To give some context, I just started playing OTB and am only 1225 USCF. My online chess rating isn't much stronger though, it's about 1650 with standard time controls.

Chess engines are a great tool, but can they be detrimental to the growth of lower-rated players? Sure, it's true that lower-rated players can use engines to spot an overlooked tactic, or to find a not-so-obvious blunder, but what about the subtle moves that chess engines suggest in positional games?

After using Stockfish to analyze a few of my games, I noticed that from time-to-time the engine would suggest moves that didn't make much sense to me. It's hard to give a concrete example from off the top of my head, but I think a lot of lower-rated players can relate. Engines are obviously very strong and it's easy for any player to follow along with an engine's analysis, observe it's suggestions, and think, "oh yeah, I can implement that in my own games." But then when it comes down to crunch time, the player didn't really learn anything at all, and just deceived themselves into thinking they learned something from the engine.

What do you think? Are engines great learning tools for lower-rated players, or does it require a higher level of chess knowledge to truly take advantage of an engine's power?

  • 2
    OTB 1250 and online 1650 is suspicious. Either your OTB is not justified or you don't play fair at online game or other reasons. I think engine can help 1650 players to understand their mistakes in critical moments, but maybe more than 50% of their games decided by blunders,which makes it useless to use engine. But 1250 player just blunders somewhere in the game, really no point to use engine to find the blunder. Instead, at that range player should practice to prevent blunders. Engine IMO even helps to understand some tactical and strategical plans, but maybe not useful for you right now. Jul 15, 2015 at 3:59
  • @SaeedAmiri there is no firm relationship between ratings from different player pools or when using different systems. They cannot be compared directly.
    – Tony Ennis
    Jul 15, 2015 at 15:31
  • " But 1250 player just blunders somewhere in the game, really no point to use engine to find the blunder" - not true. This is exactly what a chess engine is for. After the game you will see all your missed tactics and allowed tactics.
    – limits
    Jul 15, 2015 at 18:12
  • @TonyEnnis, I didn't talk about different pools. OP wrote standard rating, and I think standard rating in reasonable chess site should be reasonably comparable with OTB rating (+-100 not +-400!). Jul 16, 2015 at 17:24

9 Answers 9


I don't think they are detrimental if they are used properly.

  1. There is nothing you're going to learn from Stockfish that's going to make an immediate difference. By studying the analysis you'll start to learn, however.

  2. Stockfish plays at GM strength. It's going to suggest moves you'll never find until you're a 2200+ player. Unfortunately I am unaware of a chess engine that plays like a sensible USCF 1650, which is what you need.

  3. Stockfish will show you where you could have made better moves. Something that is important to note is that winning moves are there, if you are clever enough to find them. Until the game is hopeless, Stockfish can beat a USCF 1250 regardless of which side of the board it is playing. The moves are there.

Now, while I am a fan of engines, if you want to improve, get an instructor. You don't need a GM - an "A" or "B" player will do. Also, after playing with "A" and "B" players, ask them to help you analyze the game. This gives you reasons, not just answers. And further it will help you learn how to analyze. This is what you'll miss if you rely upon the engine too much - it will give you the answers without helping you understand the answers.


As a mid-1500's rated player, I find tactics trainers (chess problems) more rewarding that playing against engines. I've played at a variety of time controls -- usually with a time bonus for the human -- but every game seems to be a war of attrition: tight positional play fighting for tiny advantages. Then I play other humans who overlook a tactic, or try something risky that doesn't pan out, or any number of "human errors". It's a different kind of game, and one that I find a lot more fun.

I try to play slow games (G/30 or longer) against people, then use engines to analyze them. When a better move is uncovered, it becomes a game of introspection: "Why didn't I choose THAT move? Did I see it? Did I calculate it properly? Was I so set on another plan that I wasn't willing to change?"

A major hurdle I faced was a natural aversion to playing on-line: there are thousands of players on-line at any given time, and the mainstream servers (ICCS, FICS, PlayChess, etc.) are very good at matching skill levels. It may not be as personal as OTB, but (hopefully) you're still playing another human. I still don't play rated games on-line, but for practice purposes its hard to beat.


I disagree with anyone saying engines can't help. Not only can they give you the right answer in any situation but they can show you why your answer was wrong. It's like having the world's strongest player sitting right next to you.

I learned chess by playing against Chessmaster. Because of the way it plays I feel I'm better in the endgame than virtually anyone I play and I feel I'm pretty accurate tactically because engines hold you to that standard. Playing against people makes a person sloppy and prone to play for traps. Playing against both people and engines helps you to improve at the fastest rate.


One use that hasn't been mentioned yet and which I happen to find very helpful is to use the engine for endgame drills. You can set up whatever endgame position strikes your fancy and play it out to see if you can really win those theoretical wins and draw those theoretical draws. If you make a mistake, you can be pretty sure that the engine will notice!

One caveat though is that when the engine can't win, it sometimes makes weird and "inhuman" moves. For example, when I defend a theoretical draw, I've seen the engine blithely give up its pawn or piece leading to an immediate draw by insufficient material. A human might want to keep trying, hoping for an error (depending on the complexity of the ending and the opponent's level), whereas the engine seems to think "all moves evaluate as zero; fuggedaboutit!". Or, in a lost position, the engine might take its king for a run without even trying to defend. Maybe it calculates that it then faces a mate in 12 instead of a mate in 10...


I don't think computer programs are detrimental as long as you realize they are relying mainly on tactics. I don't think the on-line computer programs are skilled at subtle moves. But they can be helpful specifically for tactics training for lower rated players, helping you to become adept at seeing tactical moves. I don't think that playing them at the higher levels is of as much benefit as using lower levels though since they don't make any mistakes in the former whereas in the latter you can get a more human-like game with the possibility of outplaying the program on occasion. At least that's been my experience.


Being a 1500 player myself, I use chess engines to point out tactical shots I missed in my games, so I know what tactics I should be concentrating on. I also like to work on openings with them, in which case I may restart the game in 5 or 10 moves. They have often helped me see holes in my (rather limited) opening knowledge. I don't worry about moves where the evaluation changes only a little bit. I do find it useful for helping me develop a sense of danger, but I don't play many games out because I get depressed losing all the time.


I think chess engines are great from learning from at all levels. I know that I have learnt much from them. It is the case that positional games from the top grandmasters can be baffling and for that a chess engine may not be much use and an explanation from a stronger player may be a quicker way to understand. Nevertheless chess engines are great for learning in general.


I don't think a beginner player gets much out of using chess engines. As you note, while a chess engine will give you the best move (or at least something very good), it will not tell you why this is the best move. So unless you have the exact same position on the board (which rarely happens), you will not have learned anything.

Even if you analyze your own games with an engine and it shows you blunders or missed tactics, it is still the task of a human to understand and categorize the tactics (was it a double attack, zwischenzug, just a hanging piece, or...?). In the end you need to store these patterns in your mind. For this I find training tactics puzzles much more efficient. And on some sites, such as chesstempo it would also show you the tactical motifs.

In quiet positions the engine suggestions are often not easy to understand even for GM and also engines by design are not really good at slow maneuvering. Don't worry if you don't understand what they suggest in this case.

For a beginner you should focus on not blundering pieces in one move, avoiding simple tactics (study tactics puzzles) and learn simple strategy. The best way for the latter is to have a stronger player analyze your games and tell you where you went wrong. In addition you can make use of books or watch/read annotations of games.


Chess engines are, in my opinion, not suitable for novice players to use for the purpose of learning chess. And the reason for my opinion is very simple: chess engines are not designed to teach chess! If that doesn't suffice as an answer, I will try to explain my views in a more detailed manner below.

Chess engines are designed to be able to evaluate any given position as accurately as possible, and using these evaluations to try and come up with an optimal sequence of moves for both sides should the game progress.

In order to evaluate positions, chess engines assign positions with a numerical value based on things such as material, king safety, etc. But the engine will never explain what positional factors were the most important ones leading to a given score of a position. This is the key as to why any chess player should use engines with caution, and treat the engine with some level of scepticism.

The chess engines are very good at what they are supposed to do; in fact, they are so good at evaluating most positions nowadays that the leading chess engines cannot be beaten by humans. This makes it very difficult to reject the computer's evaluation even if one is not sure why the computer engine evaluates a position in a seemingly strange way, or why it favours a strange-looking high-risk continuation when there are much simpler ways of bringing a game to its logical conclusion.

Here is a typical mistake people tend to make in the type of scenario described above: they just trust the computer, no questions asked, and move on. This way these players will not only learn nothing of substance, but there is an added risk of the players thinking that they actually gained some insight even though they didn't understand a thing!

That last part, about people thinking that they learned something when in fact they didn't, is not an exaggeration. This happens to people all the time in many different setting, and it has to do with how people learn in general.

In academia, the terms "Deep learning" and "Surface learning" are used to describe two very different learning approaches used by students to pass courses:

  • Surface learning has to do with trying to pass a course by learning the presented information with minimal effort. This often means that the student will try to memorize facts without a hint of reflection.

  • Deep learning has to do with considering the course contents important in some way, which drives the student to make a real effort to learn and understand the contents of a course.

For a more detailed (and in my opinion better) description of these terms, see the first few paragraphs of the following article: Facilitation of Critical Thinking and Deep Cognitive Processing by Structured Discussion Board Activities.

Since surface learning emphasizes on learning facts and definition, but not on actually understanding why something is true or not, it can often leave students with a severely limited ability to apply the facts learned.

In the context of learning chess, surface learning would be regarded as memorizing specific opening variations by heart, or learning positional guidelines such as "a knight on the rim is dim" without concerning oneself with the reasons behind the variations and guidelines. I think that most people would agree that this approach to learning chess would not be very successful in the long run.

Chess is a game heavily dependent on the player's ability to calculate and evaluate positions on-the-fly. There are simply too many positions to memorize, and if your opponent sidesteps any variations you may have memorized you are on your own for the rest of the game. You need to be able to judge when to side with common guidelines and when to deviate from them. And learning to play chess well is connected with cultivating these abilities by trying to understand the moves in certain variations, and why certain guidelines are formulated as they are. This is clearly more in line with the deep learning approach than the surface learning approach.

Tying this back to chess engines: using chess engines to learn chess is dangerous, since it can very easily turn into the player using surface learning approaches to learn chess. The computer only gives a numerical evaluation and optimal variations, which can easily trap the player into thinking something along the lines of "Huh! The computer says that I was winning here, if I just played the given computer line. Instead, after my move, I was losing, if my opponent just had played the given computer line. I'll remember that for next time!" without reflecting much further. The player may have learned something, but will this new knowledge help the player improve their game in any meaningful way?

With all this being said, I still think that chess engines can be used to learn chess. But it requires that the player is careful, and ready to put in a lot of effort. The player should strive to go for a mindset along the lines of "Oh I see Stockfish, you think this position is _______ huh? You silly goose, I'm going to show you just how wrong you are!" as soon as you're uncertain why the computer evaluates a position the way it does. This way you can try to force the engine to explain itself in some sense, instead of just listening to it blindly. But this is very difficult and time-consuming for a novice player to do, and I believe learning about tactics, making plans etc. is more effective for players relatively new to the game wishing to improve.

  • 1
    I still stand by opinion outlined in this answer, and I have a difficult time to see exactly the reason for downvoting it. The only potential problem I can see with it is the length, so if someone could give me some insight into why someone would downvote this answer I would appreciate it greatly.
    – Scounged
    Jan 2, 2020 at 5:01
  • Good answer. Engines are mostly detrimental for modern online players. They blindly believe in them and worship just like some cheat sheet. That said, players can use them beneficially: by playing against them long games but the latter never happens. Point being you don't really need an engine to analyze your online blitz or bullet even if it shows errors instantly. A very strong engine is certainly overkill in such cases. It was also a good point about amateurs needing to focus on tactics, making plans, etc. rather than worshiping and following the engine blindly. Good answer.
    – user32756
    Jul 2, 2022 at 3:02

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