After having worked through and published over forty annotated games, in the process employing what I'd consider to be a simple and straightforward method of computer-assisted analysis, I've acquired an idea of some of the major pitfalls, as well as the benefits, of using chess engines. In sharing the following observations, it's worth noting that they are offered from the point of view of an improving Class player, rather than that of a professional chessplayer or computer programmer, whose needs and approaches to using computers may well be different.
- Ironically in my view, one of the most pernicious pitfalls for the improving player is psychological: the sense of failure that can result after seeing computer analysis repeatedly demonstrate wins missed or ways that a loss could have been avoided. How often do you see players comment about how stupid they feel or how bad their chess is following a game? It's important to have the mental toughness to stop kicking yourself afterwards and truly learn from your mistakes, rather than waste mental energy on self-denigration. Let the chess engine serve its function as a constructive tool to be used for improvement purposes.
- While outright blunders and forced wins are easily highlighted by engine analysis, the "best move" in a position is often not so easy to determine. This may even be impossible, given broadly conflicting plans and ideas: see what super-GM Kramnik has to say about this. In practical terms, engine evaluations that differ by 0.1 pawns are essentially equivalent and I would not sweat too much over a difference of up to 0.2 pawns.
- Only looking at a single visible line of analysis (the engine's top choice) can therefore be misleading when trying to understand a position; unfortunately, that is usually the default setting for a lot of software programs. For analysis purposes, a player needs to have multiple move choices (lines) visible in order to better comprehend the potential of a position; having 3 lines visible is my preference.
- Trusting the initially displayed engine move evaluations can be counterproductive to analysis and misleading. Engines need time to sort through possibilities in non-forcing situations and at least 1-2 minutes should be allowed when looking at a move using "infinite analysis" before proceeding. Stepping through subsequent moves of key variations is also very important and may change the evaluation of the line, after the engine is able to calculate further ahead in it.
- Computers are of less practical help in objectively evaluating best opening play, due to the sheer number of possibilities and lack of forcing tactics leading to an advantage. The best use of an engine in the opening phase is instead to search for and evaluate alternative moves that don't appear in, or are neglected by, opening theory; this is how the professionals use them to find theoretical novelties.
- Playing a move suggested by an engine is dangerous when you don't understand why it should be played. This is one of the main reasons that blindly following engine recommendations in the opening can be counterproductive, even if they are objectively "best" from the engine's point of view. Ending up in a middlegame position that you don't know how to play is often a quick route to defeat.
- In situations without forcing tactics, different engines may have significantly different assessments of the position. It's therefore important to understand as best you can the particular biases and limitations of the engines you use, and/or use multiple ones for analysis. Common biases include over-valuing material and mis-evaluating endgames in the absence of tablebases. For example, having initially run through my past tournament games with Fritz and now using Houdini to assist in analyzing them, I've run across several instances of key positions where Fritz preferred a different move, while Houdini has supported my original evaluation and move choice.
In the end, the point of seriously analyzing your games (or anyone else's) is to achieve a greater understanding of them and through that, of the game of chess in general. It's therefore wise to remember that the computer is there to support and asisst you, not to function as some sort of ultimate arbiter of what is correct and should always be played.