AN OPPONENT FOR EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK

by Steve Lopez

Most chessplayers who own computers will tell you that they bought the danged things for a wide range of reasons: to do household bookkeeping, to write letters to friends and relatives, to have an electronic encyclopedia for their kids, etc. Unfortunately, most of them are lying. Regardless of what we tell our spouses, we bought our computers for one reason: to play chess. I don't know about you, but I brought four things home the night I purchased my first computer: a computer, a monitor, a printer, and a chess program.

And most of us don't stop at just one chess program. We collect software the way old Aunt Mary used to collect antique music boxes. The shelves in our offfices and studies are lined with boxes containing chess programs from years past. They were the latest, greatest, whiz-bang, killer programs when they were released, but are now just relics of a past day when a 386 processor was considered top-line hardware.

Despite the surplus of old software piling up in my office, I'd still rather buy a new chess program than another strategy game that rehashes wars between fantasy kingdoms or the discovery of the Western Hemisphere. I hate buying a new program, spending four hours wading through a manual the size of the Brooklyn phonebook, loading the program, and finding that the stupid thing doesn't work or else just plain stinks. Chess programs are so much easier. You can load just about any piece of chessplaying software and be playing a game within five minutes. "I'll figure out the tutorials, the Fischerrandom crap, and how to import PGN files later -- right now I just want to play!" Click the e-pawn, advance it two squares, and you're off and running.

Despite being quite partisan towards Fritz, I've always been a proponent of owning many chessplaying programs. Chess programs are very much like human chessplayers in that they each have a particular playing style. Owning a pile of chessplaying software is like having a chess club in your own home. You can pick and choose your opponents, varying the programs you play to keep things fresh and interesting.

Even though chessplaying software interfaces and procedures are generally easier to learn than, say, the latest World War II tank game, there is still a bit of a learning curve involved when you fire up a new program or one that you haven't played in a long while. There are few things in life more frustrating than playing a brilliant game against a computer and losing the gamescore because you forgot how to "Save game" in RocketChess 9000. Wouldn't it be pleasant to be able to learn the menus and commands for just one chessplaying program and then be able to "plug" different "brains" into it?

This week's Electronic T-Notes was inspired by an e-mail I received from my friend Fred Maymir, who asked me what was the benefit to having multiple engines for Fritz5. Fred, there are a bunch of reasons why this "plug-in" concept is a neat idea, and three spring instantly to mind:

1) You only have to learn one interface (menu and command set) to be able to play against several chessplaying programs;

2) You can have a variety of chess engines (with different playing styles) at your fingertips, without even having to leave the chess program you're presently using;

3) Buying just a "plug-in" engine is generally cheaper than buying the complete chess program, as the additional labor in creating the interface can be removed from the price.

A good example of this last point is Hiarcs. It's available as a complete standalone program for DOS but at a considerably higher price than the Hiarcs engine alone for Fritz.

Speaking of engines, there are a variety of them available for use with Fritz4 or 5. Here's a list, followed by further elaboration on the various engines:

FRITZ: The first three versions of Fritz were DOS-based programs. The engines for Fritz 1 (Knightstalker) and Fritz 3 were ported over to Windows files for use in Windows versions of Fritz.

Why are they included in later versions of Fritz? Fritz3's engine is available for historical purposes: it was the first chess program to defeat a human world chess champion in a tournament (it defeated Garry Kasparov in a Munich blitz tournament with $10,000 on the line in 1994. This occurred several weeks before Kasparov's much more widely publicized defeat at the "hands" of Chess Genius in a PCA event that summer). Fritz3 was undoubtedly the strongest program ever at the time of its introduction in 1994. It plays a heckuva game, even ported over to Windows. Give it a whirl -- I hope you experience the same thrill I did the first time I played it.

Fritz 1.20 is included for playing handicap games. If you'll go to "Handicap and fun" in the "Levels" menu, you'll notice that you can get a much lower estimated rating (with the "Playing strength" slider) if you have Fritz 1.20 loaded as the engine than you can with a later version. This is because Fritz 1 is weaker than the later versions.

Fritz 3, 4, and 5 are tactical monsters. They analyze frighteningly quickly. They play strong chess by using a "brute-force" approach. They analyze millions of positions very fast and miss very little.

HIARCS: I still have my first version of Hiarcs. Mike Leahy sent me Hiarcs 2 as a Christmas gift in 1993. This was back in the days when Fritz2 was the latest version of our program. I was immediately struck by the fact that Hiarcs seemed to play a much more "natural" human-like game than did Fritz.

This is because Hiarcs is programmed with more chess "knowledge" than Fritz. In other words, Hiarcs knows more about static factors (that is, positional chess) than does Fritz, which relies more on dynamic (tactical) elements.

Hiarcs analyzes more slowly than Fritz, but plays better in closed positions. It thus plays a more "human" game than any other chess program I've encountered.

DOCTOR?: This program is a bit of an enigma to me. The first version of Doctor? (available solely as a plug-in analysis module for ChessBase for Windows) wasn't very good, in my opinion. I was never too impressed by the analysis it presented. However, the present version of Doctor? (2.0) is a different story. I've played a ton of games against it using the Fritz interface and the dang thing just keeps tearing my head off, even in "Friend" mode (yeah, some pal!). It plays a unique brand of chess, somewhere between Fritz's tactical expertise and Hiarcs' positional knowledge. Try as I might, I just can't figure out how to beat the sucker. Needless to say, I play against it a lot and enjoy it a great deal. It's not as strong as either Fritz or Hiarcs but I can't manage to prove that in actual competition. If it was a human player, it would be laughing at me or demanding my lunch money. It annoys the hell out of me. But I keep coming back for more...

JUNIOR: This program, by Amir Ban, is a 16-bit version of the current world microcomputer champion. It plays extremely strong chess, again in a style somewhere between Fritz and Hiarcs. I've only had my copy of it a few days, so I'm still testing it, but I can say that it's a tough opponent -- even in "Friend" mode. It's been a hot topic of conversation on the 'Net for several weeks; nearly everyone who has a copy is enjoying it immensely.

MATE 1.0: This is the "find mate in x" engine included with Fritz, so it's outside the scope of this article. It's simply a chess engine that looks exclusively for forcing moves, eliminating non-forcing continuations from the search tree.

The main purposes of having extra engines for Fritz are to give you a variety of opponents against which to test yourself, while at the same time enjoying a familiar user interface. This next revelation may sound like a crock to you, but I rarely venture out of the house to play humans anymore. The differences between these engines is so pronounced that it feels like I have a whole chess club available to me anytime of the day or night.

I'm frequently asked, "Which engine should I buy if I'm only going to get one more?" That's a tough question since the answer will depend primarily on your own uses for it.

Hiarcs is the way to go if you want an engine that plays entirely differently from Fritz. To use an analogy, if playing Fritz is like playing against Kasparov, playing Hiarcs is like playing against Karpov; two entirely different styles from two different engines. Hiarcs is handy to have around for analyzing quiet positions, with no forcing moves or immediate tactics. If you're looking at a typical position from a d-pawn opening, with a closed center and no tactical shots, it's interesting to load Hiarcs6 and run "Correspondence analysis". I think Hiarcs6 and the Fritz5 engine compliment each other very well.

I've found that Doctor? is a ton of fun to play. Playing Doctor? is like playing an accomplished chess hustler. Doctor? seems to like getting you into apparently quiet positions and then blasting you with a bolt from the blue. And playing Doctor? while running the comments from the "Talk" CD can be an extremely irritating experience, much like playing chess in Washington Square Park or Dupont Circle. You'll find your blood pressure rising steadily. You'll also find yourself playing Doctor? again and again.

Junior is Junior. It's arguably the strongest program currently available and seems to be a law unto itself. It's not as good as Fritz at blitz chess, but at longer time controls it's a killer. It's also great for a "second opinion" when analyzing a position.

In short, I've found Junior to be great for analysis, Doctor? to be a solid blast to play, and Hiarcs to have both qualities. They're all good, so in the end I guess you'll have to assess your own needs and let your conscience be your guide.

I have a deep-seated, passionate longing for your questions, comments, and submissions for Electronic T-Notes.

You can reach me by e-mail.