PCs provide countless opportunities for learning, playing, practicing, studying, and even watching both online and offline. Convenient freeware chess programs are available that give you all you need to do these things straight out of a single box at any level. Great for beginners and experts alike.
So where to start? Or where to move next? There's a staggering quantity of recommendable chess freeware out there to play with, and experienced pundits may already have their own prized collections.
This review page of free chess software and computer-related resources on the internet will aim to address the varying needs of players, ranging from the casual to the keen. To do this, main recommendations will be given for different kinds of free software/resource, sometimes followed by a list of available alternatives which could be worth exploring. Thus, this page may also be used as a portal or selective link collection.
- The standalone software section of the review will cover some of the top freeware chess programs for computer play on Windows and Linux, as well as briefly discussing free chess software for Mac users (including iPad/iPhone), Android app recommendations, a top pick free standalone internet client, freeware for learning, and freeware for match database study. (Note that since it would be a hard task to provide a separate section that could attempt to do justice to the wealth of freely available chess engines, links are given to help select and locate any you'd like to try.)
- The internet section of the review recommends a selection of the best free browser-based chess resources, such as online java applets, chess internet servers, online chess databases/e-books, chess tutorials, chess puzzles, and selected sites for more free software reviews and chess-related news to help keep up to date.
Go straight to the Quick Selection Guide
To play against a computer you'll generally need at least one chess engine to handle the all important computing side, hooked up to a convenient graphical user interface (GUI) to provide the visual chessboard display. A good package to start with is the Crafty Chess Interface, which provides an attractive GUI coupled to the powerful Crafty engine—an open-source program developed by Dr. Robert M. Hyatt. Weighing in at just 1.34 MB, the Crafty Chess Interface makes an excellent lightweight portable option which may itself completely satisfy the needs of many casual chess players.
The intuitive interface provides ready access to useful features, including a slider (in the Control Panel) to adjust Crafty's engine strength, which many may find particularly convenient. Although there's only the one engine, you can easily instruct Crafty to play either or both colors whenever you want (as with the other free chess software recommendations listed below, if you're feeling lazy you can just sit back and watch a couple of engines battle it out - in this case, Crafty vs Crafty). Like all the main standalone programs in this review, Crafty Chess supports both PGN and FEN (two commonly used formats—the Portable Game Notation allows you to load, play through and analyze recorded games while the Forsyth-Edwards Notation records board positions, as briefly explained here). If you want Crafty to use established opening lines, you can download opening books from the Crafty Chess page to preload into the program.
Many players will also want a more versatile program that encompasses different computer playing styles and allows more user options for analysis. Arena is an excellent freeware choice which appeals to many chess enthusiasts. The attractive GUI is worth exploring with the aid of the excellent Help files, since it offers many useful features, including the ability to handle Shuffle Chess or Fischer Random Chess.
The 3.0 version of Arena is available either as a portable or for full installation, which is quite straightforward. Either way, you're provided with a good selection of preinstalled engines to choose from: the installer just provides a couple more. And you can easily add any other Winboard and UCI engines you wish (including the ultra strong Houdini, open source Stockfish and any of the other freeware engines reviewed here or listed in Wikipedia). Engines can be configured individually: Arena's Help files provide details on ways to adjust their behaviour/strength. Linux users should also be able to get Arena up and running on Wine.
- Portable WinboardX + Deep Rybka 2.2 gives you a handy free portable software package containing Winboard (a well known chessboard GUI for Windows) coupled with three different chess engines of different levels. Rybka 2.2 remains one of the strongest available free chess engines, and it can be used for game analysis. You can also play against two lesser engines (Delfi 4.5 and Phalanx). Portable WinboardX + Deep Rybka 2.2 used to be one of Gizmo's main recommendations, but this free software package does not seem amenable to development. Still plenty to enjoy. [Portable, Windows only - apparently also works on Windows7; download size, 3.3 MB]
- Haundrix - a fun program with a nice assortment of engines (Crafty 23.0, GNU Chess 5.07.9b and Sjeng 11.2). Its sound effects may well appeal to children, for whom the lack of an undo button could—in some circumstances—be an advantage during actual play. Program development seems to have stopped at version 0.1.0... But Haundrix seems to work fine even on Windows 7. [Windows, Linux, including 64-bit]
- Fritz 5.32 is the free version of the commercial Fritz software and is considered a must play for chess lovers, because it allows you to sample one of the notoriously powerful Fritz engines, with its characteristically quirky tactical play (and you can also grab slightly more recent Fritz 6 engine). Unfortunately, Fritz 5.32 refuses to install on my Vista set up, maybe due to multicore processor issues. [Windows]
While several of the reviewed programs may work on Wine, PyChess provides an advanced chess client specifically coded for Linux, following the Gnome Human Interface Guidelines.
You can play against the GNU Chess engine or lots of other chess engines, such as the Crafty engine, which can be downloaded from here. You can also play Internet chess by connecting to the FICS servers.
With this program, games can be saved in the PGN, EPD and FEN chess file formats so that you can always return to continue with the games or analyze them.
PyChess also offers opening books and other useful features including undo moves, hint and spy modes, sound and animation effects.
Sigma has an excellent reputation with Mac users and the full version is now freeware. Sigma 6.2 comes with its own built-in engine which can be adjusted for strength. Alternatively, you can download (from here) Sigma 6.2 bundled with the free Lite version of the powerful HIARCS engine for Mac. You can also add in various Mac-compatible UCI Engines, including Fruit. Sigma accepts PGN/EPD databases and is compatible with the free ExaChess Lite database program for Macintosh. Appearance can be customized within the program and by adding 3rd party plug-ins; there's also an option for a "true perspective 3D board" (see the online manual). [Mac OS X 10.3 or later]
For the iPad or iPhone, try the free Stockfish app, which seems to play well in more ways than one.
- Gizmo's top pick free Android app is Chess (by jwtc)—reviewed here. This ad free app accepts .pgn files and now supports some UCI engines including Robbolito, Stockfish and Bikjump. For a dedicated Android chess database app, try Scid on the go.
- BabasChessClient provides an attractive interface to play or watch human games on the FICS (Free Internet Chess Player) network. An interesting feature is the ability to go over a game you've just watched or played with some analysis from Crafty. [Windows 95 to Vista; Linux with Wine]
- If you enjoy modern chess variants like Crazyhouse, Losers, Suicide, Kriegspiel etc., try open source internet client Thief [Windows 95 to Vista; Linux Wine]
- Lucas Chess is an interesting freeware chess tutor which challenges you to play and beat increasingly strong engines/levels of play from beginner up to expert (think Rybka!). As in some video games, the program expects you to win twice at any given level before moving on to the next one. In tutor mode, Lucas Chess will flag a stronger move found by the engine and give you gameplay hints on lines of play. Your reaction to Lucas Chess will probably depend on individual learning style and personal taste. Well worth exploring. Portable version available. [Windows and Linux]
- Serious players will want a chess database program for study. Two excellent recommendations are SCID (Shane's Chess Information Database) and Chessbase Light a slightly cut down freeware edition of Chessbase, restricted to 8,000 games. The two programs have rather different characteristics and enthusiasts will probably want to try both. It's worth bearing in mind that whereas Chessbase is an extremely powerful read-only database program which allows you to use the challenging Fritz 6 and Stockfish 6 engines for analysis only, SCID also gives you options for active play. Zarkon Fischer (see below) provides succinct introductions to both SCID (here) and Chessbase Light (here).
- If you'd like to explore other free chess database software, Zarkon also hosts brief reviews (here) of PGN viewers/editors Compochess, Kvetka, ChessX and Penguin. Other currently available options include open source ChessDB (an offshoot of SCID) and ChessAssistant Light.
Free online chess apps (Java):
Jester Chess offers a whole series of options, including some colorful variants, ranging from Throne of Chaos (Shuffle Chess) to Crazy Horses (knights instead of bishops) or the delightfully named Lethal Amazones (where queens take the place of knights and bishops). In One Step Beyond, both players start with their pawns one rank ahead. And true to its name, this app can also be set to make unorthodox moves (Fantasy) or play in Clownish Style: when Jester gets ahead he'll suddenly doff his metaphorical hat by making a silly move to let you get back into the game.
Sparring Partner (at ChessKit.com) is another attractive option, which also allows engine vs engine play.
Thinking Machine isn't so strong but shows countless lines of play...
Free internet chess servers for peer-to-peer play:
ChesSOS also gives you the chance to challenge other players at Fischer Random.
Free online chess databases and e-books:
ChessGames.com has a search engine which provides access to a great free online database of historical chess games, some annotated. You can either play games back on ChessGames' online java app or download as .pgn files.
Free online chess puzzles:
- A large collection of daily chess puzzles (mainly taken from real matches) is available at chessvideos.tv. The interactive applet has good graphics and the hints are stimulating. A winner.
- For a catalogued collection of puzzles, try wtharvey.com: searchable by Grand Master, opening and year. Some composed chess problems too.
Other free internet chess resources:
- Get Fen is a useful online app to generate FEN strings to describe chessboard positions (for software or reference): just drag the pieces to their squares and then copy and paste the fen read out.
- Virtual Pieces provides beautiful free chess graphics resources, including icons, diagram kit, wallpapers and more.
Top pick specialist site for free chess software reviews:
Want more chess freeware? A brief review like this cannot hope to cover the gamut of available free chess software. If you're hankering after more goodies, then you'd do well to check out a dedicated site. Zarkon Fischer's Free Chess Programs provides an exceptionally well presented specialist guide by a friendly chess enthusiast who also knows how to write. Although some of the programs discussed are only demos, you'll still find a wide range of lively freeware suggestions. The engines page, for example, is a must visit. Zarkon's top pick freeware chess program is Fritz 5.3.2. Two of the more recent additions are Haundrix and Homer (unmissable!). [Note: Sad to say, Zarkon Fischer's site is no longer being updated. In October 2010, Zarkon signed off saying "So long, and thanks for all the fish!". For me at least, Zarkon's site remains the foremost guide to the galaxy of free chess software. Strongly recommended.]
Free online chess tutorials:
- ChessCorner. This attractive site is an excellent learning tool and could provide a sound starting point for beginners. The simple but effective presentation gives you the feel of having quite a sizable interactive book at your fingertips, enticing you to explore many aspects of the game at leisure. Animations work well (example) and there are plenty of well indexed games to play through or download. A seamless experience, highly recommended.
- For something a bit more advanced, Chessville also has a nice collection of learning resources with plenty of advice and annotated games.
- The Exeter Chess Club sports "a place to enjoy and learn about chess" with plenty of coaching material to browse and study.
- MyChessBlog. A blog may not be the easiest format to consult (though the Categories menu on the right helps somewhat). However, there's some nice writing here. And the examples taken from tournament play are linked to ChessGames.com, so you can easily play through the entire game on an animated java app.
- YouTube is a stand-out search engine for many different video tutorials.
- ChessEye promises free online chess visualization training. True, you have to register, the app is clunky, and they do rather want to plug their standalone shareware version. But you can still try and see...
Chess news online:
- The world of free chess software is fast moving... If you want alerts on the latest releases, you'll find daily updates at wbec-ridderkerk.nl. To keep up to date with tournament and other chess-related news, Topix.com provides an international chess news aggregator (vying here with Google News). Alternatively, try ChessVibes.com, Chessbase.com or the Chess.com news page.
Best internet chess link collection:
- Worldchesslinks.net provides a well organized and frequently updated repository of links to chess sites and articles, with sections on chess theory, tournament news, and even archeology... Not to mention free software, chess databases and sites to play chess online. Recommended.
- Best Free Chinese Chess - The ancient game of Xiangqi (Elephant Chess) is an exciting, living challenge. A river runs through it. But the elephants can't cross.
- Best Free Computer Shogi - Japanese Chess - Shoji (the Japanese regional variant of chess) is played on 81 squares with a rather distinctive twist: when you capture a piece, the prisoner comes into play on your side (or vice versa).
- Best Free Computer Go - Nowadays the most powerful chess programs can sometimes beat even the strongest Grand Masters. If you feel like a quite different form of boardgame challenge, why not try the classic Far Eastern game of Go? Quite different from chess, Go is based on just a handful of simple rules. But its depth of play and subtlety make it a strong rival. Besides, Chess and Go seem to activate the brain somewhat differently.
Crafty Chess Interface
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