In Search of the Perfect Chess Mate
Chess has been around for centuries, pitting brain against brain on an eight-by-eight grid of squares filled with deception, ploys and stealth chicanery. Some see this game as an indication of intelligence, while others have an almost fanatic devotion to it that has grown worse with the rise of the personal computer. Why play against someone else if your computer is happy to oblige you? Since not all chess programs are created equally, this month’s roundup looks at the five main shareware options a chess savvy Mac user can choose from. As you’ll see, picking the right one involves more than just fun and games.
GNU Chess 4.0b5
Published by: Dan Oetting and Tom Gerarty
Web: from the HyperArchive
File Size: 250K
Requirements: System 6.0.7 or better, 1 MB of free RAM.
For a no-frills game of chess, go GNU. Those three letters signify free software, in this case a straightforward program with insanely low requirements that will probably run on any Mac. Some would call it an ancient relic in need of retirement, but this may be one of the few instances where slow speed doesn’t necessarily detract from game play.
GNU Chess doesn’t have many features. There aren’t any sound effects, the interface is black and white and some of the menu commands like “Show Thinking” and “Show Score,” don’t do anything (the documentation refers to them as “not yet implemented”). One thing GNU Chess will let you do is control how long it takes the computer to think before it makes a move, although the fastest setting is still molasses slow compared to other chess programs.
Fortunately, you can force the computer to make a decision if you’re tired of waiting. This speeds up the game considerably, although it’s hardly good chessmanship because the computer can’t return the favor when it’s your turn. Meddling with the machine also ruins the advantage of GNU Chess’s pokey performance. If you spend several minutes mulling over your next move, only to have the computer opponent react in a matter of seconds, it’s easy to feel outmatched. Slower response times create the illusion that the computer is just as perplexed as you are.
GNU Chess offers four playing modes (human vs. machine, machine vs. human, human vs. human and machine vs. machine) plus the option to save your game and finish it later. Each move is logged using simple grid notation which is listed in a separate window. That’s about all this program can do. With its low RAM requirements GNU Chess is a good choice for older Macs, but there are several better choices for newer machines.
Published by: Wim van Beusekom
Web: from the HyperArchive
File Size: 524K
Requirements: PowerPC (an older 68K is also available).
Like GNU Chess, MacChess is freeware. Optimized for PowerPC, it offers most of the features missing from its GNU counterpart, plus analytical abilities that should satisfy the needs of more fervid players.
When I first tried MacChess, it beeped every time the computer made a move. It wasn’t long before that became incredibly annoying, so I paid a visit to the Preferences window and put a stop to it. But that was just the beginning of my customization fun. One of MacChess’s strengths is the number of settings you can fiddle with—everything from long vs. short notation to five different chess sets, eight color schemes for the chess board, and more. As for the interface, it consists of six well organized windows. Take the Moves window as an example—if you want to step backwards and review your game move by move, you can do so by clicking VCR-style buttons.
MacChess supports the two main chess notation standards, PGN and EPD. With this flexibility you can download any number of tournament or high-profile games from Internet archives so you can watch a game unfold instead of just reading about it. When it comes time to print, both graphical and text options are available.
Like GNU chess, MacChess lets you adjust your computerized opponent’s intelligence by placing a cap on how long it should think before making a move. In addition, you can also impose a time limit on the entire game. The trouble with these options is that they can’t prevent your computer from slowing down if you try to do work in another application while the computer is thinking. All that calculating takes a heavy toll on processor performance. As long as you stay in the game, though, it shouldn’t be an issue.
Overall, MacChess is a solid program with some nice features. More than just a game playing arena, it’s a place to set up hypothetical situations (i.e. How can a knight fight off a bishop and protect a king at the same time?) and then scrutinize the results. Judging by the program’s steady development over the past few years, this is one to keep an eye on. Several different versions are available: English, Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish.
SigmaChess 4.0.2 Lite
Published by: Ole Christensen
Price: free (a commercial version with more features is also available)
File Size: 1.2MB
Requirements: System 7 or higher, 2 MB RAM, at least a 640 x 480 resolution with 16 colors/grays. SigmaChess is not PowerPC native, although the next version will be.
SigmaChess is easily the best piece of Mac shareware available for this game. It’s twice the size of some of the other programs we’ve looked at so far, but the extra download time is well worth the wait.
If you try SigmaChess for only one reason, do it for the 3D feature, which takes over your entire screen and lets you look down at the board just as you would in real life. Only one color scheme is available, though, and that’s no fun.
Back in 2D mode, there are tweakable settings galore. The interface consists of a single window with collapsible panes that displays the moves of each game, the speed of your computer opponent’s thought processes, and other game play statistics. Handy buttons run along the bottom of the window, providing quick access to common commands and freeing you from trips to the menu bar.
So far we have all the ingredients of a great chess program, but what really makes SigmaChess stand out from the competition is the way it lets you bring your computerized opponent down (or up) to your skill level. Other programs tend to refer to transposition tables and other technical aspects of how the computer performs its calculations, but with SigmaChess it’s just a matter of picking the right description. If you’re a novice, you can classify yourself as an Absolute Beginner, Beginner or Apprentice. You can also dictate the computer’s overall playing style, with options ranging from Chicken (where your opponent’s exclusive priority is defending his own king) through Defensive, Normal and Aggressive all the way to Desperado (an aggressive approach taken to the extreme). This kind of specification is only found in the appropriate places—when it comes to determining how long you’re willing to wait for your computer opponent to make a move, your options are largely the same as in GNU Chess and MacChess.
If SigmaChess has one drawback, it might be the abundance of icons. Every item in every menu has one, and for some players this may amount to overkill. It’s a matter of personal preference, and hardly a reason not to try this solid and stable program that has enough features to challenge advanced players, but also enough simplicity to let novices jump right in. If you’re serious about playing chess on your Mac, this is probably the program that you’ll want to keep. Just be sure to download the manual from the author’s Web site to get all the benefits. Also watch for version 5.0, which should appear later this year with a host of new features, including dramatic speed improvements.
Published by: Mike Bailey
File Size: 603K
Requirements: an Internet connection, and another user with this program.
The one aspect of game play we haven’t touched on so far is network play. Playing against a computer may be a great way to sharpen your skills, but it’s no substitute for a flesh-and-blood opponent. Those aren’t always easy to find, and even when you do you’ll inevitably spend a lot of time passing the mouse back and forth between turns if you’re both huddled in front of the same machine. ChessWorks has only one reason for existence, and it’s network play over the Internet.
At first this sounds like a great idea, but keep in mind the inherent limitations. Since both players have to be using the program, you won’t have many options if you’re looking for a game and the ChessWorks trackers (virtual meeting places where chess players can find opponents) are utterly deserted. You’re better off logging into the chess forum on Yahoo!, where the odds of finding a challenger are considerably higher. More importantly, it’s Java based, which means Mac and Windows users can temporarily set aside their platform differences and harmoniously come together for a friendly tête-à-tête. It’s enough to make you feel warm and fuzzy all over.
But let’s not throw out ChessWorks just yet. Its interface is infinitely more attractive than the confusing smattering of tables and boxes you’ll find on Yahoo!. If you’re artistically inclined, you can even create a custom board and chess set. And if you already know that your opponent is a fellow Mac user, ChessWorks will free you from the maddening inadequacies and overall ineptitude of your Web browser. Even though ChessWorks doesn’t let you play against your computer, it may still come in handy under certain circumstances. As with anything you do over the Internet, the faster your connection, the happier you’ll be.
Published by: James Burton
Web: from the HyperArchive
File Size: 1 MB
Requirements: A lot of patience.
“Our game of chess has a similar focus on style. But the war it reflects is not dry and meticulous; it is savage, cannibalistic, and always involves heavy casualties. Pieces advance by consuming other pieces; they win only by destroying every last vampire on the other side...The game is faster-paced than normal chess; combat is emphasized, as is winning at all costs. All pieces are expendable, and no one takes prisoners.”
That paragraph, taken from the instructions for Vampire Chess, is easily the most compelling description of a chess program I’ve ever seen. The program behind it, well, that’s another story.
I found it on CNET’s Download.com. It seemed promising enough, until I launched the application and tried to play a game. First there’s a loud blast of really crappy sound, then you stare at a Gothic picture until the program decides it feels like displaying the game board. Volume controls must have been unheard of when this program was born—you can change the settings as often as you like (good luck trying to discern the light-green text of the menu commands from their gray background), but they’ll inevitably sneak back to the highest setting.
That’s a petty annoyance compared to the game board. This is no chess game. As for the vampires, I’m still trying to separate the jumble of flat icon squares suffering from crude Photoshop manipulations from the background picture. I did manage to check one of my opponent’s pieces during a game (at least, I think that’s what I did), but then a fatal system error descended on my Mac and I had to reboot. It went downhill from there.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t bother reviewing a program like this—it’s poorly programmed and poorly designed, and generally a waste of time. But pay a visit to Download.com or the Info-Mac archive, and you may fall into the same trap that I did—putting too much faith in a short summary paragraph. Beware of skanky shareware. It’s out there, waiting to crash your Mac. Instead, let your trusty Shareware Editor serve as a first line of defense.
If you’d like to learn how to play chess, here are two Web sites you may find helpful courtesy of MacChess’s Wim van Beusekom:
Also in This Series
- Count Your Pennies · February 2003
- Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic: Educational Tools · January 2003
- Scrabble and Boggle · August 2002
- Weblog Tools · June 2002
- Financial Help · January 2002
- Games for Mac OS X · December 2001
- Screensavers · October 2001
- Stickies and Notepads—Part Two · July 2001
- Stickies and Notepads—Part One · June 2001
- Complete Archive