Posted on October 12, 2017 by Wesley Surber.

lichess.org on iOS Is Mobile Chess At It’s Finest

Editor’s Note: This review focuses exclusively on the iOS (iPhone/iPad) version of lichess, but the Google Play version contains all of the same features as it’s Apple counterpart. Performance and compatibility will vary depending on the device used.

Not long ago you could find me singing praises of the Chess.com app on iOS. The app received a major update a few months before the site’s V3 design went live. But this entry is not about Chess.com or it’s mobile app. This is about an app that has emerged as a serious competitor to the largest chess website on the internet: lichess.org.

lichess.org is a 100% free and open source chess platform that offers many of the same features you would find on major competitors, but with some noteworthy differences.

  • Zero advertising! In an age where the internet seems more saturated with advertisements than meaningful content, lichess strips away the advertising model and relies on user donations to fund its operations. There are no premium or exclusive memberships although certain donation levels can get you a special identifier showing that you sup port the site.
  • Unlimited free access! In keeping with the earlier line about advertising, all of lichess’s puzzles and training aids are free to all users. This is definitely an attractive feature for players not wanting to pay for tactics and puzzles.

These are great features, but lichess really shines in its mobile offering, especially on iOS. The lichess iOS app is one of the most polished and useable chess apps out there!

The home screen displays a random Puzzle of the Day along with quick options to start a new game. Simply click the board to access the lichess puzzle repository and begin your training with access to thousands of free tactics.

Clicking the Create a Game button brings up a mobile version of the lichess game creation screen. Users can then link up with thousands of other lichess members and try their skills against more than a dozen different chess variations.

Bullet and Blitz seem to be very popular with many of lichess’ higher-rated players. Personally, I enjoy the 15+15 classical (rapid) time control because it has a nice balance of requiring chess experience while allowing for some time to conduct a deeper positional analysis. Regardless of your personal preference, the lichess app has nearly endless options for setting up the chess game of your dreams.

The lichess app also comes with an analysis board and local engine analysis for reviewing your games. I have also found this helpful for playing the game on the app with a person sitting next to me. Additionally, the Openings Explorer is a feature you will find on most chess websites, but I love how lichess’ version is almost seamlessly integrated into the analysis board. This way a user can easily switch back and forth between local Stockfish engine analysis and the Openings Explorer. This is an invaluable tool when conducting post-mortem game evaluations.

Final Verdict

These days it seems like the world of internet chess is growing faster and faster. New services crop up regularly and existing ones continue updating and refining their products. lichess is not new, but it is one of the more recent services to make a splash in the digital chess world. In my opinion, lichess is set apart from others in that it is a labor of love for its developer and those who maintain it.

Combine these small differences with the depth of features and the price (free), lichess’ mobile app is easily the gold standard for playing the royal game on the go.

Campfire Rating: ♟♟♟♟♟

Download the lichess mobile app from the App Store or Google Play.

Posted on February 26, 2017 by Wesley Surber.

Five Beautiful (and expensive) Chess Sets

Chess sets offer artists and other creatives with almost endless possibilities to design custom and unique pieces. I came across some beautiful albeit pricey sets on the web the other night and decided to share them here for your viewing (or possible purchasing) pleasure. These sets are in no particular order:

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RawStudio Leather and Steel Chess Set ($507 USD)

RawStudio’s chess set is inspired by industrial design and those little puzzles you can find at Toys-R-Us or various mall kiosks. It looks very beautiful and designed for portability, but I cannot imagine being comfortable carrying my $500 chess set out and about.

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The STACK Chess Board [Limited Edition] ($450)

This cool board is like Legos or an Erector Set for chess! The board itself combines from four separate pieces into a full-size board. The ability to break the board down makes it perfect for travelers and for convenient storage if $400 for a nondescript chess board is your thing.

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Black Tower Dragon Set ($150)

Chess has long held a place in science fiction and fantasy lore. In the real world, companies have created countless sets based on dragons, fairies, aliens, and other characters from classic stories. This, however, is one of my personal favorites! The glass board is perched on a highly detailed tower and the gold/white creates a unique look for dragon-theme boards that are often depicted with darker purple and red colors.

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Hand-Turned Rustic Log Chess Set ($220+)

This is one of those chess sets you will see repeatedly on Tumblr or Pinterest feeds and I have fallen victim to clicking it several times before seeing the price and running for the hills. $200+ might not seem like alot for a chess set, but the size of this one makes me cautious. However, the rustic artwork and craftsmanship of the set is certainly among the best out there. This seems like more of a collector’s item than an actual day-to-day game board.

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King Arthur Fantasy Chess Set ($1,350)

Much like the dragon chess set above, sets involving castles and midieval themes like King Arthur are commonplace. However, this is one of the most detailed and beautiful sets that I have ever seen. For someone who loves chess, fine woodwork, and the legend of the Knights of the Roundtable, this thing is perfect! It is only when we get to the price that my heart stops and disappointment sets in.

Posted on December 17, 2016 by Wesley Surber.

Product Review – ChessBase 14

Even numbered years are tough on the wallet because two of the largest software products I use typically release their major updates during those times. Now that Logos has taken my money for a major update, ChessBase has officially released the next major version of its popular database software. I’ve been using it for a while now and have seen enough in this update to explore those new features here on the blog.

Interface Updates

Interface and aesthetics used to be a developer’s afterthought in software design but that has radically changed over time thanks to Apple and other major corporations finding new ways to create cultural trends by integrating technology into everyday life through elegant design. ChessBase 13 did very little to modify the user interface despite some advances in the Windows Aero system. ChessBase 14 makes up for that by almost completely revamping the user experience to reflect interface changes on par with the latest version of Microsoft Office. The toolbar and ribbon has been fully updated and now integrates better with the rest of the operating system than previous versions.

Another excellent interface upgrade is the addition of highlighted variations on the main board window. For me, a major challenge of studying analyzed chess games has been the complexity of multiple variations, but ChessBase 14 fixes that with a cool new feature where the entirety of the current variation is highlighted in the notation pane! For me, this nifty little feature was worth the price of upgrade alone! Other minor refinements to the interface include deeper integration with ChessBase Account and some other upgrades that all serve to streamline the user experience.

Functional Updates

Of course no update would be worth the investment if it did not enhance the overall functional experience. ChessBase 14 still uses many of the same tools and resources as it’s predecessors but also adds some powerful analysis functions. The best of these, in my opinion, is the poorly named tactical analysis. This function brings the long-sought full game analysis of Fritz to the core ChessBase program. Users can now load a game in ChessBase 14 and perform a full analysis with the engine of their choosing without having to hop over to the Fritz, Houdini, Komodo, or similar GUI to complete the analysis. Online services like lichess.org and Chess.com, but I think that nothing beats letting Stockfish or a similar engine tear apart a game using local processing power and a predetermined amount of the user’s time. lichess.org can give me an analysis in a few seconds, but engines can go all night while I’m sleeping; allowing me to wake up to a full analysis of my most recent game.

The upgrades to ChessBase 14’s interface and deeper integration with ChessBase Account adds solid, useful functions to the program that definitely makes it worth the investment. The ability to upload games to the user cloud introduced in ChessBase 13 is still present with easy access to the user’s ChessBase Account added to the interface ribbon. One login allows the user access to the whole of their account and cloud databases as well as the powerful ChessBase LiveBook analysis tree. The ChessBase user cloud offers around 200MB to store PGN databases online, but most people are going to prefer alternative services like Dropbox or OneDrive which offer much more storage space with effective interface options for Windows.

The program also feels much more snappy and responsive than previous generations, which is pleasing given the increased portability of today’s computers. I use ChessBase on a Microsoft Surface so seeing some refinement in the program’s performance is welcome for those of us who consider themselves chess road warriors. Using the database itself on a portable device did not place a strain on the battery until activating an engine like Stockfish or Fritz, but that’s raw processing power for the engine; not ChessBase.

Final Thoughts and Overall Value

I skipped ChessBase 13 because most of its updates did not seem worth the investment, but ChessBase 14 is a solid update to an already powerful chess database system. There are several different packages available that include add-ons such as Mega Database 2017, which activates some immense reference abilities with over 6.5 million games. Both the software and the database are available as separate purchases but are a much better value combined together as a package.

Purchase Options

  • Base Software Download: Link.
  • Mega Database Download: Link.
  • ChessBase 14 with Mega Database 2017: Link.

Campfire Verdict: ♟♟♟♟♙

Posted on October 01, 2016 by Wesley Surber.

Product Review – Voice Master Chess Set

Many chess players and learners have moved their games into the cloud via Chessbase, Chess.com‘s servers, or the myriad of other iOS and Android apps available for tracking and analyzing a player’s repertoire. For me, this often involves playing on Chess.com on my iPhone or using Stockfish to store and analyze games on the go when I am away from my laptop or ability to access my Chessbase database. Yet, the steady transition of chess players to cloud systems over the years has not entirely eliminated a nostalgic piece of chess history: the computer chess board.

An interesting memory of chess I have as a kid is playing against a computerized board that belonged to my dad. I remember that it had a small LCD display, some red LEDs along the side to indicate the current move, and came with an annoying voice assistant that was always ready to pounce on your emotions once it had destroyed your chess game. The hauntingly annoying words of that board are forever engrained into my psyche: “Hi, my name is Chester! How about a nice game of chess?”

The IQ Toys Voice Master electronic chess board.

As time progressed, many of these boards were relegated to discount bins at bargain stores or the miscellaneous aisles at Goodwill locations. However, I came across a computerized chess board for sale at a Toys-R-Us here in San Antonio a few weeks ago and the item piqued my interest. Was there still a market for these things? And, if there was…what kind of other boards were available out there? A quick Amazon search revealed a mixture of the same problems faced by manufacturers of other niche products: a collection of worthless products with 1-2 star ratings intermixed with legitimate boards.

I spent the next few days researching options and finally decided on a mid-range board from a company called IQ Toys. My Voice Master electronic chess set came a few days later and I thought that now was an appropriate time to write a review given that I have had about a week to play with it. So, here is what its like to use a classic digital chess board in the age of the chess cloud…

Voice Master pieces are of high-quality construction.

Construction and Presentation

Given the plethora of cheap chess sets out there, it is important for a product to present a pleasing aesthetic. This little board was well packaged and it was immediately apparent that it was of a high quality construction. The box included the board itself, a set of white pieces, a set of black pieces, and a complete set of disks for checkers. I could go off on another tangent about the constant bundling of chess and checkers pieces together, but I digress. I tossed the checkers disks into the garbage and unpacked the small, magnetic chess pieces. The board itself does not come with a way to plug it into the wall, so it requires 4 AA batteries. Fortunately, so do many other toys I have purchased for my kids, so after loading the batteries and setting up the pieces, I clicked on the power and set to starting my first digital chess board game since the traumatic days of Chester…

Voice Master size comparison to 12″ MacBook.

Game Play and Observations

It was very straight forward and easy to get a new game started. Without wanting to adjust the options such as game strength or piece odds, two clicks on the key pad and I was underway. I quickly realized that it was going to take some getting used to how the pieces interfaced with the board so that I would not be inundated with a particularly annoying buzzer when it encounters an error. The player gently presses the piece down on the board and follows the instructions on the LCD board. After a few times of having the buzzer scare my dog and receiving more than enough interesting looks from my wife, I muted the board sounds and continue on. As with most chess computers it did not take long for me to hang a piece and lose the first of many casual games against the device.

Voice Master vs. Stockfish 7 via ChessBase GUI on Microsoft Surface 3.

I have yet to beat this board, which is nothing new for me and is nothing that I did not expect. However, I was curious to get an idea of how strong the board is on a normal setting. I felt as though I was playing against a 1500-1600 ELO player and decided that the best way to compliment any kind of review of the product would be to put it into an engine match against Stockfish. I fired up my Fritz 14 GUI and launched a new game against Stockfish with White and me manually inputting moves for Black on behalf of the Voice Master board. Although there were some moves made by the Voice Master board that warranted a ?? or similar marking, I avoided annotations in the game unless the board itself provided some form of text alert.

As I expected, Stockfish made short work of the Voice Master board although I was shocked at some of the moves and warnings offered by the board as the game approached its brutal conclusion. Specifically, move 21.Rxg7+ was flagged by the board as requiring caution. When the board asked me if I was sure that I wanted to proceed with that move, Stockfish’s analysis of the move bringing it to within (#8) with 21…Kxg7 22.Qg4+… at this point was more than enough for me to chuckle at the device’s overconfidence. The same thing occurred two moves later after 23.Rh7!! with the board asking if I was sure I wanted to proceed. Needless to say that the board lost shortly thereafter.

One interesting point of the game above is that the board seemed to completely ignore Stockfish’s attach after 21.Rxg7+ and go its own way. Very little was done to counter the coming assault although the board continued to offer coaching advice and precautionary alerts despite Stockfish having it at a #4 disadvantage.

Overall Verdict

The construction, appearance, and usability of the Voice Master board is nice. It does not have the cheap appearance or feeling that comes with many electronic boards sold in stores or online today. Learning the proper level of pressure to apply to the pieces during gameplay can take some practice and I highly recommend turning off the board sounds until you have a firm grasp on that pressure. Otherwise, a player can expect to be inundated with the horrific error buzzer mentioned above.

As for playing strength, the board seems perfect for beginners to mid-range skill players. It offers a classical tactile chess experience without the need to hunt down a physical opponent. However, it might be too little of a reliable challenge for some players as demonstrated in the demo game where it ignored the final mating combination almost entirely. The board retails for $39.99 on Amazon.com (as opposed to $99.99 on sites like ChessUSA.com), which makes it a nice gift for your favorite chess lover or child looking to get started playing the game. At least it does not have the taunting voice of the dreaded Chester set I mentioned in the beginning.