Chess Openings Wizard

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Chess Openings Wizard (COW) is a specialised piece of software designed by Mike Leahy. If you have ever used ChessBase before, COW is similar to the 'tree' function but has far more advanced capabilities. COW databases are referred to as 'ebooks'. The software is primarily used to train one's openings, but can also be used for endgames and tactics. Several years ago, I was surprised and impressed to find that this software was recommended by six-time Russian champion and grandmaster, Peter Svidler, especially since I had found the software via the obscure method of searching "chess software" on Google. Svidler, ranked world number 12 and with a FIDE rating of 2755 at the time of writing, is well respected among the chess elite.

In my opinion, this software is most suitable for 1800+ FIDE-rated players. Lower rated players should work on the fundamentals of their game such as endgame strategy, tactical calculation and positional play. The reason I advise this is because I believe this software is most effective when you already have a strong foundation based on solid chess knowledge to fall back on. Too many players spend lots of time memorising openings, but their position falls apart as soon as they 'run out of book' simply because of their lack of understanding of core middlegame and endgame concepts.

That being said, when a player is ready, this software is extremely useful for opening preparation. To elaborate on how this software works, it is basically like a giant 'tree' database. The advantage of a 'tree' format compared to a conventional ChessBase or Fritz format is that transpositions are accounted for. In practice, a large number of openings have transpositions that are very difficult to find by having to look several through different move orders. Examples of openings with transpositions include the English Opening, 1.Nf3 and the Sveshnikov Variation of the Sicilian Defence.

One of COW's most helpful tools is the training feature. The player repeats the variations in the chosen ebook, solidifying his memorisation of the variations. Personally, I like to have ChessBase open in the background so that I can play over the variation first before training in COW.

(If you intend to try out the ChessBase/COW training method, be warned that it does taking some getting used to. COW training always goes through the main line of the ebook first (then every subsequent deviation after following the main line as long as possible), so you must physically move your chosen line(s) to the 'top' of the book before commencing training. Then, I always like to first play over the line in ChessBase, then train the exact same line in COW, go over the first deviation from the main line in ChessBase, go over the same line in COW, etc.)

Another powerful feature is known as backsolving (only available in the professional version). This feature assumes all variations are forced and gives, at the earliest position indication, the resulting assessment of the final position - a bit confusing when put in words, but you'll understand when you browse through some ebooks.

Mike Leahy has a number of ebooks available for purchase on his website. However, while some of these may be helpful, many of them are likely to be out of date. I think it would be more helpful for a player to create his own black and white opening repertoires in separate ebooks, polishing and improving upon them over time. To compile your own ebook, simply use your usual chess editor, such as Fritz, to copy and paste the games into a PGN file. COW has a function to import PGN files directly into an ebook.

You may also want to study the repertoire of someone you admire or someone whose repertoire you would like to emulate. The latter is often relevant when the player and his model both have similar styles, e.g. the ambitious and aggressive repertoires of Fischer and Kasparov. Another reason to emulate the repertoire of another player is because that player's repertoire is time-efficient to learn, especially if you do not have much time to devote to chess, e.g. the repertoire of Karpov is often regarded to be relatively efficient. Be sure to separate games where the model player is black and white, and to create separate ebooks for them.

It may also be worthwhile summarising the contents of an opening book. Highly ambitious players may even want to enter an entire opening book as an ebook, although I would only recommend this for 2000+ FIDE-rated players.

COW also has a feature that integrates itself with the Internet Chess Club (ICC), an online club that is extremely popular for stronger players. Basically, it uses the fact that ICC saves your games in PGN to check when you deviated from your repertoire (you select which ebooks are to act as your black and white repertoires). This is quite helpful if you are very serious about your openings. The integration feature will also work on other chess servers that also save your games to a PGN file.

There are three versions of COW - free, express and professional. You can access the free version of COW by downloading a trial version of the express version. The express version 'becomes' the free version after the trial ends and can be used indefinitely. The free version can be used to view ebooks, but changes cannot be saved. For the vast majority of players, the express version should be sufficient as it includes the training features, the ICC integration and the ability to save changes to ebooks. The professional version, in my opinion, is only relevant for ebook writers or extremely dedicated opening specialists who are FIDE 2200+. See the official website for a complete breakdown on the differences between the three versions.

The trial of the express version comes with a number of ebooks which demonstrate COW quite effectively. (Note that you can view these ebooks indefinitely even after the trial expires.) These ebooks include annotated games from the 1995 Kasparov-Anand Classical World Championship and an ECO openings guide from American FIDE Master Chuck Schulien.

Before I close off on this review, I should also mention the free software Chess Position Trainer (CPT), which is somewhat similar to COW. Personally, I feel COW does not freeze or crash as much on my computer, but you may want to try out CPT or a COW Express trial before considering purchasing the full COW Express or Professional software.


The main benefits of COW Express, in my opinion, are its ability to find transpositions, the training feature and the capability to monitor PGN files. The more advanced COW Professional can make use of the backsolving function. Overall, while I stress that beginners should stay well away from COW, it is a very useful tool for stronger players. Peter Svidler seems to agree!

To purchase products, I recommend Wholesale Chess. They provide the highest quality chess products at the lowest prices (especially for US and Canadian players). They even offer to match prices with other chess websites! Even though I live overseas, this is where I choose to purchase chess goods.

See Also

Free Chess Programs
Best Chess Interfaces/GUIs
Chess Software

Article originally written: Sunday, January 15, 2012

Article edited (slightly): Saturday, January 15, 2012