Chess Openings Pro

Chess openingsReview details:
App version: 4.1.1
Device:  iPad 3
Operating system: iOS 9.3.1

Summary:

A well designed and valuable tool for club players wanting to brush up on their general opening play though it may be somewhat limited for more in-depth study of particular openings 

Chess Openings Pro is an iOS app from Tom Ashmore for use on tablet and mobile devices.The Pro version of the app, as it’s name suggests the fully featured edition and costs £2.99. There is a free trial ‘Lite’ version (Chess Openings Explorer) which has some important restrictions which are outlined where relevant in this review. It is also worth saying, don’t confuse the Lite version of this app with the similarly named android app (reviewed here). They are developed by different people and are independent apps.

COE_mainChess Openings Pro as its name suggests, is a tool for exploring and learning about the chess openings. The app enables openings to be studied in a range of different ways several ways; it does this primarily in two ways using:

  • information from a database of opening moves which is drawn from the results of a large pool of games;
  • an integrated chess engine to provide detailed analysis of specific positions and the option to play out games from openings of the user’ choice.

A database of moves with associated frequencies of wins/draws/losses (w/d/l) is a commonly used format in established chess database applications. The app is not particualy innovative in that it uses the well established approach of  visually representing opening move choices in the form of a ‘tree’ of individual moves from the current board position. These moves are shown with associated ‘performance’ information relating to the move such as the number of times it has been played, and the scores in terms of game outcomes (For example 50% of games playing the move from this position where won by white… etc).  But it ain’t broke don’t fix it – this is an effective approach as it enables the user to quickly see which are the most frequently played moves from a given position and what the also which produces the best results.

Features

An app dedicated to chess openings is only really as good as the database it uses. The volume and quality of the games are key factors to consider:

  • too few games and the database is too small to give sufficient information about individual moves or coverage of opening moves. (for example you can’t conclude much if there are only the results of says 5 games from the current position!)
  • if the database is made up of games between weak players or games played at very fast time controls (eg bullet or blitz) the quality of the moves played will generally be low and the results in terms of the game outcomes (w/d/l) will be similarly impacted (garbage in garbage out)

COEPro2Chess Openings Pro stacks up pretty well in terms of its database. The Pro version uses over 1.9 million ‘high level’ games. Whilst ‘high level’ is not defined, at least the importance of quality is recognised and the volume is good enough that it doesn’t feel that positions are reached too quickly where there are no games left . (Note the database in the Lite version is a third of the size). One specific feature which is rare to find in this type of app but which would be valuable is the ability for the user to import their own database of games to use for the move tree – this would allow the user to make their own choice  (for example using only games played between players above 2500 elo etc) – sadly Chess Openings Pro doesn’t give the user this option either.

The Pro version (but not Lite) helpfully includes an engine to provide analysis in positions where there isCOE_engine_output no tree available. This is a valuable feature allowing for independent study particularly in less popular lines, where for example the opening tree may run out of games only a few moves in. The user can play the opening against the engine or use it to analyse specific positions. The engine analysis is clear and includes all key information such as evaluation, suggested move and optimal line of play (principal variation). It’s not all good news though as there are a number of niggles that if resolved would increase the app’s practical use. For example:

  • there’s no option to set or influence the analysis time  – a best move will be suggested or played at a certain fixed 12 ply depth  (analysis will however continue beyond this if play option is disabled as in the image above)
  • there is no multi-pv option available, which is an important  feature for analysis purposes (multi-pv allows an engine to analyse and display more than one move at a time – for example the best two or three moves in the current position). This is helpful for example when trying to assess the merits of different possible moves
  • the engine used isn’t identified so it is difficult for the user to gauge the quality of the analysis and how much reliance to place on it

CEOpro3

The app has a range of additional learning features which are of varying practical use. Probably the most significant of these is the quiz mode where the user can test their openings knowledge by answering a range of multiple choice questions. These can be selected based on your own preferred openings (which can be saved separately) or randomly generated.

The quiz mode is a fun and potentially useful exercise  and a % score is awarded at the end of the test. However, some of the answers and comments appear rather contrived and/or inappropriate – for example it makes little sense to tell me I have chosen the least popular move if all 5 moves available have only been reached in a total of 7 games! In reality,  I suspect the real benefit to this option will lie in testing yourself against your own preferred openings rather than the classic quiz which throws an apparently random assortment of openign positions at you.

There is also an Opening of the Day option, which on selection presents what appears to be a random opening position with associated database analysis. And that’s about it. In short it’s not clear what the point of this specific option is other than perhaps to introduce users to new openings.

Taken together it is likely these features could leave the user with a rather dissatisfied feeling  – whilst it may be interesting to see a broad range of opening positions and also be useful to develop some broad awareness – the reality is I’m not likely to be playing or facing many of these openings. I suspect the average player will be wanting to develop an in-depth knowledge of a much narrower range of openings. For example,  if I only play d4 and have the caro-kann as my defence of choice as black to e4 then I’m not interested in the complexities of the Sicilian or Ruy Lopez. Of course the opposite could be argued also and the app may be useful in stimulating the user to find and try out new, perhaps even ‘offbeat’ openings and variations.

Practical use and presentation

COEpro4
The app is well designed and easy to use. All options are clearly identified and accessible from a single screen. Additionally, the app’s chess engine can easily be engaged at any point by a simple swipe. The developer has clearly given useability some thought and this is shown in several small but nice touches. This includes for example use of a small coloured pawn to clearly indicate which side the engine thinks is ahead and an ‘Opening Book’ option  which allows the user to access and set up the board with any opening and variation however obscure, at the touch of a button.

Visually the app is appealing having a clean and uncluttered appearance. The chessboard and pieces are clear and easy to view – no awkward colour clashes of garish colours. The only slight disappointment is that there is no ability to alter the default options to add some variety.

Developer support

Chess Openings Pro is an app that is in active development with a history of regular releases. Updates have provided bug fixes and improved functionality. The developer is available via an email address which is readily available either from the app store or within the app itself. Whilst easy to use, the app also has an element of built in support, via a simple help button, which covers the basic operation of the app.

Overall

Likes:

  • Simple to use
  • Good visual presentation
  • Large database of games
  • Inclusion of chess engine for self-analysis

Dislikes:

  • Inability to import/load alternative database
  • Engine used is not identified
  • Opening of the Day seems a bit pointless

 

There are some additional more detailed notes about this app in the Developer notes section.

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

 

 

 

 

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Chess Rating

chessrating
Review details:

App version: 2.6
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary

A fun and useful app if not taken too seriously which has great potential but is currently let down by some simple issues relating to basic useability

Chess Rating is a free android app from Oliver Kertesz which pleasingly is also free from any advertising. The app has a long history and is based on code originally developed at the time of the millenium before subsequently being ported to android.

chess_rating_2As the app’s name suggests it is a rating tool offering the user an elo rating based on the results of completing 16 separate test positions. In each position the user has up to 60 seconds to select the best move and has up to 4 separate attempts to find it. Once completed, based on some unspecified method, the app calculates an estimated elo performance rating  for the full test.

The positions are selected at random from a database and vary in difficulty; the degree of challenge being apparently influenced by the user’s previous results.  There is a reasonable balance of positions between the various game stages, though most would be classed as from the middle game. More importantly perhaps, none appear to be overtly contrived or otherwise unnatural. The main issue with the positions is that there are really too few of them. The current database has only 369 positions at the time of review. It doesn’t take many separate tests before you see the same position appearing. This obviously has the tendency to exaggerate the elo rating achieved!

There is good news in that the latest app version now has the ability to update additional positions from the internet. However, don’t expect rapid growth here. The user is only able to update the database once a week and in the words of the developer …’the number of positions is slowly growing over time’.

Chess playing software has traditionally found it very difficult to mimic specific elo ratings accurately and believably. So the acid test for this app is of course – is it any good?  –  are the elo ratings produced a believeable measure of performance?

The answer to some extent lies in the eye of the user. A glance at the app reviews on the chess rating _eloPlay Store suggests opinion is mixed with as many users recognising the elo grades they achieve as think they are way over or under inflated. In my case the individual scores have varied significantly – running two tests one after the other – I achieved a rating of 1639 followed by a rating of 1900 both of which are above my current genuine playing strength. Refreshingly, the developer himself makes no excessive claims about accuracy, advising users ‘don’t take this too seriously…. but it should be roughly correct’.

So really, it is for the reader/user to best judge for themselves about the accuracy. Setting aside an argument about the actual ratings I suspect the best measure is a self comparison with repeated use over time. In reality though the app is probably best enjoyed and appreciated when simply used essentially as a collection of fun chess problems to solve. A kop out by the reviewer? ….maybe! 🙂

Practical use and presentation

The app doesn’t have many options or features.  The user can vary the board colour scheme with a selection of 5 different choices and also decide whether to have co-ordinates app has a number of options. There is no ability to change the piece types. Fortunately the default choice have clear and well defined pieces and they don’t get in the way of trying solve the chess positions.

chess rating_options‘Always flip board’ is probably the most important feature, which I expect most users would want as a default as it is the most natural setting. Selecting this ensures that the side to move (ie the user) always plays from the bottom without having to worry about the board orientation irrespective of whether it is white or black to play.

So far so good in terms of the app’s useability. But unfortunately. the app has a number of annoying aspects, which affect its use and enjoyment. In truth none of these are ‘mission critical’ in their own right but together do leave a feeling of dissatisfaction. Specific issues include:

  • when selecting a move, the move actually isn’t played on the board, it is signified by chess rating 1highlighting the relevant squares alone – if I make a move, I want to see it!
  • the timing bar which indicates how much time is left to consider a move is not the clearest. Yes it changes colour , turning from green to yellow to red as time reduces but it is not the easiest to see even on a tablet. Surely a countdown timer and perhaps even an audible warning sound would be clearer?
  • the user’s move choices which are indicated beneath the chessboard are just too small to read
  • whilst solutions are given, if the correct move is not identified with any of the four choices, there is no explanation or indication for why it is the best move. This is a particular problem as the app has no save position option so you can’t go back and review or study a solution during a test.

Developer support

The app is supported by a dedicated website which includes clear instructions about how to use the app with helpful screenshots. Interestingly there is also background to the app’s development, and a log of the changes in each version. Contact details for the developer are readily available and he has also responded specifically to a number of Play Store reviews, although none recently.

The app has been regularly updated, the current version dating from February 2016.

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Regular updates over the long term
  • Good visual experience (choice of pieces and board colours)
  • Ability to update the position database


Dislikes:

  • Limited number of positions (now and in the foreseeable future given speed of growth to date)
  • Inability to save or export positions for later review (and no explanation to solutions)
  • Barriers to useability – use of small text, unclear countdown indicator etc)

 

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