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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Taking Another Gander At Chess Assistant 16

     The current version of Chess Assistant is Chess Assistant 19 Professional with Houdini 6 PRO and the download version for the USCF costs $169.95. 
     Because you probably don’t remember, let me remind you that I purchased Chess Assistant 16 back in March of 2016. Initially I downloaded the program from the USCF and had a problem both getting it installed as well as locating the big game database. Those problems were handled by Chess Assistant’s support quickly and efficiently. Their tech support is superb, which is something I can’t say for the snots at ChessBase. Then in November of 2017, I posted that no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't fall in love with Chess Assistant. 
     As I mentioned, I never cottoned to the appearance of the board, but more importantly, I never learned how to use all its features because I found the most mundane tasks difficult to perform. 

     Then in January of this year I posted about my hard drive failure that happened just as we were suffering through a polar vortex which brought unusually cold weather with temperatures below zero. That caused me to have to venture out into the cold and make a trip to Best Buy and $272 later I had a new solid state drive which is nice and very fast. Shortly after that the keyboard crapped out. That was an easy fix...just disconnect the laptop keyboard and replace it with a $20 wireless board. 
     While I am on the subject of wireless keyboards, the first one I bought was the $30 Insignia Wireless Keyboard/ Mouse and after two days the keys started sticking making it almost impossible to type anything. When I checked customer reviews on Amazon and Best Buy I discovered there were literally dozens of complaints about this unit having that problem. Clearly the manufacturer and Best Buy are aware of the issue, but obviously don't care. In any case, I took it back to Best Buy and exchanged it for a cheap $20 Logitech Wireless Keyboard and it’s still working fine. The only disadvantage is that it takes two receivers/transmitters, one for the wireless mouse and one for the keyboard whereas the Insignia only took one. Bottom line: Insignia is junk...don't buy.

     But, this post is really about my old, outdated Chess Assistant 16. It was on the old hard drive, but wouldn’t run off of it. It took a couple of days monkeying around with the program, but I finally got it running off the SSD drive. If I didn’t like it in the first place, why bother, you ask? Good question. The answer is that 1) getting it up and running on the new SSD was a challenge and 2) I just wanted to play around with it some more. 
     What can you do with Chess Assistant? The latest version has the Houdini 6 engine which according to the sales hype is “the World's strongest chess program.” That’s not true according to the CCLR 40/40 rating list; it’s a good engine, but it can’t compare to Stockfish. It holds its own against Komodo though. 
     Chess Assistant is tool for managing games and databases, playing on the Internet, analyzing games, or playing against the computer. Let’s throw out playing on the Internet and playing against the computer and look at the other stuff. 
     Chess Assistant 19 Professional includes (as does my old version 16) the Chess Opening Encyclopedia, a search system, the unique Tree mode, databases of over 7 million games (Nov. 1, 2018) that can be automatically updated with 3000 new games every week for free, one year access to all courses at Chess King Learn and the 7-piece Lomonosov Tablebases. The Lomonosov TBs are awesome and I used them frequently when I had free access because in correspondence play these days (on sites where engines are allowed) you are going to run into quite a few endgames. 

Some important features of the program are: 
* Search for novelty 
This probably isn’t what you think. It’s not a way of finding a new idea in an opening position that you can spring on your opponent. It just searches a different database to find any games with same opening moves and identify where the games diverged. You have to open two databases: one containing the game you are looking at and another one for comparison. CA will search for the place where the game under investigation diverged from the games in the second database...that is assuming a CA Tree has been built for the second database beforehand. i.e. you can’t search just any old database. 
     I won’t go into detail here, but there are two different kinds of trees, each with their own advantages and disadvantages: CA trees and Direct trees. This is one example of why this program has a steep learning curve. To fully utilize some functions you have know the difference between trees.
* Search for blunders 
Any analysis program will do this, so this isn’t anything unique to CA 
* Multi-pass game analysis 
You can even choose different engines for each phase of the game. My Fritz program offers the “Compare Analysis” that does the same thing. 
* Analysis markers 
These allow you to mark selected positions for automatic analysis at a later time. Analysis is performed in the background while the program is occupied with other things. If you have a network connection, you can distribute analysis among several computers which will analyze simultaneously. 
* Interactive analysis 
This feature is probably the programs greatest single asset and is similar to Aquarium’s Interactive Deep Analysis (IdeA). This feature allows you guide the engine in its analysis and choose lines and it will remember the results. This is a handy feature...very handy. 
     The idea of interactive analysis is to allow the player to work with the engine, allowing it to analyze a position, and then guide it in its analysis without forgetting its conclusions. This is something I cannot do with Fritz...interrupt the analysis and it forgets everything and you have to start over.
     Without human assistance an engine requires a lot of time to reach a great depth. When the engine starts to analyze a position, it reaches the 8-10 ply depth rather quickly, but then it slows down and going deeper gets difficult. The engine analyzes the position and works out a line it considers the best then it jumps to the end of this line and analyzes the final position with all results being stored in the hash tables. 
     Then the engine returns to the starting position and thanks to its accumulated knowledge of the final position of the line, it will probably re-estimate the initial position. Due to this re-estimation it will probably consider another line to be the best and switch to more deep analysis of that line. These actions may be accomplished automatically in accordance with the options you have set. 
     However, the point is that at any moment you can interrupt the engine, adding any variations of your own, and the program would analyze them as if they were its own suggestions. Hence, it will learn not only from its own mistakes, but from your input. This is interesting because you can suggest risky moves and the engine will refute them if they are incorrect. The important point is, besides analyzing in the background, if you interrupt its analysis, it does not have to start over. 
* Chess Opening Encyclopedia 
This includes theoretical material on all openings, more than 8000 annotations by GM Kalinin and 40 million evaluations by the strongest engines of key positions. 
* Search 
Chess Assistant offers search by position, header, maneuvers, material, comments, novelty search, advanced search by material in 12 regions of the board. Handy if you’re looking for something like the Classic Bishop Sacrifice or, say, exchange sacrifices by black on c3 in the Sicilian. 
     Fritz has a similar function where you can search for "medals" which were added to the games by ChessBase, but my database doesn't have any games marked with medals. You can, however, search for game header information and positions.

     For me, the level at which I play and the level of my involvement in chess doesn't justify spending $169.95 for a chess program that has a lot of features I don't need.
     And so my old Fritz 12 is still the workhorse because it does everything I need, plus it’s really simple to use. Then there are SCID and Arena which are free and they do just about all the stuff an amateur needs done.

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