This is a subject that some chess players feel very strongly about. In general, the stronger the player, the less they recommend studying your games with the aid of an engine. It can be very helpful, though, to a certain point. This article aims to shed some light on what the author believes are correct ways to use a chess engine for study.
First, let’s get the engine’s scoring out of the way. Here is a good rule to remember:
White is positive, black is negative.
When reading an engine’s readout, a positive score indicates that it believes white is winning, while a negative score indicates black is in the lead.
For instance, +1.44 means that white has roughly a one and a half pawn advantage, and –1.44 means the same for black. You will get used to it; in a very short time, you’ll be able to tell which side the engine thinks is winning at a mere glance.
Interpreting an Engine's Score
This is where it gets a little dicey for newcomers. In general, look for wild swings in score. If you toggle a move and the score goes from 0.01 (perfectly even for our purposes) to +3.45, black has blundered terribly and white has a dominating lead.
Pay no attention to score changes of .5 or less. In fact, ignoring changes under a whole point is probably smart, especially in the opening stages of the game. Engines are notorious for not understanding openings well. Check for large blunders in the opening (swings of 1 or more in either direction), but ignore the tiny changes because they won’t matter much, anyhow.
If an engine has white in the lead (we’ll say a score of +2.07, which would be a good-sized advantage), and after a white move the score drops to +1.96, it’s all but completely ignorable. Now, had the score gone from +2.07 to +0.34, something went wrong and it’s worth checking out why the last move was bad.
Let the engine think a while!
Most of the chess engines today are at or above the 3,000 Elo level (2,500 is grandmaster strength) and process millions of positions per second. It is still worth noting that, just like a human, the longer an engine has to ‘think’ about the position, the more solid the plan it comes up with is going to be.
The next time you are going over a game in Fritz or Arena or Winboard or Chessmaster or SCID or ChessPad (there are a ton of different graphical user interfaces, or GUIs, for chess), watch the engine’s output closely. You will likely see it come up with a move and a score immediately. Then, as it ponders the position and considers other moves and replies, the score will slowly rise or fall.
For that very reason, it benefits you to give the engine as much time as possible to consider each position. Yes, it’s true that a 3,100 rated engine will spit out great moves immediately, but when studying your own chess games, you want the best move possible. Give it a little time.
Use the Opening Book Tree if available
It has already been mentioned that chess engines aren’t necessarily stellar in the opening, and they aren’t. They will still find decent moves, but they are making it up as they go when in regular examination mode. Sometimes they’ll find the ‘book move’, sometimes they won’t. Also, engines are not fans of gambits because they don’t have the ability, sometimes, to understand why said gambit was made.
If your chess program came with an opening tree, use it. Fritz’s opening tree, for example, tells the most used move in any opening position, and its win rate in tournament play. That is information a serious chess player can use.
When you’ve found the best opening move in the position using the tree or book, compare it to what the engine suggests; many times, they won’t even be close. That’s why it’s good to get the feedback from both the tree and the engine output. Then you can decide for yourself what you’d like to play in the line you chose.
Study in Real Time
Most chess engine interfaces offer the option to analyze entire games on autopilot. A user can upload or enter a game, hit the ‘analyze’ button, and walk away from the computer while the program goes through each move and spits out an evaluation, which the user can later read and process.
While that is handy a handy feature, scrolling through the moves real-time and reading the engine’s live output is a far more active way to study. Remember, chess is anything but an easy game, so taking the easy study route may not be your best bet.
Keep a reasonable Hashtable
Hash simply means the amount of PC power you allow a chess engine to use. In Fritz, you can instantly ‘maximize’ the strength of the engine, which seems like a good idea at the outset. However, doing so will make that engine a RAM and CPU hog, big time.
Giving the engine more power only means it’ll go through the positions slightly faster, unless you have a phenomenal computer. For the average user, though, keep the power you give the engine at a reasonable level. The author uses his at 64MB on a rather powerful laptop and never has any issues.
Of course, everyone learns differently, and so this article should be used as a general guideline only. It is meant as a starting point for chess players who are new to chess or new to engine use.
Find what works best for you when using an engine, and experiment with different settings. Although many coaches and masters do not recommend engine study, it is difficult to reasonably argue against their usefulness.
Have fun and good luck with your improvement!