Nf3 Qb6, 6 a3 Nh6, 7 b4 cxd4, 8 cxd4 Nf5, 9 Bb2 Bd7 - as seen in Duffer’s Delight III, and found 11 games.

After that, I wondered what I'd find if I decided that as well as the Winawer I wanted to be able to play some safer lines with 3 … Nf6, basing my repertoire, say, on Watson’s recommendations in Play the French 3 (Everyman, 2003). Would Chess Pub help with that?

1 e4 e6, 2 d4 d5, 3 Nc3 Nf6, 4 e5 Nfd7, 5 f4 c5, 6 Nf3 Nc6, 7 Be3 cxd4, 8 Nxd4 Bc5, 9 Qd2 O-O, 10 O-O-O a6 – 28 games (3 from 2010, 3 from 2009 and 13 in total played after PtF was published).

1 e4 e6, 2 d4 d5, 3 Nc3 Nf6, 4 Bg5 dxe4, 5 Nxe4 Be7, 6 Bxf6 Bxf6 – 22 games (0 from 2010, 2 from 2009 and a dozen played post PtF).

Finally, I checked out Moskalenko’s “Black Queen Blues”, 1 e4 e6, 2 d4 d5, 3 Nc3 Bb4, 4 e5 c5, 5 a3 Bxc3+, 6 bxc3 Qa5 !?, as used by Shulman to beat Nakamura at the American Championships last May - 18 games (3 2010, 4 2009)

and the Fort Knox Defence, 1 e4 e6, 2 d4 d5, 3 Nc3/Nd2 dxe4 4 Nxe4 Bd7 – 43 games (no fewer than 10 played by Neil McDonald but none since 2008).

The coverage seems to be pretty broad, then, with the numbers I found indicating a policy of putting the most focus on the most fashionable variations at any given time. Perhaps for that reason there are some lines that didn’t seem to get much attention at all.  For example, there are just four games that feature 1 e4 e6, 2 d4 d5, 3 Nd2 c5, 4 exd5 exd5, 5 Ngf3 Nc6, the old-fashioned way for Black to answer the Tarrasch, and a mere three that begin 1 e4 e6, 2 d3 d5, 3 Nd2.

In my experience The King’s Indian Attack is played rather frequently at club level, but, given that its popularity is out of all proportion to its theoretical status, it’s probably no surprise that it doesn’t get much attention on Chess Pub. It’s a shame that there aren’t more of those IQP Tarrasch positions, though. To be fair, it’s hardly all the rage either at higher-levels and many amateur chessers don’t like it because it’s perceived to be a bit dull, so I can see why there aren’t many to be found.

Dull? Dunno. Is it isolated?

These reservations aside, it seems to me that the coverage for most branches of the French Defence is very good. Indeed, I would say that anybody who wants to punt the sharper lines of the sort recommended by Williams on The Killer French should probably consider a Chess Pub subscription to be an essential purchase.

Consider the diagram above that shows the position as Black plays 12 … d4. You get to this by

1 e4 e6, 2 d4 d5, 3 Nc3 Bb4, 4 e5 c5, 5 a3 Bxc3+, 6 bxc3 Ne7, 7 Qg4 Qc7, 8 Qxg7 Rg8, 9 Qxh7 cxd4, 10 Ne2 Nc6, 11 f4 dxc3, 12 Qd3

Williams, for example, looks at 12 h4 as an alternative for White but not 12 Nxc3. It looks funny (“What's this? Hasn't this been refuted long ago?” – John Watson on Chess Pub) but in fact it doesn’t just drop a piece to … Nxe5 and Chess Pub has three games in which it was tried in 2010 including one by Shirov and one by Karjakin. This last one is particularly interesting because it was played against Sutovsky who (a) was rated 2660 at the time, and (b) has worked with Kamsky in the past and may well have helped him prepare the line for his World Championship eliminator match against Topalov. If Karjakin was prepared to employ 12 Nxc3 in such an encounter it’s clearly an idea worthy of attention.

There is also the obvious advantage that Chess Pub includes games played after Williams’ DVD was released. One line given on the Killer French ends in this position,

Winawer Poisoned Pawn Theory
White to play

with Black said to have “a very good game.” In the most recent update Watson includes the following game in which a near 2600 GM goes down against a player 200 points below him on the rating list.

Not that I think Chess Pub makes Williams’ DVD redundant. I shall have more to say about the use of the archive as a standalone resource a little later. In the meantime suffice to say that, all things considered, I feel that for the French section at least, the archive alone is worth the price (£12) of a subscription.


The updates for each section are simply more of the same. Not that is in any way a bad thing. Typically eight to ten games will be analysed, some with other complete games included in the notes. From time to time older encounters will be looked at – e.g. some of Simon Williams’ recent update on the Classical Dutch for Chess Pub’s ‘Daring Defences’ section – but for the most part the selections are topical. Watson’s January update for the French includes Caruana-Short played at Reggio Emilia just before New Year’s Eve and even Smeets-Ponomariov, who’d met at Wijk aan Zee literally days before the update appeared, makes it in.

Nosher’s game, by the way, appeared shortly after I’d lamented the lack of the IQP Tarrasch games in the Chess Pub Forum. That was, I’m sure, a coincidence, but interaction with subscribers is encouraged, and authors often take a look at certain positions at the direct request of subscribers.

All in all, given that a year’s subscription will bring you 12 x eight (or more) annotated games, i.e. 96 in total, the cost seems pretty reasonable when compared to the price of a chess book or a DVD. All the more so when you consider that you get access to that section’s archive too.


If Chess Pub is so great, you might be wondering, does it mean I don’t have to buy books and/or DVDs anymore? The answer to that, I think, is ‘no’. Learning an opening from scratch using this website alone could be quite tricky for two reasons.

Firstly, there’s just so much material available it’s not necessarily going to be easy to navigate your way through it unless you already have some idea of what you’re looking for it. Also, when you search for games that begin from a particular position you can be sure that the computer will spit plenty out, but they won’t necessarily have appeared in the updates in the order that they were played. While this isn’t necessarily disastrous, it takes some work to check that the comments to any given game haven’t been superseded by something that came along later.

Secondly, some basic knowledge is taken for granted by the section authors. This position,

Slav Theory
Black to play

comes from one of the Slav main lines. In all the games in the Chess Pub database, Black continues with … 0-0. If you are new to this line, though, you're first thought might be to wonder why you can’t grab a pawn by taking on c3 and then on e4. The answer is that ever since Kasparov-Bareev, Tilburg 1991 it’s been thought keeping Black’s king in the centre with Ba3 gives White more than enough compensation.

Even if it rarely appears in GM encounters these days, understanding – or at least knowing of – this pawn sac is really rather necessary to justify both sides’ play in this line, but Chess Pub won’t tell you about it. Neither, incidentally, does it mention the fact that, club players often play … 0-0 before … Nbd7 to avoid those forced drawing lines that result from Qb3 and Qxb7 a few moves before the diagram position.

For these reasons, then, I think Chess Pub will work best as a supplement to existing sources rather than a complete replacement for them.


Is there a downside to Chess Pub? I have a few minor quibbles, but that is all.

Firstly, although you can view/play through the games and analysis online, you lose access to this facility when your subscription expires. You’ll probably get most out of Chess Pub if you have a database to store and sort the games, but, that said, I know my fellow blogger EJH manages to be a happy subscriber without (yet) handing over any Euros to Fred Friedel.

Secondly, in the past there has been the occasional issue of updates for some sections being delivered several months late. Clearly for a website that is supposed to be a topical resource, this would a significant problem. Happily, at the moment all sections seem to be on schedule with many updates being delivered in the early days of the month.

Finally, when exploring the archive for games played in the Dutch Defence, I noticed quite a few that were not actually annotated. These seem to stem from the time when Jon Tisdall was in charge of that section. There’s literally not a single note or variation given, just a few lines of introduction at the beginning.

I don’t know how many of the 16,000 games in the database as a whole are like this. It’s probably not that many; the real issue is that the quality your subscription will vary according who the author of the section is.

Subscribers interested in the French Defence have been lucky to have Neil McDonald and now John Watson as their guides. Similarly, if, say, I was interested in the Dragon, I’d want Chris Ward and Corporal Jones to be around to explain it to me. For the other sections, though, I don’t know enough about the individual authors to be able to make a judgement as to how good their work for Chess Pub is likely to be.

photograph from RAW Baking

All in all, I find Chess Pub to be a very good, value-for-money resource for anybody interested in keeping up with the developments in opening theory in their favourite lines. The only thing you can say against it is that you almost certainly don’t really need it.

Everybody knows that, save for those higher up the ladder, improvements in results are much more likely to be achieved by building up our middlegame and endgame skills: enhancing our tactical ability, gaining an understanding of a broader range of positional themes, learning how to mate with bishop and knight against king and so forth. These are the things that will really help.

Books on the opening might be the most popular amongst us amateurs, but they don’t necessarily do us much good do they? In my own games I tend to play folk up in the 150 to 170 ECF Grade range (around 1850 to 2000 elo range) and sometimes up to around 180/190 (2100+). Only rarely do I face what the books say are the most testing lines.

Why bother learning the theory if you never get a chance to play it? Well, it’s not for everybody, but a lot of people – myself included – find keeping abreast of theoretical developments interesting in and of itself. There’s also the obvious point that playing through master games in your favourite lines is likely to help your understanding of kind of structures and themes that arise in those openings.

Ultimately, while we might not need all that stuff on the opening that we buy, if we’re going to shell out money anyway we might as well get something good. Chess Pub is that alright. It’s not necessary, but I do want it. In fact, I’ve just gone ahead and bought myself a one-year subscription to the French section and now, review written, I think I’ll have that cake too. Lemon Drizzle will do nicely.


Anonymous said...

We need intellectual and emotional stimulation but we want to become Grandmasters. However you know what happened to the penguin that ate too many fish ! My problem is that I have enough books to last several lifetimes of study. Nunns Chess Openings can always be used for propping my monitor unlike Chess Publishing. Im just waiting for them to provide a memory chip that can be directly downloaded to my brain ! Could you e-mail me a chocolate eclair while you are at it. - Joe S

ejh said...

Don't think it's just fish he eats too much of...

Anonymous said...

First off, I was taught to say "I would like" rather than "I want". So there!

Second, I encountered that ...d4 Winawer move earlier this season. I knew nothing about it but the game followed the quoted Kovacevic, A. (2594) - Bukal, V. (2390) game until move 18 when I played Ng5 (and my opponent responded 18... Rxg5!?).

Actually that's not quite true as after 16... Nb6, I played 17 Nb5 and we repeated moves before I took on f7. I guess the fact that White has 17 Nb5 and a draw by repeating moves could be viewed as a drawback for Black.


Jonathan B said...

You're a credit to your mother Angus.

You're right about the forced draw too I think. As an avid reader of the blog(!) I'm sure you remember my review of the Killer French DVD. It's one of the ironies of playing these very forcing lines is that sometimes they burn out to endgames or even forced draws as here.

I suppose that's not really a problem at GM level but some club chessers may not fancy it. That's the price you pay for heading into these ultra sharp lines I suppose.

Jonathan B said...

btw Angus,

that ... Rxg5 exchange sac is very typical of what Black tends to do in this line. When I checked I saw it is mentioned in Williams' Killer French DVD and Moskalenko's Wonderful Winawer.

It's examined at in the Chess Pub Archives too. Back in May 2009 Wei Ming (don't know who he is but he was caretaking the French section between McDonald and Watson) analyses it extensively. That's pretty impressive considering that at the time 16. ... b6 hadn't even been played before.

Out of interest, given that it was a line you didn't know anything about, why didn't you take the pawn with Nxd4 on move 13?


Anonymous said...

Out of interest, given that it was a line you didn't know anything about, why didn't you take the pawn with Nxd4 on move 13?

If I recall, because I had an idea Black might get an improved version of another ...d4 line (though really I was unsure about this) and because I liked the look of Ne2-g3-e4.

Wondered if you had anything to say about 13 Nxd4, Jonathan?


Jonathan B said...

I just typed a long comment which blogger lost. Arse.

Are you playing against Drunken Knights tomorrow night? If so, I'll talk to you about it then.

In short:- it's a right mess. White tends to end up material ahead but Black has lots of play. Very forcing and easy to go wrong. Moskalenko analyses it out to something like rook and 4 pawns v rook and 4 pawns!