Chess Endgames

Chess EndgamesReview details:                                                                           
App version:  1.2
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary

A potentially useful way to practice your endgames but let down by a poor user experience. Not currently a ‘keep me’.

Chess Endgames is a free android app developed by Complete Think. It is supported by banner advertising. There appears to be no ‘paid for’ version, so no way to use the app without viewing the adverts.

Features

Practising endgames is often said to be one of the best ways to improve your chess strength. This simple app is therefore well targeted as it offers the user the opportunity to test their technique by playing out a range of common endgame positions against an unidentified computer opponent.

There are a decent number of types of endgame position to practice. These include:

  • various piece combinations against a lone king, from  (Q+K v K), (B+Kn+K v K) to (P+K v K)
  • Queen against individual minor piece, and Queen against pawn on 7th rank
  • Rook against minor piece (eg R+K v B+K), and rook with minor piece (eg R+Kn+B v R+K)

Interestingly, there are also a selection of well known endgame studies, to test yourself with; these include for example, the Lucena and Philidor positions (the app mispells the latter!) .

For further variation, there is a custom build mode which allows the user chess_endgames_customto set up positions of their own choosing. Strangely, for an app focused on endgames the custom mode includes an option to reset pieces to the start position and play a game of chess. Be warned though, that the app’s engine isn’t capable of playing a proper full game as it doesn’t understand the concept of castling.

Whilst undeniably useful to play through endgame positions, the app is disappointing as a practical learning tool and herein lies its biggest weakness. Some key drawbacks are that:

  1. There is no guidance or explanation about any of the positions in terms of what the goal or objective is. In most cases this be should be obvious to the average user, certainly for the simpler positions, for example R+K v K, though this is not always the case. As an illustration, should the user be playing for a win or a draw in the Philidor position? – the app doesn’t make it clear. The lack of explanation is a real potential barrier for less experienced users and also seems at odds with the inclusion of a large number of very simple positions (including the ridiculously simple Q+Q+K v K).
  2. There is only very rudimentary information displayed to tell the user how they are doing. The information that is available – a cumulative record of wins / draws and losses and the number of moves and half moves taken per position – don’t really mean anything in isolation. For example, the number of moves would indeed be important, if each position had a target maximum number of moves to achieve checkmate; without it, it doesn’t really matter.
  3. There is no detail about the engine the user is playing against. How strong is it? Can it be relied upon to play the best defensive moves? In short, can you learn from using it?  (In practice, testing shows the engine does appear to play most endings pretty well though it doesn’t always play them perfectly – ie it doesn’t utilise revelant endgame tablebases)
  4. All positions must be played as white – there are no defensive ‘backs to the wall’ type of positions to practice as black.

Practical useability and presentation

The app’s practical useability could be best described as a bit of a ‘curates egg’ – a mixture of good and bad points.

Let’s start with the positives. The style and colour of the board and piece chess_endgamescombination are generally well selected. They are not unpleasant to view or use. This is good as the app includes no options to change the appearance; some variability even if limited, is always welcome from a user perspective as it helps to keep an app fresh and also maintain long term interest.

The app’s design and layout is less good; the current choice makes for uncomfortable regular use on a phone. In particular the board occupies only a relatively small portion of the screen, which means making moves is more difficult than it should be. More than once I had to use the ‘undo’ option to correct a move to the wrong square, as a result of the ‘fat finger’ problem. The layout could be improved and the board size enlarged by, for example, using menu headings instead of having the options to the side of the playing area. The existing design choice means that the options are harder to select. It may also explain why the app can only be used in landscape mode which is a frustrating restriction when playing on a phone.

Regular use of the app shows up some further disappointing glitches with the overall production quality, none of which should be too difficult to resolve. For example, testing K+P v K in custom mode after switching to a new position – I have been presented with a board with just two kings available, worse still moving on to the next position also brings up another KvK  position! Other examples of quality issues are highlighted elsewhere in this review.

There is one very practical ‘useability’ issue with the app that can’t be overlooked. It is extremely resource intensive in terms of its CPU, memory and crucially battery use. Any prolonged activity will noticeably drain your device unless operated with a charger and also certainly ‘warm’ it up.

Developer support

The Play Store description includes a brief narrative of the app’s purpose. The app itself includes a help menu option though this doesn’t seem to function – nothing happens when it is selected – and it is therefore not very helpful! There is no invitation from within the app to offer feedback or otherwise contact the developer.

Chess Endgames feels an app in the relatively early stages of development. It was last updated in September 2015 and hopefully there will be further releases with improvements. In summary it shows good potential but there are currently better apps to practice your endgames with.

Overall


Likes:

  • Free
  • Range of available positions


Dislikes:

  • No ad-free version
  • Help mode doesn’t work
  • General lack of instructions/guidance
  • Board size and design layout
  • Battery and resource intensive

 

These are my thoughts; if you have used this app what do you think…..?

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Tiger Knight Patrol

Tiger PatrolReview details:                                                                           
App version:  1.0.4
Device:  iPod Touch 4th ed
Operating system: iOS 6.1.6

Summary

A rather basic take on the Knight’s Tour puzzle; simple and fun though probably in small doses.

Tiger Knight Patrol is a free app (without advertising) by the developed JAGS (Japan Art Gear Systems) development team. It is available for both iPod and iPad devices though on the latter critical bugs render the app pretty much unplayable.

Knight Patrol is a chess puzzle game based on the well-known Knights Tour problem ; the Knights Tour itself being an illustration of a more general mathematical problem.

Knights-Tour-Animation.gif

Knight’s Tour on 5×5 board (image from wikipedia)

The idea is refreshingly simple – to conduct Knight moves around all the 64 squares of a chessboard in such a way that the same square isn’t visited twice and that no squares are missed.

This app includes the Knights Tour problem of the traditional 8 x 8 square chessboard but adds the twist in that it offers different board layout sizes and designs.

Knight Patrol_1The app itself is very easy to use – it is a question of simply just tapping a square to start – the app will then show the available moves in a different colour (yellow). All subsequent moves are made by tapping the square of your choice. The app will keep a record as you progress of  the number of different squares visited. If you go wrong or want to try a different route, there is also an ‘undo’ option and the puzzle can be started afresh with  a ‘Reset’ option.

Knight Patrol_2The app offers a total of 20 different layouts to solve. These seem well thought out in terms of the variety of difficulty, starting from a very simple 3 x 3 square board to a cross or heart shaped 10  x 10 sized chessboard. A good design feature lies in the fact that whilst it is natural to progress up the individual puzzles in order of difficulty, the user isn’t forced to solve a particular puzzle before moving on to another one. The downside here is that if you are taking the layouts ‘in order’ you will be moving on to an even harder test – not very encouraging if you are struggling with the easier one!

Herein lies the main drawback of the app  – this being that there are no solutions or more importantly hints available. It means that if you get stuck on a particular board (as I was for a long time on the 5 x 6 board) then you really are stuck and as a result it is much easier to lose interest in the app. Having had this app myself for several years, I find I play it actively for short periods but then quickly give up frustrated returning to it probably several months later (after I have forgotten my frustration!).

It is also easy to think of some additional features that would benefit the app. In particular, the ability for users to design their own boards would add even greater choice and add longer term interest. (This would perhaps add a little complexity to the app in needing to check that designs still enabled valid tours of the board!).

On the tested device (iPod touch) the app works perfectly with no obvious sign of bugs or other errors. Sadly, the same experience can’t be said for use on an iPad. Tiger Patrol was obviously not developed with this platform in mind, and the app will totally freeze on completion of a particular puzzle or when the game history is cleared (‘initialization’ option selected).

Developer support

Support for the user is not a strong  feature of the app. The app is not difficult to use, and this probably explains why the developer hasn’t really bothered with any instructions. There is no guidance included within the app, nor is the iTunes app narrative very descriptive. The developer advertises support via a weblink but frustratingly – unless you are a student of Japanese – will be of little practical use. So there doesn’t seem much opportunity for offering feedback to aid for further development.

This is probably just as well as the bad news is that the app appears to be pretty much dead at the time of this review – it hasn’t been updated since February 2011. However, JAGS does have quite a number of live apps on the iTunes store some of which have been released or updated more recently than Knight Patrol, so there may still be hope. However, the lack of support for the iPad and correction of basic flaws is particularly disappointing.

Overall


Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Can be used on older devices (requires only ios 3.1.3 and above)
  • Simple and easy to use
  • Good range of different board sizes and types


Dislikes:

  • No solutions or hints to puzzles
  • Lack of developer interest and update
  • Unusable on the iPad

 

These are my thoughts; if you have used this app what do you think…..?

Lomonosov Tablebases

lomonosov_7Review details:                                                                           
App version:  10 December 2015 release
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary:

An excellent learning tool and an essential app for those keen on developing their endgame skills.

The Lomonosov Tablebases app (also known as ‘7-piece chess endgame training’) is produced by Chess King a well known publisher of chess training software mainly for the PC environment.  The app is available only on the Android platform. It is currently free though I suspect in the longer term may not be so given the only other access to these tablesbases is via a PC and requires the purchase of specific chess software. The app is supported by advertising but this is actually surprisingly unobtrusive with only a small banner advert display when using a particular feature (Position mode) – as shown in the first image below.

A word about tablebases

It is often said that to improve chess strength, the most effective use of your time is that spent on studying endgames. Quite simply, this is the app to have if you’re serious about learning and improving this phase of your chess game.

So what is so special about the app? Well it is the only one which uses the famous Lomonosov Endgame tablebases. Endgame tablebases effectively enable perfect play when only a few chess pieces remain on the board.This is possible as with few pieces from all the potential positions available the game outcome can be calculated and the result determined as a win, loss or draw. (They are actually developed by a technique known as ‘retrograde anlaysis‘ – ie from the end position backwards).

The first tablebases were of a 3 man variety (ie two kings and one other piece) and these were calculated as early as 1970. Since this time as computing power has increased, the number of pieces has also increased, to 4 men through 5, 6 and since 2012 now 7 men tablebases. This 7 piece version was calculated on the Lomonosov Supercomputer and the results of the phenomenal calculations required take up to 100TB of diskspace of storage.

The app enables the user to access the knowledge from the huge database of results and use the fact that it plays relevant postions perfectly as a valuable tool for training and analysis.

Features

The Lomonosov app has developed significantly in terms of available features since it was first released. The current version provides a comprehensive range of useful tools for both learning and anlysis purposes.

LomTB_pos

The first likely to be encountered is the ‘Position’ feature – this allows the user to set up  any position on the chess board (with 7 or fewer pieces) and be instantly informed whether with best play the side to move has a forced win/loss or draw. Not only this, but for each of the possible initial moves for the side to move, the game result is displayed. For example, in the image to the right, the display (Ne8  38) indicates playing the knight to square e8 leads to a win (with best play!) in 38 moves. The optimal move or moves if more than one, will be suggested by the app visually on the board by a coloured arrow pointing to the relevant square. (The image also shows the impact of the app’s advertising – this is the only feature/screen which displays an advert).

To practice your technique you can play the app’s inbuilt engine from any position you choose to set up, the tablebases keep a record of the game outcome with perfect play. In this way, you can keep a real time view of how you are playing the endgame, for example if following your move a tablebase win suddenly becomes only a draw, then the optimal move has been missed. It is also important to note that the list of moves played is LomTb_moveretained and can be viewed at the touch of a button and subsequently saved or exported for use or viewing in another chess app. Thoughtfully, the developer has given the user the option of whether or not to display the game outcome in each of the app’s modes (position, play and training). This means you can play or test ‘blind’ and then just use the app to review how you did afterwards.

The app’s other key feature is the inclusion of a range of endgame lessons or exercises for the user to solve by playing out the position against the app’s chess engine LomTB_lessonsusing the endgame tablebases. There are currently over 350 separate positions helpfully collated into different themes – these include for example, pure pawn endings, and promotion and mating amongst others (see image on the right). Each theme has a range of sub-themes, so in the pure pawn endings there are separate tests for K and Pawn v K (KPk), King and Pawn v King and Pawn (KPkp) etc.

The individual exercises have a target number of moves to achieve the desired objective for example, – take a maximum of 17 moves in a position which is a mate in 10 moves with best play. The level of difficulty is graded into estimated ELO ratings which steadily climb in degree of challenge as you progress through the individual positions. These range from 1200 ELO all the way up to a supposed 2900 ELO which is your rating for achieving a mate in 120 moves within a maximum of 200 moves with a sole queen against 3 bishops and a knight!

LomTB_testjpgThe exercises seem reasonably well calibrated in terms of increasing ELO and difficulty. This gives the app a rather addictive touch as it is very easy to find yourself progressing as far and as fast as you can up the ELO scale. At the end of each exercise the user has the option of trying again or reviewing the model answer (Demo mode) which can be stepped through move by move with full details of the tablebase results.

As shown in the image to the left, using Demo mode, I found I made a ‘mistake’ in playing a6 (shown to me in red) rather than the optimal b4 move (in green). In this case it was not a crucial error as the tablebase shows playing a6 is mate in 17 only one move more than b4 (mate in 16).

An important feature also incorporated is the ability to transfer positions and games to and from the app. This is a particularly helpful facility for example, if you want to use the app to study an endgame taken from a database of games stored elsewhere or maybe analyse the end of a live game broadcast over the internet. Both import and export options are easily and accurately accomplished and use standard file pgn and epd file formats. There is also the ability to save favourite positions in both formats within the app.

The app also includes an opportunity to sign up and log-in to an on-line community (administered by the Chess-OK shop) which allows viewing of positions shared by other users and access to additional statistical data. Registration is only likely to appeal to a narrower base of ‘power’ users and this feature isn’t included as part of this review.

Practicality of use and presentation

The app is generally well laid out and easy to navigate. The main options are clearly labelled and readily accessible via a menu buttom at the top left of the screen.  Additional specific options relating to the importing and exporting of positions and games (described above) are accessed via a similar menu button in the top right corner. Again options are clearly described and the relevant actions are easily performed.

The one small glitch with this app lies in its ease of use, particularly for the inexperienced or infrequent user. In particular the position feature can be somewhat confusing at the outset simply due to the number of icons on LomTb_coloursscreen. Not all of theses icons are immediately obvious in terms of their purpose and some also look rather small to those using the app on a phone. In mitigation, once used for a while and when the user gains familiarity with operating the app, these issues become less of a problem. There is also a very good illustrative manual that can be referred to if necessary (see below).

There are a variety of options to customize the look and feel of  the playing surface. This includes the inclusion of two pieces themes – both perfectly clear and usable, and at least thirteen board themes offering differing colour options. These are attractive and again all perfectly usable which is not always the case with some other chess apps.


Developer support

A detailed and comprehensive explanation of an app’s features on the google play store is always an encouraging sign and this particular app doesn’t disappoint in this regard.

In addition Lomonosov Tablebases app also has a high quality instruction manual ; in fact it is one of the best I’ve seen accompany any app, chess related or otherwise. It explains the potentially complex features and operation clearly with the aid of screenshots which also are helpfully labelled numerically.

The app itself and manual also provide for easy ways to give feedback to the developer. From other experience, (not relating to this app) I have found this particular developer to be receptive and responsive to suggestions and comments.

The app has been updated several times in its relatively short life already – including during the writing of this review – and is anticipated to be developed further.

In summary, a well produced and valuable app for the chess enthusiast.

 

Overall

Likes:

  • Free app
  • Use of 7 men endgame tablebases
  • Graded endgame tests to solve
  • Ability to import/export positions
  • Instruction manual

Dislikes:

  • Can take a while to get used to some of the controls

 

These are my thoughts; if you have used this app what do you think…..?

Opening Tree

Opening treeReview details:                                                                           
App version:  1.2
Device:  Ipod Touch 4th ed
Operating system: ios 6.1.6

Summary

A potentially useful tool for learning about chess openings but rather limited and let down by a small database. Design and layout makes use on a mobile device difficult.

Opening Tree is a free app from Michael Adams who is responsible for a range of chess related apps and software. It is also available for the Ipad and includes an inapp purchase giving the user added features, in this case the ability to edit, score moves and make notes. This review is of the free version (ie without the additional purchase option).

Features

Opening Tree is an analysis tool which enables you to study chess openings in two ways, using either:

  1. information from a database of opening moves which itself is drawn from the results of a large pool of games; or
  2. a chess engine to provide detailed analysis of specific positions

Opening tree_3The database of moves with associated frequencies of wins/draws/losses is very helpful and is a commonly used format in established chess database applications. It enables the user to quickly see which are the most frequent moves from a given position and also which produces the best results. As a small improvement, in addition to W/D/L information the % score for each move would also be helpful to more clearly identify the relative success of each move.

The quality of the database of opening moves used is crucial for this to be a useful tool for analysis. In this regard the Opening Tree app is somewhat disappointing. The size of the database used is relatively small, (due to memory constraints on the ipod?). This means that it doesn’t take very many moves, even in the more popular openings before there are either no more or too few results to be meaningful. As an example, if you want to study the Budapest Gambit (1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e5) you’ll find the database has the results of just 33 games after only the 2nd move. The other drawback is that there is no information included within the app to help assess the quality of the games used to build the database. For example, games where both players are rated above say 2500 elo might be considered a better reference source than where the minimum rating was 2000 elo.

The inclusion of a chess engine to provide analysis of potential moves is Opening tree analysisalso a good feature. This enables the user to check and assess possible opening lines and counter moves. The chess engine included with the app is Crafty 23.4 – a longstanding and well-respected engine, which happens to be one of my favourites. Whilst Crafty is certainly strong enough for this purpose for the average app user, I can’t help thinking that most knowledgeable users would prefer one or more of the top strength engines that are freely available (for example Stockfish) for analysis purposes. Sadly, Crafty is not one of these.

There are additional analyis features. An in app purchase allows you to assess and record particular moves by using different colours to signify good and bad moves and you are also able to make notes about speciifc moves. The review didn’t test this functionality.

However, it is after a while of using the app that some of the weaknesses with the concept begin to become apparent. Yes, it provides a good way of reviewing and assessing opening lines but it is rather limited in how this can be achieved. The app has a lack of accompanying features that would be helpful for studying purposes. For example, the app doesn’t actually let you play or practice any opening  – the engine is only available as an analysis tool and not a playing partner.

Learning and user edited work on opening lines can’t be exported for use in other apps, nor can the learning be utilised in any other practical way by the app. For example, the app doesn’t allow the user to generate an opening book from their research to use either in the app or another alternative program or app. So there is no direct way to use the app to play against or test your own research and pet lines, you will need to fire up and another chess app.

The user can import their own PGN files of games into the app either via email or ITunes file sharing. However, due to technical constraints (essentially catering for the needs of older devices) only small files of no more than 500 games can be handled. On the Ipod once a PGN file is loaded it is a terribly fiddly and frustrating job to ‘step’ through the moves of a game to be able to compare them to the database. This is down to the size of the controls more of which below. I found myself veering between stepping forward and backwards too often for comfort.

In summary, in considering the combination of features and flexibility I was left with the feeling that a dedicated chess database app might not be a better option.

Practical use and presentation

Opening tree_mainThe first thing that’s obvious when using this app on a mobile device is how small the chessboard is. The board takes up just over half of the screen size and means that not only is it potentially difficult to view but that the dreaded ‘fat finger’ problem is likely to come into play. The result is that if you want to enter moves manually (rather than via tapping the particular move from the movelist) the size of the individual squares makes it tricky to tap the correct piece. There feels to be areas of wasted space on either side of the board (maybe the arrow keys could be located here?) and there is no option for resizing the board. Neither is there any potential for screen rotation, and I wonder if landscape format would be better at least on an ipod (this is available on the iPad version).

These issues combine to leave a feeling that the design of the screen layout for the ipod/iphone user at least, could be better.Opening tree_options

However, although size and layout can’t be altered, there are opportunities for tailoring the presentation. Within the ‘Settings’ option there are a range of easily accessible options for changing various visual aspects. These include a good range of different chessboard colours, background colours and at least two chess piece sets. Refreshingly (unlike some other apps) the choices are between well-designed and respected piece sets which are both very clear and comfortable to use.

Developer support

The app description on the ITunes store is failry descriptive in terms of the app’s features and operation. This is supplemented by some specific notes of instruction on selecting relevant options; in particular when loading a pgn file for the first time. The developer has also included a change-log on his website together with contact details for support.

To date the app has had only one update since its original release, this being a year since the writing of this review. As such it doesn’t appear to be in active development. However, the author has released and/or updated other chess apps in the intervening period, so it is too early to conclude that the app is dead.

Overall


Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Inclusion of chess engine for self-analysis
  • Good choice of visual options
  • Simple and easy to use


Dislikes:

  • Chessboard is too small to view/use comfortably
  • Small size of database of opening moves
  • Uses a relatively ‘weak’ chess engine
  • No recent updates

 

These are my thoughts; if you have used this app what do you think…..?