Best chess gamewas played between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in 1851, but the best chess videogames are something else entirely. The rules of chess are simple, but it’s one of the most demanding tests of foresight, tactics, and mental endurance there is. Because there multiple reasons to play software chess—roughly split between causal fun, studying, and competition—there are many different kinds of programs and games out there.
This guide will introduce you to the software chess world, with advice for players who just want to play casually online or offline, as well as those who want to seriously study opening moves and analyze historical matches.
The best free online chess games
Lichess.org is my preferred online chess game. It’s free and supports plenty of match styles, including multi-day correspondence. The best thing about it is that you can play anonymously without creating any kind of account, though I find that means I’m more likely to encounter players who resign or request a draw immediately—you never know who you might be paired with. For practice, you can also play against the Stockfish engine.
Best chess game is a good commercial free alternative. You have to put up with a few ads, and it’ll bug you to pay for an optional premium subscription, but as a way to quickly start playing chess online at any skill level, it’s one of your best bets. It runs in your browser with a simple, clean board design, and has a ton of players so I’ve never had a hard time finding a match with someone of a similar skill level (which is to say, not very much skill).
Chess Ultra is a gorgeous chess game for those who just want to play chess without dealing with the complicated software in the sections below. It includes VR support, an AI opponent with several difficulty levels, as well as local and online multiplayer, Twitch integration, and the option to export matches. It also includes basic tutorials for newcomers. For anyone who simply wants to play chess, this is your game—simple and beautiful, like chess itself. It’s a good deal, too: just $13 on Steam, and $9.09 right now during the Halloween sale.
For a free-to-play alternative, try Simply Chess. It’s not nearly as slick as Chess Ultra, and it crashed on me pretty quickly, but hey, it’s free. It supports online play with a separate account, and comes with a good computer opponent via the Stockfish engine (see the section below for an explanation on that).
The best chess engines and GUIs
If you want to play against a powerful, customizable computer opponent for the purpose of studying chess, you’ll want a chess engine, such as the free and open source Stockfish engine or its derivatives. Komodo is also highly ranked, though you’ll have to pay a subscription for the latest version (Komodo 9 is free), and Houdini costs €40 for the standard edition.
These engines are primarily for training—you can play against them, analyze chess positions, and pit them against each other—so they’re for people who seriously want to study the game. If you’re not sure a chess engine is something you want to tinker with, don’t buy anything—free engines are extremely powerful.
An engine alone won’t do much for you, though, as they don’t include any kind of graphical user interface, just a console. To play against a chess engine or use it to analyze boards, it must be paired with a chess GUI, but there are lots of free ones. Most come with many engines installed already, so you can get started with one download.
Lucas Chess: Simple and easy to understand for beginners, Lucas Chess is a good place to start. It includes a bunch of engines and training tools, and the UI isn’t too confusing, even if you’re unfamiliar with the more complicated functions of chess engines.
Arena Chess GUI: Arena Chess is more daunting for newcomers than Lucas Chess, but it includes a great deal of features, as well as support for 19 languages and a Linux verison.
WinBoard: It isn’t the prettiest GUI, but WinBoard and Xboard are feature rich and include support for chess variants, too.
SCID: Like the other GUIs on this list, SCID can be used to play against an engine, but it’s most useful as a fast way to organize and analyze databases of chess games. You’ll want to pair it with MillionBase, a massive database of chess games in PGN format or other chess game databases. If you like the SCID interface, you can also try SCID vs PC as a GUI for playing chess.
Commercial chess software
You can play and learn a lot about chess without spending a dime, and that’s where I recommend starting, but pro packages come with lots of bells and whistles if you have the cash. Much of what you’re paying for is their completeness, and the quality of their training tools.
Fritz 15 ($65 on Steam) is a storied piece of chess software, and its current engine is written by Rybka engine creator Vasik Rajlich (though you can use it with other commercial and free engines). It’s a bit of a mess to install (activation keys!) and the interface is just as complicated as any free software’s, but it comes with huge database of games, and some nice features. I especially like ‘Friend Mode,’ which allows you to play against a computer opponent that adjusts to your skill level. It also offers hints that aren’t too direct, helping you learn without losing track of why a certain move is better than others.
If you want to spend less, Fritz 14 is still available, as is the $20 Fritz for Fun 13, which isn’t as simplified as you might expect from the name—you’re getting a lot of the same features as in later versions, and you can import newer engines.
For a pricier, less flashy option, Hiarcs (which I haven’t had a chance to test yet) boasts a large database and feature set.
Only serious chess players or those who want to design their own chess engines will want to drop $150 on ChessBase 13 Academy or $235 on ChessBase 13 Pro. These tools are not for playing, but for analyzing chess matches.
3D Chess Game
3D Chess Game for Windows 10 is a chess game that takes not a lot of disk space. The 3D graphics have been carefully designed, giving the players a lot of zooms and swivel freedom. The game offers around 25 levels that you can play against bots, increasing difficulty with each level. Do keep in mind that there is no online playing mode as the game is downloadable and can be played without internet access. The game offers performance statistics after every round but the audio is quite unrealistic, and the game is better played on mute. Get it from the Windows Store.
This interactive chess application is a great game to explore when you have no work in an office or are just trying to pass some time. Pick your difficulty level and see if you can beat the AI as it increases difficulty. You also have the option to undo your move if you make a mistake. Chess 2013 records the moves in the standard chess notation and lets you jump to any point in the game. The moves are automatically saved and loaded when you close and reopen the application. The development of the game is assessed in the Evaluation panel – positive values indicate White’s advantage, negative values indicate Black’s advantage.
If you want to explore the world of playing chess with multiple players online, whether on your network or across the world, Chess24 offers a great platform for you to do just that. Chess24 is an Internet-only chess gaming website that offers languages including Spanish, English, and German. The biggest aspect of Chess 24 is that it is fully supported and endorsed by big chess grandmasters like Vishwanathan Anand and Peter Svidler. Gaming is not the only aspect of this website. You can also stream and watch major chess events live from anywhere in the world.
Chess Time is one of the highest-rated chess game apps on Windows Store. It is available on both Windows 10 and Windows Phone. The best feature of this app is that you can play online with cross-platform users on even Android and iOS at the same time. You can invite friends in for a game or someone random. Your ranking and amount of points are determined by your win-loss ratio. If you enjoy Chess, this is a great way to play the game if you’re ever bored.
Another free online portal for playing chess is Lucas Chess. The game has 40 engines prepared to play from the start, and with very different levels, from 0 to 3300. This is purely played with the computer and you choose to either train, play with one engine or play with a combination of engines to challenge the best in you. There is also a special mode for young children getting into the game, wherein they will be able to begin their apprenticeship with special engines that know little more than moving the pieces, and this will enable them to win against the engines from the very beginning.
Fun chess-related games
For something a little different, below are some entertaining chess and chess-adjacent games.
Placement is a clever puzzle game in which you must arrange chess pieces on a board such that they are all protected exactly once. It’s not too challenging, but it can help beginners train their ability to instantly read the board.
Knights is another chess-based puzzle game. The goal is to move knights, with their classic L-shaped movement rules, onto the square of their color on small boards. If it sounds easy, you’ve got another thing coming.
The original Battle Chess is just a tad overpriced for a game that runs in DOSBox and takes ages to play because it’s full of silly, slow walking and battle animations, but nostalgia forgives all.
Chess 2: The Sequel has become much easier to recommend than it was when we originally reviewed it. The price has dropped to just $6, and a couple of features have been added. You have just about no chance of finding a random opponent online anymore, but it’s still pretty fun to play against the AI. The gist is this: it’s like chess, except with special units with new behaviors and a new win condition. Aside from a checkmate, you can win by crossing the board’s mid-line with your king. It’s a cute twist that requires you to think very differently.
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