by Steve Lopez

"If it ain't fun, it ain't worth doing." -- blues guitarist George Thorogood

This will sound very strange coming from someone who's made a significant portion of his living from chess for the last six years, but in my opinion chess is supposed to be fun.

It doesn't make a lick of difference to me whether it's a game against my five-year-old son, a coffeehouse game with one of my close friends (with a frosty one and a bucket of barbecued chicken wings close at hand), a "serious" tournament game, a simul (in which I'm getting my skull smashed in by some master), a Internet server game, or a game against a computer. Simply put, I'm out for a good time.

That's why I was really struck by a simple fact about the new Junior5. This sucker is a lot of fun to play!

Junior5, for those who don't know, is the current version of the World Microcomputer Champion (Junior4.5). Unlike it's predecessor, it's a true 32-bit program allowing it to take full advantage of the Windows95/98 operating environment. It's also a complete program (not just an engine for ChessBase and Fritz, as was the previous Junior). Users of Fritz5 will find the interface very familiar:

The above screen shot is taken from the end of a handicap game I played against Junior5. I'd "dumbed it down" to something nearer to my level: Junior was playing at 1350 FIDE (1450 USCF). I threw a Cochrane Gambit at it, played much of the game under a material (as well as mental) handicap, and swindled my way to a draw by simplifying to an opposite-colored Bishop ending. This game was the most fun one I've played in quite a while; in fact, I laughed the whole way through it. I'm glad I was home alone or my wife and kids would have thought I'd finally lost my mind (what's left of it, anyway). I can't stress this enough: Junior is a blast!

As you can see, the interface is just like Fritz', with some extra features added. You can use the new 32-bit Junior5 engine in ChessBase 7 (but not in the 16-bit Fritz5). However, thunking code is included so that owners of the 16-bit Fritz5 and Hiarcs6 engines can use them in the Junior interface. You also get Crafty 15.18 included with Junior5 (the latest version of Crafty, as well as ExChess, can be downloaded from the ChessBase International web site).

Junior5 incorporates some cool new features that aren't in the old 16-bit Fritz5. Starting with the Junior5 engine itself, the program contains more strategic knowledge than does Fritz. These strategic parameters are tweakable: you can make Junior ignore King safety considerations, pay extra attention to pawn structures, and favor sacrifices (this one is particularly neat -- Junior sacrificed a Bishop against me in one game, which is something chess programs seldom, if ever, do).

You can also "dumb down" Junior by making it ignore center control and development. "Why would anyone want to do that?" I can hear you asking. Not all of us are Super-GMs -- those of us down here in the fishpond like to have a competitive game without getting our heads handed to us. Features like these allow us to make Junior play less like Garry Kasparov and more like Gary Shandling.

There are some special tweaks available for the Crafty engine, too: a "no tricks" toggle (used to combat "horizon effect" tricks that humans use -- see last week's Electronic T-Notes), and the ability to turn off Crafty's natural tendency to avoid draws by repetition.

You can also use many of the ChessBase 7 analysis engine functions in Junior5. You can lock the analysis in place (so you can change the board position without disturbing the analysis). You can clip the analysis (for later pasting into a text document). You can also get some extra search information on the screen (search depth, number of positions searched, etc) for each of the lines Junior is examining.

It's possible to switch quickly between two different analysis engines just be hitting [ALT-F3]. This is really useful when you want to get a "second opinion" about a position ("OK, it's ugly, too" [bah-dum-bum]).

There are also a large number of improvements to game notation functions. Many of ChessBase 7's notation functions have been incorporated into Junior: promote and delete lines, position searching, delete remaining moves, delete all commentary from a game, the material balance display, and text before move have all been added and are accessible just by right-clicking in the game notation.

If you're a big fan of computer vs. computer matches, Junior5 incorporates support for the Auto232 device driver (which allows you to connect two computers and have them play against each other).

Numerous 32-bit engines are supported in Junior5:

Crafty (various versions have been available for download at the ChessBase International web site)
EXChess 2.45 (available for download at the ChessBase International web site)
Fritz5/16 bit (thunking code provided with Junior5)
Hiarcs6/16 bit (thunking code provided with Junior5)

More 32-bit engines are due to be available soon from ChessBase (Fritz5/32 bit and Nimzo 99) and you'll be able to use them in Junior5 as well for an even greater variety of play.

Fritz5 users will be happy to know that the Talk function is also supported in Junior5 (so you can take the same verbal abuse from Junior that you get from Fritz). Junior also has the same database functions as Fritz (so ou'll be able to access the same game trees and databases that you do with Fritz). Junior5 comes with its own opening book, specially optimized to suit Junior's playing style (but you can use Fritz5's books with Junior, including the optional Power Book).

Speaking of Junior's playing style, it's tactically strong (like Fritz) but a bit more strategically knowledgable. It falls somewhere between Fritz and Hiarcs in its style of play, leaning more toward the tactical.

The main thing I like about Junior (as I stated before) is that it's a lot of fun to play. I'm constantly surprised and delighted by the moves Junior makes (especially with the "Favor sacrifices" box checked). This program's a blast and I'm sure you'll enjoy it too!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to go play now. Junior awaits! Until next week, 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.