Jordi Bassaganas
Jordi Bassaganas

Jordi Bassaganas

Storing Multiple Refs in an Array With React's useRef() Hook

Photo by Val Tievsky on Unsplash

Storing Multiple Refs in an Array With React's useRef() Hook

Let's store the refs in an associative array

Jordi Bassaganas's photo
Jordi Bassaganas
·Sep 12, 2022·

4 min read

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If you're a JavaScript developer learning React, at some point you'll want to create interactive animations with CSS and JavaScript. Won't you? A plethora of amazing animations and transitions can be created easily with CSS only!

However, JavaScript can definitely help when it comes to creating animations programmatically.

In plain JavaScript, you'll typically need to select DOM elements for further processing which can be done in several ways using the Document API. Probably the most widely used methods to achieve this are getElementById() and getElementsByClassName(), but there are a few more.

So far so good.

The thing is recently I had to animate the chess pieces of a React chessboard and initially was tempted to use the Document API. After some consideration I went for a solution based on plain JavaScript. I was impressed that my JS animation kind of worked, apparently. It wouldn't take long to realize that in some instances it seemed as if something wasn't working as expected.

Then, I learned about React refs.

Selecting elements in React is a different story than with JavaScript mainly because in React there's a thing called virtual DOM. So what you'd typically do in JavaScript using getElementById() or getElementsByClassName() in React should better be done with the useRef() Hook along with the ref attribute.

The following example considers one element.

function TextInputWithFocusButton() {
  const inputEl = useRef(null);
  const onButtonClick = () => {
    // `current` points to the mounted text input element
    inputEl.current.focus();
  };
  return (
    <>
      <input ref={inputEl} type="text" />
      <button onClick={onButtonClick}>Focus the input</button>
    </>
  );
}

This way the targeted node can easily be accessed with the current property. Now, what if you're dealing with an array of references rather than with a single one? Well, in this case there's a solution based on arrays. Let me show you an example.

Attached below is the code of the Board component of Redux Chess.

import React, { useRef } from 'react';
import { useDispatch, useSelector } from 'react-redux';
import Ascii from '../common/Ascii';
import Pgn from '../common/Pgn';
import Piece from '../common/Piece';

// ...

const Board = ({props}) => {
  const state = useSelector(state => state);
  const dispatch = useDispatch();

  // ...

  const sqsRef = useRef([]);
  const imgsRef = useRef([]);

  // ...

  const handleMove = (payload) => {
    // ...
  };

  const board = () => {
    return Ascii.flip(
      state.board.flip,
      state.board.history[state.board.history.length - 1 + state.history.back]
    ).map((rank, i) => {
      return rank.map((piece, j) => {
        let payload = { piece: piece };
        let color = (i + j) % 2 !== 0 
          ? Pgn.symbol.BLACK 
          : Pgn.symbol.WHITE;

        state.board.flip === Pgn.symbol.WHITE
          ? payload = {
            ...payload,
            i: i,
            j: j,
            sq: Ascii.fromIndexToAlgebraic(i, j)
          }
          : payload = {
            ...payload,
            i: 7 - i,
            j: 7 - j,
            sq: Ascii.fromIndexToAlgebraic(7 - i, 7 - j)
          };

        // ...

        return <div
          key={payload.sq}
          ref={el => sqsRef.current[payload.sq] = el}
          onClick={() => {
            handleMove(payload);
          }}
          onDrop={(ev) => {
            ev.preventDefault();
            handleMove(payload);
          }}
          onDragOver={(ev) => {
            ev.preventDefault();
          }}>
            {
              Piece.unicode[piece].char
                ? <img
                    ref={el => imgsRef.current[payload.sq] = el}
                    src={Piece.unicode[piece].char}
                    draggable={Piece.color(piece) === state.board.turn ? true : false}
                    onDragStart={() => handleMove(payload)}
                  />
                : null
            }
        </div>
      });
    });
  }

  return (
    <div>
      {board()}
    </div>
  );
}

export default Board;

The working code is available on GitHub.

However, as you can see, I've removed some lines of code in this example for the sake of simplicity to focus on what really matters. Remember, we're attaching a reference to each square and piece for further access and manipulation by other common utilities.

const sqsRef = useRef([]);
const imgsRef = useRef([]);

The main idea of the Board component is to loop through the state.board.history array in search for a specific element and then render the corresponding squares and pieces accordingly.

figure-01.png

The figure above shows how state.board.history looks like after the Caro-Kann Defense 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 has been played in analysis mode. It contains five elements at that stage with each representing a chess position.

The newest one which is the 4th element is described below.

figure-02.png

A common utility called Ascii.fromIndexToAlgebraic() is used to get a chess square in algebraic notation given a pair of matrix indices i and j. The name of the chess square is then stored in payload.sq.

ref={el => sqsRef.current[payload.sq] = el}

All 64 squares as well as the remaining pieces of the board can be referenced in a user-friendly way — a1, a2 and so on — via an associative array.

ref={el => imgsRef.current[payload.sq] = el}

Conclusion

An associative array is a convenient way to group multiple refs into a single variable. This way, each element can be accessed through a user-friendly name. In this example two arrays have been created. sqsRef is to access the squares while imgsRef is to access the pieces. The elements in both arrays are accessed by a chess square name in algebraic notation; for example, a1.

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