Original article on ChessCube vs. Chess.com vs. ICC vs. FICS available on William's site
ChessCube.com is an online chess community with over 1,400,000 registered members as of March 2011. They do not feature an online chess forum, as their focus is primarily on tournaments and general play. Their interface is exceptionally easy to set up and use, and does not require download. Instructional videos are produced by IM Andrew Martin and FMs Monokroussos and Lilov. Many videos are free, some are priced very low. Also of note, ChessCube has a great Chess960 option and audience. It is completely free to play at ChessCube, and a great online environment for younger players. ChessCube also has a new tutoring system,that we've been using to teach chess to our younger and more beginner students. Although it still has quite a few bugs, the system has shown quite a bit of promise compared to the current system we use on FICS.
Chess.com is an online chess community with over 3.4 million members as of June 2011. They currently have one of the most active chess forums on the internet, and their playing software is fairly fluid and does not require download. Their instructional videos are produced by an impressive line-up: GMs Dzindzichashvili, Lenderman, Perelshteyn, Shankland - and more. They also provide articles by GMs Becerra and Serper, IM Bryan Smith, and WGM NataliaPogonina - to name a few. The majority of Chess.com is 100% Free, however you can upgrade your account to enjoy less ads and more premium services.
“The first Internet chess server, named the Internet Chess Server (ICS), started in January, 1992. Volunteers coded and ran it free of charge. In 1995, administrators began charging players for membership and changed the name to ICC. Unhappy with the commercialisation of ICS, which they saw as exploiting their work, a handful of programmers, led by Chris Petroff, formed FICS and gave users free, unrestricted access. The server debuted March 3, 1995. FICS is a non-profit site, administered entirely by volunteers. There are approximately 330,000 registered accounts. In 2010 it had over 86,000 active players who played a total of almost 21 million games. Donations to FICS can be sent to PayPal.com using the account email@example.com”
FICS is a great site and 100% Free. FICS is well-known for featuring the best bughouse andcrazyhouse play in the world, ex. JKiller, Vaboris (Kazim Gulamali), etc.. While not as user-friendly as other online servers, the free interface Thief is the best software for bughouse and/or rapid play. The Thief interface is also popularly used on ICC by 1-min players. For our advanced clients we love using Babaschess to tutor our more advanced chess players. However, the interfaces for FICS can be quite intimidating to setup at first and it is not nearly as user friendly as either ChessCube or Chess.com. However, if you don't want to shell out the $70 a year for ICC, FICS is your best bet for finding strong players.
The Internet Chess Club (ICC) is the first and largest commercial chess server on the planet. The price is $69.95/year, however a 50% discount is available for students. Grandmasters and International Masters receive free membership. ICC represents the strongest playing strength of any server or site. They also provide excellent live coverage and commentary of ongoing tournaments. 1, 3, and 5-minute games are very popular - as are many variants (Losers, 960, Bughouse, etc..). Fantastic instructional videos are provided by GMs Christiansen, Benjamin, Har-Zvi and others. While ICC is a commercialized server, they do offer a very high quality product (especially for stronger players). ICC also boasts great software in the form of their interface Blitzin.
My Personal Opinion
I recommend ChessCube for beginner, intermediate, and younger chess players. Their site is extremely easy to navigate and find a game. Chess.com represents the best available forum discussion, however the average playing strength is not exceptionally high. Without a doubt, FICS represents the best bughouse and crazyhouse play - and I truly respect their devotion to the game and maintaining their services free of charge. ICC is best for advanced players and video instruction, although they are a commercialized server that is not scared to raise prices. There is not one over-all best site, as they tend to specialize in different areas and services. The best fit really depends on the unique needs of the individual player.