23 February 2021

Chess Computing Resources (2021)

The recent release of the Stockfish 13 engine is a good peg point for an updated post outlining available chess computing resources for improving players. This is intended to be a streamlined look at key resources grouped around two main functions - Database/Analysis and Gameplay/Training - along with some observations on how to effectively use these computer tools. It is not intended to be a comprehensive review of everything that is available on the internet. Rather, it reflects the products/sites with which I have some familiarity, and have found more (or sometimes less) useful. For a deeper dive into specific software functionality, although the references are somewhat dated, see Chess Computing Resources for 2015.

I. Database/Analysis packages: the core training functions

Based on the recommendations of top-level trainers and my own personal experience, the two most important practices for progressing in chess strength are analyzing your own games and studying master games. Building your personal databases - I maintain two, one containing my tournament games and one with my training/online games - is fundamental to this. Using computer tools to help analyze and compare your games to master-level ones then becomes a powerful and efficient training practice. 

To maintain full control over your data and for ease of use, having your own software package often makes the most sense. This will consist of three parts: 1) a database program GUI (graphical user interface); 2) databases (your own and at least one general reference one); and 3) chess engine(s) for assisting analytic evaluation. Below we'll look at what's available in each of these categories. Mixing and matching is very possible, so it is worth carefully considering what you actually need for your own training purposes, especially if your budget is limited.

Database/Analysis GUI programs (free)

Scid vs. PC
A very good free option for database software is Scid vs. PC, which also has a Mac version and a related Android mobile app (Scid on the Go). The above screenshot displays the program loaded with the PGN file of the Ruiz Castillo - So commentary game, with the "Commentary - ChessAdmin" database (linked in the sidebar) loaded into the database tree reference tab. The engine analysis window is displayed at the bottom, showing the top three lines being calculated by the (free) Stockfish 13 engine. The text moves in the PGN window are fully annotatable using a right-click menu. The software is quite powerful and has many database, search, and game editing functions available.

Other top free database GUI programs include: Arena; a version of the original Scid; and ChessX. It costs nothing to check them out and one may work better on your particular computer platform (PC/Mac/Linux).

Training methodology: the above layout reflects my core setup for game analysis functions, except that I would also have open a general reference database and my opening repertoire database. Stepping through a game from the beginning then allows you to examine in detail the key decision points, in a computer-assisted manner, while exploring and recording different options. In the opening phase, the databases are the primary reference points for comparison and further investigation. While move statistics (% winning, frequency played) can be helpful guides as to what works best in a position, it is also important to look at related master games in a more in-depth fashion, especially to see what is going on in the early middlegame. Once that point is reached, the engine becomes your primary assistant, especially in highlighting alternative candidate moves that you may not have otherwise considered; this is why I have it set to display the top three lines. Of course along with the benefits, it is useful to keep in mind the pitfalls of computer analysis.

Database/Analysis GUI programs (commercial)

ChessBase 15
Above is displayed the same game in the ChessBase 15 program. The configuration is similar, showing the board, game text, and engine window, in this case running the (commercial) Komodo Dragon engine. One significant addition is the lower right "Let's Check" window which is proprietary, showing the top three engine evaluation lines from the ChessBase cloud database for the position. This is a useful way of automatically tapping into others' analytic efforts, using a variety of different engines. (You automatically contribute your own engine's evaluation by accessing the function, as well.) The feature is included with the latest ChessBase versions, which also have a large suite of advanced analytic database functions, as previously documented. These can be very useful for study and preparation purposes, but are not required for the core practice of game analysis using a reference database, analytic engine, and annotation tools.

Other commercial database GUIs include: Hiarcs Chess Explorer, Chess Assistant 21 and Aquarium 2021. These are all powerful products, but the reality is that ChessBase is considered the commercial standard, including for its proprietary database file format (CBV). Which means that if you want access to a variety of large databases in CBV format, you will need a ChessBase program.


In contrast with database GUI software, it's difficult to find comprehensive, good quality free games databases, which makes having some type of commercial product more necessary, at least in terms of a general reference database. That said, there are still multiple options available and searching the internet for public domain PGN databases that are currently available is always an option. I would advise being very careful about any advertised "free" file sources, however, to avoid downloading malware onto your system.
  • TWIC (The Week in Chess) since 1994 has been publishing international tournament games on its website and has weekly game files freely downloadable in both PGN and CBV format. According to the site, a PayPal donation will get you the full collection in CBV format.
  • Chess Games Links is a comprehensive site for finding downloadable and online games databases.
  • PGN Mentor is often cited as a games source and has a number of databases broken down by opening, player and event.
  • The standard commercial ChessBase products (sold by many retailers) are its Mega Database and Big Database programs, released as comprehensive general reference databases for international OTB (over-the-board) tournament and match games, with yearly updates. The primary difference is the professionally annotated games contained in the Mega version. Both use the proprietary ChessBase format to facilitate generating reports by player, event, etc. and to take advantage of the advanced search and analytic capabilities of the ChessBase GUI software. The company also publishes a separate Correspondence Database.
Chess engines

In contemporary times, free chess engines are among the world's top performers, so there is no reason not to have one (or more) in your analysis toolkit. A bit of internet background research - for example this non-partisan blog post on Chess.com - will also reveal which engines are essentially clones of publicly available ones. You can then make the decision to go for the free download, or instead choose a slightly tweaked, perhaps even weaker commercial version of an engine.
  • Stockfish is the gold standard chess engine that is freely available. Many internet sites incorporate a version of it as a live analysis engine.
  • Lc0 (Leela Chess Zero) is the main open source neural network based chess engine, also freely available. Stockfish and other top engines now incorporate NNUE (efficiently updatable neural network) evaluations, so the neural network distinction is less important than it used to be.
  • Komodo is a commercial engine that has been developed since 2007 by GM Larry Kaufman and his team. It typically has some extra/unique features and settings included, which are described on the site. The latest (Dragon) version has also incorporated NNUE technology. Previous Komodo versions are available for free download on the site.
It used to be that chess engines had significantly different strengths and demonstrably varied in their evaluation functions; for example, Fritz was notorious for its materialism. Now that the top engines are well over 3000 Elo in strength, there are still differences between their evaluations and approaches, but the practical significance of this is relatively minor, especially at the amateur level. Nevertheless, I believe that the "feel" of an engine's move choices is at least psychologically important for an improving player, so which engine you select as your primary assistant is still a personal decision. Historically I've been able to understand and relate better to Komodo's top 3 choices - the standard number of candidate moves I have displayed during the analysis process - so that has been my go-to engine for a while now.

It's worth highlighting the use of the word "assistant" for an engine's role in the training process. They can't be called coaches, since they do not provide explanations for their recommendations. The assistance provided to your thinking process by their showing different possibilities in a position can be very valuable, however. Engines will also help hone your evaluation skills, since as part of the analytic process you will need to articulate to yourself why a position is +/- for a particular side. Finally, your own judgment cannot be replaced and sometimes - perhaps even relatively often, in quiet positions - engine "scores" for lines can be misleading or simply not helpful, depending on how practical they would be to play in real life.

II. Gameplay/Training resources

Given the broad capabilities of modern chess software, the lines have been permanently blurred between chess database and chess-playing programs. This is in part because having some sort of database access is now considered integral to playing chess. So depending on what you want, you may not feel the need to have a different application for your playing and other training needs.
  • Scid vs. PC is a good example of this, as it comes with an engine (Phalanx) designed to be played at a user-adjustable level (strong master - beginner) and has basic time and other settings, including specifying which opening complex the computer should play and playing out a game from a particular position.
  • ChessBase deliberately separates the playing function into its Fritz GUI line of software, which has been sold with various primary engines, although ChessBase software owners have the option of playing out a particular position against an online version of Fritz at adjustable levels.
The experience of playing a computer opponent is much more personalized than the database analysis functions, as "fun" and "challenge" and other aesthetic considerations will enter into it. People also have very different goals and interests in playing, everything ranging from repeated blitz games to learn new openings, to slow games that are intended to simulate tournament conditions. Personally, I find it difficult to care about a training game against a computer, especially when there is no evident personality or "real-life" quality conveyed as part of the experience. This is why my preferred practice is to play a weekly game against a human training partner.

That said, here are some additional computer resources designed to provide higher-quality playing experiences.

Shredder 13
  • Shredder Chess is now best known for the game-playing and training features in its Shredder 13 line of commercial products, which are available for all platforms. The interface is intuitive and it offers a variety of customizable options, as well as a more human-like opponent at different strength levels. It has built-in training features for openings and endings, as well as tactics puzzles. Naturally it has an analytic and PGN database capability as well.
  • Lucas Chess is software geared towards playing and training, with special emphasis on offering a number of choices deliberately aimed at beginners, including some very low-rated engine opponents and more basic training options to develop chess skills.
  • It's a shame the old Chessmaster series died out, as especially the last edition (XI or The Art of Learning) was packed with tutorials for all levels and used an expansive range of named opponents with different chess "personalities" that made for more interesting training games. You could for example use the opponents as a "ladder" challenge or specific ones (aggressive attackers, strong defenders) to work on specific aspects of your game. The software is still floating around, but installing it on a modern system is unlikely to work well.
  • The Chess.com bots are a recent implementation of the same idea of varying chess "personalities" and strengths, in the context of an online opponent. From my perspective, they have a good range, but lack some customizable training options, for example a time control above 30 0 (why not 45 45 or 60 10 or just let you input one yourself, up to a certain range?) This makes them unsuitable for tournament-like practice games, since anything that goes into the endgame will result in a time crunch. There is also a "no time" option for casual play, but that doesn't address the issue of wanting an opponent set up for a slow game.
In terms of chess training resources, there are a lot of online sites that offer a wide variety of services. Gone are the days when chess bloggers had to rely on things like CT-ART software. Internet search, which will turn up things like YouTube videos and such, may well be your best bet for researching specific interests or applications in depth, especially free content. Nonetheless I'll close this post by highlighting some of the major commercial chess training sites, which normally include some free content as part of their offerings.
  • Chess.com has online database services, including an openings explorer, various chess puzzle challenges, and a series of its own interactive training videos on all aspects of the game. There is also a large number of recorded instructional videos from professional players hosted on the site, many behind the paywall.
  • Chessable offers a range of training courses on openings, endgames, strategy and tactics. Again, some content is free.
  • 365chess.com is primarily an online database service, but includes a number of training features for its supporters, focusing on openings and puzzles.
  • Chess Tempo is an in-depth site focusing on tactics, openings and endgames training, as well as offering online database services.
  • Forward Chess by this point has accumulated an extensive library of interactive e-books from major publishers for its app, which is best designed for tablets. If you are already using a database GUI program for your analytic work on a computer, I would recommend getting e-books (with accompanying databases) in whatever format you have your other databases, so you can use the data more easily. You can obtain free samples and excerpts of products to "try before you buy" within the app.

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