As we separate the game of chess down into three parts (The opening, the middle game, and the end game) so too do I divide Engine Chess into three components. My thinking is, that to have a strong playing system, that is capable of sustaining a uniformly high Elo rating, detailed attention should be given to each of these aspects of engine chess.
1. Hardware: CPUs, RAM, Hard disk drives, Motherboards.
2. Software: UCI Engines, GUIs, Databases.
3. Books and EGTBs: Opening books, End game table bases.
The relative importance of these aspects seems to be in constant flux. (so I have not listed them here in order of weight) It also seems to be a highly debated point as engine players approach the game from different points of view. I am certain that players come from several different areas of expertise. Most notably Computers, Programming, and Chess. Some players enjoy seeing how there powerful computer hardware fairs in competition with other machines. Some like to use many different programs, tweaking them and in some cases fiddling with the code. Other come from the world of chess and are enticed by the strangely beautiful games produced by engine play. This I believe is the fulcrum that the fledgling sport can utilize to grow, its attraction to several different groups of enthusiasts.
As they once put on old maps beyond the explored areas “past this point there be monsters” Have no illusions that your old desktop PC with a Pentium in it will be competitive in online engine play. (that’s not to say you can’t still have fun) However there are some real monsters out there. We are now in the era of 64bit multiple core CPUs. The current median standard at this time is Intel’s Quad core 64bit chips. Search depths with these processors even at blitz time control often exceed 21 half moves. Over clocking is common and is a dark art in its self. Some 16-32 core machines lurk in the shadows ready to eat your lunch or Elo as the case my be.
Engine hash size is no longer as dependent upon RAM as it once was. The modern chess engines make use of CPUs L2 catch. (which is much larger in the new CPUs) O no, maybe I should not have said that. (this seems to be one of Rybka little secrets) The L2 catch has traditionally been used for video processing the reason for this is its much faster for the program to save temporary data and retrieve it. The L2 runs at the full speed of the CPU and the RAM modules on the motherboard only a fraction of that speed.
In fact it may be that the latest release of Rybka 2.3.2a has its non-configurable L2 hash size set at 128Mb. How this size was arrived at and whether or not it is the optimum setting seems to be preparatory knowledge. (If this is just idle speculation on my part perhaps Vas will add a comment and clarify the issue)
As for Hard Disk Drives; What I do is keep one just for engine play online. The only things I put on it are a stripped down windows operating system, (I like XPpro 64) The GUI (I like Fritz 9 with latest update) a few UCI engines and all the EGTBs that I will be using in play. (I can just get it all on a 150Gb 10,000rpm Raptor) A fast HD does seem to aide EGTB accesses speed.
The chess engine has reached a state of development as to be unfathomable to us ordinary mortals. Rybka 2.3.2a is by far the strongest commercially available engine at this time. There are some contenders especially in long time controls. Zappa Chess engine by Anthony Cozzie recently beat Rybka in an exhibition match in Mexico It is believed that the Zappa Mexico program used was better at its usage of more than 4 core CPUs. (This is alluding to the perceived problem that Rybka has in correct scaling above 4 cores)
Most of the GUIs are vary good; Fritz 9-10-11 are all compatible with UCI engine as are Shredder and Hiarcs.
ChessBase 9.0 is the premier database program available. Although some what expensive it is worth its price to the serious game collector. Its ability to manipulate game bases is awesome.
I feel that it is important to mention here that one should always buy these programs from the copyright holder. Not only does profiting form ones intellectual property act as an incentive for further improvement in the case of the engines you will want the authors to send you periodic updates.
Books and EGTBs
For me the opening book is the heart and soul of this kind of chess. I will be writing more in the weeks to come on my techniques and suggestions on how to make and develop books for chess engines. For right now let me just say that every one should try to make their own books. It gives your engine games a distinct caricature and unique stile that is a reflection of you own opening theories. There is much satisfaction to be had when your lines work out and much work to be done when they do not.
All the commercially available chess engines come with fairly comprehensive opening books. Although in most cases they are to broad and to shallow in scope. (The books that come with Rybka and Fritz seem to me to be intended to play against human opponents) It is relatively easy to tweak these already wide-ranging books into a more focused repertoire. This probably is where most players should start in the quest to take control of the stile that their engines will play. (Much more about opening books in later entries)
EGTBs are simply the game of chess worked out to its conclusion when only a few peaces are left on the board. All 3-4-5 and most 6 man bases are available some where on the net. However you must be aware that having all 3-4-5-6 man egtbs will require you to have at least 1.4Tb of storage space. No mater how fast your Hard Drives are this will prove to be to taxing on your system in fast time controls.
I recommend getting ChessBase Endgame Turbo 3 Nalimov Tablebases it comes on 9 DVDs and has all 3-4-5 man and a few 6 man. Once loaded onto your HD it will be about 42Gb in size. If configured properly in your GUI it will give you about +30 Elo in engine play. A list of the most commonly accruing 6 man end games can be found on the internet. If you feel brave and have the time and space you can use this list to download a further 100Gb of egtbs from the net. (This will take some time) 140-150Gb of the right bases can get you a +70 Elo boost in fast time controls.