Killer move heuristic

(Implemented since Rustic Alpha 3.)

Killer moves are another big time saver when searching. In some positions, they can have an effect as big as ordering on the transposition table move. Because killer moves are much easier to implement than a transposition table, I would advise to implement them before implementing the TT, instead of after, as I did in Rustic. (I just wanted the TT really badly because of its huge Elo-boost, and I felt particularly greedy at the time 😎)


First let's take a look at what a killer move even is.

A "killer move" is a quiet move that does not capture anything, but brings a large advantage for the side making that move. The move is so named because it is so strong that the opponent must react to it, and thus it "kills" lots of moves the opponent may have. Let's consider a simple position in which nothing much is happening, but white is a bit better. White is to move, but obviously, black is also thinking.

Assume black is thinking to improve the position of his knight: "My knight is on the rim. I remember from my lessons: a knight on the rim is dim. When it is my move again, I'm going to play it to f6, and then to d5. It will be in the middle of the board, where it is much more active."

However, it is white to move, and he makes the unassuming move f3-f4. If black fails to consider the change in position after the deceptively simple pawn move and blindly goes ahead with his plan of Nh5-f6, white will respond with:


This Bishop move, which came available after f3-f4, attacks both the rook and the queen. This is the "killer move", because it "kills" all the black moves that do not take this threat into account. After f3-f4, this move is available after several moves black may play, such as Nh5-f6, or g7-g6, or a6-a5.

This is obviously a very simple position: most moves black could play are obviously not that great. The point is still the same though: the move Bg2-c6! is a good move after a variety of black moves. This can be defined as follows:

A "killer move" is a quiet, non-capturing move which can cause a beta-cutoff in different branches of the tree at the same ply.

This may not be very intuitive. A diagram will probably help to clarify. See the following diagram below:

Let's assume the search finds the move f3-f4 for white at ply 5 deep, and it plays it on the board. The search will then iterate through moves for black at ply 6, and Nh5-f6 will be among them. Next it's white's turn again, at ply 7, and the search finds the move Bg2-c6! with big material gain.

Because of this big material gain, Nh5-f6 can't be played (it is "killed"), because it doesn't take this threat into account.

The search now assumes: "Black just played Ng5-f6 at ply 6. White's move Bg2-c6 at ply 7 is a great move. Maybe this is also good after some other moves black may play at ply 6? Let's keep this in mind. We (white) try this move first, each time it's my move at ply 7!"

This assumption is correct: the move is a good response against at least two other black moves, so it "kills" them too. In those two branches, the killer move will turn out so strong, that searching deeper is useless, because if black should allow this move without taking care of the threat, black's going to lose big time. This is called a beta cutoff.

(This is the reason why the Bg2-c6 doesn't work against Qd7-e8. After this move, black can escape from the double attack. He has thus taken care of the threat, and the killer move doesn't work. Try to find out later, how black escapes! If you can't see the solution, look at the bottom of this page.)

This is exactly the killer move heuristic does: it saves the Bg2-c6 move in a "killer move slot", so the search can try it first before other moves, in similar positions at the same ply (in this case, at ply 7 for white). Most engines have two slots. (See the sidenote at the bottom for the reason why.) When ordering the move list, the killer moves get a very high score so they are just below the MVV-LVA captures. If the captures turn out to be no good, the killer moves are the first to be tried, which greatly speeds up the search.


Now that we know what a killer move is, let's take a look at the implementation.

Rustic has an instance of a struct called SearchInfo, which contains all the information about the currently running search. The killer move slots are part of this struct:

type KillerMoves = [[ShortMove; MAX_DEPTH as usize]; MAX_KILLER_MOVES];

pub struct SearchInfo {
    some stuff here...

    pub killer_moves: KillerMoves,

    and so on...

The KillerMoves type is an array, indexed by the number of killer moves (MAX_KILLER_MOVES is 2), and the maximum depth the search can reach in ply (MAX_PLY, which is set at 125 for Alpha 3). This gives us two killer moves at each depth, which can be stored and retrieved by:

let ply = 7;
let k1 = killer_moves[0][ply];
let k2 = killer_moves[1][ply];

The above code retrieves the first and second killer moves for ply 7. See the sidenote at the bottom of this page why we keep two killer moves, instead of one or three or even more.

The killer move is saved like this:

pub fn store_killer_move(current_move: Move, refs: &mut SearchRefs) {
    let ply = refs.search_info.ply as usize;
    let first_killer = refs.search_info.killer_moves[0][ply];

    // First killer must not be the same as the move being stored.
    if first_killer.get_move() != current_move.get_move() {
        // Shift all the moves one index upward...
        for i in (1..MAX_KILLER_MOVES).rev() {
            let n = i as usize;
            let previous = refs.search_info.killer_moves[n - 1][ply];
            refs.search_info.killer_moves[n][ply] = previous;

        // and add the new killer move in the first spot.
        refs.search_info.killer_moves[0][ply] = current_move.to_short_move();

The function receives the current_move from the alpha-beta search, and the "refs" pointer to the struct that stores all the references to the information the search needs. A reference to the instance of SearchInfo is also in there.

We first get the ply count, and cast it to usize so we can use it to index arrays. Then we get the first killer, just as was shown before in the short code snippet. The if-statement is the part where we make sure the two killers are unique: if the first killer move and the one we are inserting are different, then both moves will always be different.

We loop through the list of killer moves (granted: it's a short loop), and we shift all of them one index upward: so the move on spot 0 is copied to spot 1, and the move on spot 1 is gone. (If we did have three killer moves, this one would go into spot 2.) Then the new killer move is inserted into spot 0 of the killer_moves array.

Ordering moves is a little bit more complicated than ordering on MVV-LVA. The score_move function needs to be extended, to take the killer moves into account. This is the score_moves function, with killer move ordering added:

const MVV_LVA_OFFSET: u32 = u32::MAX - 256;
const KILLER_VALUE: u32 = 10;

pub fn score_moves(ml: &mut MoveList, tt_move: ShortMove, refs: &SearchRefs) {
    for i in {
        let m = ml.get_mut_move(i);
        let mut value: u32 = 0;

        if m.captured() != Pieces::NONE {
            value = MVV_LVA_OFFSET + MVV_LVA[m.captured()][m.piece()] as u32;
        } else {
            let ply = refs.search_info.ply as usize;
            let mut i = 0;
            while i < MAX_KILLER_MOVES && value == 0 {
                let killer = refs.search_info.killer_moves[i][ply];
                if m.get_move() == killer.get_move() {
                    value = MVV_LVA_OFFSET - ((i as u32 + 1) * KILLER_VALUE);
                i += 1;


There are some new parts in the function. At first, we have these two new constants:

const MVV_LVA_OFFSET: u32 = u32::MAX - 256;
const KILLER_VALUE: u32 = 10;

Ordering the moves is done in this way:

  • The transposition table move comes first (to be discussed)
  • Then the captures using MVV-LVA
  • After that, the two killer moves
  • And below the killer moves are the moves sorted by the history heuristic (to be discussed)

To make this work, we use the MVV_LVA_OFFSET. This value is the maximum a 32-bit integer can hold, minus 256. So, we have 256 values available, 'above' MVV_LVA_OFFSET. Now you can see why in the MVV-LVA chapter, I said that I like to keep values as low as possible. As the highest value in the MVV-LVA table is 55, it will fit comfortably in the 256 values which are available above MVV_LVA_OFFSET.

First, we iterate through the move list, so we can order all the moves. This is the first for-loop:

for i in { ... }

Inside the loop we now need to distinguish between captures and non-captures. This is what the if-statement does.

if m.captured() != Pieces::NONE { ... }

If the move is a capture, it will be ordered using the MVV-LVA table just like before (see the chapter about MVV-LVA), but now, it shifts everything upward by the MVV_LVA_OFFSET.

So, we get space (values) available 'below' MVV_LVA_OFFSET.

If the move is not a capture, we try to find it in the list of killer moves. We just loop through the list as long as we are not at the end, and as long as the sort value is still 0.

while i < MAX_KILLER_MOVES && value == 0 { ... }

(As long as the sort value is 0, the move is not yet ordered.) As soon as we match the move in the move list against a killer move, its sort value is calculated, using both MVV_LVA_OFFSET, and KILLER_VALUE (which is set to 10).

value = MVV_LVA_OFFSET - ((i as u32 + 1) * KILLER_VALUE);

If we match the first killer at spot 0, the value will be:

value = MVV_LVA_OFFSET - ((0 + 1) * 10)
value = MVV_LVA_OFFSET - (1 * 10)
value = MVV_LVA_OFFSET - 10

Pay attention to the fact that we are sorting killers below MVV_LVA_OFFSET this time, so the killers will be a lower value than any capture. The first killer will be 10 points below MVV_LVA_OFFSET, the second killer will be 20 points below. (I you should manage to make 3 or 4 killers work, they would be 30 and 40 points below respectively.)

Now the killers are ordered below the captures. Killer move ordering is now done, and alpha-beta will use pick_move() to pick a killer before an unordered move.

Sidenote: number of killer moves We keep two killer moves because we don't keep one or three moves. Well, maybe that's not an answer :) The reason why we don't keep three, four or 20 killer moves per ply is because they work best if each killer move is unique: so no slots have the same move. Making sure that two killer moves are unique is very easy and fast, as you saw in the implementation above.

Experience and testing have shown that two unique killer moves per ply are better than only one killer move per ply, and that trying to keep three or more killer moves unique from one another costs more time than the killer move feature saves. Therefore, in most engines, keeping more than two killer moves unique is detrimental to the engine's speed. With the implementation above, you could try to keep three killer moves for each ply, hoping that some of the time there will be no duplicates. In some engines this can work, but you will have to try and test it.

Puzzle solution

Here is the position from the start again:

White plays f3-f4, setting up the double attack threat Bg2-c6, which can be used as a killer move after various black moves. Question: Why does Bg2-c6 not work anymore as a killer move, when black plays Qd7-e8?

Solution After Qd7-e8, Bg2-c6 doesn't work as a killer move because black can escape the double attack by playing Qe8-e3+. White has to get his king out of check, for example Kg1-h1, and then black can move the rook on b5 out of danger.

Warning: Qe8-e3+ is quite a sneaky move. If white tries to to trade the queens by blocking the check with Qb2-f2, the rook on c1 becomes undefended and the black queen can capture it with another check!