Free UCI-Compatible Chess Programs for the Stockfish Engine
Computers rule and humans drool in the world of chess. Since the moment Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, the abyss of skill between human and computers has been getting wider. Nowadays, every avid chess enthusiast can download a chess program and watch intense chess battles being played with precision and skill beyond the dreams of even the top grandmasters, and it can easily be done for free (provided you already have a computer and an internet connection).
When I first downloaded a UCI chess engine, I was a bit confused as to how it all worked. I Googled something along the lines of, “best free computer chess program,” clicked the first thing that caught my eye, and before I knew it, I had a file named Stockfish 5 64 bit.exe that could play at super grandmaster strength. I wanted a challenge, and it seemed that I had one! I excitedly double-clicked the file and, alas, a black window popped up with the three names of the programmers who wrote the marvelous piece of code but nothing else.
What I didn’t know was that I had to have separate software to use the chess engine, something called a GUI. GUI is short for graphical user interface, and though it was a little confusing at first, I eventually got Stockfish running and got the worst whipping in my life.
Why You Need a GUI to Use a UCI Chess Engine
The concept of an interaction between a chess engine and its GUI is really quite easy to understand. Here's an analogy that best explains it: Let’s say this UCI chess engine was a car engine. This engine wouldn't do any good without the rest of the car. You need wheels, a place to sit, a steering wheel, brakes, etc., or it would just be a worthless piece of junk. The same goes for the UCI chess engine. The GUI program provides a way for the user to interact with the engine, which does all the work and is always 20–30 moves ahead of you.
There are many different GUIs to choose from, some paid and some free. This article focuses on the free ones. Remember that all GUIs have their own pros and cons. I personally use all of the GUIs mentioned here, because I like to use at least a feature or two on each one:
- Lucas Chess GUI
- Arena Chess GUI
- Tarrasch Chess GUI
- SCID vs. PC Chess Program
- ChessBase Reader 12
1. Lucas Chess GUI
The Lucas Chess GUI is a UCI-compatible chess program created by Lucas Monge and others. It is an open-sourced project, and it’s likely that many different people lent a hand in creating this software.
An outstanding feature of this GUI is the number of chess engines that it comes with. The website says there are over 30 different engines that have a variety of skill levels. This is a huge plus for users who don’t want to go through the hassle of installing a chess engine. However, as with almost all GUIs, users can install as many other chess engines into Lucas Chess as they want.
Another big plus is Lucas Chess has training positions preinstalled, including everything from tactical problems to endgames. There are enough puzzles to last you for months, if not years. I am not sure exactly how many puzzles there are, but I know it’s in the tens of thousands. If that’s not enough puzzles, you can also manually set up your own chess puzzles to practice. If you have a tactical chess puzzle book handy, you could easily copy those over as well (although I discovered it can take time).
What I like most about this software is its analysis feature. I can analyze any game I put into Lucas Chess with a chess engine. I put the game into the program, hit analyze, set the time per move I want it to analyze, and it scrolls through each individual move and color codes which ones are excellent, good, neutral, mistake, or just plain bad! I then click on a move the chess engine deemed bad, and I can see the move the chess engine would have played along with the move I played and what it predicted would've happened afterward.
I wish Lucas Chess offered the ability to print out stored games on a scoresheet, so I could have a nice-looking hard copy of all my favorite games. I did find this feature in another program, Chessbase Reader 2013. However, it would save time when playing a game in Lucas Chess to not have to copy and paste the game over to another program.
The program is only available for Windows OS. However, I believe that it's possible to use on Linux by compiling the program yourself if you're a computer whiz. Another option is using WINE, which lets you run Windows applications on Mac and Linux.
2. Arena Chess GUI
The Lucas Chess GUI program is useful for analyzing games, practicing tactics, and playing against various chess engines. However, the Arena Chess GUI program is my go-to chess software when experimenting with various chess engines, and I do have quite a few.
One thing that I love doing is pitching engine vs engine tournaments, and Arena makes this quite easy to do. All you need to do is select the engine menu and hit tournament, select which engines to use and length of time to think, and hit start. The GUI will handle everything else (scoring, pairing, saving the games played, etc.). It’s quite fascinating to watch!
It’s worth noting that the Lucas Chess GUI can also handle engine vs. engine tournaments, but it doesn’t have nearly as many options as Arena. With Arena, you can set the skill level by search depth, time to think per move, and blitz. With Lucas chess, only blitz is allowed. If you want to pitch engine vs. engine chess battles, Arena is the preferred choice among the free GUIs.
Another thing that I love about the Arena GUI is the ability to see the UCI engine’s current search depth, nodes (means positions) per second it’s searching, and much more. If you love computers and chess as much as I do, it can become quite hypnotizing!
Another feature that's worth noting is it's possible to limit an engine’s playing strength by a certain percentage of the time allowed to calculate. For example, if it has calculated for two minutes on one position, and I set it at 50%, it really would only have calculated for one minute.
This is something I discovered just recently, and the reason I’m excited about this is that even at a skill level of one second per move, I still can’t ever hope to beat Komodo 10. However, at 1% of a second, this computer chess titan is much more manageable. Although I haven’t yet beaten him at this setting, it doesn’t leave me feeling like a complete moron at the end of a game. That is, as long as I don’t think too much about how little time it has to think about a move.
The only con I can think of that applies to the Arena chess GUI is with all its bells and whistles, it can be quite daunting to learn to use. For me, I love figuring out software, but I understand if some people just don’t want to take the time. If this sounds like you, scroll down because the next chess software will make you smile!
Chess GUI Arena is available only in the Windows format. However, it should run in the WINE software for Mac and Linux. The program comes with two opening books, a game database, several engines, and Gaviota 3-man endgame tablebase.
3. Tarrasch Chess GUI
The Tarrasch chess GUI is named after a great chess legend, Siegbert Tarrasch, who lived in the 1800s/1900s. Many of the great chess players of the time criticized his ideas, and he was greatly underappreciated by the chess world. Thus, the developer decided to name this chess software after him as a commemoration to him and to “rebalance this injustice.”
As I hinted at earlier, the main benefit of this chess program is its simplicity. The Tarrasch chess GUI is very intuitive by design. For example, there are two options to move the pieces with the mouse:
- One is the common click and drag option that so far every chess program I've used has.
- The other option I believe is unique to this program, which is to click and hold the square to which a piece has to be moved to. If there is only one chess piece that can be moved to this square, it automatically moves the piece. If there is more than one piece that can be moved to the selected square, you can choose your desired move.
This feature isn’t the only thing I like about this chess software. I read a lot of chess ebooks, and Tarrasch is the perfect assistant. Not only can I quickly set up a chess position from the chess book on the GUI, but I can also copy and paste a string of moves from the ebook into the GUI if the moves are written in algebraic notation.
If there are no moves entered into the game yet, the Tarrasch chess program will automatically assume the moves are the moves of the game. However, if there are moves already in the moves box, the text pasted will be as a comment, and one has to promote a comment to variation via the edit menu.
Currently, two versions of the Tarrasch Gui are available for download. Unfortunately, it's only available for Windows OS.
4. SCID vs. PC Chess Program
There’s no denying that SCID vs. PC is a very powerful piece of software. If I spend a bit of time experimenting with it, the GUI could very well replace Arena. The reason why I don’t use it very often is that to me it’s more confusing than any of the other UCI-compatible chess programs I've tried.
That said, it doesn't stop me from using the program to go through large pgn databases of say, 1000+ games. This is really what the developers were focusing on when creating this program. Its primary function is as a database manager, and it’s evident through the following features:
- Tree Window—This is a window that displays a summarization of which openings are most common in the database, how successful the move was, the average ELO rating of each move played, and how often a move within the opening becomes a draw.
- Crosstable—This is a table that is displayed of all players within the pgn database, their rating, and how many wins, losses, and draws a player has.
- Statistics Window—This shows how many games have been played by rating, and then by a range of five years, and then a since xxxx.xx.xx date.
- General Search—There are many options here. From this window, you can search by player name, FIDE title, date, result, game length, etc.
The options and features mentioned here are by no means exhaustive; I've only just begun to scratch the surface. If anyone has a lot of games they would like to analyze and sort through, this is probably the best choice of free chess software.
As far as playing against a chess engine and/or analyzing your games for blunders, this will work, but there are better choices, and I’d recommend the Lucas Chess program for that. For pitching chess engine tournaments and whatnot, Arena still has the most configurations, even though SCID vs PC has the capability to do blitz tournaments.
This program has versions available both for Windows and Macintosh (Mac). Linux users can use this program also (click the installation tab for instructions).
5. ChessBase Reader 12
The ChessBase Reader 12 is the only chess software GUI that is available for free from ChessBase. The others you’re going to have to spend some money to obtain, such as Fritz 15. I personally downloaded the freeware to get some decent printouts of some of my favorite chess games and was quite impressed with the scoresheets it created from my pgn files.
This is by no means the only thing this UCI-compatible chess program can be used for. It can also be used with any of the lessons for sale on its website. I personally can’t tell you the quality of the lessons, nor can I tell how well the ChessBase reader displays the lessons primarily because I don’t have any lessons from the site.
The free version of ChessBase is only available in Windows, and since it was at one time a commercial program, I'm not sure how well it'll run in WINE.
Already Have a UCI-Compatible Chess Program?
Which Program for UCI chess engines do you use?
Now that I have listed the top five UCI-compatible chess programs, which one do I recommend downloading? In all honesty, all of them! They are all free, so why not? They all have their unique pros and cons, and once you learn to use all of them, there really isn't anything you can’t do!
There is a lot of other chess software that is available for free, and if anyone can think of one that isn't mentioned on this page and is comparable to the top 5 listed above, please let me know. Here are several:
- Babaschess—This program isn't UCI-compatible since it doesn't run any chess engines. The software is for online chess playing.
- Spark Chess—This program has really great 3D graphics of chess pieces and board. There's a free and paid version and can be used to play online. It has chess engines built in and cannot handle UCI chess engines.