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Free UCI-Compatible Chess Programs for Stockfish Engine

Updated on September 7, 2016
ProjectResolute profile image

ProjectResolute has been a chess fan since he was a kid. He now enjoys playing on chess (dot) com and various computer chess programs.

A laptop calculating chess moves.
A laptop calculating chess moves.

Computers rule, humans drool in the world of chess. Since the moment Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, the abyss of skill between human and computers have been ever widening. Nowadays, every avid chess enthusiast can download a chess program and watch intense chess battles being played with precision and skill beyond which even the top grandmasters dream of, and it can easily be done for free, provided you already have a computer and internet connection.

When I first download a UCI chess engine, I was a bit confused as to how it all worked. I googled something along the lines of “best free computer chess program”, clicked the first thing that caught my eye, and before I knew it I had a file named Stockfish 5 64 bit.exe that could play at super grandmaster strength. I wanted a challenge, and it seemed that I had one! I excitedly double-clicked the file and, alas, a black window popped up, with the 3 names of the programmers who wrote the marvelous piece of code, and little else.

What I didn’t know was that I had to have a separate software to use the chess engine, something called GUI. GUI is short for Graphical User Interface, and though it was a little confusing at first, I eventually got Stockfish running and got the worst whipping in my life. Trust me, you’ll find out if you don’t know what I’m talking!


Why you need a GUI to Use a UCI Chess Engine

Whippings by the hand of a chess engine aside, the concept of the interaction between a chess engine and its GUI is really quite easy to understand. Perhaps the best way to explain what a UCI chess engine is and why you need a GUI program that's UCI-compatible to even use the program is to make an analogy. Let’s say this UCI chess engine were a car engine. This engine wouldn't do anybody any good without rest of the car. You need wheels, a place to sit, a steering wheel, brakes, etc., or it would literally be a worthless piece of junk. Same goes for the UCI chess engine, the GUI program provides a way for the user to interact with the engine, is the car’s body, and the engine itself does all the work, i.e. calculate 20-30 moves ahead!

There are many different GUIs to choose from, some paid and some free. This page focuses on the free one, although a review of the paid ones may come later. All GUIs, whether mentioned here or not, have their unique pros and cons. I personally wouldn't want to do without any of the five GUIs mentioned here, because I like to use at least a feature or two on each one. So let’s investigate what make them click with me personally.

Lucas Chess GUI

The Lucas Chess GUI is a UCI-compatible chess program created mainly by a guy named Lucas Monge. I say mainly because, on his main website there’s a “Thanks To” page with a whole list of names. It is an open-sourced project, and it’s likely that many different people have lent a hand in the creation of this software.


Picture 1-1 - UCI Chess Engines in Lucas GUI
Picture 1-1 - UCI Chess Engines in Lucas GUI

Lucas Chess Engines

An outstanding feature of this GUI is the number of chess engines(see picture 1-1) that it comes with . The website says that there are over 30 different engines, and that they have a variety of skill levels. This is a huge plus for users who don’t want to go through the hassle of installing a chess engine. However, as with almost all GUIs, users can install as many other chess engines into Lucas Chess as they want.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Picture 1-2 - Many different training positions to choose from! Picture 1-3 - Can you solve the puzzle? Picture 1-4 - Puzzle solved!
Picture 1-2 - Many different training positions to choose from!
Picture 1-2 - Many different training positions to choose from!
Picture 1-3 - Can you solve the puzzle?
Picture 1-3 - Can you solve the puzzle?
Picture 1-4 - Puzzle solved!
Picture 1-4 - Puzzle solved!

Training Positions in Lucas Chess

Another big plus is Lucas Chess has training positions preinstalled.(1-2 to 1-4) Anything from tactical problems to endgames, there are enough puzzles to last you for months, if not years. I am not sure exactly how many puzzles there are, but I know it’s in the tens of thousands. If that’s not enough puzzles, with the Lucas Chess program you can also manual set up your own chess puzzles to practice. Perhaps if you have a tactical chess puzzle book handy you could quite easily copy those over as well, although I discovered it can take time.

Picture 1-5 - Here is an analyzed game of mine. Note the color coded moves!
Picture 1-5 - Here is an analyzed game of mine. Note the color coded moves!

Game Analysis in Lucas Chess

What I like most about this software is its analysis feature. Any game I put into Lucas Chess I can analyze with a chess engine. Basically I put the game into the program, hit analyze, set the time per move I want it to analyze, and it scrolls through each individual move and color code which ones are excellent, good, neutral, mistake, or just plain bad! (1-5) I then click on a move the chess engine deemed bad, and I can see the move the chess engine would have played and the move I’ve played and what it predicted would've happened afterwards.

There’s really just one feature that I wish Lucas Chess would have. The ability to print out stored games into a nice little scoresheet so I can have a nice-looking hard copy of all my favorite games. The feature isn’t that important because I found another program, Chessbase Reader 2013, that does just that. However, it would save some time when playing a game in Lucas Chess to not have to copy and paste the game over to another program.

Arena Chess GUI

Lucas Chess GUI program is useful for analyzing games, practicing tactics, and playing against various chess engines. However, Arena Chess GUI program is my go-to chess software when experimenting with various chess engines, and I do have quite a few.


Click thumbnail to view full-size
Picture 2-1 - Arena chess program's engine menu Picture 2-2 - Many options to choose from when starting a chess engine tournament. Picture 2-3 - Komodo vs. Stockfish chess battlePicture 2-4 - This 10 game tournament turns out to be a draw!
Picture 2-1 - Arena chess program's engine menu
Picture 2-1 - Arena chess program's engine menu
Picture 2-2 - Many options to choose from when starting a chess engine tournament.
Picture 2-2 - Many options to choose from when starting a chess engine tournament.
Picture 2-3 - Komodo vs. Stockfish chess battle
Picture 2-3 - Komodo vs. Stockfish chess battle
Picture 2-4 - This 10 game tournament turns out to be a draw!
Picture 2-4 - This 10 game tournament turns out to be a draw!

Arena Engine Vs. Engine Tournaments

One thing that I love doing is pitching engine vs engine tournaments. Arena makes this quite easy to do. All that needs to be done is select the engine menu and hit tournament, select which engines to use and length of time to think, and hit start. The GUI will handle everything else, scoring, pairing, and even saving the games played. It’s quite fascinating to watch! (2-1 to 2-4)

It’s worth noting that Lucas Chess GUI can also handle engine vs. engine tournaments, but it doesn’t have nearly the options as Arena. With Arena, you can set the skill level by search depth, time to think per move, and blitz. With Lucas chess, only blitz is allowed. This is just one example, so if you want to pitch engine vs. engine chess battles, Arena is the preferred choice among the free chess graphical user interfaces.

Another thing that I love about Arena GUI is the ability to see the UCI engine’s current search depth, nodes (means positions) per second it’s searching, and much more. If you love computers and chess as much as I do, it can become quite hypnotizing!

Picture 2-5 - Selecting a chess engine to play at 1% of a second!
Picture 2-5 - Selecting a chess engine to play at 1% of a second!

Set an Engine to Think at 1% Of a Second in Arena!

Another feature I think is worth noting is it is possible to limit an engine’s playing strength by a certain percentage of the time allowed to calculate. (2-5) For example, if it has calculated for 2 minutes on one position and I set it at 50%, it really would only have calculated for 1 minute.

This is something I discovered just recently, and the reason I’m excited about this is that even at a skill lvel of 1 second per move, I still can’t ever hope to beat Komodo 10. However, at 1% of a second, this computer chess titan is much more manageable. Although I haven’t yet beaten him at this setting, it doesn’t leave me feeling like a complete moron at the end of a game. That is, as long as I don’t think too much about the time it really has to think about a move.

Update 8/29/2016- After several tries, I found out that I can't even win against Komodo 10 at 1% of a second. So I welcome anyone to challenge it at this level, especially if your ego needs a little diet!

The only con I can think of that applies to Arena chess GUI is with all its bells and whistles, it can be quite daunting to learn to use. For me, I love figuring out software, but I understand if some people just don’t want to take the time. If this sounds like you scroll on, because the next chess software will make you smile!

Tarrasch Chess GUI

Picture 3-1 - Here is a picture of the Tarrasch Chess Program, displaying the Tarrasch opening, and a famous quote by Tarrasch
Picture 3-1 - Here is a picture of the Tarrasch Chess Program, displaying the Tarrasch opening, and a famous quote by Tarrasch

The Tarrasch chess GUI is named after a great chess legend, Siegbert Tarrasch, who lived in the 1800s to 1900s. Many of the great chess players of the time criticized his ideas, and he was greatly under appreciated by the chess world. Thus, the developer decided to name this chess software after him as a commemoration to him and to “rebalance this unjustice”.

As I hinted upon previously, the main benefit of this chess program is it simplicity. The Tarrasch chess GUI is very intuitive by design. As an example, to move the pieces with the mouse in this GUI there are two options. One is the common click and drag option that so far every chess program I've used has.


Picture 3-2 - Note the move selection menu
Picture 3-2 - Note the move selection menu

Tarrasch's Unique Move Menu

The other option I believe is unique to this program, and this is to click and hold the square to which a piece has to be moved to. If there is only one chess piece that can be moved to this square, it automatically moves the piece. If there is more than one piece that can be moved the selected square, up pops a menu from which the desired move can be selected. (3-2)

This feature isn’t the only thing I like about this chess software. I read a lot of chess ebooks, and Tarrasch is the perfect assistant. Not only can I quickly set up a chess position from the chess book onto the GUI, but I can also copy and paste a string of moves from the ebook into the GUI if the moves are written in algebraic notation. If there are no moves entered into the game yet, the Tarrasch chess program will automatically assume the moves are the moves of the game. However, if there are moves already in the moves box, the text pasted will be as a comment, and one has to promote comment to variation via the edit menu.

The above three UCI-Compatible chess programs are the ones I use 99% of the time. The next two following are software that I keep on my PC because of one or two features that I like or want to have available. Please note that these next two could very easily replace the above GUIs, since all five of these GUIs do the essential basics.

SCID vs PC Chess Program

There’s no denying it, SCID vs PC is a very powerful piece of software. If I would spend a bit of time experimenting with it, the GUI could very well replace Arena. The reason why I don’t use it very often is because to me it’s more confusing than any of the other UCI-compatible chess program Ive tried.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Picture 4-1 - The Tree Window in SCID vs PC, Note the opening statistics!Picture 4-2 The crosstable displays statistics of individual playersPicture 4-3 - The Statistics WindowPicture 4-4 - The General Search Options box. Many options to choose from!
Picture 4-1 - The Tree Window in SCID vs PC, Note the opening statistics!
Picture 4-1 - The Tree Window in SCID vs PC, Note the opening statistics!
Picture 4-2 The crosstable displays statistics of individual players
Picture 4-2 The crosstable displays statistics of individual players
Picture 4-3 - The Statistics Window
Picture 4-3 - The Statistics Window
Picture 4-4 - The General Search Options box. Many options to choose from!
Picture 4-4 - The General Search Options box. Many options to choose from!

SCID vs PC's Various Features

That said, it doesn't stop me from using the program to go through large pgn databases of say, 1000+ games. This is really what the developers were focusing on when creating this program. It’s primary function is as a database manager, and it’s evident through the following features:

  • Tree Window – A window that displays a summarization of which openings are most common in the database, how successful the move was, the average ELO rating of each move played, and how often a move within the opening becomes a draw. (4-1)
  • Crosstable – A table is displayed of all players within the pgn database, their rating, and how many wins, losses, and draws a player has.(4-2)
  • Statistics Window – Shows how many games have been played by rating, and then by range of 5 years, and then a since xxxx.xx.xx date (4-3)
  • General Search – Many options here. From this window one can search by player name, FIDE title, date, result, game length, etc. (4-4)

These options and features mentioned here is by no exhaustive; I've only begun to scratch the surface. So if anyone has a lot of games he would like to analyze and sort through, this is probably the best choice of free chess software.


Picture 4-5 - Tournament configuration in SCID vs PC
Picture 4-5 - Tournament configuration in SCID vs PC

SCID vs PC - Concluding Thoughts

As far as playing against a chess engine and/or analyzing your games for blunders, this will work, but there are better choices, and I’d recommend the Lucas Chess program for that. For pitching chess engine tournaments and whatnot, Arena still has the most configurations, even though SCID vs PC has the capability to do blitz tournaments (4-5).

Chessbase Reader 12

Chessbase Reader 12 is the only chess software GUI that is available for free from chessbase, the others you’re going to have to spend some money to obtain, such as Fritz 15. I personally downloaded the freeware to get some decent printouts of some of my favorite chess games, and was quite impressed with the scoresheets it created from my pgn files. (5-2)

This is by no means the only thing this UCI-compatible chess program can be used for. It can also be used with chessbase’s many lessons it has for sale on its website. I personally can’t tell you the quality of the lessons, nor can I tell how well chessbase reader displays the lessons primarily because I don’t have any lessons from the site.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Picture 5-1 - Chessbase Reader, another of many UCI-Compatible chess programs Picture 5-2 - Here is what a printout of a game looks like.Picture 5-3 - Chessbase Reader 2013 displaying a database of chess games.
Picture 5-1 - Chessbase Reader, another of many UCI-Compatible chess programs
Picture 5-1 - Chessbase Reader, another of many UCI-Compatible chess programs
Picture 5-2 - Here is what a printout of a game looks like.
Picture 5-2 - Here is what a printout of a game looks like.
Picture 5-3 - Chessbase Reader 2013 displaying a database of chess games.
Picture 5-3 - Chessbase Reader 2013 displaying a database of chess games.

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Concluding Thoughts...

Now that I have listed the top 5 UCI-compatible chess programs, so which one do I recommend to download? In all honesty, all of them! They are all entirely free, not free demos, no ads, no nothing; so why not? They all have their unique pros and cons, and once you learn to use all of them, there really isn't anything you can’t do!

There are many other chess software’s that are available for free, and if anyone can think of one that isn't mentioned on this page and is comparable to the top 5 listed above, please let me know. Here are several…

Babaschess - This program isn't UCI-compatible since it doesn't run any chess engines. The software is for online chess playing.

Spark Chess - Really great 3d graphics of chess pieces and board. There's a free and paid version, and can be used to play online. Has chess engines built in, and cannot handle UCI chess engines.

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