Databases and Their Discontents

Mar 28, 2011, 4:27 PM |

Ever since the dawn of civilization, humans have sought help in games of chess that did not conclude in a single sitting. Such help takes many forms. Sometimes the help is actively encouraged. Other times it is forbidden.

When I was young, top level chess tournaments and world championship matches were characterized by adjournments. After many hours of play, a competitor would seal a move, eat a small meal, and go to sleep. While he slept, teams of seconds would labor through the night, analyzing the likely continuations. After a night of sleep and a hearty breakfast, the player would spend the morning with his seconds learning the results of overnight research. He returns to the game fully prepared for the next stages of the game.

When I started playing correspondence chess, I began to value another sort of assistance: reference books. While playing my games, I would pore through every chess book within reach looking for comparable positions. Playing better correspondence chess became a principal motivation for acquiring certain books. The benefits of this research spilled over into my non-aided games. More often I found myself played openings that I had studied in great detail with practical application to some game in progress.

The emergence of database software sped up the research process. While it once took many hours to find all of Alekhine's games against the Nimzo-Indian, now they could be located in seconds. Going through the games to glean the necessary insights still required much labor, it was no longer necessary to set up a chess board. Games in the database could be played through on-screen.