Building the ultimate chess machine

by Albert Silver
11/18/2017 – In a recent discussion with top grandmasters, notably GM John Nunn, the topic came up on what the ideal configuration and setup would be for chess analysis, whether at home, or abroad. Naturally we are talking about reasonable budget restraints as well, since otherwise the sky is the limit. What is better? Several strong machines, or just one top computer? Read on to find out. | Photo: AMD

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The proposal

Pros travel around the world almost constantly, and the elite players more than any. You might imagine this would mean they are dependent on top-of-the-line laptops, which they certainly have as well, but they all know that a top desktop computer will always outgun even the most formidable laptop. The solution is simply to access their desktop computer remotely, via the internet.

There was a time this meant having some serious technical skills or access to some, but anyone with a subscription to ChessBase Account and a copy of ChessBase or Fritz can do this in a minute or two with minimal effort.

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The question is therefore what would that ideal desktop setup be? Presuming a spending limit of US$2000-2500 (for simplicity’s sake, US prices will be referenced) what is best? Two or three strong Intel i7 processors for example? Or perhaps a single much more powerful but more expensive machine, and if the latter what would it be?

Paradigm shift

Just a year ago, the answer to this question might have been completely different, but 2017 saw the entire consumer market stood on its head with the return of AMD into the high-end processor market. It isn’t that they had not tried before, but the previous attempts and promises, such as the much maligned Bulldozer series, fell flat on their face.

As such, the best multi-core processors were all by Intel, and the ones that went beyond the standard quad-core offerings they had been doling out over the last years thanks to their near monopoly, quickly went into the stratospheric price-range.

The IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer "Intrepid" at Argonne National Laboratory runs 164,000 processor cores. It might be out of range of most readers. | Photo: Argonne National Laboratory

For example, in 2016, the absolute best consumer processor was the Intel i7-6950X Extreme Edition, that brought a huge ten-core processor, and ran for $1750, while the cheaper i7-6900X with eight cores retailed for $1100. However, that wasn’t the only problem. In those octa and deca-core models, each core also ran a good 25% slower than their respective colleagues in the quads for a classic three steps forward but two steps backwards situation (remember they also cost triple or quadruple).  As a result, it was hard to recommend the best CPU.

That was based on the existing standard entering 2017, and lasting until February, when AMD launched their new Ryzen series, which changed the CPU landscape from end to end. The Ryzen 1800X, which came with eight cores, yielded superior chess performance to that $1100 processor by Intel, but for just $500, and was just 10% worse than the $1700 processor by Intel. And that was just the beginning.  

In the last couple of months, AMD has also released their newest line of top processors, as if the Ryzen weren’t good enough, but catering to businesses, and consumers seeking elite performance. The special line has the pretty cool name ‘Threadripper’ (kudos to the marketing team who came up with that), comes with as many as sixteen cores, and is really aimed at professionals who do CPU intensive work such as video rendering, and more. Needless to say, it is also uniquely suited to chess engines, and delivers staggering performance.

The top processor is the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X, which comes with 16 cores, all with hyperthreading like the Intel ilk, and capable of identical chess performance in Komodo to Intel’s best, the i9-7980XE, endowed with 18 cores. What impresses isn’t that AMD’s 16 cores do as well as Intel’s 18, it is the pricetag. While AMD’s offering retails for $999, reaching even a mere $799 on sale this coming Black Friday, the Intel goes for a cool $1999, and that is just the processor.

The chart above is from Komodo benchmarks published by the French site, Hardware.fr. They also provide benchmarks on a wide variety of applications, games and more, with dozens of processors. Highly recommended. | Photo: Hardware.fr

Still, the question remains: what if you could put together three full computers, each with 50% of the performance, for the price of one Threadripper? In other words, getting 50% more analysis power at your fingertips. The recommendation would still be one Threadripper, and here is why:

Potential versus Reality

The extra 50% power available is only a factor if it is actually used. Since we are talking about three computers or more, that means that while that third machine could theoretically yield extra analysis, it still needs to be managed and used. It is absolutely not obvious that a chess pro, even with a very capable second, would be able to distribute enough analysis among three different machines for this to be useful. It is hard enough at home, so imagine trying to remotely connect to three machines, one after the other, and still keep track of which was doing what. If not exploited to the max, the user would be much better served with the single, extra powerful computer.

Another factor that comes into play is the hidden cost of having multiple desktop computers. It would imply a lot of extra space, and a good deal more power consumption, which would become quite expensive as time went by. Just picture three computers, all with monitors, keyboards, cables, and you can imagine that added burden and space needed.

Also, it needs to be mentioned that the single Threadripper can still do what the three individual machines cannot: put all 16 cores on a single task. In terms of productivity, the biggest likelihood for a player, whether alone, or with a second, is to call up one machine remotely, and have it analyze a position at a time. The option to use 16 cores over 8 is important as it means that similar analysis depth can be reached in half the time. Or likewise, an extra ply (a half-move) can be reached in the same amount of time.

The king of price/performance for maximum chess analysis: AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X | Photo: AMD

It bears remembering that the discussion here is chess engine performance pure and simple. If chess engine performance is not your priority, or is a lesser one, then specific benchmarks and results should be made and studied. For example, buying a 16-core machine for gaming, no matter the brand, would be a tremendous waste, since not only are there no games capable of taking advantage of so many cores, but the bottleneck would be the video card long before so many cores could even begin to be useful.

What if you are considering a slightly less elite chess machine for budgetary reasons? The good news is that you can still put together a fantastic 8-core Ryzen based machine for a very affordable sum, which could be consulted remotely from even the dinkiest laptop you had. The details of such a machine will be shared in a forthcoming article.

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Building a Threadripper computer

Below is a general summary of recommendations to give an idea of what it would cost and what components you should be considering when putting together a 16-core Threadripper computer with all the trimmings. The exact brand and models are not set in stone, so use what follows as guidelines, though note that these were carefully researched for price and performance, as well as user reviews that might highlight longterm issues reviewers might miss.

The prices link to a product page in NewEgg, the largest online computer retailer in the US, though by all means use any you find convenient. Above all, the precise components will be easily identified. The exception is the Arctic 240 water cooler, which must be purchased from the company site in order to receive the special mount needed for the Threadripper. This need to purchase directly from the manufacturer is true of almost all cooling solutions for the Threadripper, due to its exceptional size.

Component Model Price
CPU / Processor AMD RYZEN Threadripper 1950X 16-Core $970
Motherboard ASRock X399 Professional Gaming sTR4 $399
Memory G.SKILL TridentZ Series 32GB (2 x 16GB) 288-Pin DDR4 3200 $329
Cooler Arctic Liquid Freezer 240 $85
Video card GIGABYTE GeForce GTX 1050 OC Low Profile 2GB $120
Power supply EVGA SuperNOVA 750 G3 $130
Case Antec Nine Hundred Black Steel ATX Mid Tower $100
SSD Windows Samsung 960 EVO M.2 500GB NVMe PCI-Express $234
SSD tablebases Samsung 960 EVO M.2 250GB NVMe PCI-Express $142

Total: US$ 2509

A few notes on the components chosen: the video card was chosen mostly thanks to its combination of good performance and above all ability to connect four separate displays at once. This can be immensely convenient and productive, and I have three displays connected myself. The case chosen is notable for its USB 3.0 ports on the front, excellent ventilation, and solid reputation. Finally, the choice of two SSDs for storage as opposed to a single centralized one is deliberate. One SSD should be reserved for the 6-piece Syzygy tablebases and not be mixed with the one used for the operating system and databases. It wil be consulted non-stop by engines in analysis, and it would be a mistake to place it on a drive that is also being used for other purposes, since it could lead to unnecessary slowdowns.

I hope you find the above of interest and look forward to reading about your next super chess machine.



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.