by Steve Lopez

Over the last few weeks, I've recieved several e-mails from beginning chessplayers who would like to know how to set Fritz5 to a level that will challenge them but not intimidate them. This is an interesting question for players of all levels, not just those new to chess.

The first thing you should keep in mind is that Fritz' full strength really only benefits the average player when Fritz is doing overnight analysis of a game. If you're a Class B or lower player, it does you no good whatsoever to have your head repeatedly torn off by Fritz at full strength. While I like to occasionally play blitz or speed games with Fritz cranked up to the max, I really don't train for tournaments with Fritz in this manner.

If you're fairly new to chess, try using the "Handicap and fun" level. Set the slider under "playing strength" to the lowest setting (if you're not yet tournament rated) or to your actual rating (which will really be a strength 100 points higher than your rating -- Fritz measures strength in FIDE ratings, which tend to be about 100 points stronger than the same USCF rating).

Using different engines will provide different rating ranges, especially on different computers (taking into account factors such as processor speed). Fritz1 (Knightstalker) will play much weaker chess than later versions. If you're using the 32-bit version of Fritz5 or Junior 5, try the EXChess engine which is quite a bit weaker than either Fritz or Junior. Try different engines until you find one that gives you a challenging game without destroying you in the first few moves.

I've read comments on the Internet by people who claim that the Handicap mode results in Fritz playing a strong opening and middlegame until it "unrealistically" blunders away material to simulate weaker play. I used to agree with these comments, until the other day. On my lunch break I was playing chess against a friend of mine who is a casual chessplayer. He had a very good game (even going up a pawn in the opening) until he missed a three-move combination of mine that won a piece. In a later game, he moved his Queen back to d8 for no apparent reason, giving me an advantage in tempo. These are exactly the types of errors that Fritz makes in Handicap mode, so I've had to revise my opinion: these mistakes are not so "artificial" after all. They're quite likely to occur in class-level play, in fact.

How do you know when to step up to a stronger level? Many years ago, I used to play "matches" against stand-alone tabletop chess computers. Starting at the lowest level, I'd play a six game match against the computer, alternating colors each game. If I scored 3.5 points or better, I'd allow the computer a six-game rematch. If I won the second match, it was time to crank the playing strength up to the next level. You can do this with Fritz by jacking up the Handicap playing strength by a 100-point increment whenever you win two matches in a row.

Fritz will attempt to do this itself if you play it in "Friend" mode. Fritz adjusts its playing strength up or down depending on your success (or lack of same) against it. Fritz will generally win about 75% of the time in this mode. You'll get a challenging game, but Fritz won't be unbeatable.

If you're interested in sharpening your tactical skills, try "Sparring" mode. Fritz will search future positions for tactics that you can use against it and then steer toward those positions (rather than away from them as it does in normal competitive modes). It will even alert you to the fact that a tactical shot is in the position by flashing a blue light on the screen.

Consultation games are a great chess tradition. In a consultation game, two players combine their efforts to try to defeat a stronger opponent. One of the great games in chess history was a consultation game: Paul Morphy vs. the Duke of Braunschweig teamed with Count Isouard.

Fritz5 allows you to play this kind of consultation game. You can play against one chess engine while a second chess engine gives you analysis and advice. In a recent ChessBase USA flyer, it was suggested that you could team up with Fritz1 to play against Fritz5. This is actually a pretty neat idea. You look at the position, decide what move to make, and then consult Fritz1 to see if the computer has a better idea. Looking at your move and the suggested move, you then decide which one to play.

Another way to handicap Fritz is to limit its search depth. I've personally found this to be fairly unsatisfying, as Fritz (or any chess program) makes some truly hideous mistakes when its search is limited to three plies or less.

There are numerous other ways to tweak Fritz to make it weaker (or to give you another sort of advantage), including increasing its blunder range in the "Handicap and fun" mode, turning off "Permanent brain" in the "Engines" window (this means that Fritz will not be performing any analysis when it's your turn to move), or turning on the "Coach is watching" feature (so that Fritz will catch your mistakes and notify you of them).

While planning this article, I was thinking of admonishing you not to take back moves while playing. I think it's a bad idea; it tends to make one lazy and weak while reinforcing the bad habit of counting on "second chances". However, I know a few chess teachers that think it's a good idea to allow beginners one takeback per game. This allows players to identify and take note of problem areas in their play. So rather than be dogmatic and tell you to not do it, I'll leave it up to you. After all, the entire point of using a chessplaying program is to improve your game. Any way you can accomplish this by using Fritz is a good way.

Medium-sized announcement: beginning tomorrow (October 26th), I'll be returning to ChessBase USA full-time in a technical support capacity. John Maddox will be moving to a strictly sales mode, Mark Chard will move to administration, while Don Maddox will continue to run the show and devote his energies to providing content for the Internet Web site. I will, however, continue to write weekly installments of Battle Royale and Electronic T-Notes. Talk to you soon! Until then, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes. Stop by the Yahoo Chess Kamikazes Club and the Chess Kamikaze Home Page.