April 21, 2009

Six Must-Have Features of a user-friendly Chess Viewer

The following game (and the excellent annotations) was originally found here

A wooden chessboard and pieces is all we need in order to enjoy an exciting game of such quality. If we want to study and begin to understand comprehensive analyses like these, however, we are going to need as much help as we can get from the chess viewer software. Here are few features that can make a big difference:

  • Consistent navigation through variations and especially variation's branching points (BPs, where we split into alternative lines). Keeping track of BPs becomes quite tricky after branching into several levels of variations. Simply pressing the "Home" key (even multiple times) or using the powerful "Variations Navigator" (top of the board) will save you the trouble of guessing (to practice it drill down into this Variation at > 16... Bf6 > 19... Ne5 > 20. Nd5+ > 22... Ng6 line);
  • While in deeply branched variations the following will be very helpful. You can directly step out to the mainline (with a single click) and replay the entire most recent line (with the right-arrow key or even auto-replay with F9). Notice that you won't have to recall nor choose any moves at the BPs because the chess viewer, by default, automatically selects the most recent ones;
  • Annotations are context sensitive, which means they are only displayed along with the relevant position in the game. The pre-move comments (that precede the very first move of a variation) are supported and usually appear before stepping into the actual variation line. Explore the way they are handled in the variation after 16.f5 (starting with 16…Nf8?) or the one after 30...Ka7 (starting with 31.Qc7);
  • By design, the annotation’s text appears in its own GUI element (a Tab), separate from the actual moves. This way, the information is neatly available (if and when you need it) but it won’t disrupt the game flow (if you feel like ignoring it). In addition, the scoresheet displays annotation indicators (small “A” symbols) that makes locating a particular comment easier;
  • The support for "null" move (shown as "- - -"). The advantages of such moves can be seen in the variation after 23.Ne2 (which explains the 24.Rc7+ threat) or the one after 30...Ka7 (which explains the power of white's closing move 31.Qc7);
  • The movetext GUI element uses the concept of dynamic scoresheet which displays only the line you're exploring at any given moment. This structured approach is very different from the more conservative, paper-oriented GUI style where all of the variations and annotations are visible all the time (e.g. the original link). If you compare these two, you'll be bound to agree that the look-and-feel of chess magazine's approach fails to impress in the new Web 2.0 world.

In conclusion, with the great help of computers today’s game analyses are getting much deeper and of higher quality than ever. Therefore, the ability to efficiently navigate through a complex tree of varia­tions has become a standard requirement for a modern Chess Viewer.

If you’re looking for a Web based chess GUI, you should be ready to do some testing using PGN games with many variations and annotations. Compare what is displayed by the chess viewer against the original PGN text and make sure nothing’s missing. In other words, PGN specification should be fully supported. Depending on your goals, you might also double-check the “user-friendly” claims. If you do so you will certainly be rewarded later when you post your own analyses.

Here are some examples of putting these features to good use:

Wayne’s MY WORLD blog A well balanced mixture of computer assisted and human made analyses with annotations which provide reasons and principles.
Very Instructive Endgame Fairly deep and complete analyses begin after 44.Kf2