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ChessOK.com » Chess King with Houdini 2
Chess King with Houdini 2 27 January 2012

Chess King with Houdini 2 is a new and versatile tool for chess players. It is described as “an ideal introduction for the beginner, a challenging opponent for the practiced amateur, and an invaluable coach for the aspiring master.” Based on my impressions after playing with the program for a few days, this is a fairly good summary of what Chess King has to offer.
Chess King emphasizes simplicity of use and the needs of new and improving players. However, it is more than just a traditional training program, as the inclusion of an extremely strong chess engine and a huge professional database may indicate. It also addresses the requirements of the tournament player who needs to prepare for his opponents, work on his openings, analyze his games, etc.
Chess King is the brainchild of Miami-based Diego Garces. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, I’m sure you have heard of his wife, GM and former World Champion Alexandra Kosteniuk. Both of them are tireless promoters of chess.

What’s Included?
Houdini 2 must be mentioned first. Houdini is currently the highest rated chess engine, so it’s an excellent choice for analysis. On the other hand, it may not be much fun to play against such a formidable opponent on equal terms. That’s why the new Houdini 2 added a feature that allows it to play at reduced strength, depending on the settings chosen in Chess King. The version that comes with Chess King is strong enough for most players, but if you need an even stronger chess engine, you can upgrade to Chess King with Houdini 2 Pro. The main difference between the standard version and the professional version is that the latter comes with support for up to thirty-two cores, while the former is a single core version.
GigaKing Database and Corr 2011 contain over five million chess games. These databases contain games from the sixteenth century up to November of this year. GigaKing contains almost all available master games, as well as games from many lesser tournaments, junior events, etc. Corr 2011 is a database of correspondence games. The number and quality of the games contained in these databases is on par with those found in the most expensive database packages.
Full opening tree. This is a statistics database of positions in the GigaKing database. It shows you how often a move has been played and the success rate of each move. The opening tree is a useful guide when learning the openings and reviewing your games or a game from the database.
Chess puzzles. Chess King includes more than 1,500 puzzles, from extremely easy to grandmaster level (twenty-five categories).
Over one hundred opening positions. You start from very easy starting positions with a large material advantage and by winning enough games you move up to the next level. The catch is that Houdini will be playing against you at full strength! That’s quite a different experience from playing against a chess engine at reduced strength.
Photos of more than 1,600 chess players. The photos are displayed when you view games played by these players. You can add new photos by clicking the player’s image (or the image placeholder if an image is missing).

Add an image of a player to Chess King

There are twenty-five categories of chess exercises addressing some of the key steps on the way to chess mastery. The lowest level exercises help you learn how the pieces move, followed by captures, mate, stalemate, etc. There are exercises concentrating on specific tactical elements and later you can try solving intermediate or even master combinations. Higher level exercises are unlocked when you have finished those at the lower levels.
Some of the exercises are intended to practice the movement of the pieces, as in this example, where you are supposed to move the white knight (without the black pieces moving) and capture a black piece on every move until you have captured them all.

Capture all the black pieces

In addition to knowing how the knight moves you need to think ahead because each mistake will cost you a few points. One of the most common mistakes of beginners is to move too fast and this will help them appreciate that you need to sit on your hands for a minute and think about the position before making your move.
Many players, especially kids, like these kind of puzzles mixed in with real chess positions and tasks, so I’ll show you another one that exercises a different type of knowledge.

Escort the king from c1 to c8

White must find a way to get his king from it’s current position on c1 to c8 without being checked. The black pieces don’t move. You need to know how all the pieces on the board move and you also need to understand how you can use the pawns to shield the white king from checks by the black pieces.
Although these kind of puzzles are fun to solve, you also need to apply your knowledge to real positions. The following one comes from a series of exercises where you learn step by step how to checkmate with king and rook against king.

Checkmate in seven or fewer moves

Here you are given the task of checkmating the black king in no more than seven moves, but you are also told that it’s possible to give checkmate in five moves.
Although the examples shown above are clearly aimed at beginners, there are also much harder exercises at the higher levels.
When you are viewing a game from a database you can switch to demo mode; this hides the game notation after the current move. Now you can guess the next move in the game. When you make your move on the board, Chess King will let you know if you guessed the wrong move and you can try again. Many trainers recommend this method of playing through grandmaster games.
Here is an example from one of Fischer’s games.

Demo mode. Guess White’s next move

Black moved 26…Kc7 as is shown in the notation, but White’s reply is hidden. Fischer found a move here that wins the game. Can you?

Every player knows how frustrating it can be to fail to convert a winning material advantage. Quest mode helps you learn how to win a won position. It is divided into twenty-five levels and you always play against Houdini at full strength. At the lowest level you start with a huge material advantage, such as queen and rook against lone king. As you progress to higher levels, your advantage decreases and winning becomes harder. In the following example, you play against Houdini, which has been handicapped by the removal of all the heavy pieces.

Quest mode: Level 8

At the highest level you only get a one pawn advantage (or “pawn and move,” as it is often called). Here is one example where Black’s f7-pawn has been removed.

Quest mode: Level 25

Even a grandmaster can’t count on a win in such positions, so it’s very interesting to see what level you can reach and how your results improve as you learn more.
Random game is another method of playing against Houdini. Here you choose the material advantage yourself, the total material on the board and the ratio of pawns vs. pieces. Chess King will generate a random starting position based on those choices.

Random start position with nineteen pieces

Here I have set the sliders so that there are nineteen pieces on the board. Pawn percentage is set to 66% (the higher it is the more pawns will be on the board) and Advantage is set to 125%. Advanced players may choose this method of generating the start position, since they have more control over the type of position that is created.
Custom game lets you set up the starting position of the game any way you like. You can set up an opening position that you want to practice or an endgame that you want to learn how to play. You can even set up a Chess960 (Fischer Random) game.

Create a custom start position

Here you select pieces from the piece palette shown in the image above and place them on the chessboard. After that you can choose various settings from the image shown below, such as whose move it is and the castling rights of each side.

Create a custom start position

Classical Chess. Of course you can also play classical chess from the normal starting position. Since no player can be expected to beat Houdini under these circumstances, you can handicap the engine by forcing it to play at reduced strength, down to 700 Elo.

Create a custom start position

You can also choose between Rated Mode and Fun Mode. The former requires you to follow normal tournament rules, where taking back moves and engine assistance are not allowed. In Fun Mode you can take back your moves and get all kinds of help, including move suggestions.

The hint panel

By default you get fifty minutes for the game and the computer gets one minute. If you don’t like the default, you can change the time control.

Infinite analysis is used for analyzing individual positions in a game. You can have infinite analysis running while reviewing a game and Houdini will show you how it evaluates the position and the best continuation. If Houdini suggests an interesting variation, you can add it to the game notation. You can also run Houdini in “multi variation mode” where it displays the two or three best moves in the position. The following example shows Houdini analyzing in two variation mode.

Infinite analysis

The buttons in the upper right corner of the window are used to stop/start the analysis, lock the analysis to the current position, and insert the analysis into the notation.
Game Analysis analyzes a whole game looking for mistakes and possible improvements. It also searches the GigaKing database for games where the same opening was played and inserts games into the notation, so you can see how the opening was played by others.

Game analysis

Annotations. You can add both verbal and graphical annotations to your games, but it is generally recognized that annotating your own games is very helpful for the improving player.

Graphical annotations

Prepare for your opponent
When you are going to play in a tournament, you can search for and study your opponent’s games in the Chess King databases. There is also a special feature that makes it easy for you to get an overview of your opponent’s favorite openings. It is called “Prepare for opponent.” It creates a statistics tree based on your opponent’s games and shows you which moves he plays in the opening, how frequently he plays them, and the success rate of each move in his games. With this information at your fingertips you can quickly map out his preferred openings and perhaps find some weaknesses in his play.
Of course you can also use this method to get an overview of the opening play of any player in the database. Here is an example showing the moves chosen by Hikaru Nakamura against 1.e4.

Nakamura’s replies to 1.e4

The first move (c5) shows that the Sicilian Defense has been his favorite reply to 1.e4. He has played 1…c5 175 times and scored 61%. However, it is not easy to prepare for a game against him, since he has chosen a variety of other moves in reply to the king’s pawn advance.

Publishing and sharing games
With Chess King you can publish and share your games and analysis in many different formats, including PGN, PDF, and RTF. You can also publish games to a blog where readers can play through the moves and view the game on a chess board. Here is an example showing a game between Alexandra Kosteniuk and Oliver Kurmann, played in the Swiss championship earlier this year.

A blog post generated by Chess King

You can either use the buttons below the board to play through the game or the arrow keys on the keyboard. You can also click directly on the moves in the notation to jump to any position in the game or the analysis.

There are many ways a chess student can take advantage of having access to five million games that can be searched in just a few seconds. If you are studying an opening variation, you can find all games where the opening was played or you can search for a specific position. You can also find all games played by a certain player and use Houdini to analyze them. Here is an example showing a search for games where Kasparov had the white pieces.

Search for Kasparov’s games

By clicking the “Other fields” button you can limit the search further; e.g., to a range of years or an opening variation (ECO code).
Chess King also allows the user to create custom databases. It allows you to store your chess games, analyze and annotate them, and print or publish them. Backing up your database of games is easy too.
Beyond the “train and have fun” modes of play, puzzle, and quest an important use of Chess King is to enter your games to see where you made mistakes, and to check how you could play better next time.
The “serious student” could follow these steps to get as much as possible out of each game he plays:

  • Prepare for the opponent
  • Enter the game after it’s played
  • Check the opening tree and see how masters play that opening
  • Check to see what mistakes Houdini 2 finds
  • Comment the game and note how to play next time

Remember that it is even more important to study your losses than your wins!

Chess King is a unique program. It is a combination of training partner and practical tool that addresses the needs of the improving tournament player. I had a ten-year-old try out the program and he kept coming back wanting to collect more coins and trying to reach the next level in “Quest Mode” and “Chess Puzzles.” I felt that was a good recommendation for the program, but it also has good support for the serious student who needs to prepare for tournaments, and store and analyze games.

Dadi Jonsson

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