Chess Playing Software Buyer's Guide
Now let's take a closer look at chess playing software, and the different choices available.
1. Play as Much Chess as You Can
I usually present this tip later in the list, but since we're talking about electronic training materials it's more appropriate to list it first instead.
You can study chess for hours a day but all of that study won't do you a bit of good unless you practice. By "practice" I mean any game of chess you play, regardless of whether it's against a human or a computer and regardless of the level of your opposition. You can learn a lot about chess just by playing the game, too. (As an analogous situation, I've been a five card draw poker player since I was five but just recently discovered the joys of Texas Hold 'em. I've read a bit about the game's strategy, but I've also learned a lot by simply playing a few hundred hands of Limit Hold 'em. This in turn leads to an increased understanding of the printed strategy material I've been reading).
In short, you can't get good at chess unless you play the game. And this is where chess playing software comes in very handy. You can get a game of chess anytime you like, day or night, against any level of opponent (just by changing a few settings in your chess playing program). More importantly, you can have your program analyze the games you play to show you where you went wrong (as well as what you did right); we'll talk more about analysis features later on in this article.
The big thing is to play the game as often as you can, since every game is a learning experience. Chess programs give you an excellent opportunity to do this.
Novice/Beginner Chess Player:
Here's where I'll make a non-ChessBase recommendation. Chess is a game and thus should be fun. A program which gives you a ton of "bells and whistles" to make playing against the computer a fun experience is Fritz. You're provided with a host of "characters" to play against - virtual people who come complete with a photo, biographical info, and even some tips as to their playing style. Fritz also includes full game analysis abilities and some basic tutorials for novices/beginners.
While advanced players will also be challenged by the tougher computer opponents, I've chosen to rate Fritz. for lower-rated players because of the mass-market bells and whistles and the basic tutorials. The program is overall geared more toward casual/new players than to ones who've already been around the proverbial block a few times.
Intermediate/Advanced Chess Player:
I recommend the line of ChessBase playing programs; in my opinion the interface is much cleaner than ChessMaster's and there are more tools for the "serious" chess player (statistical game trees, better database functions, multiple game analysis options, etc. The ChessBase playing programs also allow you to make full use of the other training materials we'll discuss later.
The question then becomes "Which chess playing software program should I buy?" The interface and features of each program are identical; the difference lies in the "brain" of the program (i.e. the chess engine). Since each chess software program is created by a different programmer, each brings something a bit different to the table with it; the programs will play/analyze in slightly different styles. The differences might not be apparent right away, but over many games with each program you will see differences in how they approach the game.
Here's a list of the chess playing software programs offered by ChessCentral ranked roughly by playing style (from tactical to positional) with additional comments provided:
- Junior: The most tactically-oriented of the four. Junior will sometimes even make speculative sacrifices (and this can be intensified a bit with one of the tweaks available under "Engine options").
- Fritz: Of the four choices, this is the "middle-ground" program. While still being positionally sound, Fritz' strong suit is still tactics. This may change a bit with the introduction of forthcoming Fritz versions, which have been pre-billed as containing advanced positional qualities.
- Hiarcs: Until the introduction of Shredder, Hiarcs was the most positional chess engine on the market. The programmer (Mark Uniacke) has been building positional knowledge into Hiarcs since the program's introduction more than a decade ago.
- Shredder: Easily the most positional chess playing program on the market. Shredder plays in a "solid" style and it's difficult for the average player to induce Shredder to make major positional errors.
- Houdini: Reputation for evaluation and search improvements in all phases of the game and is about 50 Elo stronger than its tahn most engines. The improved strength means that Houdini nearly doubles the chess performance of your PC for game analysis and match play.
- Komodo: The evaluation differs from its main rivals because it represents a blend of both automated tuning and the judgment of a grandmaster and computer expert (Larry Kaufman).
Note that these rankings are relative to each other; all chess playing software programs are still tactically-oriented and you currently won't get "Steinitzian" positional play from any chess program.
Some players are still hard-pressed to make a decision. In this case I recommend Fritz, the "flagship" playing program offered by ChessBase.
All of the ChessBase playing programs also come with a 6 month Premium subscription to Playchess.com, an online playing site where you can play against hundreds of other chess players around the clock. No other software is required, either - you play using the normal interface of the any of the above chess playing software programs.
You can take a look at the list of ChessCentral chess playing software programs and get a bit more information.