Sunday, November 4, 2012

Improving with a Chess Engine

Computers have had a profound influence on chess. Chess engines like Fritz and Rybka have become stronger players than even the best humans, while other computer programs have made chess training and learning easier than ever.

These days, it’s easy to get a world-class chess player in your home in the form of an extremely strong chess engine. Whether you opt for a commercial program like Fritz or Rybka, or choose one of dozens of free programs, you can have a “player” who is as strong (or stronger!) on your computer any time you need a little advice on your game. However, many players have trouble figuring out the best way to use a chess engine to improve their play. Here are a few different ways in which a chess engine can help you take your game to the next level!

Analyzing GamesOkay, this one is obvious. Still, in case you’ve only been using your engine to play games, I think it’s important to point out that chess engines are a great tool for helping you analyze your games after you’ve played. Simply input your games into your engine of choice, use the analysis functions available to you (two common functions to look for are “infinite analysis,” which will allow you to analyze as you input the moves, and “full analysis,” which will annotate the entire game), and presto: you’ve got instant insights into the quality of every move played in that game!Note, however, that I said engines are great for helping with analysis, not doing all of the work for you. An engine can’t tell you why a move was a blunder, or why another alternative was winning. Sure, for tactical errors, the reasoning behind a refutation or shot is usually immediately obvious. But for more subtle errors, it can often take a strong human player to help guide you through the process of figuring out why one move was better than another. 


A Playing Partner

There’s no substitute for practice playing against real, human players when it comes to improving through actually playing chess games. That said, there’s something to be said for playing against the strongest competition possible. Playing against a computer that only rarely makes the most subtle of mistakes can force you to play accurately to win, which can translate to more accurate play in real games. 

One problem with playing against computers, though, is that (for most of us) we have no hope when playing against a computer at full strength. The obvious solution of forcing the computer to play on a lower difficulty level has the drawback that it means we don’t get the full benefits of playing against a very strong opponent. There are at least two ways to work around this problem and give yourself a fair challenge while still allowing the computer to play at its best. First, you can play the computer with material odds in your favor. By giving yourself an advantage at the beginning of the game, you can offset your computer’s strength without forcing the engine to play weakly. Instead, you’ll start with an advantage that you can try your best to hold onto until the end of the game. Even better, you can track your improvement by slowly lowering the odds; there’s no feeling like knowing you can now beat your computer too convincingly with rook odds, and it’s time to move down to taking knight and move instead! The other way to improve by playing a computer is by beginning play in a “won” position – say, a position in which a grandmaster has resigned to an opponent, but which still has significant play. Take the winning side and do your best to finish the job, beating your stubborn computer opponent. This is a great way to improve your technique, and will help you begin to finish off winning positions a greatest percentage of the time. 

Preparing with a Computer

One last area in which a computer can help you is by helping you prepare an opening repertoire. While this is an idea that will mostly come in handy for strong players, even club players can occasionally make use of this idea, especially when playing the same opponents again and again.  For instance, imagine you’ve played an opponent with the same color several times in the past, and each time, they’ve been happy to go into the exact same opening line. A computer might give you some ideas on where you can deviate, and then help you better understand the novel position you’ve steered the game into. This preparation can help you get the jump on an opponent that has become overly comfortable with your play, forcing them into untraveled territory where you have a computer guide, and they’re entirely on their own.

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