More chess openings on your iPhone
A ways back, I posted (here) about Opening Pro, which was then the only iPhone chess app devoted to chess openings. Last night, I noticed a new product in that category: Chess Openings from Arizona Software. Since it was only $0.99 (a third the price of Opening Pro) I grabbed it for a quick trial & comparison.
It’s a pretty neat little app, but in the process, I had to familiarize myself with new features in Opening Pro that have come along since I last wrote about it. Ultimately, my respect for Opening Pro has deepened a bit; and I suspect I’ll be spending more time with it than I have been up till now.
For sure, there’s a lot of common ground here. Both apps are essentially openings ‘explorers’ and both can quiz you on a particular line, or allow browsing in a more ‘open’ way, allowing you to simply peruse common book lines, watching the position evolve and maybe learning some fun new opening names as you go. Both apps can play black or white, or allow you full control to manually enter moves for both sides. Both allow you to maintain a list of “favourite” openings. However, it would probably be a bit of a stretch to characterize either of them as a personal repertoire manager. (Opening Pro comes a bit closer perhaps, as it allows you to save your own custom openings.)
One clear point of divergence is how the two apps approach choosing a particular opening. To select an opening in Chess Openings, you navigate a menu-tree of openings (from broad to specific), featuring thumb-nails of the defining board position for each:
This is prettier than Opening Pro’s approach - where you search the openings database by ECO code or opening-name text. I’m sure beginners will appreciate a navigation model that allows direct interaction with a hierarchical openings tree. In fairness, however, I would say that the text-based approach in Opening Pro is better for someone who knows what they want, while the Chess Openings interface makes for nicer ‘window shopping.’ (For instance, if you reached for your device with a sudden urge to introduce yourself to the “Beefeater Defence,” you’d be better off with Opening Pro - especially since Chess Openings would require you to know that opening in order to find it quickly.) Basically, in Chess Openings you “navigate to” your desired opening, whereas in Opening Pro you “search for” it: So what would you rather do - search or explore?
Another aspect of the two apps worth comparing is how flexible they are in allowing the user to participate in their two main ‘modes’: A. quizzing you on a particular line, and B. letting you freely explore the book.
In Opening Pro these two worlds are utterly separate: Once you go into “Explorer Mode” in game settings, choosing a particular opening is a waste of time. The app lets you do it, but it doesn’t affect behaviour in any way as long as you remain in Explorer mode. (In other words, you could select the Evans Gambit and then opt to play White in Explorer mode; then you play 1. e4 only to be confronted by 1. …c5.) In order for the chosen opening to mean anything, you have to be in “Learning” mode - in which you are essentially getting quizzed. (Of course, this stuff really only matters if you want the app to auto-move for white or black while exploring.)
Chess Openings is a bit different: the two modes are not mutually exclusive. Here, you usually have the option to select a “With All Continuations” option, once you have made some higher-order choices. For instance, you could choose to look at the Anglo-French Defence variation of the English Opening, but without going any further, say, by choosing the Agincourt or Romanishin variations. Once you draw the line, everything you’ve explicitly defined is basically in “quiz” mode (alternative moves are disallowed, even if they are book moves in other lines), but everything after “With All Continuations” is free-form until you run out of book: All book moves are allowed, unknown moves are not, and the app tells you what the variations are called as you experiment. (It also tells you when you’ve reached the end of the line.)
In that it is less restrictive about boundaries between testing you and letting you explore, I tend to see the Chess Openings approach as having the edge in this regard.
Then there are the ways the two different apps handle “Explorer” mode itself. In Chess Openings, again, this isn’t really a specific ‘mode’ at all - just business as usual once you’ve gone past the end of the line you’ve specified (which could be as simple as 1. d4). With each valid move, the app updates the variation name above the board, and at any time, you can use the “hint” and/or “alternate” buttons below the board to cycle through all the moves the app considers in book for the current position.
Actually, “Hint” refers to the next move to be made, whereas the Alternate button - second from left - acts as a sort of “next best” feature for the last move played. (The “hint” button in Opening Pro works similarly, but arguably not as well. In Chess Openings, repeatedly hitting these buttons cycles sequentially through all the book options available, whereas in Opening Pro it seems sort of random: If there are three book-moves possible in the current position, you might have to hit the Hint button eight times to see them all once.)
A related and unique feature in Chess Openings allows you to configure how the app makes its choices for auto-moves and hints: You can set it to favour “More Common Openings,” “Less Trained Openings,” or “Openings Not Played Recently”; and there’s also a slider control to set the desired level of randomness. (And yes, as the “Less Trained Openings” setting implies, there is a simple, visual system in place to reveal which openings have gotten most of your attention so far - and this usage data can be reset at any time.)
The Opening Pro approach is different and includes a very powerful option that makes using the Hint button (as mentioned above) practically moot. Essentially, you can choose to view all openings that branch out from your current position, by name and move, below the board. (The same move may lead to multiple named openings, so they are all listed separately.)
I just love this, and I think it confers a real advantage over Chess Openings where you have to try the move to know what the variation is called, or even if it’s a book move at all. My one beef (or enhancement suggestion) is with the amount of screen real estate the variation list occupies: Given that the list there is sometimes MUCH longer than the two-three variations you can see at once, you have to fat-finger-scroll the list in that little space, which is further troubled by the fact that the cut/paste-text options tend to keep popping up. (In the screen below, you're seeing only a teensy fraction of the scrollable list of variations there.) It would be real nice to be able to tap or double-tap in there and get a full-screen list (and, heck, while we’re at it, I might as well be able to choose my next move by tapping one of the variations in that list). In any case, it’s a great feature, even as it stands today.
Finally, there’s probably the biggest difference of all - which is simultaneously the best justification for the extra $2.00 you’ll have to spend on Opening Pro: in a word, Glaurung. Opening Pro is essentially an openings tutorial system layered in over one of the strongest chess engines available on the iPhone. Obviously, this adds a lot of value (even if Glaurung itself is available for free): With Chess Openings, when you hit the end of the book, you are done. Finis. The End. Rewind & start again. With the Glaurung-powered Opening Pro, however, when you hit the end of the book, you can keep right on going - playing at first against Glaurung’s (much deeper) book and then against the engine itself.
(By the way, having Glaurung’s book visible - an option in the app's settings - complements the app’s original book knowledge very nicely: the app alone can tell you which moves are “in book," which aren't, and what the lines are called, but the Glaurung book goes beyond that to provide an informed opinion on which of those book moves are actually preferable. In the screen-shot above, you can see Glaurung's book preferences between the two blue arrows.)
So in summary, the newcomer Chess Openings is a good-looking app - certainly a bit more polished than Opening Pro from a look-&-feel perspective, and well designed to give the user an enjoyable experience poking around and discovering new openings. Its training features are fun to use and make it easy to see where your focus has been: a fanTAStic value for a buck, to be sure. However, at the same time, Opening Pro has features that will more than compensate the seriouser user for some of its quirks (and the extra cost): the ability to save custom openings, more powerful search, and easy access to Glaurung’s book and sparring prowess. Powerful stuff.
Of course, you could have 'em both for the price of a grande hazelnut latte.
At the risk of redundancy, I'm going to adapt a chunk of material from my earlier post, just because I wouldn't want to overlook two very fine "generic" chess apps that also have some solid features for those interested in openings: Hiarcs (perhaps the ultimate app for "power chessers") and tChess Pro, my personal pick for MVP in the iPhone chess gang and one of the few (two?) chess apps that are now fully optimized for the iPad:
# of opening moves in book: Approx. 15 000
- Openings Library allows opening to be selected before game
- Shows multiple opening book move-options per position, with percentages from 125 000 GM games
- None I can see - except I sometimes wish the book went a little deeper
# of opening moves in book: "1.2 million positions and moves"
- Deepest opening book on the platform
- Integrates view of book moves on main screen
- Includes notation ("!", "?", etc.) to indicate Hiarcs's book evaluation of the moves
- Cannot pre-select an opening (although you can enter the appropriate moves manually for both sides and then activate the AI at any point you wish)
- Opening name is shown only when first non-book move is played