Computer survival guide for chess players

by Albert Silver
11/22/2011 – After a top player claimed chess software had killed his machine, careful analysis agreed this was probably true, just not in the way he believed. A chess engine uses 100% of the computer's resources, and a pro usually has his computer running day and night. This can lead to an early death of your computer if measures are not taken. Here is a computer survival guide by Albert Silver.

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Computer survival guide for chess players

By Albert Silver

I was recently besieged by a top player who claimed that Chessbase (the program) had killed his computer. For anyone with expert knowledge of machines, this claim would be ludicrous, but after detailed prodding on his usage of his computer and the conditions, I eventually came to agree that chess software had indeed killed his machine, just not in the way he believed.

The problem is not one of a bug, or anything inherently wrong with any chess software. The problem is that he ran engines day-in and day-out, like any pro, to research openings, accessing his main desktop via remote, from his laptop, while he is on the road. This is far from unusual, when you take into consideration that more than one top player has access to privately owned 32-core clusters.

The ultimate power users

What happened is that his machine was simply overheating, as chess players are the ultimate power users. When people think of a computer power user, they think of graphics designers, IT specialists, and the like, but the truth of the matter is that not one of them uses their computers nearly as intensely as a chess pro. A graphics designer may have their machine doing intense work using up 100% of their computer's power for as much as one to two hours total a day, if that, but a chess engine runs at 100% and uses up consistently all the memory given it, and will as such generate the most heat. Add to this a number of other factors that can contribute to overheating, and you have a machine whose longevity is seriously compromised from day one unless special measures are taken.

I know all about dealing with pitched battles against nature to make a computer last as I live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, across the street from the beach. Aside from the year-long tropical heat, the sea air, a combination of salt and grease, will corrode a machine faster than you would believe possible.

Much like health and health care, the best way to deal with heart disease for example is not to have the best treatments and medicine, but to avoid obesity and whatever ails can lead to it. The same is true for computer care in rough conditions. The following tips should help prolong the life of your computer.

Keeping cool

The first suggestion, when putting together a computer, is to have a well-ventilated case. A generic case is a worst-case scenario most of the time. You needn't spend a fortune, and though there is no question a $200+ case may offer great cooling, it is usually not necessary. Personally I bought a Coolermaster HAF 912 for about $60, and added a couple of large fans to expel air out of the case.

The Coolermaster case has cooling options on all sides.

This is an important concept to understand in computer cooling. You do not want fans only bringing in cooler air, as all it will achieve is an incredibly dusty machine (see images below). There must be exhaust as well. Therefore the ideal way to position the fans inside is always to bring in cooler air inside and remove the hot air through exhaust fans to maximize airflow and cooling.

The Intel/AMD fan is junk

The default cooler has never been ideal for heavy-duty cooling

Don't get me wrong, the processor's default cooler will do its job just fine for the average user, but is completely insufficient for extensive heavy-duty work.

The Noctua NH-D14 is a beast of a cooler, but does a great job

I have a Noctua cooler which is a beast and the best I could get my hands on, but there are other excellent options, such as the Thermaltake Frio. There is no specific model you must get as these top coolers vary by a couple of degrees from each other for the most part.

What is important to understand is that, they cool on average 30 to 40 degrees Celcius (60-80 Fahrenheit) better than the default cooler by Intel. Yes, that much.

Case closed

I strongly suggest you not place the tower in an enclosure that prevents it from breathing, in other words, nothing that is obstructing the sides, back, or top. Otherwise, it is no better than entering a sauna and trying to cool off with a fan inside, blowing the hot air around. Many modern computer desks designed with a space for a computer case, are in fact cooling disasters as they prevent the computer from properly expelling the hot air.

A typical computer desk, but the enclosed space is synonymous of disaster if you
are a power user.

Avoid a dust bowl

Finally, as basic maintenance, every few months (I do it every two to three here), I'd open the case, and clean out the dust.

Don't let this happen to you

Feel free to use some paper towels humid with alcohol, however under no circumstances should you dampen it with water or any cleaning product. While alcohol dries and evaporates quite quickly, even after 24 hours a microdrop of water, invisible to the eye, can fry your machine as soon as you turn it on. Be sure to dust it regularly on the outside though. Pores are no good if a cake of dust is covering them.

All the best fans and coolers in the world are useless if you let this happen

If you follow these tips, you should soon find yourself protected from most hardware failures due to wear.

Copyright ChessBase

Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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