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Stockfish - Chess Board Representation [C++]

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Table of contents
  1. Context
  2. Problem
  3. Overview
  4. Implementation details
    1. Declaration
    2. Putting a piece
    3. Making a move
  5. Testing
  6. Related
  7. References
  8. Copyright notice


Stockfish is one of the most famous and most powerful chess engines. Stockfish is consistently ranked first or near the top of most chess-engine rating lists and is the strongest CPU chess engine in the world.

The reader is expected to know the rules of chess.


A chess engine needs to represent the chess board. Board representation is fundamental to all aspects of a chess program including move generation, the evaluation function, and making and unmaking moves (i.e. search) as well as maintaining the state of the game during play.

In this article we only focus on the representation, leaving aside other aspects of the engine such as evaluation, search, etc.


Stockfish has the Position class representing a chess position. It makes use of various clever, while standard, data structures and techniques, such as BitBoards.

Some terms necessary to understand the code:

  • Bitboard (Chess Programming, Wikipedia) - bit array data structure, where each bit corresponds to a game board space. This allows parallel bitwise operations to set or query the game state, or determine moves or plays in the game. It’s often abbreviated as BB in the code.
  • Ply - one turn taken by one side.
  • 50 move rule - states that a player can claim a draw if no capture has been made and no pawn has been moved in the last fifty moves.
  • Threefold repetition - states that a player may claim a draw if the same position occurs three times.
  • FEN - Forsyth–Edwards Notation (FEN) is a standard notation for describing a particular board position of a chess game.
  • Pseudo-legal move - is legal in the sense that it is consistent with the current board representation it is assigned to, but may still be illegal if they leave the own king in check.

More techniques (you should know what they are, but it’s not at all necessary to understand how they work to understand this article):

  • Piece-Square Tables - a simple way to assign values to specific pieces on specific squares. A table is created for each piece of each color, and values assigned to each square.
  • NNUE (ƎUИИ Efficiently Updatable Neural Networks) - a Neural Network architecture intended to replace the evaluation of Shogi, chess and other board game playing alpha-beta searchers running on a CPU.
  • Zobrist Hashing - a technique to transform a board position of arbitrary size into a number of a set length, with an equal distribution over all possible numbers.

Implementation details


There are, among other, methods to:

convert the position to or from FEN

Position& set(const std::string& fenStr, bool isChess960, StateInfo* si, Thread* th);
Position& set(const std::string& code, Color c, StateInfo* si);
std::string fen() const;

get pieces (as a BitBoard) by color and/or piece type

Bitboard pieces(PieceType pt) const;
Bitboard pieces(PieceType pt1, PieceType pt2) const;
Bitboard pieces(Color c) const;
Bitboard pieces(Color c, PieceType pt) const;
Bitboard pieces(Color c, PieceType pt1, PieceType pt2) const;

get piece by square

Piece piece_on(Square s) const;

get en passant square

Square ep_square() const;

check castling rights

CastlingRights castling_rights(Color c) const;
bool can_castle(CastlingRights cr) const;
bool castling_impeded(CastlingRights cr) const;
Square castling_rook_square(CastlingRights cr) const;

check for checks

// Checking
Bitboard checkers() const;
Bitboard blockers_for_king(Color c) const;
Bitboard check_squares(PieceType pt) const;
Bitboard pinners(Color c) const;

check for attacks

Bitboard attackers_to(Square s) const;
Bitboard attackers_to(Square s, Bitboard occupied) const;
Bitboard slider_blockers(Bitboard sliders, Square s, Bitboard& pinners) const;

check properties of moves

bool legal(Move m) const;
bool pseudo_legal(const Move m) const;
bool capture(Move m) const;
bool capture_or_promotion(Move m) const;
bool gives_check(Move m) const;
Piece moved_piece(Move m) const;
Piece captured_piece() const;

do and undo moves

void do_move(Move m, StateInfo& newSt);
void do_move(Move m, StateInfo& newSt, bool givesCheck);
void undo_move(Move m);
void do_null_move(StateInfo& newSt);
void undo_null_move();

put and remove pieces

void put_piece(Piece pc, Square s);
void remove_piece(Square s);

Let’s look at some of these methods.

Putting a piece

inline void Position::put_piece(Piece pc, Square s) {

  board[s] = pc;
  byTypeBB[ALL_PIECES] |= byTypeBB[type_of(pc)] |= s;
  byColorBB[color_of(pc)] |= s;
  pieceCount[make_piece(color_of(pc), ALL_PIECES)]++;
  psq += PSQT::psq[pc][s];

Variables explained:

  • board - array indexed by square numbers; values are pieces
  • byTypeBB - array indexed by piece type (knight, bishop, etc.); values are bitboards
  • byColorBB - array indexed by color; values are bitboards
  • psq - piece-square score

Note the special type ALL_PIECES used by byTypeBB and pieceCount.

Making a move

Overall structure (some parts omitted):

  • Check preconditions.
  • Initialize new StateInfo - a structure that stores information needed to restore a Position object to its previous state when we retract a move.
  • Increment move counters.
  • Determine what piece is moving and what piece is being captured.
  • If it’s castling - do castle.
  • If it’s a capture:
    • Update pieces on the board.
    • Reset the 50-move counter.
  • Update the en passant square.
  • Update castling rights.
  • If it’s a pawn move:
    • Update en-passant square.
    • If it’s a promotion:
      • Remove the pawn.
      • Add the new piece.
    • Reset the 50-move counter.
  • Set the captured piece.
  • Calculate checkers.
  • Change the side to move.
  • Calculate the repetition info.
/// Position::do_move() makes a move, and saves all information necessary
/// to a StateInfo object. The move is assumed to be legal. Pseudo-legal
/// moves should be filtered out before this function is called.

void Position::do_move(Move m, StateInfo& newSt, bool givesCheck) {

  assert(&newSt != st);

  thisThread->nodes.fetch_add(1, std::memory_order_relaxed);
  Key k = st->key ^ Zobrist::side;

  // Copy some fields of the old state to our new StateInfo object except the
  // ones which are going to be recalculated from scratch anyway and then switch
  // our state pointer to point to the new (ready to be updated) state.
  std::memcpy(&newSt, st, offsetof(StateInfo, key));
  newSt.previous = st;
  st = &newSt;

  // Increment ply counters. In particular, rule50 will be reset to zero later on
  // in case of a capture or a pawn move.

  // Used by NNUE
  st->accumulator.computed[WHITE] = false;
  st->accumulator.computed[BLACK] = false;
  auto& dp = st->dirtyPiece;
  dp.dirty_num = 1;

  Color us = sideToMove;
  Color them = ~us;
  Square from = from_sq(m);
  Square to = to_sq(m);
  Piece pc = piece_on(from);
  Piece captured = type_of(m) == EN_PASSANT ? make_piece(them, PAWN) : piece_on(to);

  assert(color_of(pc) == us);
  assert(captured == NO_PIECE || color_of(captured) == (type_of(m) != CASTLING ? them : us));
  assert(type_of(captured) != KING);

  if (type_of(m) == CASTLING)
      assert(pc == make_piece(us, KING));
      assert(captured == make_piece(us, ROOK));

      Square rfrom, rto;
      do_castling<true>(us, from, to, rfrom, rto);

      k ^= Zobrist::psq[captured][rfrom] ^ Zobrist::psq[captured][rto];
      captured = NO_PIECE;

  if (captured)
      Square capsq = to;

      // If the captured piece is a pawn, update pawn hash key, otherwise
      // update non-pawn material.
      if (type_of(captured) == PAWN)
          if (type_of(m) == EN_PASSANT)
              capsq -= pawn_push(us);

              assert(pc == make_piece(us, PAWN));
              assert(to == st->epSquare);
              assert(relative_rank(us, to) == RANK_6);
              assert(piece_on(to) == NO_PIECE);
              assert(piece_on(capsq) == make_piece(them, PAWN));

          st->pawnKey ^= Zobrist::psq[captured][capsq];
          st->nonPawnMaterial[them] -= PieceValue[MG][captured];

      if (Eval::useNNUE)
          dp.dirty_num = 2;  // 1 piece moved, 1 piece captured
          dp.piece[1] = captured;
          dp.from[1] = capsq;
[1] = SQ_NONE;

      // Update board and piece lists

      if (type_of(m) == EN_PASSANT)
          board[capsq] = NO_PIECE;

      // Update material hash key and prefetch access to materialTable
      k ^= Zobrist::psq[captured][capsq];
      st->materialKey ^= Zobrist::psq[captured][pieceCount[captured]];

      // Reset rule 50 counter
      st->rule50 = 0;

  // Update hash key
  k ^= Zobrist::psq[pc][from] ^ Zobrist::psq[pc][to];

  // Reset en passant square
  if (st->epSquare != SQ_NONE)
      k ^= Zobrist::enpassant[file_of(st->epSquare)];
      st->epSquare = SQ_NONE;

  // Update castling rights if needed
  if (st->castlingRights && (castlingRightsMask[from] | castlingRightsMask[to]))
      k ^= Zobrist::castling[st->castlingRights];
      st->castlingRights &= ~(castlingRightsMask[from] | castlingRightsMask[to]);
      k ^= Zobrist::castling[st->castlingRights];

  // Move the piece. The tricky Chess960 castling is handled earlier
  if (type_of(m) != CASTLING)
      if (Eval::useNNUE)
          dp.piece[0] = pc;
          dp.from[0] = from;
[0] = to;

      move_piece(from, to);

  // If the moving piece is a pawn do some special extra work
  if (type_of(pc) == PAWN)
      // Set en passant square if the moved pawn can be captured
      if (   (int(to) ^ int(from)) == 16
          && (pawn_attacks_bb(us, to - pawn_push(us)) & pieces(them, PAWN)))
          st->epSquare = to - pawn_push(us);
          k ^= Zobrist::enpassant[file_of(st->epSquare)];

      else if (type_of(m) == PROMOTION)
          Piece promotion = make_piece(us, promotion_type(m));

          assert(relative_rank(us, to) == RANK_8);
          assert(type_of(promotion) >= KNIGHT && type_of(promotion) <= QUEEN);

          put_piece(promotion, to);

          if (Eval::useNNUE)
              // Promoting pawn to SQ_NONE, promoted piece from SQ_NONE
    [0] = SQ_NONE;
              dp.piece[dp.dirty_num] = promotion;
              dp.from[dp.dirty_num] = SQ_NONE;
    [dp.dirty_num] = to;

          // Update hash keys
          k ^= Zobrist::psq[pc][to] ^ Zobrist::psq[promotion][to];
          st->pawnKey ^= Zobrist::psq[pc][to];
          st->materialKey ^=  Zobrist::psq[promotion][pieceCount[promotion]-1]
                            ^ Zobrist::psq[pc][pieceCount[pc]];

          // Update material
          st->nonPawnMaterial[us] += PieceValue[MG][promotion];

      // Update pawn hash key
      st->pawnKey ^= Zobrist::psq[pc][from] ^ Zobrist::psq[pc][to];

      // Reset rule 50 draw counter
      st->rule50 = 0;

  // Set capture piece
  st->capturedPiece = captured;

  // Update the key with the final value
  st->key = k;

  // Calculate checkers bitboard (if move gives check)
  st->checkersBB = givesCheck ? attackers_to(square<KING>(them)) & pieces(us) : 0;

  sideToMove = ~sideToMove;

  // Update king attacks used for fast check detection

  // Calculate the repetition info. It is the ply distance from the previous
  // occurrence of the same position, negative in the 3-fold case, or zero
  // if the position was not repeated.
  st->repetition = 0;
  int end = std::min(st->rule50, st->pliesFromNull);
  if (end >= 4)
      StateInfo* stp = st->previous->previous;
      for (int i = 4; i <= end; i += 2)
          stp = stp->previous->previous;
          if (stp->key == st->key)
              st->repetition = stp->repetition ? -i : i;


Let’s explain less obvious parts of this method.

thisThread->nodes.fetch_add(1, std::memory_order_relaxed);

It increments the atomic counter of nodes searched in this thread, defined here.

Key k = st->key ^ Zobrist::side;

This and other Zobrist operations relate to hashing the position with Zobrist Hash.

if (   (int(to) ^ int(from)) == 16`

It means that from is two rows away from to. A lot of similar bit arithmetics can be found throughout the codebase.


Stockfish is tested with Fishtest, a distributed task queue for testing chess engines.


Stockfish is licensed under the GNU General Public License v3.0.

Copyright (C) 2007 Free Software Foundation, Inc.