At any given moment in time one particular piece of software tends to dominate. In the 1980s it was clearly a combination of Chessbase and Fritz. In the 1990s, other engines emerged to relegate Fritz to a lower tier. The rise of Ribka took chess world by storm and as we complete the first decade of the 21st century there are some new rivals for the title of most powerful chess engine.
This article is not intended as a review of current offerings but rather as a survey of the landscape. In the end, the product you choose is always going to be the one that has the most features that appeal to you and this is not a one-size-fits-all industry.
I focus on chess engines here because the world of chess processors has changed radically in the past few months. Until recently chess players had to choose between just two all-purpose chess processors: chessbase and chess assistant. I personally used chess assistant in my work because it offered me a more useful set of features for my particular needs, and because I was able to customize the program to put all of the needed features at my fingertips.
Unfortunately, chess assistant suffered a major blow when it brought out its 10th version which simply does not work and causes great damage. The trees in chess assistant, arguably the most important feature, breakdown constantly. I have urged all of my students to stick with version 9, but if you put old versions on the same machine chess assistant and destroys the functionality of chess assistant nine. This product should not be on the market, and to some extent it isn't because the website for the program has been down for months and technical support is non-responsive.
So chessbase now has a complete monopoly on the chess processing software. If all you're interested in is manipulating trees, then the chess openings wizard program might be sufficient.
Rybka Aquarium is still pretty primitive in terms of features, ionly slowly acquiring the power of Chess Assistant, with which it seems to want to avoid a rivalry. I expect that it will expand rapidly.
So the question these days is which engine should you use for your most serious analysis. the ancient standbys Fritz and Shredder our strong enough for casual use but in recent years Rybka has become the gold standard, arguably over 3000 strength. But two new arrivals are threatening that supremacy.
One of these comes with the fascinating program Toby Chess. the engine is called Toby-Tal. The most amazing thing about this engine is its small size. There is no bloat in this program and it is streamlined and tremendously efficient. It will soon be available in a form that can be plugged into any other program that supports the standard interface.
People have their own tests and standards for chess engines and I'm not going to get into the results of test suites and so on. This new engine simply outperforms everything else I have seen. At a recent tournament one user of Fritz stopped by the demonstration area and claimed that rather snidely that Fritz would clobber the new program. In a series of battles,Toby-Tal mopped the floor with Fritz and handily defeated Rybka. Personally, I don't find head-to-head challenges particularly useful because it often comes down to who has the better opening book.
None of the available computer programs can play the opening well, all of them rely on human crafted opening books to get out of the first stage of the game with a decent position. That's why it is simply not true that computers have defeated top grandmasters. Turn off their opening books and they usually get clobbered. The computer engines are simply cheating by using these opening books. I await the day when the computer programs will construct their own opening books without any human input and come up with something reasonable.
That's why most people evaluate computer programs by feeding them a series of very difficult positions, some of which can be found in Wikipedia. The new engine does very well with these challenges.
Here is what the developer Tim Tobiason says about his brainchild:
"Tobychess has created a powerful new chess engine called Toby-Tal. It is a very small new program using a lot of new ideas (size is app. 120k). Toby has 2 settings on its parameters, a checkbox for HyperTal on-off. When it is on, TobyTal takes great risks in attacking the enemy King and has a high contempt for draws.
Early tests against Rybka 3.1 and other top engines indicate that we play at about 3150-3200 on AMD processors at all time controls. The program is actually optimized to run on intel chips and will play above this rating performance on intel machines.
As of Jan 2010 the engine works well on Windows Vista and Windows 7 with multi move. We plan a version for the start of Feb 2010 which runs as a UCI engine and uses tablebases in Windows XP as well."
Robolito, a free program, is almost as good. It has already been discussed here at Chess.com. it is not my intention to compare these two engines and give my personal opinion. I have not yet installed RobleLito and put it through its paces. My aim in this brief article is simply to make you all aware of these two products so that you can investigate them for yourselves and see if they fit your needs.
I do suggest that you check out the Toby Chess site because it's quite a different program than most Chess processors. It is called Deep Tactics for a reason. It has dozens of features not found in other programs but does support trees so that you can explore the openings. It also comes with a pile of different chess engines so that you can choose the one that best suits you.
I'm sure that many of you will wish to present your own experience in the comments. However, let's refrain from this "my program is better than your program" stuff and simply say what you like or dislike. No one program is going to be best for all of us though most will claim that they are.
A final note on cost. The price of Chessbase causedme to drop it a few years ago. It is terribly expensive. Chess Assistant products were more reasonably priced, but as I have noted Chess Assistant 10 is simply not an option because it is dysfunctional. Toby Chess comes in an enormous package for under $100. Robolito is free.
I currently use Chess Assistant 9and look forward in to plugging in the new engines. But my use is primarily directed toward writing books and creating instructional materials. You need to select the program that best fits your immediate needs.