If you’re a member of the chess world, then there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the term “chess engine”. What is a chess engine? Well, it’s fairly simple. A chess engine is essentially a computer that plays chess. More specifically, given that it’s a computer, it has the ability to analyze the game and all of its possibilities. This means that a chess engine pretty much does what any human chess player does, it’s just that they’re able to do it much quicker and in a much larger capacity. Not even grandmasters, such as Garry Kasparov, are able to beat the most advanced chess engines. Grandmasters usually end the games with a draw or a loss, but a win is very rare, and may very well become impossible to achieve. This is why using a chess engine actively during a game is considered cheating. You can use chess engines before and after a game for analysis or for whatever purpose, but from a game’s beginning to end, you will only be able to rely on your own mind.
Chess engines are perfect for analysis of all games, whether your own or if you are watching live professional games and want to see if the masters are performing their best. But what is a chess engine exactly, and how do chess engines work? Let’s get into it.
There’s many different chess engines out there, so you can check out some of the different ones here. But the general idea is that a computer program processes the best possible next move(s) using complex algorithms.
Each chess engine has its own little twist to it (hence the differences in the chess ELO rating they can achieve). For example, Stockfish’s algorithm methodology can be explained here.
Essentially, engines target specific core parts of a chess game and address how they can make the best possible move, and these practices are slowly improved over years of development. They target areas such as beginning, middle, and end game, differences and importance of pieces, simple rules (e.g. more pieces is better than less pieces), and so on. You can always add onto this and strengthen a chess engine, hence why they can always be improved.
Chess engines also dive into past games in chess databases, which allow them to analyze the mistakes and optimal moves of other games and allow them to build off of them.
Do chess engines calculate the game from beginning to end?
The short answer: no. They aren’t programmed to attempt to do this for a simple reason: chess is an enormous game with (nearly) endless possibilities. After just three moves by each player, there are 121 million board results possible. But not all of these results are worth looking into, as the large majority are just possible games that consist of illogical moves. This leaves us with around 10,000 possible board results, and this is what chess engines take into consideration. However, they can’t rely on it. It’s safer for them to instead calculate the game one move at a time. This prevents the engine from doing unnecessary work and narrows down the overall possibilities.
Can chess engines blunder or make mistakes?
In the traditional sense of the word in chess, no. They’re computers, not humans. In fact, chess engines are built to learn from the mistakes of past games so that they know to never make such a move (such as fall victim to a fork). Blunders and mistakes are actions that humans make, and that computers learn from.
Are chess engines allowed during live matches?
As already mentioned, absolutely not. You may use a chess engine for analysis or ideas before or after a game, but using one during a game is strictly prohibited. Even in casual games on most online chess websites, they have systems in place to detect if you’re using a chess engine while playing. In the chess world, using a chess engine while playing is considered cheating.
Are there different chess engines? What are their ratings?
There are lots of different chess engines, but the best ones (in order of best rating) are Stockfish, Houdini, and Komodo.
You can find a table of their ratings on Wikipedia here.
Why are chess engines better than human players?
They’re better for many reasons, but the main reason is that a chess engine is simply able to do better in certain situations (such as trades). The game is generally always won by chess engines during the mid game. Early game is simply piece setup, and the end game has such few pieces that it’s very easy for a chess engine to calculate the best option.
Where do I find my own chess engine?
You can find the best chess engines by going to the What is the Best Chess Engine? Find out here! article on this website.