by Steve Lopez

I've been a big fan of Hiarcs for a long time. Back in 1993, a friend sent me a copy of Hiarcs2 for Christmas and I was immediately impressed by its human-like play. The program made good defensive moves, didn't screw up its pawn structure for the sake of an attack, and frequently made quiet positional moves that set up future tactical possibilities. I found it pretty easy to forget that I was playing a computer program - in short, I enjoyed Hiarcs immensely.

Since 1996, ChessBase has offered Hiarcs engines for use within ChessBase and Fritz. I'm such a fan of Hiarcs that during my year-long hiatus from ChessBase USA (and concurrent vacation from most chess activity in general), I passed up buying Fritz4 to instead purchase the Hiarcs4 engine for use as an analysis tool in ChessBase for Windows. Its playing and analysis style was such a radical departure from that of Fritz that I simply had to have the program as a "second opinion" when looking at positions within ChessBase.

Now that I'm a ChessBase employee again, I get all of the company's software for free. But even if I wasn't with the company, I would still buy the latest Hiarcs version, 7.32 -- it's that good a program. And I can't think of any higher praise than that.

Longtime Fritz users will be struck immediately (as I was, those many years ago) by the difference in playing style. Hiarcs is a much more cautious player than is Fritz. Hiarcs will make sure that its own house is in order before trying to tear down yours. It excels at quiet moves, strengthening its own position before it launches the attack that destroys you. In many ways, Hiarcs is the most frightening chess program I've ever played -- it's similar to playing against a strong, methodical human master.

You'll notice immediately that Hiarcs analyzes much more slowly than Fritz (Fritz looks at about ten times the number of positions per second than does Hiarcs). This is because Hiarcs has a lot more positional chess knowledge built into the program than does Fritz, and this knowledge must be accessed for every position that Hiarcs evaluates. However, don't think that Hiarcs is a bad tactical player. In my first game against Hiarcs7.32 I made the mistake of playing the Smith-Morra Gambit and Hiarcs smacked me all over the board.

The program comes with the standard Fritz5.32 interface (so Fritz5.32/Junior5/Nimzo99 users won't have to learn a completely new set of menus and commands). It also includes its own opening book, specially tuned to play openings that accentuate Hiarcs' strengths.

When you purchase Hiarcs7.32, you also receive a number of additional engines. Some of these are available for download at www.chessbase.com (Crafty 16.6, ExChess 2.51), one is an engine that also comes with Fritz5.32 (Doctor? 3.0), two of them are previous 16-bit Hiarcs engines (Hiarcs4 -- which previously only worked within our 16-bit program interfaces -- and Hiarcs6), and there's an additional engine that's not available as a Fritz/ChessBase-ready engine anywhere else (Comet B02).

There are numerous tweakable parameters for the Hiarcs7.32 engine: positional learning (turning this on allows Hiarcs to learn from games it plays), selectivity and contempt value (similar to the functions in Fritz, discussed in ETN March 7, 1999), playing style (normal, defensive, or aggressive), and "Use tablebases".

All right, so what the heck are "tablebases"? These are endgame databases in a new format devised by Eugene Nalimov. They're similar in concept to the Ken Thompson endgame databases, but there are important differences. First of all, the new tablebases allow for multiple-pawn endings. You're no longer constrained by the single-pawn limitation. Second, Hiarcs7.32 comes with a program that allows you to create your own tablebases. The program will generate tablebases for five-piece endings right on your hard drive (although all four-piece endings and five of the five-pieve endings are included on the program CD). These are space-consuming (even compressed, a complete set of tablebases requires 8 gigabytes of drive space) and take a great deal of time to create (we're talking about days here). For more information, please see www.chessbase.com, click on the Hiarcs7.32 link, and then the link for tablebases. Hiarcs is already a strong program, but the use of tablebases increases its strength dramatically.

Another factor that adds to Hiarcs' strength is the fact that the hash tabels are not cleared after each move. Hiarcs remembers prior positional evaluations from move to move, which allows the program to recall "plans" it had previously devised and consequently saves time on subsequent searches.

So just how strong is Hiarcs7.32? Results posted on the Internet at the ChessBase web site and in various computer chess discussion groups show Hiarcs7.32 consistently beating Fritz5.32 in match play at a variety of time controls and usually by a comfortable margin. Hiarcs7.32 is arguably the strongest commercial chess program available currently.

But don't be put off by its strength. The various strength tweaks available in Fritz are also available in the Hiarcs interface (Handicap and Fun mode, Friend mode, Sparring mode), so you should have no trouble finding a setting that allows you to get a challenging game without being overwhelmed.

All of Fritz5.32's coaching features are included in Hiarcs7.32 (and, boy, the coach has had a lot to say so far during my games against Hiarcs! Whew! I used to think I knew a little something about this game...). The program also comes with the same 300,000 game database that's included with Fritz5.32. All of these features make Hiarcs7.32 a full-featured playing program.

My personal experiences with Hiarcs down through the years have been good ones; the latest version is no exception. Playing Hiarcs7.32 is like becoming reacquainted with an old friendly rival. It still plays a very human-like game, still clobbers me mercilessly, and still has me using creative language that I don't want my kids to hear.

Until next week, have fun!

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