Category Archives: buying guide

Time for a New Clock?

This essay has been printed in the 70th Anniversary (September 2016) issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

Note that all prices listed in the review are from uscfsales.com as of mid July 2016. The in-text links do not go to USCF Sales but to Amazon (with the exception of the Vtek), and so prices may vary widely.

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Each year the Delegates to the United States Chess Federation meet at the U.S. Open. Among their many duties are the consideration of various motions, some of which deal with changes to the Official Rules of Chess. Some of these changes are minor and of little practical consequence for the majority of players. Others, like the rewriting of Rules 5E and especially 5F – passed at the 2015 Delegates Meeting and enacted on January 1st of this year – warrant closer attention.

Rule 5F deals with the ‘Standard Timer,’ enumerating the criteria by which a chess clock can be considered tournament legal. You can find all of the details online at uschess.org, but the bottom line is this: analog clocks, while still legal, are on the way out. They don’t allow for delay time, now assumed standard, or increment (5E), and digital clocks are to be preferred to analog clocks in all cases (5F4).

Every active tournament player should own a digital clock, but which one? Two traditionally popular manufacturers – Excalibur (Gametime II) and Saitek (Chess Competition or ‘Blue Scholastic’ clocks, Competition Pro) – have ceased production. The venerable Chronos clocks are still generally available, although they have been hard to come by in recent years, and programming them remains a challenge even for seasoned users. [1]

The good news is that a slew of new clocks have come to market, with options and price points to appeal to every type of chess consumer. Which one is best, and for whom? There is no single answer to this kind of question, but readers should be well-equipped to make educated buying decisions by the end of this article.

Modes and Methodology

One of the difficulties in assessing the features of competing clocks is the terminology. What’s the difference between delay, Bronstein, and Fischer modes? What’s the difference for the practical player?

The U.S. Chess Federation rule book differentiates between delay (pause) and increment (added) time modes (Rules 5, 42), and it recognizes two types of delay. Most American players are familiar with simple delay, where a player’s clock does not begin to decrease for a specified amount of time (usually five seconds) after pressing the clock.

With Bronstein or ‘add-back’ delay, invented by former World Championship Challenger David Bronstein, clock time begins to decrease when it is a player’s turn to move, and the time used, up to the specified delay, is added back when the player hits the clock. US Chess rules consider these two forms of delay to be mathematically equivalent.

Fischer or ‘bonus’ mode, named after its inventor, the American World Champion Bobby Fischer, is usually described in America as an increment. Time is added to a player’s clock with each completed move, although some clocks (notably DGTs) also add the increment time when a player’s clock first starts. In both cases, and in contrast to delay, a player can accumulate more time than she started with via the increment.

Current US Chess rules do not specify which type of delay is preferred, although simple delay is the de facto standard. FIDE prefers Bronstein delay. The clocks under consideration in this article will vary as to how they implement both delay and increment, and I will note these differences accordingly.

My analysis is drawn from extensive hands-on investigations and over-the-board play. I have also lent some of them out to friends and students for their inspection and comments. In what follows I first offer descriptions of all the clocks ordered by manufacturer, and I conclude with a series of recommendations for different types of players. All clock prices are drawn from the USCF Sales website as this article went to press.

DGT

Digital Game Technology, or DGT, is perhaps the leading purveyor of chess technology in the world. Based in the Netherlands, DGT manufactures the e-boards and e-pieces used to transmit moves to the web at all the biggest events, and they also produce a full line of clocks.

Broadly speaking, we can divide DGT’s product line in two: a scholastic segment (1001, Easy, Easy Plus) and a tournament segment (2010, 3000, NA). The scholastic clocks are tournament-legal but lack certain features that more serious players would expect; this is reflected in their relative cost. The tournament clocks, while slightly more expensive, possess a full range of features and settings. Let’s have a closer look at each model.

The DGT 1001 ($29.95) is a small clock designed for the beginner. It lacks delay and increment, and it can only be set for one time control – for G/90, say, instead of 40/90, SD/30. The tradeoff is that it is incredibly easy to program. You just press the plus or minus buttons on the top of the clock to change the starting times, hit the play button, and you’re off. My youngest student, age 8, managed to correctly set it within a minute or two of opening the box.

The Easy ($34.95) and Easy Plus ($44.95) share a unique housing and profile: they are shaped rather like an index card folded longways. The Easy comes in three different colors and the Easy Plus in just one, and both clocks can only be programmed for one time control. What distinguishes the two is their ability to handle delay and increment. The Easy lacks these functions, while the Easy Plus can be set for simple delay and increment. These clocks seem the sturdiest of the DGT line, and I found them fairly easy to set.

While the 1001, Easy, and Easy Plus are all limited and perhaps best for beginning or scholastic players, the DGT 2010, 3000 and North American (NA) are robust clocks suitable for all playing conditions and time controls. Because of the similarities between the 2010 and NA, I will treat them in tandem before turning to the 3000.

The 2010 (unavailable through USCF Sales; $85.95 at Chess4Less) and North American or NA ($49.95), like the Easy and Easy Plus, share a common housing and are physically identical save their color. What separates them is their feature set. The NA was specifically designed for the North American market, with settings and timing modes commonly used in American tournaments. The 2010 features Bronstein delay and increment along with other time settings like byo-yomi and count-up that are used in Go and Scrabble. Both can be set for up to four time controls.

The 2010 and NA are programmed in the same manner. Users select from presets – thirty-six in the case of the 2010, twenty-three in the case of the NA – listed on the bottom of the clock, including a number of adjustable options. I found the setting of both clocks to be quick and intuitive, although I have to admit that I struggled until I actually read the LCD and configured seconds instead of delay time! Blitz fans, however, will lament the fact that you have to pick the clock up and turn it off/on to reset it for each game.

The 3000 ($109.95) is DGT’s top-of-the-line clock. It’s the one you see in use at major events like the U.S. Championship, the Sinquefield Cup, etc., because when connected to a DGT e-Board broadcasters can transmit both moves and move times to the Internet. The 3000 is the only DGT clock to allow for simple delay, Bronstein delay, and increment, and it’s the only clock I’ve seen that shows seconds on the display in all time controls and timing modes.

The 3000 comes with twenty-five presets along with five manual settings that can be saved for future use. It is set in much the same fashion as the 2010 and the NA – both of which it resembles, save the slightly larger LCD – but the 3000 also allows users to choose timing methods from a list on the display. This makes its programming very simple. You do have to pick up the clock to reset it, as with the 2010 and NA, so players primarily searching for a blitz clock might look elsewhere.

OmcorChess

OmcorChess is a chess manufacturer from Mexico, and the GameTimer 960 ($44.95) is their first clock on the American market. It is so new, in fact, that my review model was the first of its kind that I’d seen.

The shape and size of the clock are similar to that of the higher-end DGT clocks, and like them, the GameTimer 960 uses a rocker arm. It is also set in a similar manner, with fifty-eight timing options (printed on the bottom of the clock) available, including simple delay, Bronstein delay, and Fischer increment along with byo-yomi and Scrabble options.

One important feature of the GameTime 960 is its utility for Chess 960 players. [2] Users can press the 960 button and a random 960 starting position will appear on the display. Unfortunately the GameTimer manual is very poorly translated, so I was not able to fully grasp all the dimensions of this feature. The clock also comes in a USB equipped version, allowing users to display clock times on a computer screen.

On the whole the GameTime 960 seems feature-rich and fairly well-built, although the rocker arm feels less secure than do those on DGT clocks. I did find the location of the delay / increment countdown to be unfortunate, as it appears in a spot on the display that would be natural for a seconds counter.

VTek

The VTek 300 ($149.95 at chesshouse.com), produced by VisualTek Inc. in conjunction with Shelby Lohrman of American Chess Equipment, is an American-made clock that boasts a unique feature. It is fully menu driven, with a series of options and suboptions accessed through a dedicated line of text on the LCD display.

The VTek has the largest footprint among the clocks reviewed here, and it is also the heaviest of the bunch. Available in multiple colors, the VTek has a metal housing with mechanical push buttons and LED move indicators. The manual suggests that there are 36 preset time controls available, along with a dedicated ‘create new’ option. Simple delay, Bronstein delay, and Fischer increment modes are available, but oddly enough, controls for Bronstein time are found under an increment settings menu.

There is no question that having a full text menu is helpful in correctly setting the VTek, and the fact that user preferences are set globally (FIDE style, USCF style, etc.) is an interesting innovation. It did take this long-time Chronos user some time to learn the button combinations needed to navigate the menus, and for some reason, you can’t specifically turn the move counter on or off. This last quirk might be corrected with updated firmware, something that VisualTek intends to make available to its users through a mail-in service.

Z-Mart

ZmartFun, a Miami-based company, offers two clocks that are perhaps the most direct challengers to Chronos’ market share. The ZMF-II ($59.95) has a plastic case and a bright LED display, while the ZMF-Pro ($99.95) is housed in metal and has two large LCD displays. Both are equipped with touch-sensitive buttons, and both share an identical set of menu options and settings.

There is a bit of a learning curve to setting ZMF clocks, and I had to refer much more closely to the manual than I did with the other clocks under review. Still, setting the clock is not onerous, and I found it simpler to learn (if memory serves) than was the Chronos. Users have three preset option slots available to them, and stock time controls and preferences can be edited and saved as new presets for future use. Both clocks feature simple delay and increment settings along with byo-yomi and Scrabble modes, and blitz fans will love the fact that the clock can be reset with three clicks of the central button.

There is a touch of iconoclasm about these clocks. The ZMF-II is the only clock on the market to use colorful LEDs for display panels, and the ZMF-Pro shows clock times with large numbers that fill the display. Both depart from the usual norms of chess clock design. I’ve found that players are divided on the ZMF-II, with some loving the bright LEDs and others (including me) finding them distracting. I’d not seen the ZMF-Pro before receiving my review clock; when I used it in a blitz tournament, I found the oversized numbers jarring and put it aside after the first game.

Recommendations

After all of this, the question remains: which of these new clocks should you buy? The answer is… it depends.

Let’s say you run a scholastic program or after-school chess club, and you’re not running US Chess tournaments regularly. In this case it would make sense to buy multiple inexpensive clocks, even if they lack features like delay, increment, or multiple time controls. The DGT 1001, Easy, and Easy Plus would all be logical choices, with the Easy being the best compromise between price and build quality.

At $49.95, the DGT North American is an outstanding choice for the majority of US Chess players, and I think it the best value on the market today. The NA is sturdy and reliable, and it has every feature that an American tournament player could need. The Omcor GameTimer 960 would also serve most players well, although I’d like to see it used more widely before recommending it, and blitz fans might turn to the ZMF-II for their blitz and tournament needs.

If you are looking for the best clock available, and money is no object, there are only two choices. The DGT 3000 and the VTek 300 are both fantastic. They are well built, easy to set, and feature-rich. If pressed, I would pick the 3000 because of the lower cost and the expansive display, but I’d resent being forced to choose!

I have used all of the clocks mentioned in this article over the past few months, but I keep coming back to three for over-the-board play: the DGT NA, the DGT 3000, and the VTek 300. Each of these clocks would serve you well for many years, and each one receives my full recommendation.


[1] It should be noted that the author tried to contact the manufacturers of the Chronos clock as part of this review on multiple occasions, as did industry intermediaries on behalf of the author. No response was ever received.

[2] Note that DGT also produces a 960 capable clock, the DGT 960 ($39.95), but its small size and design make it less than ideal for serious tournament play. As a portable game timer, however, the DGT 960 might make sense for many players, especially those interested in 960 chess.

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Holiday Gifts for Chessplayers

Last year I posted a three-part guide to holiday gifts for the chess player or aficionado in your life. Most all of what was written there still stands, so before I mention a few newer items of note, I refer you to those three posts. I also encourage you to check out my complete list of reviews.

2013 Buying Guide #1: Clocks and Chess Interfaces (Note – ChessBase 13 is now available)
2013 Buying Guide #2: Databases and Engines (Note – the discussion of engines is slightly out of date; see this for updated information)
2013 Buying Guide #3: Chess books

Here are a few new thoughts on the swag you might buy for your beloved chess fan. Some (but not all) of what I mention has been reviewed here already; if it has been reviewed, I will link to the review in question.

For the serious player (or the player who wants to get serious):

ChessBase is indispensable. It is expensive, but it’s worth it, and your player will be over the moon upon receiving this. You can order from Amazon (available from Prime sellers) or download directly from chessbase.com if time is of the essence.

If they have ChessBase already, perhaps they need a new engine to use in it! You might also consider getting them Jon Edwards’ lovely (and useful) book on getting the most out of ChessBase.

For the improving player:

Don’t let the length of Arthur van de Oudeweetering’s name trouble you. His new book from NIC, Improve Your Chess Pattern Recognition, is a great (and pronounceable) read on positional ‘priyomes’ or patterns. Most of the book started as columns in the defunct ChessVibes Magazine, and those columns were just brilliant. I expect the book (still waiting on a review copy) will be no different.

Pete Tamburro’s Openings for Amateurs is really good for young players and players rated below 1800. It is good with explaining ideas but also contains enough analysis to form a coherent repertoire.

The 4th edition of Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual is out, and it’s the gold standard for one-volume endgame books. It’s a serious book for serious students, but I can’t think of a more useful book for someone who really wants to improve.

The Stappenmethode series of books is, in my opinion, the best training system available.

For the openings theoretician:

Two recent books from Quality Chess are stellar:

1.d4 players will appreciate any of Alexei Kornev’s three volumes on closed openings. I’ve spent some time with the third volume, devoted to the Nimzo-Indian and other lines, and I’ve found the analysis to be solid and understandable for non-masters.

Those with limited time for opening study and those looking for a very solid response to 1.e4 will like Hannes Langrock’s French Defense: the Solid Rubinstein Variation.

For the historian:

Andy Soltis has written a number of really important historical works, but for a long time they were only available in expensive hardcover format. Now McFarland has begun printing some of those titles in paperback. Two of them are worth consideration: Frank Marshall, United States Chess Champion, and Soviet Chess 1917-1991. I found the latter to be indispensible when I was reading and reviewing Soltis’ new book on Mikhail Botvinnik, which itself won the 2014 Chess Journalists of America Book of the Year award.

Jimmy Adams’ books have long been out of print and hard to find. His book on Johannes Zukertort, one of his best, has been reset and reprinted by New in Chess. There are lots of exciting attacking games in these pages.

For the chess fan:

Judit Polgar retired from competitive chess this year, but before she did, she left us with a gift. The three volumes of Judit Polgar Teaches Chess are luminous! They cover the entirety of her career, and while the books are structured by topic and theme instead of in a strictly linear fashion, there is a lot of color and personal reminiscence to complement the games and analysis. These are very personal works, and I think they’ll stand up against the best autobiographical works in the history of chess literature.

Bent Larsen’s Best Games makes the games of the Great Dane available once more to an English-speaking audience.

A ‘fan’ or a ‘historian’ would appreciate Mark Dvoretsky’s latest book, For Friends and Colleagues: Profession: Chess Coach. I reviewed this for the January 2015 issue of Chess Life, and while I can’t break the publishing embargo, let’s just say that the review was positive.

My best wishes to my readers for the holiday season!

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.

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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 Playchess.com; 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:

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2014/9/24/Game31750181.html

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:

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2014/9/24/Game31858867.html

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!

Chess Holiday Buying Guide: Part III (Books!)

Now we get to the books.  (Yay!)  Because you may be buying for a few different types of person, I’m going to break my recommendations into four main groups.  Note that each recommendation is accompanied by a very brief synopsis or note, and not with a full review.  I’d never get anything else done today if I were to strive for more than that!

Also: as a general rule, avoid buying any self-published Kindle books by authors you’ve never heard of.  They might be cheap, but you get what you pay for.

For the young beginning player

  • Chess For Children: How to Play the World’s Most Popular Board Game ($12.20ish at Amazon) is a lovely introduction to the game, replete with fun illustrations and solid instruction.  The authors are a Kiwi Grandmaster and his wife.
  • That same Grandmaster, Murray Chandler, also wrote How to Beat Your Dad at Chess ($12.71ish at Amazon).  This book focuses on checkmating patterns, and every player – including adults of all ratings – would do well to memorize the 50 patterns here.  True beginners might not be best served by this book, but it’s great for those who have played a bit and really want to beat Dad (or Mom, or Grandma).  Chandler is also the author of Chess Tactics for Kids ($15ish at Amazon) which outlines 50 key tactical patterns.
  • Susan Polgar’s dvd Learn Chess the Easy Way – Chess for Absolute Beginners ($19.95ish at Amazon) is a whimsical entry into the world of chess.  She uses computer animation and some silly characters to bring the rudiments of chess to life on the screen.  I’ve the first couple of chapters when leading workshops on chess for the Boy Scouts and at a chess camp, and the kids alternately enjoy the animation and groan when it gets a little much.
  • An older child – or an adult – will find Fred Wilson’s Simple Attacking Plans ($12ish at Amazon) to be of great value.  Wilson analyzes 37 games from players of a range of abilities, showing standard attacking themes and thrilling tactical thunderbolts.  I’ve played through the games in this book and found them very instructive, even at my relatively advanced level.
  • If you’re looking for a book to use to teach your child chess, Chess is Child’s Play: Teaching Techniques that Work ($16ish at Amazon) is a tested, systematic approach.
  • If your child was born with a mouse in her hand, there is the Fritz & Chesster trilogy ($20ish at Amazon) of learning programs from Chessbase.
  • Finally, having seen how obsessed children can be with tablets, the Dinosaur Chess app in the Apple Store is absolutely amazing.  I know anecdotally about two children who have used the app and adore it.

For the adult beginning player

  • John Nunn’s Learn Chess ($10ish at Amazon) is a no-nonsense primer.  Grandmaster Nunn is a reliable author, and most anything he writes will be a worthwhile purchase.
  • Chess for the Gifted and Busy ($16ish at Amazon) won’t quite get you all the way to expert, as the title suggests, but GM Lev Alburt and Al Lawrence have put together a book chock-full of instruction.  It’s dense, and it might move a little too quickly for some, but the work is overflowing with chess wisdom.
  • I’ve always thought that Chess Openings for Kids ($14ish at Amazon) by IM John Watson and FM Graham Burgess was sadly misnamed, since it’s not just for kids!  This is a well-constructed book that provides the key ideas for fifty opening systems and tabiyas.  Any player looking to expand his understanding of the most opening would find this book helpful.
  • Chess for Rookies ($20ish at Amazon) is another sturdy introduction to the game.  Craig Pritchett covers most all the bases here, and in a reader-friendly way.
  • Tactics are the most important thing for the beginning player to master if they are to improve.  Chandler’s How to Beat Your Dad at Chess and Chess Tactics for Kids, discussed above, are good.  I like John Bain’s Chess Tactics for Students, and I use this book when I teach at chess camps.  John Nunn’s Learn Chess Tactics ($16ish at Amazon) is comprehensive and clear.  Chess Tactics for Champions by Polgar and Truong ($17ish at Amazon) is a cost-effective collection of puzzles for solving.  Finally, Jeff Coakley’s Winning Chess Exercises for Kids  ($24ish at Amazon) is, for me, the best single collection of problems for beginning players of all ages to solve.  I’ve used pages from Coakley’s book with my chess team, and I’ve found the problems to be instructive and the answer key highly educational.

For the player ascending the rating latter

  • I believe that improving players – and particularly young players – should know their chess history.  Most good teachers will tell their pupils that intensive study of the great players of the past is a great way to improve their understanding and chess culture.  It’s for that reason that I think Max Euwe’s The Development of Chess Style (OOP, but lots of copies are available at Amazon) is a really important book for improving players to read.  Euwe shows the historical progression of chess strategy and theory through a few dozen annotated games.  He’s a great writer, and games are a lot of fun to play through.  Learning the theory of chess shouldn’t feel this easy.
  • I also really liked the new edition of Alekhine’s My Best Games of Chess 1908-1937 ($24ish at Amazon) released by Russell Enterprises this year.  Alekhine was a great annotator and his games are always entertaining.  You can read my review of this book if you are so inclined.
  • You can never do enough tactics.  Martin Weteschnik’s Chess Tactics from Scratch ($25ish at Amazon) will show your player how tactics work, while The Complete Chess Workout 2 by Palliser ($24ish at Amazon) will give them plenty of tactical practice.
  • Ivan Sokolov’s Sacrifice and Initiative in Chess ($21ish at Amazon) is an advanced treatise on attack.  It’s amazing, and it’s full of tidbits of attacking wisdom that would take years to acquire on one’s own.  If the person you’re buying for is a serious chess player, this is a fantastic book.
  • Finally, I just reviewed Axel Smith’s Pump Up Your Rating ($20ish at Amazon) and dubbed it the book of the year.  This book provides a full-blown training program for the improving player.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

For the older tournament player

  • As we age, we have to face facts: we’re not going to (necessarily) be able to keep up with the 12 year old tactical dynamos.  Sometimes adjustments are required.  Two recent books by John Watson – for me, the best chess writer around – can help with that, at least with the openings.  Watson’s Play the French 4 ($23ish at Amazon) and A Strategic Opening Repertoire for White ($19ish at Amazon) are both opening works of the highest standard.  Both books offer fully vetted repertoires with excellent verbal explanation of key ideas.  Watson’s four volume series Mastering the Chess Openings [ volume 1 | volume 2 | volume 3 | volume 4 ] remains the single best resource on opening play in general, and all four volumes are now available in Kindle format.
  • Older players can also outstrip their young opponents through positional play and the endgame.  Bronznik and Terekhin’s Techniques of Positional Play ($21ish at Amazon) is a brilliant look at some of strategic tricks of the trade.  John Nunn’s Understanding Chess Endgames ($19ish at Amazon) is a handy overview of numerous endgame theoretical positions and themes.  Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual ($26ish) is, of course, a real classic, and Mikhail Shereshevsky’s classic Endgame Strategy ($16ish at Amazon) is the best single introduction to endgame strategy in print.
  • Andy Soltis’ 100 Chess Master Trade Secrets: From Sacrifices to Endgames ($19ish at Amazon for paperback) is available in Kindle format, and will be out in paper in January.  This looks like another of Soltis’ better books, offering 100 ‘priyomes’ or nuggets of chess knowledge in very palatable format.
  • Fans of chess culture will love Hans Ree’s My Chess ($19ish at Amazon) and the new translation of Euwe’s tournament book on the 1948 Hague / Moscow Match Tournament ($19ish at Amazon).  You can read my review of the Ree book hereRussell Enterprises, as an aside, is really doing the chess world a great service by translating and algebratizing some of the treasures of chess literature.  Kudos to them!

I can’t possibly hope to cover all the books out there, but if readers have questions about specific titles, I’d be glad to try and answer them in the comments.

Chess Holiday Buying Guide: Part II

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? Smile

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.