It is impossible to know exactly when Chess was invented; a fact which is incredibly frustrating because that is exactly the information I needed to begin this week’s editorial. Seriously, how hard can it be to write something like this down, and then keep it in a safe place? “Today I invented a game called Chess.” See? Not hard! It is called a journal, people of history. Searching around the internet for an answer just brings up names like “Senet” and “Chaturanga”; information which is about as helpful and pleasant as a kick in the pants, or a Discord chat ban from Bup. I want a specific date, or at least a year. But NO. Anyhow, Chess was invented…at some point, and now nerdy people play it on their smartphones. But this was not always the case! While there is now the outstanding Chess.com website and its companion iOS and Android apps (my username is Sebastian247 if you enjoy a mild challenge, or just want to pad your ranking), in this week’s editorial I will take a look at some other computerized chess games.
As a nerdy, isolated child, I thought it was really cool when I was presented with a Kasparov-endorsed Saitek Talking Coach Chess Computer for Christmas one year. And do you know what? It was really cool. In my mind. This magnificent slab of plastic was a late 1990’s (1998, to be exact) example of a chess computer, and the category actually exists to this day; with a quick search revealing new models (from a company named Millenium) on Amazon, for example. But what could rival the Saitek Talking Coach? Powered by a 1.7 MHz (not a typo, that is MEGA Hertz!) processor, the Saitek Talking Coach offered 64 modes of play, comprised of various styles and difficulty levels. But the selling point for this system was the digitized voice, which may or may not have been Kasparov himself! (The fidelity was a bit low, so it is difficult to say with certainty.) The voice coach would comment on the human player’s moves, offering helpful suggestions such as “check!” when one’s king was in danger, or even complement the player on outstanding moves (I can almost hear it now, like it was only yesterday: “Illegal move! Illegal move!”). For a tactile learning experience chess computers offer a taste of what playing chess against another person might be like, if only they did not live in isolation; friendless, and alone. In truth, personal computer – and now phone/tablet – applications have all but replaced chess computers for most lonely chess-playing people.
Moving on to software, probably the most recognized game is The Chessmaster, which is a longstanding series with its origin on early computer systems. This program first appeared in 1986 as The Chessmaster 2000, published by The Software Toolworks (later Mindscape, now defunct). Many versions of The Chessmaster were released over the years, and it crossed over onto consoles as well, with versions for the NES, SNES, PlayStation, and others. I still have my Game Boy Color cartridge, titled simply Chessmaster, which is based on the original version of the game. The final version to be released (after Ubisoft acquired the game, before killing it some time after) was its 11th edition, released in 2007 for the PC as Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition; and the following year on the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP portable systems as Chessmaster: The Art of Learning. I have only played the PC version as of this writing, and it offers a full complement of gameplay options, the sort of 3D graphics one would expect from a game published in 2007, and a full slate of learning tools with a customizable chess coach. But, as highly polished and seemingly feature-complete the final version of The Chessmaster may be, there is a far less auspicious game in my software library which I count as my favorite PC version of the great game to date: Kasparov’s Gambit.
It may be an older title, released for MS DOS in 1993, but Kasparov’s Gambit is a solid effort with a unique design. This game features the legendary grandmaster, who occupies a window above the gameboard, offering his analysis of the game as it progresses. It simulates having a chess coach, with a deeper experience than a talking chess computer can provide (sorry, Saitek). The strengths or weaknesses of various opening strategies are discussed, and the moves of both players are critiqued throughout the game. This may sound annoying, but it is very helpful when learning the game, or improving one’s play through many levels of difficulty. On that subject, Kasparov’s Gambit is not easy, with even its 800-level computer player offering a greater challenge than what you might expect from the Chess.com computer player at similar levels – in this often-inept player’s experience, that is. Still, even with higher relative difficulty I have found Gambit to be a deeply satisfying experience, even if it cannot reach the level of polish (and sheer depth) of a game like Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition, but it can be found easily as “abandonware” online and played in DOSBox on any operating system without issue. Certainly worth a look!
Chess might be old, though exactly how old is as big a mystery as bigfoot, or…Adeki. While the above titles do not even scratch the surface of the software titles from personal computer and video game console history (I say this with unplayed copies of The Chessmaster 3000, Grandmaster Chess, and Sargon 4, in an old 3.5-inch floppy disc compilation called Chess Mania, sitting on my shelf), they at least represent a few of the options available. Options that just happen to be out-of-print, obsolete, and abandoned. While most of my time with Chess is spent with Chess.com these days (and to that end generally within their companion Android or iOS mobile app – and I stress that this is not a paid advert for that platform, though I desperately wish that it was), there is a certain charm to dedicated software and even the (admittedly obsolete) physical chess computer boards. Playing chess is an exercise in intellect, intelligence, and, uh, innovation. Yes. The three i’s. But there really is no innovation, as every possible move one could make has already been done, and the smartest of players see right through your foolish strategy, you dingus. (Sigh.) Someday, somehow, I will win a game. I swear it.