I never imagined when I wrote The Sad State of Chess on Mac in January of last year that it would become one of the most popular articles in the blog’s history. I wrote the entry in response to my personal frustrations with trying to run Chessbase and other database software on my MacBook. I have heard rumors that Chessbase offered an OS X version of its database software, but the demand was not capable of sustaining the product. Of course, Chessbase is not the only chess database software out there. ChessOK also offers a program called Chess Assistant, but it is also confined to the Windows environment. Much of that article was done through basic research into Mac chess software, so I thought it was appropriate at this point to re-examine the state of chess on the OS X environment and see if anything has changed, if I have learned some new tricks to share, and theorize what the future might hold.
New OS Every Year
Apple shook up the software world a few years ago by pledging to maintain an annual upgrade cycle of its OS X software, which I believe made it the world’s first proprietary operating system to be offered for free. As mentioned on the linked Cult of Mac article, a yearly upgrade cycle created some initial havoc and has been a sore spot for some developers. Yearly upgrade cycles almost guarantee a need for developers to review and update their software on the same cycle, which might not be economical or practical for operations like Chessbase or ChessOK. The Sad State of Chess on Mac was written during the Age of OS X Yosemite while this article was written on and in the Age of OS X El Capitan. Despite the anxiety and challenges created by the annual upgrade cycle, it has strengthened the core of the OS by ensuring that the software the completes the Mac experience remains a forethought of its creators and is as secure as possible.
Native OS X Applications
Unfortunately, it seems as though no new applications have emerged (that I can find) that can fill the category of native chess applications for OS X. Of those applications that are still out there, only one of them has been consistently updated and improved.
- The despicable OS X Chess application remains a mainstay within the OS’s default offerings. It is a casual chess program that I advise against using unless it is the last chess program on earth. Try a free account on one of the major chess websites before using that program.
- XBoard is a port of the popular Winboard application and can be used with any UCI engine. Like many open source programs, it could benefit from some aesthetic care, but it functions well and is great for a casual game or facing an engine head-on.
- Shredder Chess for Mac was reviewed in the original Sad State article and nothing has changed since then. It remains at version 12 and the iOS app has not seen a significant update in quite a while either.
HiARCS Chess Explorer in OS X Yosemite (Credit: Campfire Chess)
- HiARCS Chess Explorer as emerged in recent years as a force to be reckoned with in the world of digital chess. As I wrote about in Sad State, HiARCS contains the best native chess interface of any program on OS X. This is true today just as it was over a year ago. The HiARCS team has consistently delivered updates to the software to make it more stable and to take advantage of new technologies that improve the efficiency of the engine. I only wish that it could open and manage Chessbase files.
Virtual Machines and Virtualization
Virtualization technology has come a long way in recent years. What was once a clunky, frustrating, and resource-hogging effort can be done on a Mac with little effort and even less money. First, we will start with the free stuff.
- VirtualBox began in 2007 as a project published by German software firm Innotek before being acquired by Sun Microsystems in 2008 and Oracle in 2010. VirtualBox is free for Windows, OS X and Linux. For chess users, it will allow them to run a legitimate copy of Microsoft Windows in a virtual machine on OS X, which in-turn allows you to run the myriad of Windows chess applications like Chessbase and Chess Assistant.
- Parallels is a popular commercial virtualization system that I had not used when I wrote Sad State. Since then, Parallels has been my go-to virtualization program for running chess applications on OS X. My favorite part of using it is that it does not require a user to function exclusively within a Windows or other operating system environment. Coherence mode enables the software to hide the Windows desktop and give the appearance of running the application natively in OS X. In my opinion, this is the best option for Mac users looking to balance usability, security, and stability.
MacBook Air Running Windows 10 in Parallels (Credit: Paul Thurrott)
- Wine Bottlers are virtualization wrappers that enable a Windows application to run in OS X by building a pseudo-native application that contains bare essentials to run the program and the executable file itself. This gives the appearance of creating a native OS X application through the use of wrapper technology.
- Wine technology works for many Windows-based applications, but there are some drawbacks. The application wrappers are considerably large and not all windows applications are compatible. Chessbase Reader is compatible with Wine and will run, but is highly unstable. Chessbase will not install under any iteration of Wine that I have found, which includes Crossover by Codeweavers.
- Tarrasch Chess GUI is a lightweight program that is designed exclusively for chess study and analysis. It runs very well under a Wine wrapper, although the program goes quickly from a meager 4.5MB download to almost 100MB in size once the dependencies are installed in the wrapper. Performance wise, this is a good option for chess study, but the size of the Wine installation is somewhat of a turnoff.
- ChessOK Aquarium also runs decently under Wine, but can be unstable and clunky. It does not help that this program’s interface is sorely outdated, but the responsiveness of the interface is affected significantly when ran inside a Wine wrapper.
ChessOK Aquarium in Windows 10 (Credit: Campfire Chess)
Chess in the Cloud
- In the interest of full disclosure, I am not paid or supported in any way by Chess.com, but it is my drug of choice when it comes to online chess. Having tried a few other online options I have found that it is the best environment for me to explore, analyze, and learn. Over the last few years, Chess.com has added a myriad of tools and resources to its arsenal that essentially make it one of the most powerful online chess services in the world, rivaled only by the King of Digital Chess, Chessbase. Although free live chess at almost any time control imaginable is Chess.com’s major selling point, there are other tools on the site that make it a powerful research and analysis tool.
- The full-featured analysis board enables a player to input moves and have them analyzed by the server in addition to supporting game comments and exporting to PGN files.
- The games explorer allows you to search through countless master-level games by moving pieces on the board. Great for visual learners and is an excellent companion to the site’s opening reference tool.
- Chessbase has been around almost forever. What started out as a project to help Garry Kasparov take advantage of emerging technology has turned into a vital resource for chess players around the world. Recently, Chessbase took its massive library and resources to a new level by moving to the cloud and creating the Chessbase Account program. The power of Chessbase is now accessible through a web browser to provide opening references, analysis, commentary, and many of the other features found in the full version of Chessbase.
- On a side note, I know this feature exists and is highly emphasized, but I have never been successful with uploading a PGN file to the Chessbase Account program. Any PGN file with more than 1-2 games in it simply refuses to load in any browser I have tried. If you have a suggestion on how to fix this problem, PM me on Twitter @CampfireChess or email firstname.lastname@example.org to share your secret.
- Chessbase Account also includes the venerable Fritz chess engine online for users to challenge.
- The Chessbase Account Openings Trainer is second to none. It functions much like the openings explorer on Chess.com but includes the raw computing power of the Chessbase servers in Germany and cross-references with the online live book and games archive.
Chessbase Cloud Database (Credit: Campfire Chess)
- If I were to evaluate each of the online chess services out there, this post would end at around 50,000 words and 300 pages of text. Since I have crossed the 2000 word mark and to avoid losing my audience, I am going to simply offer a list of other websites that offer the same services although most of them are new or have chosen to specialize in areas of chess that do not have the comprehensive offerings of Chess.com and Chessbase.
- Chess24: Offers free online live chess, streaming tournament coverage, and Grandmaster lessons for premium members. Chess24 has a special place in my heart for being one of a few websites to defy the Agon directive for the 2016 Candidates Tournament in Moscow. It is also home to my two chess crushes: Anna Rudolf and Sopiko Guramishvili.
- The Internet Chess Club is one of the oldest chess servers in the world. I have a premium membership there, but plan to let it lapse. It offers many of the same options as Chess.com although through an inferior interface.
- LiChess.org is another online chess server that offers free live games and some reference material.
Final Verdict – And Moving Ahead
Chess.com and Chessbase Account both have countless video lessons, puzzles, and tactics available for premium members to access. I believe that these options, combined with the specifics I mentioned previously clearly show that the future of chess databases is in the cloud. With migration to the cloud, I predict that the need for native Windows and OS X applications to manage personal databases will diminish in the coming years. Will everyone be able to access and use these applications? Certainly not, which is why I hope that Chessbase and other software developers will continue to offer native applications to support those people who might not have access to high speed internet connections or prefer to take their collections with them to remote locations. I know that my Carnival Cruise in April of 2015 was fantastic because of my Chessbase collection on my tablet that removed any desire to connect to the internet.
I think that the opportunity for chess programs to make leaps and bounds into the OS X community has come and gone. Open Source alternatives that were mentioned in the original Sad State are still around, but they depend exclusively on volunteers who are passionate about their projects and about chess. When that passion runs dry or other demands take precedent, the project often suffers from lack of updates or cancellation. Instead, the future of chess on OS X is already here…in the cloud. I am happy to embrace the new paradigm because cloud-based chess programs increase the availability of chess knowledge by reducing the overhead for creating software on different platforms. The future is bright, but no shades required.