In Part I of this buying guide, I discussed digital clocks and the central element in chess software, the GUI. Here, in Part II, I will provide options for the purchase of chess databases and engines. Finally, I will list in Part III a veritable cornucopia of chess books for that special chess player in your life. Really, let’s be honest: isn’t your chess player worth it?
As I wrote in Part I, there are three components or facets of chess software that every aspiring chess player should own. First, there is the GUI, or the graphical interface. I discussed both ChessBase 12, a full database solution for chess data, and the Fritz family of GUIs, which have limited database function but include playing engines and capabilities. Second, there is the database itself, containing millions of games, and in some cases, audio and video instruction. Finally, there is the engine, that dab of programming magic that analyzes the position and provides super-GM output.
Here, in Part II, I will discuss the two main databases available from ChessBase, as well as a number of options for chess engines. Readers who are coming to this post without having read Part I are advised to read that piece at their leisure.
Database: ChessBase is the author of two reference databases, the Big and Mega Databases. (The data in each database is identical, save the fact that there are no annotated games in the Big Database and approximately 68,000 of them in the Mega.) New editions of each are published each November, and the 2014 edition of the Big and Mega Databases is now available.
The download and installation process for the Mega Database is fairly easy, but be warned: the main database is over a gigabyte of data compressed, so it will take some time to download. The installer required a few clicks, and soon enough, the icon for Mega Database 2014 was sitting in my ChessBase window, ready for my use.
Mega Database contains approximately 5.8 million games, 68k or so of which are annotated. The database has a number of indexes or ‘keys’ that users can search to pinpoint just what they are looking for: a specific player, an opening position, a tournament, or even a tactical motif. ChessBase 12 users have many more search and key options than do users of the GUI; this, to me, is one of the reasons that (if finances allow) ChessBase 12 should be on your shopping list.
Long-time computer users will remember the acronym GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. If your data is ‘dirty,’ your output will suffer. One of the great things about the Big and Mega Databases is that they are absolutely pristine. ChessBase employs full time data-wranglers – two GMs among them – to update the database, keep player names correct, etc. They also offer free weekly updates to the Big and Mega Databases for download with purchase, allowing your chess player to keep her database completely up to date.
There are lots of other goodies included with these databases, including a player encyclopedia with pictures of thousands of players around the globe. I don’t use this feature, to be frank, so I can’t speak to it. Interested parties can check out Albert Silver’s review at chessbase.com.
If your player is serious about their chess software, they’ll need a reference database. The Big and Mega Databases are the best around, and they’re well worth your purchase. Either will be a valuable addition to your player’s setup. The annotated games are nice, but feel free to save a little money here and go with the Big Database. Access to the games is what’s important.
The Big Database is available at Amazon for just over $50, and the Mega Database sells there for about $150. If you’re in a time crunch, of course, you can always directly purchase and download both the Big Database and Mega Database from ChessBase. Note that if your favorite player has an older version of the Mega Database, you can also purchase an update to the 2014 edition for a reduced price at the ChessBase site.
(Note: ChessBase also publishes dozens upon dozens of training DVDs and downloads. Any one would probably be a welcome gift for your player, but recommending any specific training module would require some knowledge of your player, what openings she plays, etc. Peruse their wares at your leisure and see if maybe something strikes your fancy.)
Engines: All of the Fritz family of GUIs come with playing engines. These engines can be plugged into ChessBase 12, or they can run on their own inside the Fritz GUIs. (ChessBase 12 includes an older version of the Fritz engine and an open-source engine called Crafty. Both are plenty strong, but neither is state of the art.) There are three commercial engines to consider for your gift giving needs, but I’ll also clue you in on some free alternatives as well.
- Deep Fritz 14: Fritz is the granddaddy of commercial engines, but with this year’s release of version 14, a few things have changed. The old Fritz engine has been retired, and the ‘new’ Fritz is actually the 2013 medal-winning Pandix engine by Gyula Horváth. In contrast to older Fritzes, Deep Fritz 14 is a multi-processor engine, meaning that it can run on up to eight cores at once. This dramatically speeds up the search and strength of the engine. Deep Fritz 14 comes with a 1.5 million game database.
- Houdini 4: Houdini 4 is a UCI engine sold by ChessBase in the Fritz interface. Basically you get the same GUI as with Deep Fritz, but instead of the Deep Fritz engine, it comes with Houdini 4. Robert Houdart is the author of Houdini, and the engine is generally considered to be the strongest engine publicly available. Houdini is also the engine of choice for many grandmasters in their published analysis. It, like all of the Fritz GUIs, comes with a 1.5 million game database.
- Komodo: Komodo, unlike Fritz or Houdini, is not sold by ChessBase. It is also a UCI engine, and it is currently developed by IM Larry Kaufman and Mark Lefler. The late Don Dailey was the original author of the engine, and Kaufman and Lefler are continuing its development after Dailey’s recent untimely death. The current version – Komodo TCEC – just won a major tournament, staking its claim to being one of the top engines in the world.
Deep Fritz 14 is available at Amazon for about $80, and you can also purchase a downloadable version of the GUI / engine combo at ChessBase for about the same price. Both versions include a six month premier membership at Playchess.com, allowing your gift-recipient to watch videos and live tournament broadcasts online for free.
Houdini 4 comes in two flavors: the Standard, which runs on up to six cores, and the Professional, which will run on up to thirty-two. Houdini 4 Standard sells on Amazon for about $100, and the Pro version will run you $116. As always, you can order a downloadable version of the Standard and the Pro from ChessBase for about the same price. The ChessBase Houdini also comes with a six month premier Playchess membership.
Readers should note that Houdini is also available as a stand-alone purchase directly from Houdart. Buying Houdini 4 directly from the author is slightly cheaper (Standard is about $55, Pro is just over $80) and will also allow your player to access discounted updates to the engine in the future. This purchase does not include a GUI, but it might make sense if your player has an older version of the Fritz or Houdini interface and just needs the latest and greatest engine.
Komodo is only available from the developers. It is currently the cheapest option at $49.95, and it also requires some kind of GUI for its proper use.
From my perspective, Houdini and Komodo are the two strongest engines available for purchase. (There is a third engine – Stockfish – that might be about as strong as Houdini and Komodo, but I leave that to your research.) I’ve used Houdini extensively in my own chess study, and its analysis is both fast and frighteningly accurate. Komodo is slightly slower in terms of its search, but it makes up for that relative slowness with a highly precise positional sense. Deep Fritz is, of course, strong as well – most any modern engine will destroy even top GMs in over-the-board play – but it’s not in the same league as Houdini or Komodo.
Were I to choose one, I’d go with Houdini. It gets to the depths of the position quickly, making it indispensible for analytical work and chess study. Komodo is nearly as good a choice, and Deep Fritz – while coming in third in this race – will also serve your gift recipient well.
Summary of buying chess software: Chess software, as I have said, involves three elements – the GUI, the database, and the engine. The GUI is the most basic of these, and that without which the other two are inaccessible.
For that reason, my number one recommendation for a gift for your player is the Houdini 4 Standard engine and GUI from ChessBase. [ Amazon link | ChessBase downloadable link ] You can play against Houdini and have it analyze your games, and both the included database and database functions are sufficient for most players. If your gift is your player’s first step into the world of chess software, Houdini 4 will be a real pleaser.
More advanced players – in terms of rating or ambition – would be thrilled to own the full ChessBase 12 package. The standard package [ Amazon link | ChessBase link ] includes the Big Database and will serve your player well for years to come. If you’re hoping to save a little money, consider the downloadable version of ChessBase 12 from ChessBase, and tell your gift-ee to download free games updated weekly at Mark Crowther’s wonderful website The Week in Chess.