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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Online Chess at

There was a time once when, at IIIT, all I used to do was play chess online from dawn till dusk. So much so that I wanted to document the steps for playing chess online but never managed to -- instead I played on. I'm just about beginning another such spell these days, and before I get too engrossed, I want to list down how to play chess online with 'real' people at

Getting the interface:

So, you'll need xboard (download version 4.2.7 for unix/linux, for windows). There are a number of other clients available, but I use xboard. On a Mac, an easier approach would be to install X11 (if it's not there already) and fetch a darwin port for xboard with "sudo port install xboard". You'd have a better luck with linux if xboard comes along with your distribution. A more complete list of all available clients/interfaces can be found here.

Access at

As the name implies, is a free, well-maintained, feature-ful avenue for playing chess online. xboard merely connects to the server and everything else is managed by freechess. The things you can do at are:
  • play chess online with other people. You can set the parameters for a match (time duration, time increment, color, type)
  • observe other (great) people playing. You can also observe live matches from grandmasters, along with expert commentary
  • take online step-by-step lectures on chess -- this includes lectures on tactics, tips, opening/closing moves, best practices and recognizing patterns.
  • examine past played games
  • save / adjourn games for a later time
Sold? Ok, now get access by registering at freechess using a unique username (aka handle). You'll have to follow another link to activate your registration. This is a one-time process.

Connection and Setup:

My xboard command that launches xboard and automatically connects to is:

xboard -ics -icshost -icsport 5000

If you have a firewall, there are workarounds discussed in detail elsewhere. Essentially, you'll need to have telnet access to a gateway server which can then connect to freechess. When at IIIT, I used to use:

xboard -ics -telnet -telnetProgram telnet -icshost -icsport 23

(this connects you to first, and then you can "telnet 5000" to start the session)

I usually save my username and passwd (on separate lines) in ~/.icsrc so that I don't have to enter it every time.

The Game:

There are >5 kinds of games on freechess:
  • Blitz: This is standard chess with short time constraints
  • Lightning: This is standard chess with very short time constraints. A match can conclude within 2 mins
  • Standard: This is standard chess with regular timings
  • Suicide: This is the suicide variant of chess. Whoever loses all pieces wins
  • Atomic: This is a variant in which bombs explode when you take a piece, thereby bombing adjacent pieces as well
  • Crazyhouse: As the name says, it's crazy. You have to try it out yourself -- it's interesting
Of these, Blitz and Standard are the most played.

After you have logged in, you can issue a huge number of commands. See "help commands" for the complete list. I'm listing out the basic ones:

List out all the matches currently being offered:
$ sought

To accept a match offer:
$ play 9
(where 9 is the id, as displayed by "sought"). There are lots of people online on freechess, so you need to be quick in accepting a match offer.

List out all players currently online:
$ who

Offer a match request to another user with handle "nirns"
$ match nirns
A match request is sent to "nirns" which if he accepts, a match starts.

$ match nirns 5 12
This starts a "blitz" game of 5 minutes and 12 secs increment after every move. If you run out of time, your opponent can "flag" you and you lose

To see your score/ratings/points:
$ finger

To see nirns's ratings:
$ finger nirns

To see the list of LectureBot's lectures:
$ tell lecturebot list

To observe LectureBot's lecture:
$ observe lecturebot


Apart from the game and the fun, you need to keep track of your ratings. Your ratings are displayed for each category of game with "finger" command. Newbies have ratings of 400 - 900 in blitz/standard category. OK players have 900 - 1400, Good players have 1400-1900. Computer bots have 1900-2400. Grandmasters have 2400-2700.

Apart from the rating, you need to keep an eye on something called RD -- Rating Deviation. It gives a sense of "confidence" in your rating. Mathematically speaking, if your rating is x, the probability that your actual rating is within [x - 2 * RD, x + 2  * RD] is 95%.

Intially, the rating deviates by a huge factor after every game because RD is high. As you play more and more, the RD decreases and therefore the rating settles to a near-true value.

That's it. Explore the tonnes of happy commands on freechess. Have fun!
Oh, and if you happen to get online, my handle is: nirns.
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