Houdini 3: the new king of the block (part one)
By Albert Silver
Who is the best? Who is the strongest? It is the sort of tireless question we always want answered. In chess, right now, the answer is not Magnus Carlsen, the world number one, nor is it Kramnik, nor Anand, nor Kasparov. The answer is unequivocally: Houdini 3.
Houdini 3 is the latest incarnation of the top chess playing program, the ultimate guru and oracle to tell you what the best move is in a given position. Since the time when humans could genuinely compete against them is past, many understandably ask themselves why bother upgrading a program if the previous one is already hopelessly stronger than we could hope for?
The answer lies in how you view the question. If you were going to consult someone on a chess position, and had the choice between a grandmaster or the world champion, wouldn’t you opt for the world champion even if the grandmaster already provided an answer beyond your personal ability?
Right now, all other chess engines are the grandmasters, while Houdini 3 is that world champion. The one to beat. Still, the strength alone is of no use if you cannot make the most of it, and that is where the combination of Houdini 3 with the latest Fritz interface becomes a marriage made in heaven for the user.
Before going into detail on the interface, and all the things it can bring you, let’s take a look at the new super engine, as it brings more with it than just a double-digit increase in Elo (50-70 Elo over the previous Houdini)
The first thing worth noting, as a chess player, is how attractive and enterprising Houdini’s style of play is. This is not a player using a wait-and-see approach to the game. This not only makes it fun to watch play against other opponents, but also means that its recommendations are fundamentally based on Dvoretsky’s axiom: “A player must always seek to improve his position”. As an aside, one can view one of the major rating lists, CCRL, testing Houdini 3 on a quad-processor in the Playchess broadcast room.
Among the novelties Houdini 3 brings to the table include a new Tactical mode, allowing it to hunt down combinations and tactical continuations with a single-mindedness that leads it to solutions in a fraction of the normal time.
In this position, Black's winning move is Nxf3!! In normal
mode, Houdini 3 (on a single-core) takes 1:35, but in
Tactical mode, it takes just 16 seconds.
Another feature is its support of Scorpio bitbases. What the heck is that? As you may know, there are giant databases of endgame positions that have complete and perfect knowledge of all endgames with three, four, five, and even six pieces. These databases are known as endgame tablebases, and even just the sets with up to five pieces, take up about 7 GB. The Scorpio bitbases do the exact same thing, with perfect knowledge, but take up about 300MB and can be stored in the RAM, making them far more compact and easy for the engine to consult on the fly.
Using bitbases or tablebases will allow Houdini 3 to refine its evaluations based on them
There is a downside to this: bitbases will tell Houdini the best move and what moves win or do not, but they will not tell it the number of moves to a mate if there is one. For that, there are the newer and more compact Gaviota tablebases, which an engine can consult within its search.
Now that the present lord and master of chess has been introduced, in part two we’ll see how to make use of it with the latest Fritz interface (the chassis of the engine) to get the most out of it, whether you be a beginner or an old hand.