A question people often ask me is about which chess software they should get. There are plenty of standard answers to this question, but maybe the question itself can be improved. Let’s consider instead how chess software might help us improve our game.
Playing programs can be great for having an opponent on hand at any time, especially given the difficulty people have in getting non-blitz time limits at the major servers. One of the problems here is that most of the programs focus on strength rather than providing (reasonably) realistic opponents, an exception being Chessmaster. I got the Grandmaster Edition of this program for my son and we have both had a lot of fun with it. The opponents could be more realistic still as sometimes they are weakened with stupid early sacrifices (software developers take note!) but it provides a range of players at slower time limits without having to leave home.
Many of my students have told me how useful CT-ART (produced by the Chess Assistant team) is for tactical training. Whilst I like the portability of puzzle books I’m willing to take their word for it, so this could be one that’s worth getting.
If someone wants just one chess program, what should it be? My pick for players in the 1500-2000 range would be Fritz, which is produced by Chessbase. It gives you free access to the Playchess server, has a tactical training feature, its strength can be adjusted and it can also work as a database. Below 1500 I’d say that Chessmaster Grandmaster Edition is a better bet due to its user friendliness and training features.
What about preparation for specific opponents? Well first of all you should ask if you really need to prepare or is it enough to be prepared? Under 2300 level I think that having a good understanding of the types of positions you get into is more than enough and what is called ‘preparation’ is often an attempted last minute substitute for this. In no way should it be confused with what top Grandmasters do, they understand different position types well enough and are simply looking for finesses towards the end of known theory.
Assuming you really do need an advanced database program, the major choice there is between Chessbase and Chess Assistant. Which is better? Personally I switched to Chessbase many moons ago once they developed a decent ‘tree’ for the openings. But the choice may be a case of the tool itself being less important than the workman and how it is used.
How should a database program be used? Well in the context of deliberate practice I’m unconvinced that amazing features are really that helpful. Instead of replaying hundreds of games in record time I think that it’s a much better idea to print them out and replay a few of them with a nice wooden set. Doing it like this is much more conducive to engaging the brain rather than relying on an engine running in the background. And this is what helps develop genuine expertise.