What makes a ‘keep-me’ chess app?

There are literally hundreds of chess apps for both android and apple platforms, far too many to keep and use regularly on your chosen device. So what separates the ‘keep-me’ chess app from the ‘delete-me’?

For my first non-app specific review, I’ve been thinking about the things that I look for in a chess app. To set my views in context, I’ll start by saying I’m a longstanding and enthusiastic chess player, who has never been as good as he thought should be, and who has to face the crushing reality that he will really only ever be a woodpusher of average strength (1200-1400 elo) – does this sound familiar!?

First things first – If I’m downloading a chess app I just want to play a fun game of chess as easily as possible with a challenging and realistic opponent. With this in mind my thoughts primarily relate to apps that play chess rather than some other chess aspect, such as database managment or chess problems.

So what do I want?

Realistic and well matched opponent

I enjoy playing chess – it’s why I want a chess app! I’m not the strongest player so don’t need or want an engine that is going to humilate me at every opportunity. Generally it is much harder to ‘dumb’ down a really strong engine than to use a ‘weaker’ engine; so the app doesn’t need to have the strongest available engine. If I want to analyse a game or position I will use a dedicated app for this such as Analyze this! or a recognised top strength chess engine. The engine needs to play realistically for my level of strength with an engaging style of play – I don’t want an opponent who plays like a GM for a period and then suddenly blunders a piece away or makes totally inexplicable or unexpected moves. Similarly, I certainly do want the engine to use an opening book but it needs to be appropriate to the level I’m playing at – a chess novice or beginner is unlikely to have an in-depth book knowledge!  Apps that score well in the playability area include ChessAI and Chess Genius.

Good range of chess ‘skins’….

Just like the next person I like a bit of variety to avoid getting bored. So in my chess apps I like to see a few different chess piece sets – nothing fancy, the usual favourites will do Merida, Alpha or Leipzig for example. The same applies to chessboard colours and styles – it doesn’t take many of of each these options to give the user a really good selection to suit their particular taste on any given day. Even better are the apps that have thoughtfully pre-selected a set of well matched skins for me to choose from.

…. but no gimmicks!

I’m not a young kid! – I don’t want overly brightly coloured boards which distract me from my game. Nor do I want pieces which are so fancy or poorly designed you can’t tell which piece is which! I don’t want a 3d board (and certainly not on a phone) unless it is designed exceptionally well and clearly (which is very hard). Spark Chess, tchess Pro (iOS) and perhaps the emerging Napo Chess come to mind as notable exceptions.

Big Board option 

For use on a phone particularly, the combination of ‘fat fingeritis’ and poor eyesight makes the option to vary (and increase) the size of the chess board a ‘must’ have feature. Developers need to make the visual aspects as clear and easy to use for the user as possible. A full (or near full) screen chessboard also allows the user the ability to just play a game without the clutter or distraction of analysis, game moves etc.

Simple interface and menu structure

This doesn’t mean the app needs to have a limited number of features, but some thought behind how the user is going to navigate around the app is essential. As I get older, I can’t be bothered to dive around to find features and functions that don’t sit logically together. I also don’t want to spend time ‘re-learning’ where everything is if I’ve not used the app for a while. A sophisticated and well-featured app doesn’t mean it can’t be well designed and easy to use. Some good examples of apps that get this right include tchess Pro , Chess Genius and Deep Green Chess (iOS).

A well supported app with an active developer

I suspect chess apps have the potential to attract a more passionate following than perhaps most other types of app. Developers shouldn’t underestimate the importance of looking after their users or take them for granted. I can forgive and tolerate pretty much the worst of bugs if a developer is pro-active in wanting to receive and respond to feedback to improve their app. Developers that don’t acknowledge or welcome user views, show no interest in correcting obvious weaknesses or progressing ‘unfinished’ apps will get me hitting ‘delete’. After all, if the developer isn’t bothered about their app then why should I be?

Of course it’s not just about correcting bugs. Simple things like clear and easy to understand instructions and readily available contact details give users a strong flavour of a developer’s approach to customer care.  I’ve found that many chess app developers are actually pretty good in supporting their users. Some recent examples that come to mind include the developers of SmallChess (iOS) and Napo Chess.


For this user, an app needs to be well designed, simple to use and fun to play. This doesn’t mean it has to be a basic or limited in features in any way. However, focusing on extending the range of features to the detriment of usability is likely to result in the declining use of an app.


These are my thoughts; what do you think is important in a chess app? …..

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