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Friday, April 15, 2016

An Introduction to SCID for Chess Training

Quality Chess Database on a Budget

Having a chess database program is important to store and analyze your games. When my last computer crashed, I lost my Chessbase program which I was using as it was a downloaded copy. Although I could probably find a way to download it again, due to procrastination I decided to look for a free database program to use until I saved up enough money to purchase Chessbase again (which has been updated a couple times since the last time I purchased it). 

To my delight, I found Shane's Chess Information Database (or SCID for short). SCID is open source freeware, meaning you can download it and use it for free! I do recommend checking out Chessbase as it is perhaps the most powerful and widely used commercial chess database. However, if you are just starting out (and not sure if you want to invest a lot of money in software), SCID will probably do most of what you need (and more than you expected).

In this article, I'm going to discuss some of the main ways I use SCID. This isn't quite a tutorial on how to use SCID (although I may do more of those if there is interest). Instead, I'm going to highlight some of the ways I train and analyze using SCID which you can adapt to most chess database programs whether you use SCID, Chessbase, or most fully functional database programs. 

Storing Games

The main function of SCID (or most any database) is to store games. There are many kinds of databases that you can create for different purposes.

I know I have a  lot of databases!
Although I will leave the organization of your databases to your own style and imagination, here are a few types of databases you want to keep:
  • A database of your games. Places like the Internet Chess Club or the Free Internet Chess Club have interfaces that allow you to save your games in PGN format into a database. Within these databases you can analyze your games which we'll get into later. I have databases with my games - "MyICCGames" (which contains the games I play on ICC - surprise) and "MyGames" which include my OTB games and finished correspondence games.
  • A database (or a few) with your opening repertoire. I'll talk about this more in a bit, but basically a place where you can put key games or a "tree" of moves that you are trying to develop for your repertoire.
  • A big database with high quality games - games played by master-level players -  that you can use to look up specific players or openings. There are commercially available databases such as those sold by Chessbase. And there are places where you can download free databases. The commercial databases include perks like annotations by masters for a few of the games but if you're just starting out or on a budget, the free resources work very well also.
  • Databases containing the games or material from your chess books. Basically, these databases you create when you read a book and enter the games or positions into the program. As you can see in the above picture I have a database called "CapablancaMyChessCareer" which contains the games I am studying from My Chess Career by Capablanca. The great thing about this is that you can enter variations and analyze within the program.
These are just a few examples of the major types of databases you may want to keep.

Analyzing Games

SCID has a nice interface to analyze games. In the game notation, you can add variations and text as well as notation symbols like "!" or "?" just like you can in programs like Chessbase. 

It is fairly easy to use although in my opinion perhaps not as intuitive as Chessbase. However, for the price and the power of the functions, you have to compromise on the design. That being said, it is not difficult to navigate if you have ever used database programs before.

Besides being able to enter the moves and commentary, SCID also has compatibility with chess engines, and you can use these to analyze on-the-fly or even annotate your games. There are various settings you can use to customize the type of analysis the engine does (see the screenshot below).


Regarding using chess engines, I will be writing a more extensive article regarding what I believe are "best practices" for chess engine use for improvement, but here are a couple guidelines to consider as you get familiar with SCID:
  • Enter your own analysis first, including variations you considered during and right after the game as well as your thoughts written out as text.
  • Do not use chess engines for early opening analysis. Except for obvious and big blunders, their output is almost useless for understanding and selecting opening moves.
  • Chess engines are great for tactical positions where there is a move that is a clearly superior move in the position. Positional or closed positions, where long term planning is more important than concrete analysis, are harder for the engine to evaluate (although admittedly they are getting better and better).
  • Chess engines cannot "teach" you chess - the why behind the what - so make sure you are educating yourself on basic tactics, strategy, and talking to stronger players to get an understanding of the moves beyond the evaluation and variations.
All this being said, I think chess engines are great tools when used correctly. However, generations of players were bred without the aid of the chess engines, and there is always a danger of becoming dependent and having flabby calculation and analysis "muscles" if you don't do enough on your own.

Solitaire Chess

Review Game in the Play and Training Menu
SCID has a neat feature that I am really enjoying and finding beneficial. SCID calls it the "Review game" feature (in the Plan and Training menu).

Basically, you play as one side through a game (or segment of a game). The program will alert you whether you played the move in the game or not.

The neat thing is that when you don't get the right move, it will comment on the quality of your move, whether it is a bad move (as determined by the chess engine), a good move, or a move as good as the engine's move (if it does not agree with the player in the game).

In the old days with a book or magazine and a board, we would cover up the moves and do the same thing. We called it Solitaire Chess.

Here are a few ideas of ways to use this:

  • Review the games from the point of view of your favorite player or hero. For example, I'm currently going through the games in Capablanca's My Chess Career
  • If you play in tournaments, set up a clock (say for an hour) and grab a master game from a database in an opening in your repertoire. Play through the game and analyze afterwards, trying to stay within your time limit.
  • Play out theoretical endings or middlegame positions you have learned. For example, I'm currently studying de la Villa's 100 Endgames You Must Know. After each position that I study (or maybe later that day to test my memory), I use the game review feature and go through it. If I get any wrong, I go back to the book to make sure I understand it.
For step-by-step instructions, I wrote a more detailed guide to playing Solitaire Chess with SCID.

Opening Training

You can customize your opening training
The other main feature I'm currently using is SCID's Opening Training. Basically, you can have SCID play the other side of your opening repertoire (which you set up in special databases). Then you can see statistics on how you did.

For those of you who have used Bookup (now called Chess Opening Wizard), this is similar to the training feature in that excellent program. I will say that Bookup has a lot of other features that are great for studying openings, but SCID does well enough to help you practice lines that you want to memorize.

Other Features

This is just a sampling of some of the ways you can use SCID to improve your chess. Here are a couple others that I didn't go into detail:
  • Managing Correspondence Games
  • Playing against the chess engines from set positions or whole games
  • Tactical training from customized databases that you can create

Final Thoughts

If you haven't figured it out, I'm a fan of SCID. I plan on creating some tutorials on using SCID in the future. Admittedly, I do miss using Chessbase and overall I think it is a more powerful program, but SCID has plenty of features to enhance your chess training program. If you are on a budget or not ready to invest in Chessbase, SCID is the way to go!

If you do try out SCID, let me know what you think. Also, if you have any questions or comments about specific functions or training methods, I'd love to hear them.

Resources

Shane's Chess Information Database: Download it at http://scid.sourceforge.net/

Chessbase: You can check them out at www.chessbase.com. If you are considering purchasing the software compare prices and consider using this link to Amazon. (Full disclosure: I earn a commission if you purchase it through this link)






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