Chess Optimizations


ok, so i have been working on my chess program for a while and i am beginning to hit a wall. i have done all of the standard optimizations (negascout, iterative deepening, killer moves, history heuristic, quiescent search, pawn position evaluation, some search extensions) and i'm all out of ideas!

i am looking to make it multi-threaded soon, and that should give me a good boost in performance, but aside from that are there any other nifty tricks you guys have come across? i have considered switching to MDF(f), but i have heard it is a hassle and isn't really worth it.

what i would be most interested in is some kind of learning algorithm, but i don't know if anyone has done that effectively with a chess program yet.

also, would switching to a bit board be significant? i currently am using 0x88.

Best Solution

Over the last year of development of my chess engine (, much of the time has been spent optimizing my code to allow for better and faster move searching. Over that time I have learned a few tricks that I would like to share with you.

Measuring Performance

Essentially you can improve your performance in two ways:

  • Evaluate your nodes faster
  • Search fewer nodes to come up with the same answer

Your first problem in code optimization will be measurement. How do you know you have really made a difference? In order to help you with this problem you will need to make sure you can record some statistics during your move search. The ones I capture in my chess engine are:

  • Time it took for the search to complete.
  • Number of nodes searched

This will allow you to benchmark and test your changes. The best way to approach testing is to create several save games from the opening position, middle game and the end game. Record the time and number of nodes searched for black and white. After making any changes I usually perform tests against the above mentioned save games to see if I have made improvements in the above two matrices: number of nodes searched or speed.

To complicate things further, after making a code change you might run your engine 3 times and get 3 different results each time. Let’s say that your chess engine found the best move in 9, 10 and 11 seconds. That is a spread of about 20%. So did you improve your engine by 10%-20% or was it just varied load on your pc. How do you know? To fight this I have added methods that will allow my engine to play against itself, it will make moves for both white and black. This way you can test not just the time variance over one move, but a series of as many as 50 moves over the course of the game. If last time the game took 10 minutes and now it takes 9, you probably improved your engine by 10%. Running the test again should confirm this.

Finding Performance Gains

Now that we know how to measure performance gains lets discuss how to identify potential performance gains.

If you are in a .NET environment then the .NET profiler will be your friend. If you have a Visual Studio for Developers edition it comes built in for free, however there are other third party tools you can use. This tool has saved me hours of work as it will tell you where your engine is spending most of its time and allow you to concentrate on your trouble spots. If you do not have a profiler tool you may have to somehow log the time stamps as your engine goes through different steps. I do not suggest this. In this case a good profiler is worth its weight in gold. Red Gate ANTS Profiler is expensive but the best one I have ever tried. If you can’t afford one, at least use it for their 14 day trial.

Your profiler will surly identify things for you, however here are some small lessons I have learned working with C#:

  • Make everything private
  • Whatever you can’t make private, make it sealed
  • Make as many methods static as possible.
  • Don’t make your methods chatty, one long method is better than 4 smaller ones.
  • Chess board stored as an array [8][8] is slower then an array of [64]
  • Replace int with byte where possible.
  • Return from your methods as early as possible.
  • Stacks are better than lists
  • Arrays are better than stacks and lists.
  • If you can define the size of the list before you populate it.
  • Casting, boxing, un-boxing is evil.

Further Performance Gains:

I find move generation and ordering is extremely important. However here is the problem as I see it. If you evaluate the score of each move before you sort and run Alpha Beta, you will be able to optimize your move ordering such that you will get extremely quick Alpha Beta cutoffs. This is because you will be able to mostly try the best move first. However the time you have spent evaluating each move will be wasted. For example you might have evaluated the score on 20 moves, sort your moves try the first 2 and received a cut-off on move number 2. In theory the time you have spent on the other 18 moves was wasted.

On the other hand if you do a lighter and much faster evaluation say just captures, your sort will not be that good and you will have to search more nodes (up to 60% more). On the other hand you would not do a heavy evaluation on every possible move. As a whole this approach is usually faster.

Finding this perfect balance between having enough information for a good sort and not doing extra work on moves you will not use, will allow you to find huge gains in your search algorithm. Furthermore if you choose the poorer sort approach you will want to first to a shallower search say to ply 3, sort your move before you go into the deeper search (this is often called Iterative Deepening). This will significantly improve your sort and allow you to search much fewer moves.

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