Free Chess Programs
Free Chess Programs
Do you like things free? I have good news for you, because you can get quite a number of highly-functional chess freebies at no cost.
Free Internet Chess Server
In my opinion, the best place to play free online chess is on the Free Internet Chess Server (FICS). FICS players are generally much stronger than the ones on other free servers, providing you with good competition. It has a rating system so you can track your progress. FICS has over 300,000 registered users, and is one of the oldest and one of the largest internet chess servers. A random check at 10:33pm GMT shows 1,467 users online. My favourite interface for FICS is BabasChess. BabasChess is a free interface for connecting to FICS, which is highly customisable. It combines ease of use with powerful features for advanced users (including premove). Although FICS is a command-based server, everything you need is in the pull down menus on BabasChess.
Other Free Trials
Another way to play free chess online is to take advantage of some of the free trials that some highly quality chess websites offer. Specifically, I am referring to the two giants of internet chess ChessBase's PlayChess and the Internet Chess Club (ICC). These two websites offer chess rating systems, plenty of high-level competition, chess coaching from titled players, live relays of major chess events and instructional chess videos.
If you ever purchase the Fritz family of products, you automatically get one year's free access to PlayChess. Otherwise, you can get a free 30-day trial of the server. You can download the software directly from the PlayChess official homepage or it comes with the ChessBase Light software which I mention below.
On ICC, you can register for a 14-day free trial. In this period, you can take advantage of everything the server has to offer. I have played on this server regularly ever since I was a beginner. A couple of years ago, a player could register two free trials every four months, however I'm not sure if it still works that way. ICC's freeware Dasher interface even includes a free "chess club" where you can play against computer opponents of varying difficulty.
Playing Software and Engines
Note that the strongest engines are changing every few months. You can find updated information on the GeniusProphecy Chess Blog.
Fritz 5.32 is an old piece of software that has now been released as a freeware download. If you ever chat to any person who is mildly experienced in chess, they all know about Fritz. Using this software, you can play, analyse, save/edit games and manage databases. It is a very useful free tool.
If you are using Vista like me, you may encounter an error when you try to run the installation. Here's what you can do (it's possible that this will work with Windows 7 as well). Right click the setup file and click "Properties". Now go to the compatibility tab and check "Run this program in compatibility mode for Windows XP (Service Pack 2)"; also check "Run this program as administrator", which may be helpful. Once I did this, my installation ran like a breeze. When you're running this program, you may want to right click the shortcut and do the same process again to ensure stability. Note: Doing this to the shortcut automatically translates to doing it for the actual program.
Arena is a freeware graphical user interface (GUI) for chess programs. This basically means you can run and play against all sorts of engines on it. You can run approximately 250 chess engines under Arena, which supports the popular UCI and WinBoard protocols, as well as a few others. Arena also supports playing chess over the internet on a number of chess servers including FICS and ICC. Arena can run the very strong engine Rybka, which I mention below.
An older, but still extremely strong version of Rybka. According to the CETG computer rating list, the version that is free to download is rated 2961 on 2 CPUs or 2929 on 1 CPU. This makes it one of the strongest free engines available. You can download the Rybka 2.3.2a by clicking here. The engine won't work by itself as you need a GUI such as Arena (advanced) or Tarrasch (simple). Tarrasch very easy-to-use interface that comes with Rybka preinstalled (you can find it at the link above).
Houdini has taken the computer chess world by storm. Even current World Champion Viswanathan "Vishy" Anand is claimed to have switched over to Houdini. The free version of Houdini (1.5a) is the strongest free chess program in the world and is considered to be even stronger than commercial engines such as Rybka 4.0. According to the well known CEGT rating list (40/4 time limit), Houdini 1.5 on 2 64-bit CPUs is rated 3085. In comparison, Rybka 4.0 is lower rated even on 4 64-bit CPUs! Rybka 2.3.2a, though still an extremely formidable engine, is rated more than 200 points lower than Houdini 1.5 on 4 64-bit CPUs.
Note: This article is not updated very often. See the bottom of the page for the date of the last update. For up-to-date rankings of computer chess programs, see my computer rating lists links.
Please keep in mind that this section overlaps with the previous section somewhat.
Shane's Chess Information Database (Scid) is freeware chess database software packed full of features. It is sometimes referred to as the "Poor Man's ChessBase". Scid opens PGN files (most common universal format), EPD files and its own .si4 files. Like Arena, you can play against engines or you can play on FICS. ChessPad is another piece of freeware database software. From what I can tell using the website description, it has similar capabilities to Scid.
ChessBase Light 2009
ChessBase Light is free database software released by large Germany company ChessBase. Since it is a free version of a commercial program, some important features have been disabled. You can only access databases of less than 32,000 games and you cannot save/edit games or create databases. However, you can overcome this by coupling this software with other free stuff like Fritz 5.32 or Scid. ChessBase Light is primarily used a chess viewer (it can access all kinds of chess database formats such as CBH, CBV and PGN). It's chess sets are high quality and very impressive. You can use this software as a fully functional way to access the PlayChess internet chess server (see "online chess" above).
I have written on the subject of free chess databases before, but I want to make a few updates as I have noticed some great new sources. Million Base 1.74 is the formerly commercial Rebel database brought up to date with "TWIC". As the name implies, the database contains 1.74 million quality chess games in standard PGN format. To update the database, you can access the free weekly updates of games on The Week in Chess (TWIC).
I have written my own ebook as a free download on this website called Improve Your Chess (accessed through Adobe Reader). You can also right click and select "Save Target As" to save the ebook onto your computer. Another reasonable ebook is chesspupil's Learn Chess Or Call Me An Idiot!! written by an international master, which teaches the rules of chess and delves into some basic strategies (openings, tactics, strategy, endgames, etc.).
Special Thanks and Final Notes
A source of inspiration for this article is Zarkon Fischer's Free Chess Programs, which is sadly no longer updated. Nevertheless, it stills contains some helpful reviews and commentary.
You can find updated information regarding chess engines on the GeniusProphecy Chess Blog. I would like to thank all chess programmers who dedicate their time and money in creating free software that benefits the general community. Great work!
To purchase products, I recommend Wholesale Chess. They provide the highest quality chess products at the lowest prices (especially for US and Canadian players). They even offer to match prices with other chess websites! Even though I live overseas, this is where I choose to purchase chess goods.
For chess opening training and repertoire maintenance, I highly recommend the software that I personally use, Chess Openings Wizard. This software was approved by Grandmaster Peter Svidler (FIDE rating 2730 as of January 2011) many years ago.
Article originally written: Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Article edited to reflect
changes in chess engine rankings: Friday, March 23, 2012