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There’s a New Sheriff in town...and its name is Stockfish
By Lance Martin
It was back in 1989 that I stood in line with about 200 other people to watch a game between World Champion Garry Kasparov and IBM’s latest adventure into the field of public relations, Deep Thought. At the time IBM was the leading computer hardware company in the world. I watched from the floor above the game playing area where the moves were being transmitted from the machine to the player downstairs who sat opposite Mr. Kasparov. It wasn’t so much that Deep Thought lost that game but the fact that it didn’t know it was losing until the checkmate was imminent. The look of desperation during the last 30 minutes on computer programmer Hsu’s face told the tale as everyone upstairs cheered to the end of Garry’s beautiful Sicilian. Garry came upstairs after the game and laughingly told us that he felt good about defending mankind against the machine.
We have come a long way in the past 20 years. Instead of computers that play against us, we use computers to help us beat our opponents. Instead of science geeks building computers that play chess we have chess geeks that build software to give us insight into the correct moves to play in any given position. We have gone from the era of Big Blue to the time of RYBKA and STOCKFISH. The interim period saw the end of American dominance in the chess computer field. RYBKA was the major predecessor of Stockfish and was built by IM Vasik Rajilch of Czechoslovakia. It is as if the American’s gave up all hope of competing with the small foreign company and its new team. In the time since then men like Tord Romstad, Joona Kiiski, and Marco Costalba in Norway and Finland have taken over the chess computer industry. Meanwhile, in the last few years the brainchild of Chess enthusiast and mathematician Tord Romstad of Norway has become the top computer engine in the world. There are quite a few differences between this and the IBM program not least of which is that all of the members of the programming team for STOCKFISH and MASTERCHESS are rated chess players. The purpose of the new computers is to help chess players rather than to beat them. This is an attitude that was foreign to the American computer makers. The two major chess software companies, Convekta and Chess Base have both put out copies of the old Sheriff. Masterchess 7000 is being presented to the public by a small team that would find it hard to compete dollar wise with the big two. But there is no denying that this little product is the best of the three if you are looking for the best chess analyst available to the general public.
For those of you who have read my previous reviews of computer engines you know that the first thing I do is pop the CD into my PC’s drive and look at what I have. I was not surprised to see a similar set of files that I had seen on the RYBKA and Shredder DVDs. After all, this is a chess engine accompanied by a graphical user interface that will permit the user to play and analyze with the engine that is the major component of the product. The features contained within the box are:
- The latest Stockfish engine
- The MASTERCHESS 7000 user Interface
- A database of almost two million games
All in all this is quite a bargain for just a little more than the price of just a couple of DVDs. The next thing I did was look for a user manual. At first I was a little surprised that the box didn’t contain a manual. But after bring up the product I realized that there was no need for one. Everything contained in the graphical interface is intuitive. Moreover, if you should have a question I understand that Mike Leahy from BOOKUP will provide both support as well as a forum for any questions or suggestions for any and every component of the product. Well, it was time for the installation process. As far as the installation process goes it is automatic. Just pop in the DVD and the set up program runs automatically. It will than bring up your new program.
This is what I saw the first time MASTERCHESS 7000 was installed:
All you have to do is fill in your name and city and check one of the four choices:
- Play against the Engine
- Resume the Last Game
- Search for a game
If you want to use the Data Base function all you have to do is check Search for a game and click OK. When you do that the following part of the interface is seen:
As you can see you are given the choice of putting the responses in a list, a PGN file, or both. Once you have filled in the fields for the required games it will do a breath taking search and come up with the following:
Once you have clicked Ok you will see the following:
I had asked for all games where Alexei Shirov had played white in the Sveshnikov. You would then choose the game that you want to analyze and you will see the following screen:
You have the game that you can play through as well as the analysis of STOCKFISH which is something that it is about time that we started to talk about. Let me just finish talking about the data Base by saying that ii is as fast as Mike Leahy has been saying it is. It is both quick as well as efficient what with the choice of list or PGN files. By the way, it is not too difficult to add files to that Database. It took me about 2 minute to put the latest games from TWIC in the data base and create the indexes necessary for MASTERCHESS to be able use it. This means that you can always have a current database. Not a bad deal at all. By the way, I will leave the manner in which you create the new files for the forum and not take up the time in this review.
This product is definitely not a toy. It is far from it. I may be acting as if it was a toy but it is a serious computer engine with a tremendous graphical user interface. Whereas in the past I had used these engines mostly to play enjoyable games of chess, they have become more and more study tools for me to learn the intricacies of the hobby that has more and more become my way of life. Now that I have become more and more comfortable with the database function contained in the MASTERCHESS 70000 graphical user interface within Stockfish it has consumed more and more of my time with some other products a distant second. Just about every book I read I check with Stockfish. All games that are annotated in my books I check with MASTERCHESS as I used to do with Rybka, Fritz and Shredder. If, by chance the game does not exist in the database than it is a simple matter to enter it into my computer and save it as part of my database files. I have become almost fanatical in that I check almost every line in any chess books with this new computer engine to ascertain whether both the author and the players were correct. All annotations are likewise checked with the computer engine.
Chess computers did not become such a large part of my studying all at once. It began a few years ago while listening to one of Shirov’s DVDs. There was one of his many moments of silence and I turned the Fritz engine on just to pass the time. Soon, I was using it to compare lines in almost everything I saw or read. But it wasn’t until I got my copy of Rybka4 and I would follow a line presumably thought of by a lecturer and saw that the line he followed was the exact same one that was recommended by Rybka4 that I realized that I had been studying my books the correct way for the past couple of years. I now do the same thing with STOCKFISH and get an even more complete analysis. By the way, this was not an isolated instance. I found that this happened many times with many different lecturers for various DVDs. This is also true of the annotations that exist in many of the latest chess books that are now put in the market place on a weekly basis. I am a fanatical user of my chess computers for all types of study, be it opening, middle game or end game. This, from the individual who cheered Kasparov’s victory over Deep Thought 20 years ago.
As for those of you who are going to use Stockfish as a chess partner. You have chosen wisely. MASTERCHESS 7000 will allow you to accept compensation for your lack of strength the old fashioned way. The same way Morphy would do it. He will spot you a pawn, 2 pawns, a knight or whatever you need to equalize your strength with the computer. This way you can find your correct strength level and have an equal partner with which to play. Being a chess historian of sorts I have to say that I really like this older way of chess handicap.
As far as playing strength, as I will explain, there is no contest between Stockfish and its competitive engines. I have to admit that personally I do not play chess against computer engines. While in the past I would vary the handicap on whatever engine I purchased and enjoy a game now and again. However, since I started using my chess engines for study I now play almost exclusively on Internet Sites as well as an Excalibur Grandmaster which is an auto sensory chessboard on which I just have to move the pieces to play against its internal computer. This sits on one of my desks and emulates a real game on a real board. I find that I need the company of a chessboard when I now play. It is nowhere near the power of STOCKFISH but gives me a chance to play on a board. In the past I had used my chess engines to play chess. I would vary the handicap so that I would get a good game and make adjustments accordingly. But now that I am doing software reviews for the Chess Café in addition to my own study I am finding that I am using my programs more and more often to check the software that is under review. I am finding that many of our leading professional chess players are using this software to test or help create their latest theoretical endeavors. I do not think there is anything wrong with this as long as the Chess Player who is under review makes it clear that they are using such a program. Passing off computer lines as their own really does not sit well with me. It would be the same as if they were taking the lines of another professional and saying that it was theirs sans credit. This is outright deception and I have no sympathy for them in my reviews. When I think back to the first few days I owned MASTERCHESS 7000, it kind of goes as follows:
The first thing I wanted to do after I installed STOCKFISH was measure its strength against my other computer engines. About a decade ago Dr. John Nunn created a manner of testing by which we can bypass the opening book of a chess engine and measure its relative strength against another chess engine. He eliminated the opening books by creating an opening suite that mimics the openings contained in a major chess Data Base. There are a total of 50 opening positions which have been improved by Albert Silver which mimic a 2010 Data Base. This would make for an even 100 game match which I played between STOCKFISH and RYBKA4 . It ended with the following score +36 =43-21. There is therefore more than a significant difference between these two chess engines with Stockfish being by far the stronger chess engine. This test took about 20 hours in 4 minute Blitz with 2 second increments. I used RYBKA4 because it is currently touted as the world’s strongest computer engine for a PC.
As for my own use of Stockfish in my current reviews I will merely show one instance of its invaluable use to me. Recently I reviewed several DVDs on the Rossolimo opening. A game in one of the lectures was between Rublevsky-Dreev. This was a line in the so called exchange variation. It went: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 d6 4.Bxc6 bxc6 5.0-0 Bg4 6.h3 Bh5 7.e5 The following line was added by the lecturer with no references in any Data Base:
[7…e6 8.exd6 Bxd6 9.d3 Ne7 10.Nbd2 0-0 11.Ne4 Nd5 12.Qe2 Rb8 13.c4 Nf6 14.Bg5 Be7 15.g4 Nxe4 16.Bxe7 Qxe7 17.dxe4 Bg6 18.Rad1
Anyone who wants can check this game in the new Rossolimo DVD that is not by Alexei Shirov. Now, this is supposed to be a theoretical line that was thought up by a Grand Master for s specific concrete position in a specific game. The strange thing is that it is a line identical to the recommendation provided by STOCKFISH for the given position. It was sad that I found that this was one of numerous lines added by the lecturer that had no references in any Database and was identical to the recommendations of STOCKFISH. This is not the first time I found a lecturer using such material and not giving credit to the software. I really don’t know how long this has been going on. But it has become apparent ever since I took over the Software column for the Chess Café. Let me make clear that I see no problem in a GM using a chess computer to assist him in finding lines for given positions. However, many GM’s give credit to the software products that they use. If a GM presents a line and says nothing about its origin our first thought is that it is from his own personal analysis. Alexei Shirov complains to the audience that his computer is too old and says things like “shame on the human brain”. That is an example of a GM who has no problem admitting his dependence on software assistance. In the case of this series of lectures on the Rossolimo by an unnamed GM only a coach is mentioned and never the fact that the lecture may have been computer assisted. Again, there is nothing wrong with this as long as there was some admission on the part of the lecturer that he was using such help. Just admit the source of the lines you are presenting if they are identified as new theory. Every GM is now using the latest computer knowledge. You can use it during a game and never mention from where it came. However, if you are presenting proprietary material to the public than it is the lecturer’s duty to explain how he got it.
As for the performance of STOCKFISH against RYBKA4 I will present only one example of the 36 STOCKFISH wins. This was in a classical King’s Indian that was settled by move 45 when RYBKA4 realized that there was no use in making any more moves.
I have to apologize that the last moves did not come out, so here is a larger diagram including the last moves of the game.
Stockfish had the white pieces in this game and its victory came in 45 moves. Let me explain once more. This was a 100 game match which is played with 50 different openings that are chosen from a large Database of games. Each opening is played twice. This is so each engine will have a chance to have both Black and White in the opening. For Masterchess to have beaten RYBKA4 to the degree of significance which it did is unheard of in the chess computer community. I am sure that more than one GM will now be carrying around a new engine with which to do his analysis. I guess I should be a little sad about what has happened to computer analysis. But I am not. Maybe it is because I can now own the same engines that are used by some of the best players in the world to help me through my chess study.
As for the product that I am reviewing I don’t think I have to summarize this review by telling you that I love it. However, I have to admit that it will soon be time for me to upgrade my PC. I will buy a PC with an Intel Core 2 quad that runs at 2.4 GHz with at least 3 GB of RAM and see what STOCKFISH can do with that. After installation I will compare the analysis of certain positions between the two computers. Like everyone else, I want the opportunity to trade up to an even better version of the hardware and software that I now own. For now I am more than satisfied with the results that I have been getting from my new favorite Chess computer STOCKFISH and MASTERCHESS 7000. I just can’t imagine it getting any better than this.