Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Cult of Tamburro

This review has been printed in the October 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Tamburro, Pete. Openings for Amateurs. Newton Highlands: Mongoose Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1936277506. PB 360 pp. List $24.95. Currently $19ish at Amazon.

Consider the following situation: it’s the last round of an important tournament. You spent weeks before the event preparing your openings, having just purchased the hot new book on the XYZ variation, and your mind is crammed full with analysis. The game begins; miracle of miracles, the XYZ variation appears on the board, and you come to the end of your preparation. And then… you have no idea as to how to continue.

Sound familiar? Anyone?

There is a reason that chess teachers will trot out the hackneyed truism about focusing on ideas and not variations for amateur players. For the vast majority of us – we who lack photographic memories and unlimited time for study – it’s just not practical to play the uber-theoretical lines that dominate super-GM practice. We would do better to skip the search for novelties at move 30 and instead try to understand the ideas behind moves 5, 10 and 15.

There have been a few books over the years written according to this philosophy. Reuben Fine’s The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings is the most famous of these. How to Open a Chess Game, by Evans et al, is another good book along these lines, while Sam Collins’ Understanding the Chess Openings is a more recent rendering. The four volumes of John Watson’s Mastering the Chess Openings, while decidedly more advanced and analytical, also embody something of this ideal.

Pete Tamburro has been advocating the ‘ideas over variations’ approach to the openings for some time now. Tamburro, a USCF-rated expert, has worn many chess hats. He writes a chess newspaper column, has served as the President of the Chess Journalists of America, and is a frequent contributor to these very pages. But it was his opening videos for in the mid-00s, along with his posts at the New Jersey State Chess Association website, that made him something of a cult figure among chess fans. With his new book, Openings for Amateurs, I expect that the cult of Tamburro will grow.

Written for players between 1100-1900 (11), the two halves of Openings for Amateurs attempt to address two facets of opening instruction. The first half, “[t]he Primer,” is a series of sketches or mini-lessons on various opening topics. There are short essays devoted to topics like “be[ing] ever vigilant for Bxf7+” (69) and much longer ones on gambits and countergambits (73-95), offbeat openings (116-123), and defending against ‘preplanned’ variations like the Colle (123-136). While much of the advice is general in nature, a few lessons reappear throughout, including: Don’t waste time in the opening. Don’t neglect tactics. Don’t be an opening ‘robot’ (26-27) who whips out moves without understanding.

The second half of the book, also called “Openings for Amateurs,” is a distillation of many of Tamburro’s videos and messageboard posts. Here the reader is presented with a possible opening repertoire that minimizes memorization while maximizes strategic comfort and clarity. Some of the details of the repertoire appear in the first part of the book – there is quite a bit of overlap – so readers are advised not to skip it.

For White, Tamburro follows Fischer and proposes that we play 1.e4. The Sicilian is met with a hodge-podge of anti-Sicilians (4.Qxd4 vs 2…d6, the c3 Sicilian, the Rossolimo and the Closed). The French is met with the Tarrasch variation (3.Nd2) while the Caro-Kann gets the ‘Fantasy’ treatment (3.f3). The Four Knights and the g3 Vienna are suggested against 1…e5, and Alekhine’s Defense, the Pirc/Modern, and the Scandinavian are countered with solid, if slightly irregular, variations.

Tamburro offers two systems for playing Black against 1.e4 and 1.d4. He suggests that we play 1…e5 (Two Knights, 4…Nf6 vs Scotch, the Ruy Lopez) against 1.e4; if that is not to the reader’s liking, the Dragon is offered as an alternative. Against the d-pawn, Tamburro argues for our adopting the Nimzo-Indian, with the Dutch standing as our alternative. A section on Botvinnik’s treatment of the English rounds out the repertoire.

No book is perfect, and Openings for Amateurs is no exception. Tamburro’s proposed variation (241) in the Two Knights – the Fritz/Ulvestad – is busted after 8.cxd4 Qxg5 9.Bxb5+ Kd8 10.0-0! (his punctuation) Bb7 11. Qf3 Rb8! 12.dxe5 Ne3! 13.Qh3 Qxg2+ 14.Qxg2 Nxg2 15.d4, when Black has no route to equality. I also found it somewhat strange that Tamburro recommends the Dragon, one of the most theoretical openings around, as part of a repertoire designed to minimize memory work. But these are both minor complaints set against the book as a whole, which I think succeeds admirably at fulfilling its stated goals. If you’re a club player looking to improve both the theory and practice of their openings, Openings for Amateurs might be the book for you.

“John from Omaha is on the line…”

Please pardon the slight departure from our normal operations.

Today, if you were listening to the second hour of “On Point,” you heard a very nervous chess book reviewer named John talk about technology and chess in the heartland. If you’ve never been a sap like me who calls into a national radio show, here’s how it works: you sit on hold for what seems like an eternity, heart pounding in your chest as you try to remember what you want to say, and then you’re on the air. You try to say something cogent, or at least comprehensible, and you hope that your less-than-baritone voice comes off ok as it traverses the airwaves. Suddenly your time is up, they move on, and you think, boy, I hope that made some sense.

The reason for my call to the show was the topic: a recent article by Seth Stevenson at Slate on the 2014 Sinquefield Cup called “Grandmaster Clash: One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and nobody noticed.” Not only is the title too clickbait-y for words, but it’s also factually wrong. LOTS of people noticed. Greg Shahade wrote a wonderful rebuttal to the article, and I recommend it to you. What follows are my thoughts, prompted by the show and the article.

1. Why does it seem like “nobody noticed?”

Chess, for better or for worse, is happening on the Internet. One of the first callers talked about how she played chess with her friends on an app called “Chess with Friends.” Right there we see both the blessing and the curse of chess in the Internet age. More people are playing chess – on Yahoo, on, on ICC, via specialized apps – but they’re doing so online, in private, away from the eyes of others. Chess is hidden from mainstream society, still somewhat stigmatized as a game for geeks, a respite for deviants.

One of the great successes of the St Louis Chess Club is precisely that they have made chess very visible, very public, both in St Louis and on the Internet. They host major, major tournaments, including all of the United States Championships (men, women, juniors) and what is becoming the strongest annual tournament in the world, and they locally advertise the hell out of them. The Club also broadcasts their events on the Internet, for free, with production values so good that Fox Sports Midwest was able to take their footage and put together television shows for cable showing.

So why does Stevenson think that nobody noticed Caruana’s winning streak? It would have been easy enough to get stats on how many people were watching the livestream from the Club. But how many people watched on ICC? on on played over the games later via The Week in Chess? How many Norwegians tuned in to television coverage of their hero? How many Armenians?

Put simply, I think that the reason it might appear that “nobody noticed” is that chess is not a huge commercial success in the way that poker was before Black Friday. There are not millions of dollars to be made on running or broadcasting chess events, so the media hype is not and will not be the same. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t paying attention. What it means is that chess is not something that can be monetized in the same way that poker was or the NFL is.

What’s more, chess by its nature – being a game of perfect information with a steep learning curve – is not television friendly. What made poker interesting was that every viewer felt, deep down, that they too could be Chris Moneymaker if they got a great run of cards. Poker is a game of skill, but it’s also a game of luck. Chess is pure skill, which is why you won’t see a 1400 player win the Millionaire Chess Tournament next month. Real comprehension and enjoyment of chess requires some enculturation.

This is why, as Yasser Seirawan has said, the future of chess is on the Internet and not TV. People can dip in and out of the livestreams as time and interest allow. They can play over the annotated games from the day’s events asynchronously. Here we begin to run into the problem of monetizing once more. Making money off clicks and views still isn’t a viable business model unless you fold in advertising like Google and Facebook do. If there’s no money to be made, there’s no real sustained media attention in America. So it goes with chess. And I’m actually ok with that, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

2. The Internet and the Engines

I tried to talk about ‘chess technology’ at the top of my comment. What I meant, as noted above, was that the Internet and the chess engines are changing how we learn and play chess. While the Internet makes more of our chess activity hidden, we have vastly more opportunity to play and learn. You used to have to move to NY if you wanted to become a good player. Now, like Kansan GM Conrad Holt (who won the US Open this year), you play online and you take lessons online. No need to move!

The same is true with chess engines. In the On Point segment today Stevenson trotted out the “we still watch Usain Bolt run even though motorcycles are faster” line, and there’s something to that. For me, however, engines further the democratization of chess in that everyone with a modern computer now has access to a Super-GM 24 hours a day.  Nobody plays against their computers anymore unless they’re masochists or they’re being paid to participate in a novelty match. But everyone from beginner to World Champion can check their ideas against the computer’s silicon brain. Everyone can go to YouTube and watch instructional videos from the St Louis Chess Club. The barriers to improvement are dropping. This can only be good for the future of chess.

3. Popularizing Chess

The real task for chess lovers and organizers is to bring chess back out into the public sphere. We have to bring players back into the clubs and tournaments. We have to give them a reason to log off ICC and come back to over-the-board play. How to do that? If only I knew. I do, however, have a few ideas:

– The USCF used to pay Arthur Bisguier to travel the country giving simuls to popularize chess. Perhaps our benefactor Rex Sinquefield might be induced to do the same thing. Put Ben Finegold out on the road, or send Ronen Har-Zvi out on a month-long tour. You can get a lot of attention in local press when you bring a Grandmaster to town.

– Partner with the AARP to promote chess as a ‘brain-game’ defense against dementia and Alzheimer’s. Perhaps the STL Chess Club could host a US Senior Championship along with the Men’s, Women’s and Junior Championships. [Yes, I know this ‘contradicts’ the next point. So be it.]

– Rethink how we market chess to kids. Right now chess is pitched to parents as a way to make their kids smart. They send the kids to chess clubs and tournaments, the kids dutifully participate, and then they drop away from the game. Part of the problem is that we’re only giving purely instrumental reasons for taking up the game, and we’re not successful at inculcating love for the game in the young players. Methods of recruitment (and methods of pedagogy) affect outcomes. (For more on this, have a look at what Richard James has to say on the topic.)

4. Was Caruana’s win streak really that amazing?

Yes and no. Seven straight wins against top-10 opposition is pretty darned good. But keep in mind that this was only a 10 round tournament with a rest day and no adjournments. He could afford to play with max effort in those games, knowing that his playing schedule was short. I think the win streak would have been even more impressive were it in even a 12 or 14 game tournament, where Caruana would have had to calculate winning chances against the need to conserve energy.

What’s more, there are arguments to be made that (a) this was not nearly the strongest tournament of all time, given rating inflation and the non-existence of international ratings before 1970, and (b) that other streaks like Fischer’s in 1963 or 1971 are much more impressive.

5. Do we want more attention?

Perhaps the real question is this: do we want the kind of mass-market, commodified attention that Stevenson assumes as a good? Do we really want tabloid coverage of Nakamura’s outbursts and Carlsen’s modeling gigs?

What I’m asking here is whether or not we shouldn’t deny the premise of Stevenson’s article, which is great as a color piece on the state of modern chess, but (frankly) lousy on understanding why chess is so important to so many of us. Stevenson seems to think that chess needs and deserves the kind of attention that the NFL gets. I disagree.

Chess is valuable in that it teaches players everything that neoliberal society does not. It teaches critical thinking and the need for judgment. It requires sitzfleish. It is an arena in which the necessarily futile search for absolute truth is seen not as failure but as limit-ideal, where beauty is not extraneous but essential.

If we strive to make chess palatable for the masses, we risk losing all of that.

I prefer to be contrarian. I teach chess, think chess, dream chess precisely because it is unprofitable, because it is not quick, flashy, facile. I am always apprenticing myself to it, knowing full well that I will never begin to master it.

So I’m very, very glad to be able to watch chess on the Internet. Many of my fellow chess fans are as well. But I’m just as glad that I’m not watching it on CBS on Sunday afternoons and that there are no tailgates outside the St Louis Chess Center. I’d prefer to keep chess weird.

The Missing Manual

Edwards, Jon. ChessBase Complete: Chess in the Digital Age. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014. 350 pp. ISBN 978-1936490547. PB List $34.95.

In my previous review, which focused on the top three chess engines currently available, I said that ChessBase 12 is a nearly mandatory purchase for improving players.  In this review I continue in that vein by reviewing a new book about ChessBase 12, a book that fills a real need in the literature.

Fun fact: I proofread and edited the English help files for ChessBase 8 way back in 2000. Even then, the manual for the ChessBase program seemed something of an afterthought, something that the authors of ChessBase put together out of necessity and nothing more. The ChessBase program has been, and continues to be, difficult to master, and the manual has never been particularly helpful to the neophyte. Some third parties, most notably Steve Lopez with his T-Notes column, tried to remedy this situation, but on the whole there has never been a truly comprehensive, user-friendly introduction to the ChessBase GUI. Until now, that is.

Jon Edwards is an ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation) Senior International Master, a USCF OTB expert, a chess teacher and an author with multiple chess related titles to his name. He is is a long-time ChessBase power user, having used the program to research his books and his openings for correspondence games. Edwards also created very early e-books for the ChessBase platform.

Edwards’ new book, ChessBase Complete: Chess in the Digital Age, is a careful and systematic introduction to the ChessBase 12 GUI and its capabilities. Over the course of 14 chapters or ‘scenarios,’ Edwards clearly explains to his readers how to use ChessBase, how to manipulate and maintain data, how to play on the Playchess server, and much more. I reproduce the chapter list from the book below:

SCENARIO 1 The Future of Chess Books (And some very simple searching)
SCENARIO 2 Maintaining Quality Data (Garbage in, Garbage out)
SCENARIO 3 Working well with ChessBase (Organizing and viewing your chess information)
SCENARIO 4 Preparing for an opponent (Because they’re preparing for you)
SCENARIO 5 Playing (At any time of the day or night)
SCENARIO 6 Playchess Tournaments (Competing for fun and profit)
SCENARIO 7 Preserving and annotating your games (Because you must)
SCENARIO 8 Honed opening preparation (No more surprises)
SCENARIO 9 Engines and Kibitzers (Subjecting your games to unbiased scrutiny)
SCENARIO 10 A Grandmaster by your Side (Complex searching made easy)
SCENARIO 11 Watching Grandmaster Chess (It’s better than baseball)
SCENARIO 12 Training and Teaching (Lighting up the board)
SCENARIO 13 Competing at Correspondence Chess (It’s not dead yet)
SCENARIO 14 Writing about Chess (With tips on printing)

Five Appendices are included, including a summary of all the features available via the GUI and – very usefully – a list of all the keyboard shortcuts used in ChessBase.

Edwards is a clear and engaging writer. He makes use of copious screenshots to assist with his tutorials, and numerous ‘tips’ are strewn through the text to remind readers of essential points. Readers are often asked to ‘learn by doing,’ and Edwards carefully leads his pupils through the tasks described in the book. And he takes the time to explain opaque terms and titles, like the ranks of players on the Playchess server.

I have been using ChessBase since the days of DOS, so most of what Edwards had to say wasn’t entirely new to me. Still, I found his discussion of constructing one’s own keys instructive, and as I’ve never played correspondence chess via ICCF, Scenario 13 was rather interesting.

Relatively few typos made it into the final text, although I did find one or two along with the occasional verbal oddity, i.e., “…an inexorable quality to [Morphy’s] games…” (210).  The ChessBase one-click web publishing service is not a joint venture with Facebook (243), and it was surprising to see that Edwards only allocated 1 to 2mb to the tablebases in his screenshots (318). For a book of this length and with this many technical details, I do not find these shortcomings unacceptable.

Players new to ChessBase 12 (or, soon, ChessBase 13) should seriously consider buying a copy of ChessBase Complete, and long-time users might want to as well. It is a sturdy tutorial to the various features of the program, and it doubles as a user-friendly reference guide. I suspect that about 90% of what you need to know about ChessBase can be found in these pages. For that last 10% I would recommend Axel Smith’s Pump Up Your Rating, which has the finest discussion of professional level ChessBase use in print. See my review of Smith’s book for more.

Choosing a Chess Engine

Note: This review has been updated as of 9/24 to reflect my testing and experience with the newly released Komodo 8.


Houdini 4, written by Robert Houdart. Standard (up to six cpu cores, $79.95 list) and Pro (up to 32 cpu cores, $99.95 list) versions with Fritz GUIs available. Also available directly from the Houdini website for approximately $52 (Standard) or $78 (Pro) as of 9/11/14.

Komodo 7a, written by Don Dailey, Larry Kaufman and Mark Lefler. Available directly from the Komodo website for $39.95.

Komodo 8, written by Don Dailey, Larry Kaufman and Mark Lefler. Available (1) with Fritz GUI ($97ish as of 9/24) and (2) directly from the Komodo website without GUI for $59.96

Stockfish 5, written by the Stockfish Collective. Open-source and available at the Stockfish website.

Increasingly I’m convinced that a serious chess player must make use of chess technology to fully harness his or her abilities. This, as I have previously discussed, involves three elements: the GUI, the data, and the engine. ChessBase 12 is the gold standard for chess GUIs, and I will be reviewing a new book about proper use of that GUI in the near future. Here, however, I want to take up the thorny issue of choosing a chess engine. Which engine is ‘best’ for the practical player to use in his or her studies?

I put ‘best’ in scare-quotes because there are two ways to look at this question. (1) There is little question at this point that the best chess engines of the past five years can beat 99.9% of human players on modern hardware. So one way that engines are tested now is in a series of engine vs engine battles. While many people process private matches, there are three main public rating lists: IPON, CCRL and CEGT.

Here there is something of a consensus. Houdini, Stockfish and Komodo are the three top engines at the moment, with very little differentiating between them, and with the particular order of the engines varying due to time control and other criteria.

Update: The three lists mentioned above have tested Komodo 8.

  • It is in first place on the IPON list, leading Stockfish 5 by 6 elo points and Houdini 4 by 17.
  • Komodo 8 appears on two of the CCRL lists. In games played at a rate of 40 moves in 4 minutes (40/4), Stockfish 5 leads Komodo 8 by 7 elo points and Houdini 4 by 30 elo points. In games played at the slower rate of 40 moves in 40 minutes (40/40), Komodo 8 has a 22 elo point lead on Stockfish 5 and a 39 point lead on Houdini.
  • Among the many CEGT lists, we find: (a) Stockfish 5 is first on the 40/4 list, followed by Komodo 8 and Houdini 4; (b) Houdini 4 leads the 5’+3″ list, followed by Stockfish 5 and Komodo 8; (c) Komodo 8 leads the 40/20 list followed by Stockfish 5 and Houdini 4; but (d) the 40/120 list has not yet been updated to include Komodo 8.
  • Note: Larry Kaufman compiles the results from these lists and one other in a thread at Talkchess. He argues (a) that Komodo does better at longer time controls, and that (b)  Komodo 8 is roughly equal in strength to the Stockfish development releases, which are slightly stronger than the officially-released Stockfish 5. </update>

From my perspective, however, (2) analytical strength is more important. If all the engines are strong enough to beat me, I think that the quality of their analysis – the ‘humanness’, for lack of a better word – is critical. It used to be the case that humans could trick engines with locked pawn chains, for example, or that engines would fail to understand long-term compensation for exchange sacrifices. Such failings have largely been overcome as the engines and hardware have improved; nevertheless, there remain certain openings and types of positions that are more problematic for our metal friends. Michael Ayton offers one such position in the ChessPub forums; if you want have a laugh, check out the best lines of play on offer by the engines reviewed here:

Screenshot 2014-09-11 12.33.12

FEN: r1b2rk1/pp1nqpbp/3p1np1/2pPp3/2P1P3/2N1BN2/PP2BPPP/R2Q1RK1 w – c6 0 10

Among the multiple engines available, there are three that stand above the fray. These are Houdini by Robert Houdart, Komodo by the late Don Dailey, Larry Kaufman and Mark Lefler, and Stockfish. Houdini and Komodo are commercial engines, while Stockfish is open-source and maintained by dozens of contributors.

How can we understand the differences between the engines? Let’s consider two key components of chess analysis: search and evaluation. Search is the way that the engine ‘prunes’ the tree of analysis; because each ply (move by White or Black) grows the list of possible moves exponentially, modern engines trim that list dramatically to obtain greater search depth. Evaluation is the set of criteria used by the engine to decipher or evaluate each position encountered during the search.

In a very general sense, what differentiates Houdini, Komodo and Stockfish are their search and evaluation functions. How they are different on a technical / programming level, I cannot say: Houdini and Komodo are closed-source and I can’t decipher code in any event. What I can do, however, is cite what some experts in the field have said, and then see if it coheres with my experience of the three engines.

Larry Kaufman, who works on Komodo, said in an interview on the Quality Chess blog that:

Komodo is best at evaluating middlegame positions accurately once the tactics are resolved. Stockfish seems to be best in the endgame and in seeing very deep tactics. Houdini is the best at blitz and at seeing tactics quickly. Rybka is just obsolete; I like to think of Komodo as its spiritual desceendant, since I worked on the evaluation for both, although the rest of the engines are not similar. Fritz is just too far below these top engines to be useful.

…Komodo’s assessment of positions is its strong point relative to the other top two, Houdini best for tactics, Stockfish for endgames and whenever great depth is required. Both Houdini and Stockfish overvalue the queen, Komodo has the best sense for relative piece values I think. Komodo is also best at playing the opening when out of book very early.

Stockfish is, as Kaufman suggests, very aggressive in the way that it prunes the tree of analysis, searching very deeply but narrowing as the ply go forward. It is important to remember that each engine reports search depth and evaluation differently, so that (as Erik Kislik writes in a fascinating article on the recent TCEC superfinal) the way that Stockfish ‘razors’ the search means that its reported depth can’t be directly compared to Houdini or Komodo. Still, it does seem to search more deeply, if narrowly, than do its competitors.  This has advantages in the endgame and in some tactical positions.

Houdini is a tactical juggernaut. It tends to do best on the various tactical test sets that some engine experts have put together, and it is fairly quick to see those tactics, making it useful for a quick analysis of most positions. Its numerical evaluations also differ from other engines in that they are calibrated to specific predicted outcomes.

A +1.00 pawn advantage gives a 80% chance of winning the game against an equal opponent at blitz time control. At +2.00 the engine will win 95% of the time, and at +3.00 about 99% of the time. If the advantage is +0.50, expect to win nearly 50% of the time. (from the Houdini website)

Kaufman argues that his engine, Komodo, is the most positionally accurate of the three, and I don’t disagree. Kaufman is involved in the tuning of Komodo’s evaluation function; as he is a grandmaster, it does not seem outrageous to believe that his engine’s positional play might benefit from his chess expertise. The engine is slightly ‘slower’ (anecdotally, and not judging by NPS, or nodes per second, and ply count) than are Stockfish and Houdini, but Komodo seems to benefit more from longer analysis time than do Houdini or Stockfish.

I’ve been using Komodo 8 in the Fritz GUI from ChessBase for a few days now. The GUI is the same as the Houdini 4 and the Deep Fritz 14 GUIs; in fact, when you install Komodo 8, I think it just adds some configuration files to your ChessProgram14 folder to allow for a Komodo ‘skin’ to appear. The Komodo 8 engine is slightly faster than 7a judging solely by NPS. While coding changes mean that the two can’t be directly compared, Mark Lefler has said that 8 is approximately 9% faster than 7a. The ChessBase package comes with a 1.5 million game database, an opening book, and a six month Premium membership at; all are standard for Fritz GUI releases such as Deep Fritz 14 or Houdini 4.

From my perspective, I tend to use all three engines as I study chess or check analysis for review purposes, but two more than the third. When I look at my games, which aren’t all that complex, I generally use Houdini as my default kibitzer. It seems to be the fastest at seeing basic tactical problems, and its quickness is a plus on some of my antiquated computers. I also tend to bring Komodo into the mix, especially if I want to spend some time trying to figure out one position. Stockfish serves more as a second (or third) option, but I will use it more heavily in endgame positions – unless we get into tablebase territory, as Stockfish does not (generally) use them.

*Note:* for other perspectives on the ‘personalities’ of these three engines, you might consider a couple of threads at the indispensible ChessPub forum.

As I was working on this review, I thought that I might try to ‘objectively’ test the engines on positions that were more positional or prophylactic in nature, or perhaps in some difficult endgame positions. I took 11 positions from books on hand, including a number from Aagaard’s GM Preparation series, and created a small test suite. Each engine (including Deep Fritz 14 for comparison’s sake) had 4 minutes to solve each problem on my old quad-core Q8300, and each engine had 512mb of RAM and access to Syzygy (5-man) or Nalimov (selected 6-man) tablebases as they preferred. You can see the results at the following link:

or as summarized below:

First test set

Deep Fritz 14, curiously enough, solved more problems than did Houdini 4, Komodo 7a/8 or Stockfish 5. None could solve the famous Shirov …Bh3 ending. None could solve the Polugaevsky endgame, which illustrates a horizon-related weakness still endemic among even the best engines. Only Komodo 7a, Komodo 8 and Deep Fritz 14 solved position #2, which I thought was the most purely positional test among the bunch. This test is only anecdotal, and perhaps the engines would have gotten more answers right on faster hardware; nevertheless, I was a little surprised.

Test #2: Jon Dart (author of Arasan) has created a series of test suites to torture his engine and others. I took the first 50 problems from the Arasan Testsuite 17 and ran Houdini 4, the two Komodos, Stockfish 5, Deep Rybka 4.1 and Deep Fritz 14 through their paces. (I would have added Crafty 23.08, installed with Komodo 8, but it kept crashing the GUI when I tried to include it in the test.) Here the engines only received 60 seconds to solve the problem – the same standard Dart uses in his tests of Arasan, albeit with a much faster computer. You can see the results at the following link:

or as summarized below:

Arasan test set

Stockfish 5 and Houdini 4 each solved 38/50 problems in the one minute time limit. Komodo 8 solved 30 problems, improving by one over Komodo 7a’s 29 solved problems, and doing so with a faster average solving time. Deep Rybka and Deep Fritz each solved 28 problems correctly. Given the shorter ‘time control’ and the relatively tactical nature (IMHO) of the test set, these results seem representative of the various engines and their characteristics.

So now we have to answer the real question: which engine is best? Which one should you use? Let’s begin by admitting the obvious: for most analytical tasks you throw at an engine, any one of the three would suffice. Most of the other major ‘second-tier’ engines, including Crafty (free to download), Deep Fritz (commercial), Hiarcs (commercial) and Junior (commercial), are also sufficient to analyse the games of amateurs and point out our tactical oversights. If you’re just looking for an engine to blunder-check your games, you have plenty of options.

If, however, you’re using engines for heavy analytical work or on very difficult positions, I think you need to consider buying both Houdini and Komodo and also downloading the open-source Stockfish. Each engine, as discussed above, has relative strengths and weaknesses. The best strategy is to see what each of the engines have to say in their analysis, and then try to draw your own conclusions. Were I forced to decide between Houdini 4 and Komodo 8, I’d probably – at this moment, anyway! – choose Komodo 8, simply because it seems stronger positionally, and its slight comparative tactical disadvantage doesn’t outweigh that positional strength. Both Houdini and Komodo are well worth their purchase price for the serious player and student. Downloading Stockfish should be mandatory!