How To Use Chess Engines
You don’t need to be a genius anymore to find a crazy opening novelty. Just switch on your Engine and let it work for you. The possibilities are limitless.
But if used wrong, the Chess Engine can start to use you. As you start to use and trust your Chess Engine too much, your head starts to switch off. “If the little friend anyway tells me what to do, why should I even think?” Well because during a game you will not get help from your best friend...
In this article, I will explain how I try to use the Chess Engine. More importantly, I will illustrate several cases of NO-GOs when working with Chess Engines.
In case you are in a hurry, here are some tips to immediately improve how you work with a Chess Engine:
- Always make sure to keep thinking along when working with a Chess Engine
- Do NOT only memorize moves the Engine suggests. Only use it in your openings if you UNDERSTAND the move.
- Switch Off the Chess Engine while watching games. Everything seems easy with the Engine on. The true beauty comes with the human touch to the game.
- Never go to somebody and say “hey this move was +10, why did not you play it?”. Nothing more tilting than that for a player after a long and tough game...
Who Is The Boss And Who The Assistant?
I like to compare the relationship of Humans & Engines with the one of a Boss and its assistant. One does the thinking, the big planning and takes responsibility, and the other is helping out. Now the point with Engines is that many people fall into the trap of being the assistant and not the boss. And this is exactly what you should avoid. Because once you start to only help the engine out, you will feel absolutely lost during a practical game. You are not used anymore to taking decisions based on your knowledge. You will feel like an abandoned Toddler: you don’t know how to take care of yourself (anymore).
Let me give you some examples of use-cases where the Engine is Boss. This can go wrong in so many ways and there are innumerable examples. I will stick to the two most common.
1) Opening Analysis With Chess Engines
One of the most common use-cases is the opening analysis. You simply switch off your head and follow the Chess Engine suggestions. Hours can pass without straining your brain once. You are just the hand to help the Engine continue its analysis of the position. There is no real thought about which move makes sense, or if what you are looking at is of any importance.
After some hours you will have a very nice-looking file. But if somebody asks you what you just looked at, you have absolutely no idea what to answer. Your hand clicked engine moves into a notation, but your brain was somewhere else. There is a big temptation to do it because you have the feeling of improving your chess without really using your brain. But even if you found great ideas and novelties, these will not help you at all in practical play.
- Remembering pure Engine lines is really difficult (I know that chessable has a move trainer, but if you need to remember chess lines like your french vocabulary, chance is you did something wrong before...)
- Even if you remember the lines, you will be totally clueless whenever your opponent deviates. You might know that the position “must be +1” but that helps only a bit. Most likely you will screw up over and over again, thinking you are unlucky to get so many winning positions and then losing them...
By the way, I don’t say buying chessable courses is bad per-se. But I certainly don’t like the approach to just memorizing things without understanding them. Yes, those lines will give you easy victories in the short term.
But as pure memorization does not improve your understanding and thus your level of play, this method is only effective in the short term.
If you really understand WHY something is played, you won’t have to memorize it like a machine. Now I am sure you would like an example. Here you are.
Petrov-Studer 0-1, 2020 after 12.a4!?
From this position (white was still fully in his prep) it took white only 3(!) moves to end up in a strategically hopeless position! White’s last move was a surprise for me. The Main Line goes 12.f4 exf4 13.Bxf4 Ne6 when 14.Be3 is the most testing way. So the idea of a4 is to provoke a5 and then play the same thing. Now the pawn on b6 is weakened and the idea c5-c4 loses in strength. I did not want to get into his prep, so I decided to go for 12...Ne6. 13.a5 is logical, on which I played Ba6. While my moves look very logical, they are not highly estimated by the Engine. As my opponent was probably not thinking for himself, he was out of theory and lacked guidance. After 14.b3?! f5 15.f3? (the big mistake) f4 16.Bf2 b5 black is fully in control.
Black will play b5-b4 when white does not have any pawn break anymore (c2-c3 will weaken both d3 and b3).
Black is close to winning here already. He could not believe his eyes what he had done with his position in only a few moves. It happens to the best if we are following engine lines without understanding the position deeply enough. Now, why do I think the Engine was boss? Because I estimate my opponent a lot. If he would have thought: “what is a logical reply to a4” he would have surely shortly checked Ne6 a5 Ba6.
Checking such human lines, even if they are not suggested by the Engine, is essential. With only one Minute more work he would have seen that the Engine always wants to take b6 and then double on the a-file. So 14.axb6 axb6 15.Ra3 is the right way to continue. White is much better.
Asking one single question during the opening analysis would probably have saved my opponent at least half a point. This is what I mean by switching your head on! It means thinking before executing engine ideas. It means understanding what the plan is if your opponent deviates from the “best” line.
I remember working with GM Iossif Dorfman. He has such a good understanding that he would always command the Engine, not the other way around. He said, “this must be the move” and then we analysed it, even if the Engines disliked it. More often than not, the Engines changed their evaluation shortly after. This is true chess mastery. Use your chess understanding to guide the Engines.
If you want to know my opening approach, then check out this article.
2) Following Online Games With Chess Engines
Another frequent use-case is following online games. As it is not necessary to have the Engine on, the easiest way to solve the problem is to simply switch it off :-). Having the Engine on disturbs the flow of the practical game. Sometimes you do not get the narrative of the game AT ALL.
Players are human beings. Rather than evaluating in “+1”, we will assess it in “complicated” or “better without risk” or “very risky with that counter-attack”. All these 3 evaluations can result in the Engines showing +1. But the narrative is different. There is nothing more frustrating for a Player than getting shown stupid irrelevant Engine lines after a game and being asked “why did you not play this?”.
Having the Engine on makes you think everything is easy. Once you see that the Engine is showing a move as winning, it looks logical to you. But sitting at the board, you would not have considered the move in 100 years. Here is a great example of such a case. I played one of the craziest games in my career. There were many mistakes and so many possibilities.
It certainly wasn’t the highest level chess, but some lines were simply too complicated to calculate.
Black has gone all-in with his king-side attack. The engine laughs at this, but for a human, it is not that easy!
White needs to move his Knight from e4. But where to? While d6 and c5 seem active, they are far away from helping the King not get mated. After the game, a Teammate came to me and said: “Why didn’t you simply play Nc5? It is totally winning!” While the Engine suggests Nc5 is +3, there is a move that might blow you off your chair.
After 24.Nc5 my opponent planned Bf1!! (which I saw). The Bishop cannot be taken with either the King (Qxh1#) or Rook (Rxf3 followed by Qh2#). Black now threatens to crush through with ...Rxf3 26. exf3 Qh2+ 27. Kxf1 Qxh1+ 28. Ke2 Qxf3+ 29. Kd2 Qxf2+.
When I saw this I had enough of it and went for the save 24.Ned2. Bf1 is not possible as I take with my Knight on f1, protecting everything. White does not get mated and is a pawn up. Practically speaking it was the right decision, as I was totally winning soon after.
Now, why is 24.Nc5 still winning? Because after 24...Bf1 the Engine laughs at you and suggests 25.Qd4!! with a winning position. Even if White is not threatening to take the Bishop on f1 anytime soon, Black cannot improve or crash through. The point is that in the forced line starting with ...Rxf3 above, f2 will not hang with check anymore and the King on d2 is safe (at least so says the Engine).
This is what the Engines aims for and evaluates as +6. Good luck seeing and understanding that during a practical game.
In all honesty, if you go for that in a practical game you probably should be banned for cheating... You miss out on all of this chess beauty if you simply switch on your engine and switch off your brain!
Additionally, you also lose the touch of a practical player. You will criticize people for missing “trivial” stuff. But when it is time for you to sit at the board, everything will seem so difficult.
Your big brother is not there anymore to help you out and you are screwed. You will again complain about how hard chess is until your big brother assists you again.
If you are tired and want to follow online games for fun, then follow them by listening to a commentator. He is a human being and will tell you the reason behind decisions, plans & ideas.
The biggest danger of Chess Engines is that you switch off your brain. You will be only the assistant, or sometimes the slave of the Engine.
In order to avoid this, you must be the Boss.
- Don’t follow Engine suggestions blindly
- Instead follow your intuition and improve upon your thinking by asking the Engines questions
- Don’t follow games with the Engine on
- Instead think for yourself and try to understand the human decisions by Top Players
If you want to know how you should use the Engine for game analysis, then read the following articles:
The Chess Engine can be a huge asset if you are improving upon what you know already with it.
You test assumptions “this move looks logical, is it good?” or, “I think black must be better here, what does the Engine think?”.
This means that in order to use the Engine smartly, there should always be an initial thought of you FIRST.
At least you should be constantly asking questions, such as “why is this move not suggested by the Engine?”.
If you stop to think for yourself, you also stop improving!!!
This article was originally first published on my Blog NextLevelChess : How To Use Chess Engines
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GM Noël Studer