My Chess Puzzles

my-chess-puzzleReview details:
App version: 1.0.3
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2


Summary:

A promising but currently frustrating app which is let down by the visual experience and puzzle quality. Not as much fun as it should be.

My Chess Puzzles is a relatively new free android app from the Turkish developer OBSS Mobile which produces a range of mainly card games and utility apps.

mcp1

What’s wrong here?

It is a simple app and essentially does exactly ‘what it says on the tin’ – in that the user is given chess puzzles which need to be solved by finding a forced checkmate in a known chosen given number of moves.

 

There are options ranging from mate in 2 all the way to mate in 10. When selected, the user is then presented with a range of positions of that type which he/she must then play out against a virtual opponent to find the mate. The level of difficulty increases as the puzzles are solved. Scores are given out of a maximum of 10 for each solution depending on the number of mistakes (incorrect moves) made in finding the solution. The competitive user can rate themselves online against others using the Google Play Leaderboard system (not tested as part of this review).

Puzzle based apps live or die by the number and quality mcp-levelsof the chess problems they offer. In particular:

  • Is the bank of puzzles sufficiently large enough so you are not seeing the same ones cropping up over and over again?
  • Do the puzzles feel ‘natural’ and not artificially composed?
  • Are the puzzles of the right level of difficulty – not too hard to be dispiriting but hard enough to be a good challenge?

My Chess Puzzles scores well in terms of variety. The puzzle bank is vast – the developer claims (and I have no reason to doubt it) that there are at least 10,000 different puzzles. Certainly in my use to date, I’ve not seen any duplicates which can’t be said for certain similar apps.

The app fares less  in terms of puzzle ‘naturalness’. This is disappointing as the developer mcp_4-rooksstates in the Play Store description that puzzles ‘were either taken from actual games or are compositions inspired by actual games’.  I can only wonder about which games these were. Rather too often the user is faced with a chess position with an unrealistic number of pieces of the same type – for instance four rooks of the same colour.

Sadly this also contributes to some of the solutions being rather artificial also for example in the following position (with the four rooks) the solution is .

1 – h8/Q+  Rf6
2 – Qf6+    Re5
3 – Qe5+   Rd4
4 – Qd4+   Rb2
5 – Qb2++

Yes, the difficulty is about right for a starter mate in 5 but the lack of realism makes for a less rewarding experience. Aside from this issue, the individual difficulty levels do seem to be generally well calibrated, becoming more challenging as the user progresses.

Presentation and useability

My Chess Puzzles is a simple app and very straightforward to use. However, this doesn’t make it easy to use. One of the biggest drawbacks in practical use is the default piece set used. The pieces are not clear or easy to distinguish particularly when there are more than a few on the board. This makes the puzzles more difficult than they should be and certainly less enjoyable to solve. Worse still the user isn’t given any choice about the piece set – only the default is available. The app would certainly be improved by giving the user some choice about the visual experience.

There is one further specific visual issue that can’t be overlooked. The chess board is mcp-optionsincorrectly displayed – the bottom right square should always be light coloured! Oddly this doesn’t happen all the time or for all puzzles but sadly the fact it does, risks damaging the credibility of the app. My Chess Puzzles doesn’t deserve this and the good news is that it should be easy to correct.

The app hasn’t got, and doesn’t really need a wide range of options. The key elements that might be expected are here – including take back move and hint options. There is also a toggle for sound effects (for piece moves) and for the less experienced user, a helpful legal move indicator, which shows visually which squares the chosen piece can move to.

Developer support

The developer has an easily accessible website which includes full contact details, in addition to the usual email address, there is a phone number and a physical address  which may be useful if you happen to be visiting Istanbul (wish I were!). At the time of review the app has had little feedback at the PlayStore (the scores are reassuringly positive) so it is too early to see how responsive the developer is to user feedback.


Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Simple to use and nicely designed
  • Good range of puzzles and nicely pitched levels of difficulty


Dislikes: 

  • Chess pieces are not easy or comfortable to view
  • No variety of piece sets or board themes/colours
  • Some puzzles are very unnatural
  • The chessboard is set up wrongly!

 

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Acid Ape Chess

Acid Ape logo
Review details:

App version: Beta 11.2
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary:

A high quality feature rich app which is both well designed and produced and also well supported. It is a ‘must have’ app for the advanced chess user, especially as it is free. Casual players will be better served by other chess apps. 

AAC gameAcid Ape Chess is an app for android devices from the Belgian developer Acid Ape Studios. The app is still technically in beta stage which may explain why it is free, unsupported by adverts and with no annoying in-app purchases. However, don’t let the app’s idiosyncratic name or beta status fool you – it is a fully operational and sophisticated app aimed squarely at the serious chess user. The developer is extremely generous in offering it to users for free. Given the quality of Acid Ape Chess it really is a ‘must have’ for the advanced user.

Features

Acid Ape Chess is one of the most advanced chess apps in terms of the number and breadth of features available – it is an app with all the ‘bells and whistles’. It is difficult to know where to start but perhaps easiest to say what it doesn’t do.

Well, strangely, it doesn’t play chess itself directly. So the issue of strength of chess play is not strictly relevant as the app has no native (inbuilt) engine. Rather it acts more as a chess gui. This has two specific benefits:

  1. you can choose your own engine  – the app comes with three engines (Arasan, ChenAAC engines and Scorpio) all of which are reliable and well-known. But you can also easily install any other compatiable engine (both UCI and CECP / winboard protocols are catered for as is the Open Exchange format to give maximum flexibility). A comprehensive archive of free engines is available to download from here.
  2. hardcore enthusiasts can set engines to play against each other to test relative strengths (though be warned – this does tend to drain the battery!)

Depending on the individual engine, for the hardened user it is also possible to edit/tweak various settings typically including hash size, skill level, and number of cores used etc.

Practical game play is very well catered for with the ability to play blindfold games (a little AAC_game_screenfrustrating due to the temperamental voice recognition entry system), Chess 960 (where an engine is able to) and also interestingly simultaneous games so you can mimic the exhibitions of the top players! Games can be played using sudden death (ie game in x minutes) or Fischer time controls (ie base time plus increment per move) though perhaps a little surprisingly, move based time controls (eg 40 moves in 1 hour etc) are not catered for. Games are automatically saved for future reference and there is a good range of file management options accessible via the Database icon. This enables different pgn database files to be loaded and also individual pgn files to be externally shared and copied and pasted from the clipboard. The simple ability to easily transfer games between different chess apps via the clipboard is a surprising omission in many chess apps.

If you get bored with engine play Acid Ape Chess also acts as a client interface for major online chess servers, FICS and ICC. Functionality is generally good with most key actions AAC FICS gamereadily available from within the app. However, the ability to filter game search is currently an omission (I want to easily be able to specify the strength of opponent when looking for a game!). But it should be said there is also access to console mode so more experienced users can manage their use of FICS directly via the standard FICS commands

In addition to practical game play, Acid Ape Chess offers the user other possibilities. There are a suite of options for setting up, editing (via standard FEN notation) and analysing chess positions. Interestingly, these handle both Chess 960 as well as traditional chess positions.  There is also a dedicated tactical puzzles mode with 3 separate selection files with a total of 900 separate puzzles. These offer a good challenge for the experienced player and require you to solve the winning line move by move (hints are available and there is ready access to engine analysis for study purposes if needed). The puzzles are taken from real games and a nice touch is that the player details are also included. For added flexibility the user is able to also import puzzle collections and there are many freely available on the web.

In keeping with its aim to focus on the more specialist user,  Acid Ape Chess includes some more niche features which may be of real value to those who can take advantage of them. In particular, two worth mentioning are that the app offers:

  • connectivity with the DGT electronic chess board  via ‘bluetooth’ enabling games to be played directly on the lovely DGT wooden board for a more natural chess experience (sadly your reviewer can’t test this, not having access to a DGT board)
  • automatic integration of online Syzygy endgame tablebases (for up to 6 men)  which is invaluable for endgame analysis and practice (the benefit here is that mobile devices don’t have the storage capacity needed for the 6 men bases)

Practical use and presentation

Sadly it is all too common for apps with multiple features to be overly difficult and complex to use due to poor design. There is nothing more frustrating for a user than having a wide range of options if they can’t easily find or remember how to use them! This is not the case with Acid Ape Chess and the developer has clearly thought hard about the useability issues during app development.

AAC main screenAll the main features are available from a single well designed home screen  which is split into four theme areas:

  • Game (including engine play, puzzles and file management functions)
  • Position (setting up, analysing and playing )
  • Online play – covering FICS and ICC use.
  • Settings – including special features, engine management and options for making changes to visual aspects

Cleverly, all the sub-options for each theme are also directly available from the home screen by clicking on a small double arrow icon to the right of each theme area.

Navigation around the app is also straightforward.  A simple swipe system allows the user to move between different sections of the app which appear as separate open ‘multi-page’ windows – these can also be quickly accessed as a drop down list from a button on each screen. This means for example there is the potential to have several games open simultaneously and to switch between them for example when watching online and analysing.

AAC clocksThere are many simple and thoughtful touches to help the user – this includes the use of large digital clocks which is very helpful when playing blitz games either online or against an installed engine. The clocks don’t have to be visible if they are too distracting for you and the user can simply swipe again to display other relevant information such as a list of moves of the game etc.

Often the benefits of the design features only become apparent through more regular use. As a practical example, keeping a finger on the arrow keys speeds up the time control minute and second counters – important for setting up anything longer than AAC colour schemea blitz game quickly. In terms of customisation, a recent update to Acid Ape Chess has also introduced a good range of different board colours and styles together with several different pieces types to add some variation to the visual playing experience.

Notwithstanding all the positive aspects, I have one just one relatively minor gripe. When wanting a simple no frills game ‘mano a mano’ against an engine it would be nice to be able to play with just the board alone visible (preferably against a dark background) – ie  with reduced/no other information visible  – just the board – so I could fully concentrate on the game. Visually this might also give the impression of a bigger board as it can sometimes feel a little too small, for example when the oversize clocks are also displayed. The text font size is also rather small.

In addition to being well designed the app is also technically well produced. For such a sophisticated app (and notwithstanding its beta status) it proves reassuringly stable. This is not to say that it hasn’t crashed on rare occasions. But it is important to note that Acid Ape Chess is dependent on the chess engines the user installs into it – not all of which are necessarily 100% reliable or have the same features and options. And this is not always immediately clear. If problems are experienced, consider first if these occur when particular engines are being used. Also users may see a warning notification of high CPU usage and noticeable battery draining; in this case check whether engines have been left running and/or the relevant engine settings in use (eg number of cores used etc).

Developer support

At the time of review, Acid Ape Chess is being regularly updated (two releases have been made during the writing of this review!). Indeed the developer has announced plans for an even shorter release cycle. The good news is that the updates have been meaningful, improving functionality rather than simply fixing bugs.

Very pleasingly, the high quality of the app is equally matched by  the quality of the developer’s support of it.The developer is easily contactable via the app’s play store page and responsive to feedback as evidenced by the replies left to reviewers’ feedback.

Importantly, an active twitter account @AcidApeStudios is also maintained for news, feedback and support which is well worth a follow. (I’m always surprised more developers don’t use social media presence to promote and support their apps – maybe I’m following the wrong accounts!). As a last point, surprisingly there isn’t a support contact/feedback option within the app itself and this might be something worth considering in a future update.

 
Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Range of features and options are second to none
  • Ability to use a wide range of different chess engines
  • Tactical puzzles
  • Design and  ease of use


Dislikes: 

There are no real dislikes to this app – the app of course is not perfect and there are still a few tweaks and suggestions for improvement that could be made (not strong or significant enough to be a dislike!). These are outlined on the relevant section of the developer notes  page

 

AA Chess

AA chess1

Review details:
App version: 1.3
Device:  iPad 3
Operating system: iOS 9.3.1


Summary:

A simple app which has a few rough edges but offers a fun game of chess for the casual user

The developer of AA Chess (kargeor apps) makes the impressive claim in the app description that …‘AA Chess is the best FREE Chess app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch!’. Given the developer hasn’t got an established reputation in the field of chess software, it was a claim I was eager to test!

Leaving aside the key chess considerations for a moment, my initial impressions of the app were favourable. The developer deserves kudos to start with as the app is totally free being unsupported by adverts (frequent or otherwise), nor does it have any in-app purchase options.

Let’s cut to the chase … AA is a plain and simple chess app, without bells and whistles aimed squarely at the casual player AA chess splashscreen The app offers the ability to play chess in three ways:

  • against an in-built (unnamed) engine on one of three different strength levels,
  • online via Game Centre connection (not tested in this review);
  • in free play mode (effectively ‘pass and play’ against another human).

The most noteworthy feature of AA Chess is the presentation and display. The app has a 3d option which mimics playing on a table against a seated opponent (or rather empty chair against the cpu). 3d chess visuals are very hard to pull off well in terms of practical usability. In this case AA Chess makes a reasonable attempt – the graphics look quite impressive, certainly in the case of the main 3d piece set, which are clearly AA chess main 3ddistinguishable. The one area where clarity could be improved is perhaps in having a greater contrast between the black pieces and dark squares.

The user has some control over the view and with a finger can easily rotate the board a full 360 degrees to see the board from either side’s perspective. Disappointingly, however, there is no control over the vertical plain, so the user can’t alter the viewing angle or change the height . This is an important omission for a 3d board option as users are likely to have different preferences as to what angles give the clearest view of the pieces.

AA chess bq

Queen or bishop?

This weakness is particularly evident if the alternative 3d piece set is selected as it is pretty much impossible to distinguish a number of the different piece types from each other making the game uncomfortably and unnecessarily difficult to play. Adding to the confusion, although it is displayed in 3d the option is actually labelled as 2D-B.

 

Strength

Absolute strength isn’t likely to be a key issue for an app aimed at casual users. A range of levels with clearly distinguishable chess abilities and a focus at the novice/weaker end is generally the most important feature.  In this regard AA Chess is quite successful. There are three levels of play intuitively named as ‘Easy’, ‘Normal’ and ‘Hard’.

Using my stock engine opponent ‘Hiarcs’ which is considered to have reasonably accurate human elo playing level, I tested the app’s various skill levels. The ‘Hard’ level plays to a AA chess 2dreasonable club level standard  (about 1600-1700 level per Hiarcs elo) which seems well suited to the casual nature of the app. The ‘Easy’ level is indeed clearly weaker. However, whilst it lost a test game in 6 moves, it still probably plays a little too strongly for a novice level – for example it was able to beat Hiarcs at its 1000 elo level.

The AA Chess engine has a rather engaging and enjoyable playing style. It is fun to play and the obvious weaknesses feel quite endearing – for example, the engine has a noticeable desire to move its king towards the corner of the board (g1 or g8 square) in the early phases of an endgame. You can see a sample of games played by AA Chess for this review here.

Given the many chess apps available it is not that uncommon to find those including chess engines that are ‘bug ridden’ and which won’t play a legal game. In this case, it is worth noting that AA Chess has no problems in this regard and will play a valid game consistently obeying the rules of chess in full.

Features and practicality of use

AA Chess is a very simple. There is only the minimum range of basic functions required to AA chess optionsplay a game of chess. This includes the ability to take back moves and toggle app sounds on or off. There is also a  highlight previous move option which for some unknown reason uses a very distracting red colour to illuminate the relevant ‘to’ and ‘from’ squares. In terms of the information displayed during a game this is limited to a count of the number of moves played which rather oddly is the total game moves (ie including both white and black). Given its simplicity it would be disappointing if the app was not easy to use. In this case AA Chess doesn’t disappoint and the user can navigate between a range of simple menu options which are clearly labelled and also from an accessibility perspective, helpfully shown in a reasonable font size.

A final option perhaps worth highlighting which may appeal to users of social media is the ability to directly post (tweet) your game result to your twitter account. The app’s default text (below) can fortunately be edited should you wish to publicise your result!

AA chess socmed

Summary

So does AA Chess live up to its claim of being ‘the best FREE Chess app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch!’ – well no it doesn’t but it’s not bad for a casual game and there are plenty of apps that are worse.


Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Enjoyable and well suited engine for the average player
  • 3d visuals
  • Simple and easy to use


Dislikes:

  • Overhead 3D piece option is unusable
  • No vertical roatation in 3d mode
  • Easy level is a little too difficult

Chess apps we’ve loved and lost…

Chess apps are added to the various app stores on a daily basis – the better known ones often announced and promoted through chess forums and social media (I plead guilty!). At the same time with less or no fanfare, there are chess apps being withdrawn from these stores and being lost to the community. They sink into obscurity, losing any profile they had, with potential users unaware of the enjoyment they are missing. Some are indeed ‘treasures’. This short blog celebrates a few of these ‘zombie’ apps that are sadly no longer generally available but fortunately still live on at least on my trusty old iPod Touch.

A1 Chess (iOS)

A1 chess_logoA1 Chess was an inexpensive app developed by Andrew Short and released in 2009. A very simple app with no bells and whistles it just played a game of chess (what more is really needed!?). The app’s appeal lay in its simplicity, elegant design and visual appeal. There were no clocks, minimal settings and users options. The board theme and chess piece selections (there was only one!) combined clearly and well and made for a very easy and pleasurable playing experience even on a phone or iPod Touch.

A1 Chess simply offered 10 levels of play ranging from Learner (Level 1) to World Champion (Level 10) with an average of  3 minutes per move. The system of simple A1 chessnamed levels encouraged the user to improve through the stages (for example level 5 was ‘Intermediate’ and Level 7 was ‘club player’). Playing strength wasn’t bad at all and certainly catered for the vast majority of players. The invidual levels were reasonably accurately described  – my experience was that level 5 – Intermediate –  probably played around 1400-1500 elo, though ‘World Champion’ play at level 10 may have been a little optimistic.

The only real downside with the app, related to the gameplay and this was the absence of an opening book. This of course meant less variety in games which was a little disappointing, and I ended up always expecting my Queens Gambit to be Accepted (as you can see from the image above!)

What happened next?

A1 Chess sadly disappeared from the app store some time ago for unknown reasons. The author Andrew Short is still actively inolved in app development releasing a number of non-chess related apps for Far Stars Games.

Touch Chess (iOS)

Touch Chess logoThis app was released in 2012 by 2DEngine a small independent game developer based in the United States. At its heart it featured the Faile ‘open source’ chess engine – which is of medium strength in the context of other chess engines but certainly strong enough in absolute terms for the vast majority of human players.

Touch Chess was a well designed and presented app with a good range of Touch Chess_introfeatures. A particular feature of the app were the large icon buttons and menu bar titles which made the app very accessible and easy to navigate around. In terms of playing options, whilst these were limited, Touch Chess had the unusual but interesting feature of having difficulty settings solely based on fixed and selective search depths. These ranged from the simplest 1/1 ply to the hardest level 4/8 ply (ie 4 ply minimum but 8 ply maximum search), though in reality there never felt to be that much difference between the individual levels.

There were a range of ways to alter the playing experience Touch Chessincluding different board themes including a not too unreasonable 3d chess set (though the dark pieces were perhaps a little too dark). A further plus was that Touch Chess included a nice range of separate pgn databases for the user to explore and play through. These were based on the games of well known current and former players but also very usefully included a range of different themes covering tactical minatures, chess traps and common checkmating patterns.

What happened next?

Development of Touch Chess ceased and the app was withdrawn for unknown reasons. However in May 2015 the developer 2DEngine in celebration of releasing a new app, generously made the Windows version of Touch Chess available for free and it remains available from their website.

Deep Green Chess (iOS)

DGC_logoThis is a bit of a cheat – Deep Green Chess is still very much alive and well on the iTunes app store. I lament here the loss of the free (Lite) version of the app – important in my view as the app at £5.99 is relatively expensive for a chess app and for a punt in to the unknown if you’re not familiar with it.

Actually, Deep Green Chess developed by Joachim Bondo and released by Cocoa Stuff has a long pedigree being originally available for the Apple Newton in the 1990s. The Lite version was a generous offer as the only difference from the full version was the inability to save games (not a particular hardship for the casual player).

DPCDeep Green Chess is not a complex or sophisticated app in terms of features and options – it is essentially just a game of chess with the ability also to set up and play a game from different positions. No, the app’s particular appeal is that it is one of the most beautifully crafted and designed chess apps available. It is very simple and straightforward to use. The board and piece set are attractive, the respective colours are well chosen and visually a game on a phone or ipod is both easy and enjoyable to play. Unusually for a chess app which has sound, in the case of Deep Green Chess these complement the app rather than detract from it – there are a range of well matched soft clicks, whirrs and ticks for associated elements of the game (eg gentle ticking for when the user requests the engine for a hint). The user also even has the choice to seeing the engine visually ‘thinking’ about its move!

There are a 10 playing levels which amusingly at the lower levels show the Deep Green_thinking]engine having differing levels of ‘concentration’ (eg level 1 plays at 1 second/move with 25% concentration). The maxium level is only 30 seconds thinking per move at full concentration. The vast majority of chess strengths should be suitably catered for by the apps various levels. The app isn’t aimed at the power or sophisticated user – there is no ability to influence playing style and there are no means of analysis other than a simple hint move – but Deep Green makes a great choice for a quick casual fun game fof chess – And what more do you really need!?

What happened next?

The Lite version was discontinued in 2011 in the words of the developer because “The difference between Lite and the paid version (Lite doesn’t save games between app launches) has been practically eliminated by iOS 4.0’s multitasking.”

Fritz (iOS)

Fritz_coverMany of the long established and well known computer chess brands including the likes of Shredder, Hiarcs and Chess Genius are represented in the app market as are a host of top engines (Komodo Stockfish et al) but one of the biggest brands is missing as a native app….. where is Fritz??

Well, there was indeed once a dedicated Fritz  app. Originally released on the iOS platform in early 2009 by Gammick Entertainment (under license from Chessbase) whilst no longer at the app store it still remains available for other devices

This blog celebrates the chess apps loved and lost but in truth Fritz doesn’t fall into this category – it was not much loved by me. Perhaps this was due to the expectations associated with the use of the ‘Fritz’ name. In short, the app was a general disappointment.

Yes, Fritz was generally well featured in terms of actual game play for example in terms of Fritz_1choice of time controls and options to influence the engine’s willingness to resign or accept draws. But the app was not particularly intuitive to use and felt too gimmicky. It had terrible music and sound options which were harsh to the ear and really grated. If I want to listen to music when I play then let me pick a tune from my own music library not your awful attempt at jazz or electronica! At least these options could be disabled.

Particularly disappointing was the engine itself – it was weaker than anticipated. There was some debate about whether indeed the Fritz engine was powering the app. (Implementations of the ‘Fritz’ brand on other devices have actually used different engines). Certainly Fritz  performed poorly in my own testing against other well-known strong chess apps. The app also had a tendency use its time very poorly and lost frequently due to running out of time. For the enthusiast there was also no ability to multi-task either so engine v engine testing was problematical.

What happened next?

It is not clear when or why the Fritz app was withdrawn. Chessbase the publisher of Fritz subsequently released its own Chessbase database app on both android and apple platforms. In 2015 the Fritz engine (in its Deep Fritz 14 incarnation) became available for use via an update to this app.

 

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…..

 

 

 

 

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…..

Chess Openings Explorer

chess openings explorerReview details:
App version: 1.10.1
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary

A useful tool for the casual player wanting to improve their opening play but the serious user and stronger player is likely to be disappointed

Chess Openings Explorer is a free android app developed by Anton Duzenko which is free to download and notably also free from any advertising

The app is an analysis tool which enables  chess openings to be studied in two ways by 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 is a commonly used format in established chess database applications. The Openings Explorer uses the normal approach of displaying the results in a ‘tree’ of the individual moves from the current board position. 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

The underlying database is perhaps the most important feature of an app dedicated to chess openings analysis. Such an app lives or dies by the quality of the games the database uses; so how does Explorer do in this area? Let’s take a look…

COEThe database of games is literally massive – using 2.3 million games played on the Free internet Chess Server (FICS). This means that the database is large enough to provide a sufficient coverage of openings to a reasonable depth – it also means that (other things being equal) results are more meaningful – in reviewing a potential move I would be more comfortable with the conclusions from 100 games than say 10. The quantity of games certainly allows trends to be identified and enables different moves to be more easily compared.

However, the database size is not all good news; it brings both practical and usability drawbacks:

The vast number of games means that the app size is huge – the developer recommends at least 770Mb of free space  – so if your device doesn’t have external memory the app may well be a ‘no-no’ to start with. Additionally, the developer also indicates there are potential problems regarding external storage for non-Samsung users

There is a trade off between quantity and quality. The larger the pool of games used the lower the average quality of the games will be. Put simply, there won’t be 2.3 million games from Magnus Carlsen or Gary Kasparov. As an example, in my own games database of over 4 million games –  only some 60,000 were played by players who both had ratings of over 2600 (ie Super-GM). The reality is that many of the FICS games are of very low quality. They are often at blitz time controls between weak players with many poor moves. This obviously impacts on the reliability of the assessments of individual opening moves COE_Grobwithin the app. As an illustration, there are at least 30 games of the following:

1 – g4 e5
2 – f3 or f4

Of course, this is a terrible opening in it’s own right leading to the quickest possible loss by checkmate – what is worse is that of these 30 games only twice was the immediately winning move 2..Qh4++ played! Equally, it is not hard to find opening moves which drop whole pieces. So, the app isn’t likely to inspire the confidence of the serious openings student or stronger player. However, for the casual or weaker player the quality of the games arguably doesn’t matter so much as they are far more likely to be facing non-optimal moves in the games they play.

The other big disappointment regarding the database lies in the fact that there is no option to change it and load in your own games database. This inflexibility means that you can’t rectify any of the quality issues identified above nor for example use a specific subset of games to practice a particular opening in-depth (eg import a database of solely Budapest Gambit games between Master strength players).

There is however good news with the inclusion of a chess engine which can be used to play and analysis openings which can be used to play a full game. The engine  ‘Cuckhoo Chess‘ by the respected programmer Peter Österlund, whilst not being of top strength is still a good one. It feels appropriate and well-matched to the app given the type of player it is likely to appeal to and sufficient for the needs of the user.

Practical use and presentation

COE_menuThe app is relatively simple and easy to use. There are few options and those that are available are easily accessible from a single menu bar. These are practical including the ability ot rotate the board, return to the start position or use the engine

Entering moves is straightforward, simply by tapping the relevant board squares which are highlighted for clarity and there is a back button to return to the previous position.

Visually, the app looks attractive. Although there are no means to alter the chess board or piece type, the options selected are well chosen and make for pleasant viewing. The evaluations for individual moves for the side to move are shown using separate percentages for win (displayed in green) and losses (in red) together with the number of games where that move was played.

Whilst the user experience is generally positive, it must be noted that the app does lack a COE Settingslittle polish. The purpose of the app’s settings are not immediately obvious (none are explained) and indeed on discovery several appear rather pointless (‘Hide ActionBar’ – why would the user want a title bar displaying the app name taking up screen room anyway!?). There are a few more detailed specific comments regarding use and presentation on the developer page.

Developer support

The app has been actively developed with regular updates, the current version dates from June 2015. The app appears well supported. The developer invites feedback and has responded to user feedback left at the Play Store which is always a good sign. It is also clear that user comments have been addressed in subsequent releases.

Whilst it is not a complex app and users of other chess opening apps will no doubt be familiar with the app’s layout and approach, the absence of any simple instructions on the Play Store page or within the app itself is an omission that should be corrected to help beginners and new users.

Overall


Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Large database of games
  • Inclusion of good chess engine for self-analysis


Dislikes:

  • Size of games database sacrifices quality
  • Inability to import/load alternative database
  • Settings are not explained and add little benefit

 

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