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

 

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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 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…..

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…..?