May 14, 2012

Analyzing Chess Positions Using Crafty

Playing chess with the Xboard GUIWhen you play or analyze games with crafty, you can visualize the board as well as crafty's output with Xboard.via the Xboard siteIf you want to raise your chess playing skills to a higher level, you need to analyze positions and chess games. Even on off-the-shelf computers, chess programs are stronger than most grandmasters, therefore what could be more useful in this respect than chess programs? One of the strongest chess programs is Crafty, which is being developed already for many years by Robert Hyatt, who works as an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Burmingham (UAB). Let's see how to install and use crafty.

You are interested in the world chess championship, which is currently going on in Moscow or you want to analyze your past matches that you played on-line, for example on ?

As I just stated, crafty is one of the best chess engines out there, furthermore it's free as in beer and as in speech. You can get it following instructions at its official page. In debian based linux (such as ubuntu) you can install it doing
apt-get install crafty

In ubuntu, this will also install the Xboard interface, which I highly recommend using. For windows, you'll also find executables from the crafty homepage and for the interface you will find ports from the xboard site.

Xboard also works with other engines, apart from crafty, such as dreamchess, fairymax, hoichess, sjeng, gnuchess, phalanx, fruit, glaurung, toga2, and stockfish. The last one is particularly strong, however doesn't support endgame tablebases (EGTB). I'll get back to stockfish later.

I should note here that you should not use a chess engine to cheat on games you're currently playing. If using a chess program constitutes cheating is controversial, but on some on-line playing sites computer assistance is frowned upon or prohibited (compare gameknot's policy on using computer programs and the rules in the German Correspondence Chess Federation). You should only use chess programs where you don't get an unfair advantage. Unproblematic is post-match analysis that gives clues on missed moves and helps you analyzing games. As an example, you might want to use crafty to annotate your game files or you can put it in analyze mode while you step through the moves and look for sudden jumps of evaluation. I find it also very interesting to compare well-known high-level matches and play less explored lines that seem appealing (referring to reference material should be unproblematic).

Expert players not only have a highly developed sense of positions and tactical combinations, but also a broad repertoire of openings and a deep knowledge of endgames. To get this knowledge into crafty, you can supply it with an opening book and endgame databases, respectively. I found the on-line explanations about databases a bit sketchy, so here they come at more detail.

For the opening database you need to download a file with matches, so crafty can build statistics out of that for each position. This file can be a pgn file or you can convert it to pgn (in linux you have the convert-pgn utility). The "enormous" opening book database (careful, big file) you can find at this address, others from the official crafty page. Apart from the files that you find with crafty, you can download other files, such as specialized pgn files for different openings, for example from here.

You need to compile the opening database first (see readme). In crafty, you type
book create filename 60

EGTBs you can find here or on other sites.

Crafty needs to find these files if you want to use them. On my linux system, I put these databases in /opt/crafty. Crafty's configuration file is called .craftrc in linux (in your home directory) and crafty.rc in windows (no idea where to locate it). My configuration file looks like the following:

egtb !
show book

If you want to dumb it down to beginner level, put the lines set ply 5 and ponder off.

If you want to use a graphical user interface (GUI), there's XBoard, which you can call like this:
xboard -fcp "crafty"

That's so much for crafty, but crafty does not give you statistics about moves, which is useful especially for choosing between opening lines. Scid comes with this functionality.

You can create opening books for scid, which uses a different format (the same that fruit and togaII use) in polyglot (e.g. polyglot make-book -pgn BDG2.PGN -bin poly.bin -max-ply 60. You have to copy the generated file to /usr/share/scid/books/).

However, this book format does not include win/loss statistics. If you want that you have to create a new database in scid, open a pgn file (for example enormous.pgn), and then you can use the opening report (ctrl+shift+o). The opening report includes among other things a section "Moves and Themes" with frequencies, scores, etc. for different moves and positional themes.

You can use stockfish and other engines in scid, over tools->analysis engine. Alternatively, for stockfish, use this command:
xboard -fcp stockfish -fUCI

Cheers! Please leave a comment below for questions and suggestions.


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