Check and mate: the ancient game meets modern times. (computer chess; includes related article)
by Autumn Miller
It was the stuff of nightmares. found myself in Las Vegas, demonstrating chess moves to a roomful of grand masters. With each of my moves, they seemed more amused. Sweat began to form on my temples.
I was playing chess against my colleagues in North Carolina, demonstrating a new online chess network (called Leisure LINC then, but now called USA Today Information Center) to world-class players. I could tell that the grand masters loved the idea of playing in realtime against opponents thousands of miles away. But they were laughing at my moves! And I was the office champion! That was six years ago. Today my game can still inspire a few giggles, but I'm getting better--slowly. I've studied chess books, analyzed my games with higher-rated players, and fared decently in a few tournaments.
My problem has been that I never have anyone near my level to play against, except in tournaments. And a tournament isn't the best place to test out wild ideas or to try out unpracticed book learning.
But now I've finally found the perfect opponent--a player lcan learn from. a player that will always be slightly better than I, a player willing to play on demand-my computer
Chess programs come in many varieties. Novice-level programs aren't expensive, but if you're leery about spending money on chess, you can try a public domain or shareware program such as Ed's Chess before you go shopping for a fancier program.
Ed's Chess, available on America Online,in the COMPUTE/NET section, offers game playing in either human-versus-computer or computer-versus-computer mode. The program will give a beginner a good workout.
Other programs combine a little chess teaching with strong chess-playing ability. The most readily available program with some instructional aids is Chessmaster 3000. An absolute beginner can learn the basic moves and rules of chess with this program and then move up.
For the novice, Chessmaster 3000 can be set to play at different levels and to assume different personalities. The novice can also learn the tried-andtrue openings, such as the English, the Sicilian, and the Queen's Gambit Declined, while the computer suggests book moves (time-tested responses that follow traditional lines of strategy to reach a particular position). A player goes out of the book when testing a new strategy or responding with an uncommon, less familiar move.
Once you're out of the book, Chessmaster 3000 can also provide advice on what move to make next. But I recommend testing out your own ideas as well (that's the only way to learn), and you can always take moves back. With most computer games, if you use the advice function for all your moves, the computer will beat you.
Chessmaster 3000 has a blindfold chess capability, a championship mode (no takebacks), and a tournament setting in which you play against a variety of player personalities. Chess Community Secrets Although famous chess games like Chessmaster 3000 are generally very good, a number of excellent chess programs are virtually unheard of outside the chess community.
These programs are most useful in training you in the details of play, taking you from novice to master. Some of the programs offer training features and databases that chess professionals actually use from time to time, and the programs' play is good enough to beat even the pros occasionally.
The ChessMachine. Grand masters around the world have been impressed-and embarrassed--by The ChessMachine, a plug-in card for an IBM PC or compatible (an external version is available for laptops). The card comes complete with its own processor, clock, and memory. The 86C010 (ARM2) processor, a 32-bit RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) processor, calculates four times faster than a 33-MHz 386. Calculation speed is arguably the most important asset of a chess computer.
The program that comes with The ChessMachine beat the $10,000 Mephisto chess computer to become the 1991-1992 World Chess Microcomputer Champion. Grand Master Yasser Seirawan says that he can beat the card only about 70 percent of the time in blitz (time-limited) chess.
Chess players are rated on a scale that goes up to 3000. The U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) awards the National Master title to anyone reaching a rating of 2200. Grand Master John Nunn estimated The ChessMachine's rating to be about 2500 in blitz chess.
Knightstalker. Chess instruction is taken into the twenty-first century by Knightstalker, a program designed by the people who make ChessBase, the most popular database used by chess professionals. Knightstalker combines a strong chess-playing program with computerized instruction manuals. The program can answer what-if questions, give feedback, and point out mistakes.
A full chess-training program-ChessBase University--is achieved when Knightstalker is combined with the ChessBase Access game-review program. Knightstalker is strongest in teaching openings. ChessBase Access provides deeper analysis and explanation. A demo disk of these two programs and the mother program, ChessBase, is available for postage and handling charges.
Zarkov. Another strong opponent is Zarkov 2.5. Zarkov's most recent claim to fame is defeating the Mephisto chess computer in two tournaments. Zarkov learns from its mistakes, so it becomes stronger as you get better.
'Like Knightstalker, Zarkov offers game analysis; however, it doesn't have the extensive self-contained game database. For study, it can retrieve the last variation used in its associated Bookup professional chess datatabase, and its opening book can be expanded. Zarkov's analysis can be added to the Bookup database files.
As mentioned earlier, chess databases are important for the serious chess player. In all tournaments, players record their moves on score sheets. These score sheets are later compiled and sometimes annotated for publication in books. And during the past ten years, computer databases have joined books as standard reference works.
Top-level players have large libraries of score-sheet compilations. These compilations alert them to new theories, new positions,' and the openings preferred by their upcoming opponents. Lower-level players, once they have a firm grip on chess theory, find these compilations helpful in learning new variations of their favorite openings.
These programs have a limited market, targeted as they are at strong players. They can't be found in most software stores or catalogs. But if you're beating chess programs on a regular basis, there are three computer chess names you might want to keep in mind: ChessBase, NICBASE, and Bookup. These programs don't play chess. They merely organize games and replay them.
Once you've used these other products and can give the computer a beating from time to time, you're definitely ready for some human interaction. Although local chess clubs can be a little intimidating, you might want to check them out. You'll need a chess clock (a double clock contraption used to keep the game moving), simple plastic or wooden Staunton-style weighted chess pieces (keep your Civi War set on display at home--it will peg you as an amateur), and a ,oil-up vinyl playing Doara (so much for the elegance of chess).
There's a different lingo as well: kibitzing (analyzing a game with others-- preferably out of earshot of the people playing the game), zugzwang (a move you're forced to make but probably don't want to), bad bishops (bishops whose center squares are blocked by their own pawns), and weak squares (unproteCted or poorly defended squares). Blitz games (where each player has only five minutes to make all moves or lose--lots of fun and physically exhilarating but a leading cause of baldness) are the preferred games, because more chess can be played and a silly sacrifice (giving up a piece to gain a better position or set up a combination) can actually be successful.
If you don't feel quite up to that, you can make contact with other players, while remaining behind the safe shield of your computer.
BBSs. Hundreds of computer bulletin boards around the country have chess information, and many multinode boards allow you to play chess interactively with other board members.
ChessNet. If you'd like a special stand-alone program that lets you play against its chess-playing program or if you'd like to play against a friend by regular telephone service or through Compuserve, you're looking for ChessNet. The upcoming ChessNet Club version will connect as many as eight boards simultaneously over the same phone line, permitting schools and other groups to compete inexpensively. ChessNet's ultimate goal with the new product is to create National Chess League connect clubs around the world via modem.
CompuServe. A recent coup was scored by CompuServe when it arranged to have the USCF (the official chess organization of the U.S.) rate its postal chess (several days permitted for each move). Because of the strict rules for USCF-rated play and CompuServe's lack of specialized programming, the postal games are played by the cumbersome expedient of bulletin board postings. However, the Chess Forum area appears to be attracting potent players.
CompuServe doesn't have any graphical chess interface, but members can use programs such as ChessNet or Battle Chess for interactive play.
USA Today Information Center. USA Today Information Center offers the widest range of chess services of all the networks. It has both over-theboard (interactive) and postal play, as well as network-rated blitz tournaments (15 minutes per side to allow for communication and typing time) and postal ladder tournaments.
Because the network is designed to accommodate competitive-level chess, a number of strong opponents can be found there.
The Sierra Network. True to its philosophy, The Sierra Network offers great graphics for over-the-board play but is limited in that it's difficult to locate higherrated opponents. It offers neither chess news nor features found on the other networks (such as postal chess). Most members seem to just want to play a casual game. Sierra is just for fun.
Prodigy. During the 1990 World Chess Championship, Prodigy did some extensive work. Each of the 24 games can be replayed online. For the event, it also devised a chess tutorial and provided detailed biographies of the competitors, champion Garry Kasparov and challenger Anatoly Karpov.
Prodigy states that during the World Chess Championship, between 25,000 and 50,000 members checked in for game results and score sheets.
America Online. Another chess section can be found on America Online. Here members can play postal chess through the bulletin boards, download chess games, and read sporadic chess news reports.
It's Your Move
It's hard not to become addicted to chess. After all, it's been the obsession of players at all levels for countless generations. And if you dare explore the network offerings, you'll find yourself in an international community, where the common language isn't war or diplomacy, but chess.
All around the world, grand masters are national heroes and household names. But in the U.S. very few could name the World Chess Champion (Garry Kasparov), let alone the current U.S. Chess Champion (Russian whiz-kid emigre Gata Kamsky).
In America, an aura of pipe smoke and the nutmeg smell of book bindings surround people's perceptions of the game. Most picture it as a game for gray-headed professors emeritus. Don't believe it. Chess isn't an intelligence test to be enjoyed only. by supergeniuses. It's a game of logic, playable by anyone who can learn how the pieces move.
The world of chess is as congenial as it is competitive, and by learning the language and the fundamentals, you can make friends all over the world and reap great personal rewards.
Before you know it, you may be joining the USCF to get its monthly Chess Life magazine, full of strategy articles and tournament information. Who knows? Maybe I'll even see you across the board one day.
THE GRAND MASTER POLL
Will mastering the computer make you a master?
COMPUTE polled a number of chess professionals at the New York Open International Chess Tournament held at the New York Ramada Hotel at Madison Square Garden, asking whether an amateur who had a computer as a teacher could ever achieve master standing
"With a computer, you nave the proverbial 24-hour opponent," says International Master Elliott Winslow (an international master is one rank below a grand master). "You also have the chance to take back moves when no one's looking And more computers can analyze now."
Grand Master Arthur Bisguier aaas. "AI the computers I've seen play very tactically. They'll sharpen your tactical weapons, because you have to play correctly to beat them."
Columbian Master (a national master is one rank below an international master) LUiS Hoyos-Millan notes that by playing over particular positions or openings on the computer, he gets more confidence and feeling for that position. "Plus. software can keep a record of the game for you," he says. These records can later be reviewed to pinpoint your errors.
On the other hand, all players polled warned about playing only against computers because, as Winslow says, they play differently from humans: "Like, you can't exPect a computer to De wily."
Grand Master Yasser Seirawan says. "If a person played only a computer, he would nave a very warded style--a computer style. If you take a [novice] who starts at level 1 and works his wav uo to level 99, [he] would enough at master level. but it would be very intriguing to see how that Derson would fare against a human."
"A computer has computer weaKnesses, and a human has human weaknesses." Bisguier agrees. "I teach my students how to hang tough, how to make a move that might enable the opponent to win or escape, but that's going to involve risk for my students. They might lose. A computer won't take risks."
In fact, the dry, rigid logic of computers can make them rather stupid. Grand Master Patrick Wolff says, "Computers play their own special kind of chess. They don't understand anything, but they see everything in a certain range."
"The big problem with a computer is that even if you figure out how to beat it, it Keeps doing the same thing," International Master Alex Sherzer says. "But if you insist that it play different openings or if you cnange the way that you play, then you won't be repeating the same game."
International Master llya Gurevich, 1990 World Junior Chess Champion, considers the way computers approach the game. "Computers play to win material, and they then can be mated very easily," he says. "That's not the way players play."
New York Open winner, Grand Master Eric Lobron, was the least favorable in his views of computers' matching human creativity in chess. "With computers, I think kids lose the feeling of the game," he says. "They become too mechanical. And with computers, you don't try as hard. You don't psyche up. Chess is a competition."
But Lobron is willing to concede that "sometimes humans aren't available. If the computer is better than you are, it can help you improve."
The predominant response from the cream of the international chess world was a qualified yes: A computer can teach the basics of the game in a quick, easy, and entertaining manner. But to learn the nuances needed to become a world-class contender, you'll need to study and pit yourself against human competition.
Software, hardware, organizations, and services you should know about when you enter the world of computerized chess:
8619 Westwood Center Dr.
Vienna, VA 22182
ChessBase Database Deluxe--$395.00
75-79 Main St., Ste. 16
Manasquan, NJ 08736
IBM PC and compatibles, 640K RAM;
hard drive recommended
Supplement (all games .from New in
Chess Yearbooks 1-18)--$130.00
33,400 Tournament Games 1988-90--
50,000 Games (includes 33,400 Tourna
-ment Games and Key, an index to open
2423 Noble Sta.
Bridgeport, CT 06608-0423
(800) 354-4083 (voice)
(213) 380-1703 (fax)
iBM PC and compatibles, 512K RAM,
graphics card, hard drive (required for
large database), mouse
P.O. Box 3541
S. Pasadena, CA 91031
(818) 799-7567 (voice)
(818) 799-2530 (fax)
iBM PC and compatibles, 512K RAM;
hard drive recommended for Bookup,
P.O. Box 20212
Columbus, OH 43220
The ChessMachine (1 MB)-$899.00
The ChessMachine (512K)-$750.00
The ChessMachine (128K)-$599.00
The ChessMachine (1MB EC: External
Card; usable on laptops, PS/2, Amiga, and
International Chess Enterprises
P.O. Box C-19457
Seattle, WA 98109
IBM PC and compatibles, at least one
free 8-bit expansion slot
ChessNet for Windows--$34.95
ChessNet Club Edition-$129.95
P.O. Box 5223
Englewood, CO 80155
IBM PC and compatibles, Windows 3.0 or
445 Hamilton Ave.
White Plains, NY 10601
The Sierra Network
P.O. Box 1550
Oakhurst, CA 93644-1550
Chessmaster 3000 (Windows)--$59.95
The Software Toolworks
60 Leveroni Ct.
Novato, CA 94949
IBM PC and compatibles, 640K RAM
hard drive or high-density floppy drive;
mouse and joystick supported, Ad Lib and
Sound Blaster supported
USA Today information Center
Four Seasons Executive Ctr.
Bldg. 9, Terrace Way
Greensboro, NC 27403
U.S. Chess Federation
186 Rte. 9 W
New Windsor, NY 12553-7698