04 July 2012

Computer Resources - July 2012 update

My use of computer resources has evolved since last year's posts on the subject.  In addition to updating comments on individual tools, I'll also provide an outline of how this particular Class player is using computer tools to train.  I'm always interested in hearing how other players are training using computer tools, either with the same software or different choices.

The core resource for me continues to be a database analysis program with a comprehensive, updated games database and engine plugin.  Because of my approach to training, which features regular analysis of my own games and related comprehensive opening study (including identifying typical middlegame plans and reviewing complete games), this is the most important computer tool.
  • I recently settled on using ChessBase 11 as the primary database software package, along with a 2012 ChessBase format database. This was primarily due to the analytical features available in the package, the ease of generating commentary, and to legacy factors; I've been using ChessBase format for a long time.  After having used CB10 for a number of years, I can say that the CB11 interface and display is in fact much improved.  The most important improvement for me is better integration of the game reference display, which I use continually.  I also observed calculation errors CB10 made in terms of the move results percentages, which CB11 does not do.  CB11 also seems to run chess engines with fewer issues as well; CB10 would occasionally lock up, while I've had no errors with CB11 so far.
  • Tech note: CB11 took several tries to install and activate on my new Windows 7 laptop.  Running the install program in XP compatibility mode and with administrator access eventually worked; I also had issues installing the Fritz 13 program from DVD.  CB11's current version has a number of bugfixes and updates; I've had no stability issues or errors since install.  I do run it in XP compatibility mode, however, which was a suggestion I found in researching the product before purchasing it.
  • The main retail alternative is the Chess Assistant 12 software package from ChessOK.  It has its own proprietary database format, as does Chessbase, so the analytic software and databases are integrated (and often sold as packages).  Both CB and CA can read and process PGN files, however, so are not limited to the proprietary database formats.
  • The latest Scid vs PC package is a popular freeware alternative database program which uses PGN format files.  It has a number of analytic features and supports UCI and Winboard chess engines.
  • Also free are "lite" versions of the CB and CA software, although these tend to be more useful as "try before you buy" programs, rather than something for permanent use, now that fully-functional freeware programs like Scid vs PC are available. 
Closely associated with the above is the use of chess playing and game analysis software.  These days there tends to be a large overlap in software categories, as database programs have chess engines integrated into them and chess playing programs have database features.  However, the overlap is not quite complete, since the database programs include many more features for processing the database information, while having few if any options for play or complete game analysis.
  • Fritz 13's playing and analysis features have changed little from previous versions, although the new proprietary "Let's Check" feature, which uses an online cloud database to enhance position analysis, is an interesting new tool.  I primarily use the software for full-game commentated analysis, as part of my computer-assisted analysis practice.
  • Houdini 2.0 is now my engine of choice for full-game analysis using the Fritz interface and in CB11 position analysis.  I have experienced no issues so far with it in either program.  Its free predecessor (version 1.5, still available for download from the site) also worked quite well.  The Houdini engine seems to generate better text commentary in the Fritz interface than the Fritz engine does, although that's not a scientific observation.  A number of strong freeware engines with a variety of "styles" are also available.
  • Aquarium 2011 is the ChessOK retail alternative playing/analysis package, which is set up more for analysis than play.  The latest version comes packaged with Houdini 2.
  • I still use Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition for longer-duration training games, employing a "ladder" approach against the CM personalities and always playing the recommended next opponent.
  • There are a lot of freeware programs that are available for playing and game analysis purposes, including earlier versions of some of the principal retail programs.
While I use the ChessBase lineup and am quite happy with CB11 and Fritz 13's performance and features, selection of computer tools I think is primarily a matter of personal taste; this is especially the case for us non-professional players.  You can find advocates for both CB and CA products with an internet search, although user experiences can vary widely with both packages.  It's also difficult to find an objective and contemporary (2012) review and comparison of features.  The proprietary formats employed by the two companies mean that users, for convenience's sake, are best off using the respective database and playing/analysis software as a package.  For example, I own Aquarium 2011, but the necessary process of converting files to PGN and back for use with the database software (among other things) deters me from using it with my personal games database; it is of course not compatible with the CB format main reference database that I use.  

If someone is just starting out with using computer tools, I would recommend comparing the CB lite, CA lite, and Scid vs. PC software (at minimum) before choosing a particular path to follow.  If saving $$ is important, the freeware options in the link above offer some great resources and a PGN database can be updated with new games for free using weekly downloads at the TWIC site.  Related to that and as mentioned in previous commentary, I had hoped that the Chess King retail package would provide a useful basic-needs approach to integrating database and playing/analysis software, especially since Class-level users like myself may end up not using a lot of the features of the more expensive software programs; however, the lack of database functionality and bugs in the software meant that it was not usable for my training program.


  1. I would like to add a fourth option for database software to your recommendations : the ChessTempo online Database may be a good solution for some players

    Here are the main advantages over your choices :
    - no need for maintenance (it's updated monthly by the site owner)
    - low fee (ChessTempo Gold Membership is 35$/year and includes many more tools, such as the very good tactics trainers)
    - very easy to use (basic search and tree browsing are very intuitive, while all the advanced search functions are put together in a single search mask

    Of course, there are a few drawbacks compared to the pro tools :
    - no position search
    - no merge function
    - downloaded games have to be handled in .pgn format

    All in all, I think this option could be interesting for players who don't want to invest too much money in a database tool just yet, but would like to see how they could use the database features in their training regimen. I have been a paying member of the site for 2 years, and I'm very happy with the service as a whole.

    1. Interesting resource, thanks for the info. There are a lot more resources on the net than I could begin to list (or try myself), so seeing informed comments by users is helpful. Would welcome any specific comments on how you employ the online database as part of your study/training.

    2. Besides preparing for opponents, when they have games in the database, I use it mainly to review my openings after training games : I copy/paste my game in ChessTempo and just browse through the tree to see what strong players are playing in the line I have been using. I sometimes download a game by a strong player on the way for further study, if I feel it has some educational value (usually it requires the first diverging moves to make sense for me or catch my imagination, else it’s probably too complicated/sophisticated for me and I leave it aside). I don’t download additional games too often, as studying them takes time, and I usually prefer to use annotated sources for that.

  2. Correction : actually ChessTempo Database has a 'position search' function : what's missing is a 'pawn structure' search function

    1. ChessTempo also has the great material search which is awesome for finding training positions!!

      Scid vs PC also has material search.

      Chessadmin: I use the material search (and in Scid vs PC, coupled with the maneuvers buttons) to find neat positions to do mini-styokos on.

  3. Have you noticed any differences between the main engines ChessAdmin? Right now I run Rybka 2.2 and it seems to give me semi-reasonably non-computer lines. Is Houdini better? I had Toga on SCID and it's lines were inane most of the time, at least to a human. Not all engines are created equally for sure.

    1. Houdini is great! But sometimes its lines are so tactically deep that it doesn't really help. Junior is one of my favorite engines, in some ways it is better for OTB analysis as it seems to be a tad bit more sacrificial and speculative than other engines. For instance: In my study of Spielmann's book Junior tends to like Spielmann's sacrifices a bit better than most of the other engines.

    2. The experience I've had with chess engines is limited to Houdini, Fritz and Rybka 2.4, but I can give you my impressions of them.

      -- Fritz is very tactically strong (of course) but tends to over-value material and therefore doesn't evaluate positional compensation very well.

      -- Houdini (both 1.5 and 2.0) does the best job I've seen of incorporating the intangibles in a position evaluation, as well as finding ingenious ways to attack and generally be active with the pieces. I've mentioned before on this blog how Houdini actually agreed with some of my own analysis and disagreed with Fritz's on some past game analysis, so in that respect it has been more "human" in its assessments. Endgames are also a strength of it (including without tablebases)

      -- I felt comfortable with Rybka 2.4 (when I was using it in Aquarium for a stretch) and its evaluations. It didn't seem too artificial and usually came up with reasonable and humanly understandable alternatives in non-forcing positions, which I think is the real test of any engine. I think Houdini is a little more "creative" (if that quality can be applied to a engine).

    3. Tim, I've noticed Rybka 2.3.2 (last free version of the engine) gives suggestions which I find to be very human-like in many positions (especially quiet ones). I also like his more "restrained" evaluations. I think it's quite good for any 'normal' position, or anything positional middlegame.

      However, I'm not sure Rybka is top-notch in endgames and in positions where a lot of brute-force calculation is required. I've found Stockfish to be very efficient in attacking positions, but I'm still looking for the best engine in endgame situations (though of course, they are all very decent at finding good moves, just that their evaluation can be completely wrong sometimes...)

  4. I would like to suggest ChessPad as a an super basic chessdatabase tool. The software is free, minimalistic and easy to use. I use it for all my corrgames,