by Steve Lopez

Last week we looked at untimed and handicap playing levels. For 90% of chessplayers these levels are all that's needed for a good challenge. However, these levels are pretty unfair to Fritz; after all, you might be limiting Fritz to a three second search while you take twenty minutes to decide on each of your moves. It also tends to make you unaware of the clock which, for tournament chessplayers, is a deadly habit to get into.

A tougher test of your abilities involves playing a timed game against Fritz (or any of the other engines). Fritz provides several ways to play timed games against it and that'll be the subject of this week's ETN.

Generally speaking, there's no way to handicap Fritz in a timed game; the program will play as strong as it can in the time you've given it. While you can tweak the program various ways using the "engine parameters" function, the engine will still play the toughest game possible given the time settings.

In broad terms, the more time you give a computer to think, the stronger it will play. But there's a paradox here: in general, computers do better at blitz chess than at long time controls. This oxymoron is pretty easy to explain: it's not because computers are good at blitz -- it's because humans are bad at it. Computers are lightning-fast calculators; even a slow engine will calculate to a depth of five or six ply in just a few seconds -- and it sees nearly everything out to that depth. Humans are still looking at (or even searching for) their first candidate move during the first few seconds when it's their turn to play. The basic fact is that you will almost always be outthought by a computer in a blitz game -- it sees an awful lot awfully quickly.

When you play at longer time controls, the odds even out a bit. Although a computer can do a deeper search in a game at tournament time controls, it's not deeper by a huge amount. Every ply you add to a computer's search exponentially increases the number of positions it must consider and each ply takes longer to consider than the last. It takes a computer longer to search just the eleventh ply alone than it did to search the first six or seven plies combined.

This is what evens the odds: computers don't get significantly stronger at longer time controls, but humans do. We have more time to consider our options and to make those hazy long-term strategic plans that computers are incapable of devising. Computers only see the short range possibilities. Humans consider the long term objectives -- but we need a little time to do it. That's why computers have the advantage at blitz chess, while humans do well at longer time controls (40/2 or other tournament controls). Our abilities are the ones that change with the clock settings, not the computer's.

Either way, the computer plays as tough as it can in the time you've allotted, so keep this in mind. This is why I'm baffled when I receive a tech support call in which a user asks me for the "strongest" setting for Fritz. Unless you're using one of the modes we discussed last week (in which you limit Fritz' thinking ability or alter its style of play), any timed setting is essentially its "strongest" setting. There is a tweak in Fritz6 called "Optimize strength" and we'll delve into this later.

By far, the most popular mode of play is blitz chess (after all, how many of us really have the time to play a game against a computer at 40 moves in 2 hours?). It's very simple to set Fritz to play blitz or speed chess. Just go to the Game menu, select Levels, and choose "Blitz Game".

The first box is pretty self-explanatory -- "Time (min)". You just set the length of time each player will have on his clock at the start of the game. The second box is "Gain per move (sec)". This box is used for setting the increment for Fischer time controls.

A short explanation of Fischer controls is in order here. The idea is that for every move you make, a set amount of time is added to your clock. This is not a new idea -- players of the Asian games Go and Shogi have been doing this for many years. The idea behind an added increment is to ensure that (in theory) a player should never lose a game by running out of time.

Let's look at an example. My preferred time setting for computer games and Internet chess games is 20/10. This means each player starts with twenty minutes on his clock and receives a bonus of ten seconds each time he makes a move. Let's assume I'm playing Black. My clock reads 20:00 at the start of the game. My opponent plays 1.e4. I play 1...c6. It takes me two seconds to physically make the move. Normally, my clock would now read 19:58, to reflect the two seconds it took me to move the c-pawn. But by using the Fischer increment of ten seconds, my clock now reads 20:08. I made the move, taking two seconds, so my clock reads 19:58 (for a fraction of a second), but then ten seconds are added to my remaining 19:58 once my move is completed, making my total remaining time 20:08.

Then it takes me, say, three seconds to make my next move, dropping my time down to 20:05. But ten seconds then get added to my time once my move is completed, bringing my new total to 20:15. As long as I make a move in under ten seconds, I actually gain time on my clock. This will become crucial to me later in the middlegame and endgame. If I can play the obvious moves (opening "book" moves, recaptures, or forced moves) quickly, it buys me some time for later in the game when I really need it.

Let's jump ahead to the early middlegame. I have 16:27 showing on my clock when my opponent makes his move. My clock starts and I have a tough decision to make. It takes me an entire minute to decide on a reply, dropping my time down to 15:27. I make my move, and ten seconds get added to my clock, making my time 15:37. In effect, I just spent 50 seconds on my move instead of a whole minute.

So, in theory, as long as a player moves quickly enough, he need never run out of time in a game using the Fischer increment. I can (proudly?) state that I have never lost a Fischer-increment game by my time running out (I have lost a few by being mated in under twenty moves, but let's not talk about that). And I've frequently played against computer programs which finished a game with more time than the initial allotment (I once played a long game at 30/30 against a program which finished with over 45 minutes on its clock).

Fritz allows you to set either standard time controls or Fischer time controls. But there are a couple of extra tweaks. Some people feel a bit cheated by the fact that a computer can move instantaneously upon deciding on a move, while a human has to operate a mouse, thereby losing a little time in comparison with the computer. Fritz gives you a couple of options to give yourself a time cushion for mouse operation. One is the box reading "Human bonus (min)". This allows you to add some extra time to your initial time control. For example, if you want to play a blitz game in which Fritz has five minutes total time while you have six minutes (giving you an extra minute to help offset the computer's advantage of instantaneous movement), you would set "Time (min)" to 5, while setting "Human bonus (min)" to 1. This gives you an extra minute for mouse clicking. Note that the on-screen clocks will not reflect the bonus until after the first move of the game is made (the program has no way to know who is White and Black until you make a move or force the computer to do so).

The other way to handicap yourself because of mouse manipulation is by using "Human bonus/move(sec)". When you're playing a game using Fischer increments, the extra number of seconds are added to your per move increment. Going back to the example I used previously, in which I play a game at 20/10, I could set the human bonus per move at 2. This means that I'll get 12 seconds back for each move I make (on the assumption that it will take me two seconds to physically move a piece using the mouse). While Fritz is still playing at 20/10, I'm now playing at 20/12.

The final part of this window displays shortcuts to the most popular blitz/speed settings. Click on one and you'll see the boxes above change automatically. You can then alter the information (by allowing yourself a slight time handicap as described previously).

Another mode of timed play uses tournament time controls. These are the standard time controls with which long-time tournament players will be familiar. Just go to the Game menu, select Levels, and then "Long Game".

This window allows you to set up to three time controls per game. Let's use the default values as an example. The first time control is 40 moves in 2 hours. This means that each player has two hours on his clock in which to make their first 40 moves; if a player hasn't reached 40 moves by the time two hours are up, he loses -- period.

But what happens when a player does reach his 40th move? Any time left on his clock gets added to the second time control. The default for the second time control is 20 moves in one hour. So, for example, if a player has made 40 moves in his first hour and ten minutes, the additional fifty minutes are carried over into the secondary time control -- he now has one hour fifty minutes to make his next twenty moves (the sixty minutes of the secondary control, plus the fifty minutes he had remaining from the first time control). As another example, a player makes his 40th move with fifteen minutes ten seconds left on his clock -- the extra 15:10 carries over into the secondary control, which means that he now has 1:15:10 to reach move sixty. If you don't make your 60th move by the end of the second time control, you lose -- period.

Finally, there's a third ("sudden death") time control. The default is thirty minutes. Any time left over from the secondary time control is added to this total. So, going back to our first example, our player had 1 hour 50 minutes in which to make moves 41 through 60. Let's say he has 45 minutes showing on his clock when he makes the 60th move. This 45 minutes carries over into the third time control and is added to the 30 minutes allotted to the third time period. He now has 1 hour 15 minutes left to finish the game (this has essentially become a sudden death time control, like setting an initial time control under "Blitz Game"). If his 75 minutes run out with no decision, he loses -- period.

Just to show you how much chess has changed in the last decade, most of the tournaments I participated in back in the late 1980's and early 1990's had this sort of time control. I used to play in weekend events with time controls like 40/2 followed by G/1 -- meaning you had two hours to make your first 40 moves, then an hour as the second time increment. In effect, each player had three hours to finish a game, meaning that no game could last longer than six hours (and that was plenty long enough -- one of the toughest games I ever played was on the White side of a French Defense that went nearly five hours. I'm happy to say that I won it, but I actually sweated off a few pounds of weight in the process -- no joke). Time controls of this length are becoming more and more scarce. In fact, it's becoming tougher to find tournaments at Game in 60 anymore. Game in 30 is becoming the norm for amateur weekend events. (And, of course, you'd set G/60 and G/30 in Fritz by using "Blitz Game", even though these aren't technically "blitz" time controls).

I used to play in a lot of quads that had the curious time control of 40/80 followed by game in 30. I'm sorry to say that there's no way to duplicate this time control exactly in Fritz, but there's a workaround that will do just fine in 99.9% of the cases. Set the first time control for 40 moves in one hour twenty minutes, then set the secondary time control for 100 moves in thirty minutes. You might run into an odd case in which the tertiary time control is reached, but this should be pretty rare.

You'll also see some default options as you do in "Blitz Game". You can click on one to get the preset, and then tweak it the way you want it.

Finally, we come to the dreaded "Rated Game" option. This is buried in a different menu on purpose, to prevent you from accidentally selecting it. Go to the File menu, then select Open, then New, then "Rated Game".

The procedure for using Rated Game is a bit unusual. Your first step is to select a time control, using either "Blitz Game" or "Long Game". Once you've done that, then select "Rated Game" to get the parameters window.

The top box shows your record in previous rated games. You'll see your name, your estimated playing strength (determined by the results of past rated games you've played against the program), your title (awarded to you by the program, again based on your past results in Rated Game mode), your overall record, and your "money" (used in "doubling" games, which will be described in a moment).

There are only three parameters you can select in this window. One is "Name" -- useful for when mutiple family members are playing Fritz on the same computer. Another is "Playing strength". This gives you a slider which lets you select the approximate Elo rating of your computerized opponent. You'll see a range of ratings above the slider. This works exactly like the playing strength slider in "Handicap and fun" mode (see last week's ETN for more on it). You can check the "Unleashed" box -- this makes Fritz play at full tilt and gives you an approximate Elo rating for the program at full strength. This is both hardware-dependant and engine-dependant -- you can always load a weaker engine to get a lower range of ratings and a lower "unleashed" strength (again, see last week's ETN for information about the weaker engines).

The third selectable parameter is "doubling". Chess, believe it or not, can be a fun gambling game. Most American chess hustlers just play for stakes -- you win the game, you get the agreed-upon stake. But Eastern European players have adopted a much more interesting and exciting idea borrowed from backgammon -- the concept of doubling.

A person could write a whole book about doubling strategy, but here are the basics. Let's say you and your opponent agree upon a $10 stake before the game starts. The winner gets $10 which the loser must cough up. But at any point in the game, a player may elect to "double", that is, demand that the game be played for twice the initial stake (in this case $20). If the opponent agrees to it, the game goes on. If the opponent refuses, he loses the game (and the original $10) instantly. If the second player agrees to double the stake, the game continues, but now only the second player has the right to double the stakes again -- the player who first elected to double can't do it again unless the second player has already exercised this option in the interim (in other words, the right to double passes back and forth between the players). If the second player demands to double the stake (taking it to $40) and the first player agrees, the game goes on -- and now the first player again has the right to double (and if he does, it will then raise the stake to $80), and so on.

As I said, you could write a book about doubling strategy in chess. It's a weird, wild, exciting way to play, but it's not for everyone. If you don't want to play this way, uncheck the doubling box. If you leave it checked and start the game, at some point Fritz will demand that the initial stake be doubled. If you refuse, you lose on the spot. If you accept, the game continues and you can later demand that Fritz agree to double the stake. There's a lot of strategy involved in this and it is possible to force an opponent's early resignation by judicious use of the doubling demand.

Once you've selected the parameters for your rated game, click OK and the game begins. Rated game differs from unrated timed games in several important particulars:

In essence, you're playing against Fritz under tournament conditions, just as though you were playing in a rated over-the-board event. Fritz will remember your results from game to game and assign you an approximate rating according to the results of the games.

Please do not mess around with this feature unless you're serious about playing a rated game. I'm always getting calls and e-mails from people who start this feature, goof around and not take it seriously, and get upset with their 1100 rating -- then ask me how to reset their rating to zero with no games played. You can't do it without deleting files and losing all of your presets for board colors, screen layout, etc. So don't mess around with Rated Game unless you're going to take it seriously and want Fritz to asign you a rating and a title.

(As an aside, I'm not 100% sure that you can reset your rating at all. The old DOS Fritz3 stored your rating secretly on your hard drive and it remained there even after Fritz3 was uninstalled. I tested this and it was completely true. It allegedly couldn't be removed without reformatting the hard drive. I was never told the secret as to where the rating was stored; my hunch is that it was squirreled away in the command.com file, which means that it couldn't be removed without a hex editor. Recent reports from users indicate that uninstalling Fritz6 completely will reset the rating to zero. I personally don't use the Rated Game function, so I've not been able to confirm this. I know my rating [it stinks, thanks for asking] and I don't need any extra embitterment at the hands of Fritz. So to be on the safe side, don't mess around with Rated Game unless you're going to take the games reasonably seriously).

Fritz determines your rating by the standard Elo formula. It's a bit too involved to get into here, but I've written an article on my personal web page. You can check it out to see how the rating system works.

Those are your choices for playing timed games against Fritz (or any of the other engines). Keep in mind, though, that on reasonably fast hardware Fritz is a killer in timed game modes. If you're an average player, don't expect to win many timed games unless you decide to play rated games with the "playing strength" slider turned down.

Next week we'll look at a few more tips pertaining to levels in Fritz6. Until then, have fun!

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