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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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…..?