Pawn Captures

The next moves we need to consider for pawns are captures. Now we all know that pawns can only capture diagonally. In fact, they can only move diagonally if they are able to catch an enemy piece. How can we model this with a bitboard?

The white pawns bitboard looks like this. We’ll draw it laid out as a board for now.

In order to check for valid captures we need to move the pawns forwards diagonally in both directions. This is easy to achieve with bitboards again using the shift operator. Instead of shifting by 8 to move directly forwards we will shift by 7 to capture to the right and 9 to capture to the left.

But there’s a problem with this. What happens to the pawn on the A file when we capture to the left using the shift? It gets moved onto the 4th rank!

There is an easy solution to this. It is never valid for an A file pawn to capture to the left so we can just mask these out before performing the shift.

Likewise we need to the same for the capture to the right, masking out the H file pawns.

So now we’ve generated bitboards for the potential moves we need to check which ones are valid. To do this we need to mask out any move that doesn’t result in our pawn taking an opposing piece. Where do we find a bitboard of opposing pieces? We have to store it in our BOARD structure.

Like with the pawns, we store two bitboards – one for each side. These need to be updated along with pieces, all and pawns for every move on the board to keep them all in synch.

Now we simply need to bitwise ‘and’ the opposing side with our potential captures to see which ones actually result in a capture:

What is left is bitboards for capture_left and capture_right containing bits set only where a diagonal move would capture an enemy piece.

Let’s add this to our move generation function.

What is a bitboard?

Well, I don’t know where that year went. I didn’t mean to leave it so long between the last post and this one but life happens! I’ll try not to leave it so long this time…

So now we have our implementation of move generation using an 0x88 board. It works but we’ve made no attempt to optimise it for speed. Now we have two choices:

  • Analyse the performance of the 0x88 board move generation and attempt to optimise it making it as fast as possible
  • Reimplement the move generation using a ‘bitboard’ to compare the relative speed.

Ideally we would perform both of the above so we can compare an optimised 0x88 board against an optimised bitboard but as well as looking at performance I’m interested in looking at the complexity of implementing a bitboard based move generator as well as performing the optimisation. So, we’re going to throw away the current 0x88 board code we’ve looked at and see how to write it all over again using a bitboard.

Now, I’ve read a number of descriptions of what a bitboard is and how they can be implemented along with some ideas on optimisation. I’ve deliberately steered away from looking at anyone else’s implementation though because I want to see what I can come up with on my own.

If you take the name “bitboard” literally then what have you got? An entire chess board state stored as single bits in an array? Well, that won’t work will it. If you have one bit per square then how do you know what piece is in each square? How do you know what side it is? How do you know if castling or en-passant is available? No, the idea of a bitboard is (at least as far as I’m thinking) that you use bit arrays for storing information that can be easily optimised using bit operations.

Consider the white pawns in their opening position. All eight of them on the second rank. When we want to work out the valid moves from the opening position we know the pawns can all move forward one or two places. How do we do this with an 0x88 board?

Well, here’s a naiive implementation:

The implementation literally iterates through every cell on the board looking for white pawns then stores potential moves for each pawn. OK, there are very simple ways to make this more efficient. In fact, our previous code was more efficient than this. However it will still end up in a loop for each pawn.

Now let’s look at an implementation using a bitboard.

Hmm… There are a few things to explain here. The first is the representation of the bitboard itself. The first line above defines a BITBOARD as a uint64_t. Basically, the entire board representation is stored in a 64 bit number; 64 bits for 64 cells in a chess board.

As I said previously though you cannot store then entire state of a chess board in a single bitboard; 1-bit per cell is not enough to store all the information we need. So, we’ve got a function that returns a bitboard representation of all the white pawns on the board. Where a white pawn stands a bit is set. Where a cell is empty or contains a piece that is not a white pawn the bit is clear. The board is arranged as following in the 64-bit number:

MSB is the most significant bit, LSB is the least significant bit. You can see all the bits on rank 2 are set indicating where the white pawns live. If we rearrange the above putting each block of 8 bits on top of each other then we get this:

You can see how the above matches the cells on a chessboard.

So how does this help us? Looking again at the valid moves for these pawns starting from the opening position then we know the pawns can all move forward one or two places. We need to shift all the 1’s in the board above up by one or two rows. How do we do that with a bitwise operation? We shift the bits by the number of cells in a row multiplied by the number of rows; 8 * 1 or 8 * 2.

So looking at the flat representation the shift does the following:

So it’s easy to see that shifting the board left by 8 bits moves all the pieces on the board up by a row. This is a very efficient way to generate this type of move and removes the need to iterate over the cells of the board for each piece, as long as the get_white_pawns() function does not need to perform the iteration.

That brings us onto the representation of the board itself. We’ve seen that we cannot represent the whole chess board with a single bitboard so how do we represent it efficiently? How about this?

OK, I don’t see any bitboards in there but let’s go with it. How do we implement get_white_pawns() using the above?

Oh dear. That’s just what we wanted to avoid – iterating through all the pieces in order to locate/move the white pawns. Instead of doing this, how about we store the positions of the white pawns in our BOARD structure? And while we’re at it, let’s store the black pawns too. We’ll put them in an array of 2, one for white one for black.

This means our function is simplified to this:

In fact, we can probably just lose the function altogether and just access the structure member directly.

This all looks much more efficient. However, there is one catch; We need to remember to keep the pawn bitboards consistent with the pieces array in the structure. Whenever we move a piece we need to update board.pieces[] but we also need to check if it is a white/black pawn and updated the relevant bitboard. Is this more efficient that just iterating through all the pieces in the board? We’ll see.

Move Generation: Castling

Let’s finish this off so we can get to the more interesting bitboard code and some optimisation.

The last piece of the move puzzle is castling. Here is the code.

This basically checks for availability of castling by looking at the castling_availability flags in the board structure then checks to see if the conditions are right for castling.

The conditions that are checked are:

  1. Ensure the squares that the king and rook pass through are empty
  2. Ensure that the king is not in check in any of the squares it passes through or ends up in

In order to check that the king is not in check in any of the squares we call the is_cell_range_attacked() function.

This works by making a dummy move to each of the squares being checked then generates moves for all enemy pieces to see if they attack the piece on the square being checked.

That concludes the move generation code for the 0x88 board. Next time we’ll throw together a simple perft function to check that the move generation code is working correctly and give us an idea of the performance.

Move Generation: Other Pieces

Last time we looked at the pawn moves in detail which resulted in a fair amount of code due to all the special cases required by pawn moves (en-passant, double moves, can only capture diagonally). This time we will cover the moves of all the other pieces.

With the exception of castling, none of the other pieces have any ‘special’ moves or rules so we can handle them by using an offset table. The table contains a set of values for each piece, one for each possible direction the piece can move. To move the piece in a particular direction by one step you just add the value to the current cell location.

For example, looking at the values for the rook offset table:

This is a bit more obvious if we show the values for each direction on a chess board where CELLS_PER_RANK is 16 for an 0x88 board:


So, to go up 1 rank (go North) we add 16 to the current cell. To go down 1 rank we add -16 to the current cell.

This works well for the king as we can specify the offsets for all 8 directions it can move and that fully describes the possible locations for the king. But how do we handle sliding pieces that move until they bump into another piece or the edge of the board? Simple – we just keep adding the offset for the current direction in a loop until we reach a stopping condition:

Putting this all together we can write the get_valid_moves_table() function that handles the moves for all non-pawn pieces, sliding and otherwise.

The function is called with the cell_index containing the piece to find the valid moves for, a pointer to the relevant piece offset table and a flag that specifies whether the pieces is sliding (single == FALSE) or not (single == TRUE).

Looking back at the get_valid_moves() function we can see how we have now defined the moves for all the pieces with the exception of castling which we will cover next time.


Making a Move

Now we have our board representation we need a way to make and unmake moves. As before, this is going to be a very naive implementation that is more about readability than efficiency.

We’ll start with the interface. We need two functions. One for making a move and one for undoing the last move.

So, what do we store in the move structure?

Not a lot! We just need to keep track for the cell a piece is moving from and where it is going to along with the piece a pawn that reaches the end should be promoted to. One important thing to note here is that the move/unmove code assumes that all moves are valid; it performs no validity checking whatsoever.

So let’s start to implement the move function. The most obvious thing we have to do is to move the piece. Recall from the last post that we created a global variable holding the board state – the move function will directly update this state.

If only it was that simple! We have a number of other things to consider when moving pieces:

  • Capturing en-passant
  • Castling
  • Promotion

Let’s deal with these in order.


The move function needs to perform three functions related to en-passant:

  1. For any other move the current en-passant cell needs to be cleared.
  2. If a pawn is advanced two places then the board structure needs to be updated to keep track of the en-passant cell
  3. If a pawn moves to the current en-passant cell then the enemy pawn needs to be removed from it’s cell

Here are 1 and 2.

And 3.


Castling is another special case with two functions.

  1. If the board indicates castling is available and the king is moved to a castling destination then the rook needs to also be moved
  2. Moving the king or either rook removes castling ability

This gets a bit messy (and could easily be improved – remember this is not the final code…)

Yuck! Magic numbers. I’ll fix them later. This is a lot of code but it’s fairly straightforward. If the king is being moved from it’s home position to a castling location then move the rook as well. We don’t need to check for castling availability because we assume that the move being passed to us is valid.

Removing castling availability is straightforward.

More magic numbers… We don’t need to check whether the piece we are moving is the king or a rook as if it is not then the castling availability will have already been removed so we will not be changing any state.

Pawn Promotion

Finally we have pawn promotion. This one is easy.

That completes the move function. So how do we undo a move? In the interests of keeping this simple we are going to add a new field to the CHESS_MOVE structure.

We’ve added the ‘board’ member. Before we make a move we will copy the entire board state into this member then we can just copy it back when we undo the move. So, at the start of the move function we add this:

This leaves us with the simple task of implementing the unmove function:

Well, that’s it for this instalment. Next we’ll start taking a look at the code required to generate all the legal moves from a starting position.

0x88 Board

In this post we’ll start looking at my reference chess board implementation. Remember, I want to keep this simple and maybe not spend too much time thinking about optimisation or even optimisable code. This is just a learning experience that will ease the future development of a much more efficient version.

The simplest implementation would seem to be just to define a structure that describes the contents of a square (I call them ‘cells’ in my code) and then define an array of 8×8 of these or simply:

These could be arrange any way you please but it makes sense that cells[0] is A1, cells [1] is A2, cells[8] is B1, etc.

However, a slightly larger, more complicated board array actually makes a lot of the chess rules engine code much easier. Therefore for this implementation I’m going to be using the common 0x88 board format. Much has been written about this format so I’m not going to duplicate it in my words here but basically the board is laid out as in the diagram below:


What you’ll notices is that the indices for the cells follow a simple pattern; all indices for a particular file share the same low nibble and all indices for a particular rank share the same high nibble. Further, the top bit of each nibble is clear for all valid cells so we can easily check whether an index is valid using the following C code:

So now we can declare some structures that represent the data in a cell and create the board array.


Now we have our board structure we can start writing some functions.

Starting with a simple one just to clear all pieces from the board:

And here’s a useful function for debugging that prints an ASCII representation of the board:

Notice that the function above uses a macro ‘CELL_INDEX’ to convert from file and rank to an index. I’ve generated a number of useful macros like this:

And finally for now, a very scrappy, partial implementation of a FEN string parser just so I’m able to populate the board.

Putting all this together with a simple main() function containing the following code results in an 0x88 board that can be printed to the screen.


The Plan

I think we’re ready to start putting some chess into the Ircos project :) .  I have a plan…

I’m going to try to make this chess engine project an exercise of optimisation. I’m going to try not to rush into getting a fully working chess engine as soon as possible and instead I’m going to concentrate on each stage trying to make it as fast as possible. With that said, I’m going to start with the rules of chess and the chess board implementation.

As I’ve never written a chess engine before, I can assume that I’m going to make design mistakes :) . Therefore I’m going to write a reference chess board implementation first of all which will serve a few purposes:

  1. I can make all the mistakes in this implementation and learn how and how not to write a board implementation
  2. I can throw-away the code at the end and use my newly acquired knowledge to write a better, more efficient version
  3. I can use the reference implementation to verify the validity of any subsequent (likely more complicated) board implementation
  4. The reference implementation can be used as a benchmark to show how well the optimisation is progressing

So, for the reference implementation I want to keep it as simple as possible so it can be developed quickly and will minimise the chance of bugs creeping in.

In the next instalment we will take a look at this reference implementation.

Ircos – What’s in a name

I thought long and hard about what to call my chess engine. “Chess Engine” just didn’t seem right :)

I’m writing this engine just for the fun of it. You could say I’m writing just “because” I want to. My youngest daughter is 3 and instead of saying “because”, she says “er-cos” so I thought this would be a fitting name after jiggling the spelling a bit.

Well, there you have it. From now on and forever more my little engine will be known as ‘Ircos’!