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You're about to learn everything you need to know to get started in computer chess.

Whether it's to watch GM strength computers battle it out among themselves, to train against human-like digital opponents or to research (and master) chess openings in the fastest, most intelligent way possible.

I'm going to break down the terminology, tools and chess software required to make it all work, so you too can join us in this wildly pleasurable (and cheap!) hobby of computer chess.

Let's go!

The GUI (Graphical User Interface)

The GUI is where the chess games will be played. 

Compare it to a colosseum where gladiators of ancient Greece would face off in battle to the death.

The chess GUI is where chess engines face off and battle it out, under whatever parameters you choose. 

The GUI allows you to choose which opening, position or time control and make them play immediately.

So for example, if you are learning the Spanish Opening/Ruy Lopez, you can make a 3000 Elo engine play against a 2600 Elo engine - and then watch carefully and learn step-by-step - how an elite player crushes his opponent in that opening...in real time. 

A good GUI will also allow you to create opening books, open PGN chess databases, and use both winboard and UCI chess engines (more on this soon).

Recommended GUIs

Arena 3.5.1

Arena is a feature rich, highly configurable GUI by Martin Blume, capable of handling all types of engines, creating custom opening books and running tournaments between an almost unlimited number of chess engines.

This is the main GUI I use after trying EVERYTHING, so I definitely give it a big thumbs up.

One thing I love about Arena is the "Demo" button, which allows you to make the engine play against itself from whatever position is on the board.

Arena Chess Demo Button

So if you're thinking "how the hell do I play this position?" - you can just click "Demo" and watch the engine play a few moves to give you an idea.

Another thing I love is the live crosstable during engine tournaments, so that you can see round by round who is leading the events you run.

Arena Crosstable

In the images above, I have completely customized the default appearance of Arena, to look exactly like the Shredder GUI (coming next), but while of course, retaining the Arena options.

This is definitely the GUI I recommend you get started with, since it's FREE and feature packed, but I am going to mention a paid GUI which is used by a lot of computer chess experts, due to its stability and relative lack of bugs - of which Arena has just a handful.

Closing points: When you first download Arena, it will not look like it does in my images above, but it is highly customizable, so you - just as I did - can configure it to look as you wish.

Download Arena here.

Shredder Classic

The Shredder GUI comes with the super-strong Shredder engine pre-installed and is packed with user-friendly features, compatibility with both winboard and UCI engines and tons of training options for beginners.

It has the ability to run engine tournaments, adjust the Shredder engine's playing strength by Elo (which some have said is human-like, although I somewhat disagree), and choose from about a dozen piece sets and board designs.

 Here is Rodent II Henny considering a piece sacrifice in the Shredder GUI during analysis of the Sicilian.

Shredder Chess GUI

Running tournaments in the Shredder GUI changes very little in the display, it just adds the second engine's analysis, and some new buttons to the top, such as the crosstable button.

Shredder  Chess Tournament

Shredder Classic has everything you need without the complexity (and minor bugs) present in Arena, but the features I think you'll love most are:

  • The built-in Chess coach, who is alert of mistakes and suggests better moves
  • Shredderbases: new extremely fast and compact chess endgame databases
  • Your own games can be automatically examined for mistakes!
  • Direct access to online chess opening database with more than 16 million moves
  • Computer assisted game analysis

So if you don't want to tackle the learning curve of Arena, and want a "point, click and use" program with dozens of training features, you better go with Shredder Classic. 

BTW: Shredder Classic version 5 is even cheaper than version 3 at the moment (I don't know why), so grab yourself a copy before they increase it.

And priced at just around thirty bucks (compared to a hundred or more, for most ChessBase products!), it's very easy on the wallet.

Grab a copy of Shredder Classic 5 here.


Chess Engines

A chess engine is essentially an executable file with coded instructions on how to play chess.

Not just the basic moves however, but also strategy, attacking patterns, piece values and more.

Above you can see 4 versions of the fantastic Rodent chess engine, a big favorite of mine.

A big point I should repeat, is that an engine will not work without a GUI - you need to load it from within the GUI, and for the record and generally speaking, double clicking on the engine itself will do nothing.

I'll show you in a second how to load an engine into Arena.

So with all of this in mind, we can deduce the following...

If the chess GUI is the colosseum, dojo, boxing ring or more aptly put, your tournament hall...

Chess engines are the fighters you'll pit against each other - the well-prepared chess masters who you'll match together, or even ask to help you with your analysis.

They come with vastly different strengths, playing styles and options.

Some play the standard boring, brute force computer-like chess, but I suggest you avoid these ones.

I recommend the much more exciting engines whether they have Karpov-like smooth positional styles, ferocious Tal-like attacking play or intelligent human-like practical play.

It's much more fun to use engines who play like a fellow human, because once you have a dozen of them, you essentially have a dozen fellow chess buddies you can learn from, analyze with and challenge any time.

Day or night, 24/7, 365 days a year.

Some things to remember:

Chess engines, at least the ones I'll recommend, come released in two possible formats;

1. UCI Protocol

2. WinBoard Protocol

And some GUIs don't accept WinBoard engines, which sucks because some of the most awesome engines are WinBoard engines.

Thankfully, the GUIs I recommended above accept both WinBoard and UCI engines, so you won't need to worry about this detail.

Let's get into my most recommended engines for you to begin with.


7 of the Best Chess Engines for Starting Out in Computer Chess

Dimitri 3.11 (Rated around 2300)

This chess engine is barely even known. I don’t know why though - it plays in an attractive and aggressive way by default, but is still just around 2300 ELO in strength. Perfect for a training partner since it makes human-like strategic mistakes and sometimes sacrifices unsoundly (like me!)

Amyan 1.72 (Rated around 2650) 

This one has been described as having a “Karpov-like” positional style and I think I agree. Amyan focuses on accumulating small positional advantages until they are overwhelming - quite unique for a chess engine.

RomiChess P3k (Rated around 2400)

Another positional/strategic engine, but this one has a twist - a very innovative learning feature!

RomiChess’ learning explained: “Monkey see Monkey do. Romi remembers and incorporates winning lines regardless of which side played the moves into the opening book and can play them back instantly up to 180 ply if the stats for that line remain good. Pavlov's dog experiments adapted to computer chess. Each sides moves are given a slight bonus if that side has won and the other sides moves are given a slight penalty. So, good moves can get a slight penalty and bad moves can get a slight bonus, however, through time those are corrected. These bonus/ penalties are loaded into the hash table before each move by the computer. If Romi is loosing game after game then this will cause Romi to 'fish' for better moves to play until Romi starts to win.”

This being said, even though Romi is a great positional player, I once SMASHED him in a nice attacking game (which I’ll share on the blog shortly), so he’s not unbreakable! 

Hakkapeliitta 3.0 (Rated around 3000)

For an engine rated at the 3000 Elo level, Hakkapeliitta plays really aggressive, attacking chess and although it is too strong for training games - it will provide really nice, super-GM level analysis of your games/openings!

Alfil 8.1.1 (Rated around 2630)

Another aggressive engine who isn’t afraid to sacrifice a pawn or even a piece if it means he gets initiative, attack or a positional advantage in return. A long time favorite.

Frenzee Dec07 (Rated around 2650)

This version of Frenzee plays very crisp, logical positional chess - similar to third world champion Jose Capablanca. A very nice engine to have in your collection.

Prodeo 1.2 (Rated around 2600) 

This version of Prodeo is a favorite of many computer chess guys. Its playing style is so human-like it’s uncanny, and makes for really nice positional chess.
Prodeo will probe your weaknesses positionally like a human GM, but still be willing to sacrifice material for non-material compensation (king safety, pawn structure advantage etc)

Why These Engines?

You may notice that I've recommended engines that have unique playing styles, but aren’t necessarily the 3200 Elo killers at the very top of the computer chess world. 

This is deliberate. The engines I'll provide you will play (and suggest) master and GM level moves, that make complete sense to you and teach you a lot about chess. 

On the other hand, many of the 3200 “club” search so deeply, that if you aren't already an elite GM, you'll have a very tough time figuring out why the hell they suggest a given move.

How can this possibly be useful for your chess?

So now take a moment to download my engines pack now from below - enter your email address and I'll send them over.

How to Install Engines

So are you ready to go? Here's a quick video that'll show you how to install an engine in the Arena GUI.

Pay attention to a couple of things. 

1. If an engine doesn't work (as the engine I chose initially didn't work in the video), switch between engine types (UCI/Winboard) to see which type the engine is, and then when switched, click the "Analyze" button to quickly test if the engine is working.

2. If the engine doesn't have a built-in opening book, you can select one for it by going to engine options (right click on engine name and choose "Configure (Engine)".

Conclusion

This post has given you the essentials for getting started immediately in using chess engines.

So whether you want to use them for fun, serious training or otherwise - you are now armed.

Keep an eye on this site for exciting new engines you can try,  instructive games, eye-opening lessons and much more.