23 January 2011

Chess on the iPad

A quick search of the App Store for the Apple iPad shows that more than two dozen chess applications are now available. Certainly many of these are or will become available for the Droid Xoom, Galaxy Tab, and similar devices. With so many choices, how does one select the best value?

I have installed close to a dozen chess programs since I purchased my iPad in late August. Three of these continue to draw my attention nearly every day, one is brand new to me today and remains untested, and one received its first use on Thursday. Shedder is exceptional, tChess Pro has features lacking in all the others, and Chess.com continues their leadership in internet chess. DinosaurChess looks promising for young players looking to get started in our game (I may blog a review in the not so distant future). That an app allows my iPad to become a chess clock might prove useful, especially if there were more coffee houses with tables large enough to support a chess set, the iPad, and a couple of cups of java.

Essential Criteria

My major complaint concerning most playing programs for the iPad is that developers usually fail to build a resign feature into the program. After six decades of work among many of the world's leading code writers, we now live in a world where the typical college student taking classes in programming can access the resources to develop new software that plays at master strength. Competent players know when they are beat and gain little from playing on in hopeless positions, but resigning is not an option in any of the free apps that I have tried. Even so Stockfish deserves mention as possibly the best free chess app. The heart of the program is the Stockfish engine, arguably the strongest free chess engine available on any platform. It is nice to have this software available for the iPad. It does not let me quit when the position becomes hopeless, but it does let me go back a few moves and start anew from there.

Shredder lets me resign, which would be necessary every game if not for its ability to play a weaker game. No computer software programmed to play weak successfully mimics human players at 1100, 1500, 1900, or ratings above, below, and in-between. Even so, at the handicapped playing strength I have battled, Shredder strikes me as more realistic than Chessmaster. In addition to offering a reasonably decent silicon adversary, Shredder's one thousand tactical puzzles make it worth having. Speed and accuracy both count in its scoring feature. With each puzzle, the user gets to try moves until the correct answer is found, but time and wrong answers reduce the score. A hint feature will flash the piece to move. At 5.99 Euros (I paid just under $8 USD), it is a bargain.

Needs of the Chess Professional

As a part-time chess teacher with an array of printed teaching materials, I pack around a lot of paper. My shoulder bears the weight of self-published instruction books, often Dvorestsky's Endgame Manual or other essential texts, and often selections of games printed from databases on my computer. When I want to play the mule, I can always carry my notebook computer along with the chess bag that holds photocopies of lessons I give students for homework. The iPad has lightened my load. My self-published texts are supported by a host of iPad reading apps, the iPad Kindle app library makes Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual and several other texts accessible another way, and tChess Pro handles databases.

As a playing program, tChess Pro is a small step, but only a small one, below Shredder. It does permit the necessary resignations, and it can play a reasonable handicapped game. The real value of tChess Pro, however, stems from its control of the market for iPad database software. I know of no competitors. Moreover, if another developer wants to get into this market, he or she will find that the bar is already quite high. With an update that was released last fall, it became possible to upload my own databases. Not only can I drag PGN files into program via iTunes (Apple's back-up and sync system for iPad), but I can open email attachments. It was a wonderful day two weeks ago when I played an instructive game on Chess.com during lunch, emailed the game to myself, and then during the after school chess club was able to reconstruct a critical position from the game and solicit input regarding alternate continuations from the analysis engine. This app is a chess teacher's dream come true. Also worth noting is that my inquiry to developer Tom Kerrigan was answered promptly. I purchased the app for a mere $7.99 USD in early September and wrote asking for the improved database features that as it happened he was then in process of submitting to Apple.

Playing for Fun

Speaking of Chess.com, their iPad app facilitates playing correspondence style games on their site, or "online chess as it called there." It does not rotate as do most other apps, and the menu seems limited. However, it did not take long for me to discover that the Stats link provides access to all other site features. Moreover, and possibly to my detriment, the lack of flash support in iPad's programming no longer hinders playing live chess through the Chess.com app. I do not recommend one minute play as the screen is far less responsive than a mouse, but imagine the possibilities if you share my addictions. The Chess.com app offers ready access to play against their online computer, their tactics trainer (far superior to the popular Chess Tactics Server in my experience), and video lessons. As a commercial site, Chess.com has limited features for non-paying members, but the iPad app is free. The site offers enough possibilities for free to keep the interest of most aficionados, knowing that in time serious players will crave the benefits of paid membership.


  1. I have a htc mobile which works on android system. Didn't find a good chess playing program for it. But then again, i dont need a chess playing program on my mobile; just the chess.com client is more then enough. :-)

  2. Agreed! I have the Shredder App on my phone and I think Shredder plays the most realistic patzer chess. It still suffers from the "Ra1-b1 for no good reason syndrome" but to a lesser extent than other engines.

    It is annoying that no chess app for annotating games has arrived.

    I have high expectations on the "Smart Chess App" (http://www.playsmartchess.com/)

  3. Thanks for the link, Farbror. As these devices grow more common, better apps will become available. Smart Chess looks to be one worth watching for.

  4. Hello james, nice blog and good share..thanks.

  5. Hi James,
    This is like the 3rd time leaving a comment to this exact post. I couldn't get my correct google account to be recognized.

    Anyway. I found your site by googling ipad and chess. I was looking for information on a new app that I had recently downloaded. More on that later.

    I was pleasantly surprised to find another chess coach out there with a similar experience as ours. We still lug bags around from one location to another full of chess material and teaching texts.

    I am posting now because I learned something about TchessPro which we have too. I had not used it to import games.

    Another coach and I were going over a game between Jaan Ehlvest and David Pruess, Foxwoods 2007 over the phone and I basically gave him the information just stated. He was able to look the game up on one of his many chess apps.

    I could have simply emailed him the game and let him import it into TchessPro and go from there.

    At the time of writing this I haven't tested that out but I feel confident that it works as you describe and will do that next time.

    I wanted to also mention the app Tactics Trainer that I just downloaded yesterday. I will write a full review this weekend or possibly do a video review...who knows.

    The highlights after using it for less than 24 hours. Lots of puzzles. They advertise 20,000 tactical positions. I like the fact that your virtual rating moves based on the success or failure of you solving these puzzles. It is connected to the game center so you can compare your rating to others who use the app.

    I have no connection with the developers, just passing on a new app that might be worth your attention. I believe I paid $2.99 for it.


  6. Annotated games ? What about ChessDB !

  7. Shootfilmdotnet,

    I apologize for letting Google's spam detection bot let your comment languish unpublished. I've marked it as not spam, and now it appears, half a year after you posted it. Thanks.

  8. Do you ever use an iPad Chess app for analysing games people have played? And which apps do you recommend? Or do you always use a desktop for analysis.

  9. As I already have shredder I have contacted their support requesting that they add "Open in" support for pgn files. If you had had a choice of shedder or tChess pro to examine your pgn of your game, which would you choose. i.e. which is better for anaylsis? Thanks

  10. When I want the computer to analyze without my input, or to save the analysis, I use my notebook or desktop computer. But, for quick analysis of specific positions, I use tChess Pro quite frequently. The ease of opening PGN files in tChess Pro is immensely useful. With Shredder, I must set-up the position, but the quality of its engine is better that tChess Pro. Sometimes that is important. Usually, I simply want to test my ideas by trying certain lines against the computer, and tChess Pro serves me well.

  11. Thanks for the info. I've been looking for a way to import games. I'll give this a try. For me, using the ipad to review games, especially those I'm reviewing in a book is quite valuable - even more than playing. I emailed the developers of Shredder but they didn't respond.
    Thanks again, Jack

  12. fascinating, it appears the "hard" chess problem is mimicing a poor human player.

  13. fascinating, it appears the "hard" chess problem is mimicing a poor human player.

  14. As desktop chess programs are mostly mouse-driven and not keyboard you can easily expand the list of chess software for your iPad if you have WIFI access to your computer and run SplashTop (e.g. while being at home in the bedroom, living room or garden). One benefit is that you can access your personal databases.
    A user made me aware of this approach and it works like a charm (with Windows 7): http://www.chesspositiontrainer.com/index.php/en/blog/item/how-to-run-cpt-on-your-ipad-android-tablet-today?category_id=1

    1. Useful link. Thanks. As noted in the link, I am "looking for a solution which can be used even without your computer running." But SplashTop should meet the needs of others.

  15. HIARCS iPad chess is my favourite chess app. Strong programme.

  16. How accurated would you say that Shredder's rating is. When it says it plays at e.g., 1900 of rating, is it thereabouts or not?

    What does it rate you at, compared to your ORL rating?

    1. My playing rating against Shredder is about 200 Elo below where my USCF was when I played it frequently. But, I was sandbagging a bit by playing extremely fast and sloppy. I suspect that Shredder playing at 1900 strength plays like a human at 2000 strength, but perhaps with less positional sense. Complicated positions involving long-term positional considerations and correct evaluation of certain endgames might show the software to be overrated. Tactically, it may be slightly underrated.

    2. Thanks. Very helpful. Trying to understand my IRL playing strenght, and Hredder have me at 1800 so probably slightly above that.

  17. Hi James,came across yr blog and found it very helpful as I have a 13-year old girl who has taken up chess and would like to play in a rated competition next week(her first) but is very nervy about the whole experience as she thinks her much older opponents may overwhelm her. She's tested and beaten Stockfish @ 1850(Passive),is at level 9(Passive) on the Chess.com ,rated 1995 at Claus Jensen Test #2, rated 1820 at Chessmaniac. We've tried asking people around here but the coomunity isn't very supportive. We would very much like to hear yr thoughts on her chess ability as she has not had any training. Thank you in advance.

  18. To anon. I know its been some time. but how did your 13 yr old daughter do?

    I'm not very familair with Stockfish, Jensen test, etc. but 1800-1900 is incredibly strong for a youth, err well anyone without alot of coaching.

    I'm not sure where you live, but I would guess that a 1800-1900 ELO girl would gain the respect of any chess club.
    when it comes to chess and tournaments. you soon learn not to judge people by their appearances... so hopefully she did not let her anxiety stop her from being recognized as the strong player she is.