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…..

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Napo Chess

NapoChessReview details:                                                                           
App version:  0.7.7.1 (1 Jan 16)
Device:  Nexus 7
Operating system: 5.1.1


Summary:

An enjoyable and very simple no frills game of chess for the casual player but the functionality of online and database features is rather too basic for more serious use. 

NapoChess_2DNapo Chess is an Android only app from the developer Cronoscopium. It has been released in both Lite (free) and full versions. The latter is available for a small cost (£1.17 at the time of writing). The only difference is that the full version has 10 levels of play compared to 8 in the Lite version – these nominally being the two strongest levels of play. This review is of the Lite version.

The app is a simple chess playing application with some additional basic functionality including the ability to play on-line and review and play through a small database of games.

Strength

The app’s chess playing abilities seem generally well fitted and appropriate to the simple nature of the app. There are 8 levels of strength though rather unhelpfully there is no descriptive indication within the app about the estimated ability of each level.

diagram001

(A) – (nb not app image)

From testing, Level 1 is probably too advanced for the beginner (it is not clear if this is the objective). It offers perhaps a rather unrealistic style of play alternating between reasonable or even in some cases good moves to down right blunders. As an example, Level 1 reached the following position (A) as black after move 9 as has at least one International Master! The app’s opening book is quite small but switching it off altogether at the lower levels might help generate more realistic game play.

To get a better illustration of the app’s ability and playing style at Level 1, here is the pgn of a win it scored against the Hiarcs iOS app set at 1200 elo. (Hiarcs is generally considered to have one of the better and more accurate elo rating systems). With the above link you can also see and review some sample games played at different levels to give you a feel of the app’s broader play. From these and other games, I would estimate the top free level (level 8) to play at about the strength of an average club player (say 1500-1600 elo). So the majority of likely app users should find a reasonable opponent but stronger players probably won’t find it challenging. (Please remember the app’s full version has 2 further levels which may well be stronger than the Lite version tested).

Features

Napo Chess is enjoyable for what it is – a simple chess playing app. Don’t expect ‘bells and whistles’ because there aren’t any. However there are a few things worth noting. Practical game play has been made easier and more enjoyable by the inclusion of helpful and NapoChess_statisticssimple features such as a highlighting legal moves option and sound to signify when the engine moves. Additionally, the app has a statistics feature which keeps a record of the user’s score against each of the individual levels of play in the form of wins/draws and losses. This also includes an estimated elo grade which is a helpful feature for keeping track of progress and may have particular appeal to the competitively minded.

However, there are still a number of basic practical additions that would enhance a typical user’s playing experience. For example:

  • although there are clocks for each colour to record total time, there is no way to influence the time that the engine spends thinking. There are no timed levels of play or ‘move now’ feature to halt thinking. This is probably more important for the more difficult levels where the engine thinks for longer. (As a guide the average move time on the higher levels is around 15-25 seconds per move)
  • The user can resign or abort a game but there is no ability for the engine to resign. It isn’t generally difficult to program in to the engine, and would help to avoid the tedious situation where the user is forced to play out totally won games. The opportuntiy to accept and offer draws would also be similarly useful.

The app doesn’t just allow you to play chess against the engine. It has a 2 player game option and also includes an on-line play mode and game database option (comprising 910 games at the time of this review).  However, the very basic nature of many of these features make them difficult to use practically. In particular:

  • Online play – there is no ability to influence or control the game parameters; the user can’t choose the opponent or length of game. More than once I connected and found myself playing a 10 minute game when I just wanted a casual blitz game to pass a couple of minutes. Similarly if you already have a FICS account, the app doesn’t allow you to sign-in. Essentially, the user has only ‘Guest’ access rights but without the ability to challenge or accept opponents.

NapoChess_database

  • Game database – The user is only able to load and ‘step through’ and review single games at a time. There is no opportunity to be able to easily see which games are in the database without clicking through them all individually. The games are ordered by ECO classification; this might be useful if you are interested in a particular opening but isn’t much good if you want to see how many (if any) of Karpov’s games there are. Essentially there is no way to sort or manipulate the database.  As such as the database feature is only good for playing through individual games, but as the app has no engine analysis feature, it is likely to be of limited benefit to the typical user.

Practicality of use and presentation

Napo Chess is very simple to use. The controls are generally intutive and available choices clearly identified by either menu buttons or relevant graphical icons. The only exception to this, perhaps is the game database screen where the instinct is to press the highlighted game but this doesn’t actually open the game and there is no opportunity to move through the games by swiping.

The app doesn’t have a lot of choice or flexibility regarding presentation and layout. There are no options over board colours or piece sets. However, unusually the app does include the choice of a 3d view as an alternative to the traditional 2d view. NapoChess_3dIt is the 3d option which is a particular highlight of the app.  The smoothness of control and flexibility of the view in terms of rotation and degree of viewing angle is most impressive and one of the best I have seen. It is actually quite fun just playing with the orientation of the 3d board itself! The only criticism with the 3d usage is perhaps the sensitivity of the controls and also the choice of piece colours which are a somewhat dull an unnatural colour. Whilst there is no opportunity to vary the 2d view the board colours and piece types are well chosen and comfortable to view.

Developer support

A real positive is that the app is in active development with a history of regular releases. The developer has indicated that this will remain the case and it is an app worth both keeping an eye on and also supporting. With some further work it has the potential for inclusion in the chess enthusiast’s ‘keep me’ pile.

 

Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Simple to use
  • Reasonable challenge for the average player
  • 3d board
  • Active developer and regular updates

Dislikes:

  • Easiest level isn’t that easy
  • Limited practical use of the database
  • Lack of control over online play options

 

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…..?

Mastersoft Chess

Mastersoft chessReview details:                                                                           
App version:  2.47
Device:  iPad 3rd gen
Operating system: iOS 9.1


Summary:

A good looking app that caters well for the casual user but won’t satisfy the more demanding chess player due to lack of features.  

Mastersoft Chess is available on both android and apple platforms. There are three versions. The Pro, is the senior edition with enhanced graphical Mastersoft_maincapabilities and separate ‘paid for’ and free releases of the app. The free version is not limited in any way but is supported by adverts. This review is of the ‘paid for’ version (ie not the Pro release).

It is important to credit the developer and note that Mastersoft Chess is a universal app meaning you don’t have to buy separate versions if you want to use it on a phone and tablet device on the same platform (eg iPod and iPad). This is very welcome from a user perspective.


Strength

The first thing to note even before downloading the app is that Mastersoft Chess promotes itself heavily on the basis that it uses a chess engine that came 4th in the World Micro Computer Chess competition.

On the face of it, this is great news. The engine must be a top strength opponent then?.. Well, the engine used is a version of Gromit Chess and yes, it is quite true that it achieved that 4th place position. Unfortunately, what the app developer fails to mention is that this tournament was held in 2001… an aeon ago in the world of computer chess. It’s as if you were being told England were the world cup winners on buying an England football shirt (maybe we can dream!). I have a particular gripe with sloppy and/or misleading promotional material and this is a poor example which should be corrected.

Nevertheless, despite this the chess engine is indeed a good one – with an established track record over a long period. Indeed Gromit has evolved over time and various incarnations and the engine author’s latest offering – called Ginkgo – is currently one of the top engines in terms of strength. It is not clear which engine version this app uses, but certainly if the latter then this would be something to mention in the marketing material!

However, in terms of core strength, the existing engine at its maximum level (the app includes an elo rating scheme – more of this below) will be more than adequate for all but titled chess players.

Features

Let’s start with features relating to actual game play.

Mastersoft Chess scores well with the inclusion of an elo rating function which allows the user to play the engine at selected elo ratings and also Mastersoft ratinghas a separate rating feature. The app will keep track of your elo over the games you play and visually graph your progress and also provide some rudimentary statistics about the games you have played. A good rating feature is important for a chess playing app. It gives an opportunity for the user to track his/her progress and can also maintain interest over the longer term by stimulating an element of competitiveness. ( I will reach and beat this app at 1700 elo!)

The user may select the engine to play at one of a large number of different strength levels. These range from 800 elo (beginner) to 2780 (Super Grandmaster). Whilst on the face of it, this appears to be very appealing, the practical application is maybe less so. The elo settings increase in steps of just 20 elo. This really is a spurious and unrealistic level of accuracy. Why? well because in practical play it is very difficult for the non-expert player to be able to distinguish a difference of 20 elo and it is even harder to program a chess engine to this level of accuracy, let alone throughout the ability range from beginner to Grandmaster. In short, the elo rating scale should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt.

There is also some doubt about the accuracy of some of the individual levels – for example the lowest level (800) ostensibly that of a beginner plays rather too strongly which is likely to demotivate players of this ability. It is noticeable that even at these lower rating levels the engine still uses an opening book and plays recognised opening moves. Use of an opening book at ‘beginner’ type levels can result in unrealistic game play if not specially adapted or better still removed. In this case, for example, the engine knows the main line of the Ruy Lopez rather too well for a player of 800 elo rating.

The app isn’t really suited for anything other than casual play. There are too many features lacking for the more experienced or dedicated player. This includes the lack of an analysis function (for example in reviewing games and/or positions). This is disappointing as the engine does offer analysis of its own thinking when playing a game. 

The app only allows play against the engine at the specified elo ratings. There are no time control based options (for example, game in 5 minutes or 10 seconds a move – the latter was certainly available in earlier versions of Mastersoft Chess). This isn’t really a problem for the casual or hobby player but it does mean that the user has no control over the engine’s thinking time at the higher strength levels.

So if you want to test your mettle at the top level 2780 (World Championship contender) or test the engine against another chess engine, you can expect the app to take around 30 seconds for each move. The thinking time per move becomes noticeable from above 2200 elo, so whilst irritating, this shouldn’t be a real problem for the average user. ‘Hard core’ users should also note that there is no ability to tinker with the engine settings, for example by altering book openings or style of play etc.

There is one particularly disappointing omission to note relating to practical game play and this is the absence of a resign or offer draw feature. Additionally, whilst there are save and load options, these can only be used directly from within the app. There is no import or export facility for either games or positions – meaning that these can not be shared or transferred for use in other applications.

However, Mastersoft Chess does have some good features. There is a veryMastersoft coach easy to use training mode which at the tap of an icon, will result in the engine either suggesting potential move options or warning of possible threats – these are highlighted visually on the board by either green or red arrows respectively. There are also additional play options namely the ability to play another human (ie 2 player option) and on-line play via connection to the game centre. In terms of the latter option, I have never succeeded in finding an opponent on-line (maybe I’m just unlucky!). So if you are just interested in internet chess there are other apps that cater for this type of play far better.

Practicality of use and presentation

The design and layout of the app is generally good and easy to use.  A variety of game control icons are readily accessible from the main playing screen. These are clearly identifiable below the chessboard – see below – and are those likely to be most commonly used when playing a casual game.

Mastersoft options

The app has probably one of the widest selections of board and piece options available. Helpfully these are pre-prepared in the form of a number of pre-defined skins, many of which have well matched piece and board combinations. This saves the user searching for their own though of course this is also possible for those wanting added variety.

There are certainly some visually attractive combinationsMastersoft_Staunton_3d including several well designed 3d sets (3D piece sets are notoriously difficult to show sufficiently clearly for practical use). Quantity of available options does not necessarily mean quality and several designs appear to have been included for ‘show’ and are unsuited to playing a game. However, despite this there should be enough choice to offer at least several that the user can happily and easily use.

Within the settings menu heading, there is also a range of options to tailor the look and feel of the game. For example, a simple coach option that flags up when you are in check, (but surprisingly not when you blunder a piece away!), speed of piece animation, and a toggle to display of captured pieces.

There are a few practical niggles with the app which become apparent with use:

  • The app uses clocks to record move times but these are redundant not only as there are no time-based levels to play the engine against but also as they only record the time taken for a particular move (ie they don’t show cumulative time, which might be useful for seeing how long  a user has taken for the whole game)
  • There is one frustrating design omission – the inability to use the app in landscape view, the user is restricted to a portrait view like it or not!
  • The sound option doesn’t seem to work (at least on my device I have never heard any sounds – and yes the sound option has been enabled and volume turned up!)
  • When saving a game, it would be helpful if the elo setting was automatically included in the game data field – to save the user having to remember and enter it

None of these are ‘deal-breakers’ in their own right but if fixed would improve enjoyment.

Developer support

Developer support for this app has traditionally been good with frequent updates. Feedback is actively invited and easy to give from within the app. which is always good to see from a user perspective. The app includes an easily accessible help file with detailed instruction manual. However, the bad news is that this is out of date (issued in 2009), and for example references features no longer available. The manual also makes no reference to users of the equivalent android app (I know as I also have the android app and it is the same manual!) . This really should be updated.


Overall

Likes:

  • Universal app
  • Effective design and layout
  • Variety of board/piece skins
  • Rating system enables user to track progress

Dislikes:

  • Misleading engine advertising
  • Unrealistic granularity of elo settings (20 elo gaps)
  • Inability to import/export positions and games
  • No time control based game options
  • Lack of draw and resign feature
  • Out of date instruction manual

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