My Chess Journey
From Generation to Generation
My father, a fine chess player himself, has been a massive influence throughout my life. — Magnus Carlsen
I was first introduced to the game of chess by my dad when I was a young boy, and was immediately fascinated by the struggle between the two royal armies in their captivating, neatly delineated world.
As I grew, so too did my love of the game. I was an eager participant in my primary school’s chess club and proud member of the chess team. I was amazed to discover the giant board and pieces which brought the bandstand to life between concerts and local fairs in our summer village. I watched many a match in the Hofgarten, where old men brought their pieces to the tables to challenge one another, some competing fiercely for supremacy, everyone enjoying the pleasure of a well-played game.
I purchased countless chess sets, and loved them all, although two do stand out in my mind. The first, which I bought with my carefully saved pocket money, was a nicely made little travel set which went everywhere with me — to school, out to play with my friends, on family visits, on holiday — and the other, which I bought many years later when I was an adult, was a gift for my dad who had taught me to play all these years before and who had always wanted a luxurious set but had never treated himself since he gave everything to us, his family. The large, ornately carved set is to this day still my favourite and I was always so happy to see the stunning pieces proudly set out on their elegant board, which in turn sat on its own table in my parents’ living room, waiting for Dad and I to face each other once again over these sixty-four wonderful squares.
My Introduction to Computer Chess
I’ve never been much of a computer guy, at least in terms of playing with computers. — Magnus Carlsen
Going back to when I was a teenager, home computers were dropping in price and rising in popularity. Whether it was due to this or my constant badgering I cannot say, but Dad, in spite of his scepticism, decided it was time for us to get a Commodore 64. Once we had a computer in the house, it was only a matter of time before I bought my first chess program, David Kittinger’s MyChess II. Disappointingly, although I felt like I should like the game, I never got into it at all. Sitting in front of my TV and wrestling with the controls just wasn’t the same as playing my dad or someone at the local chess club. Although I became somewhat of a computer geek, I didn’t become a computer chess fan. As I said, for me chess was something to be enjoyed with people, not machines.
A few years later, mobile gaming came into its own thanks to the Nintendo Gameboy. I loved playing Tetris, so naturally had to get myself a Gameboy, and naturally I loved it! Holding the future of gaming in my hand, it occurred to me that it was probably a good time to give computer chess another shot and I bought another David Kittinger chess program, The Chessmaster. I liked the fact that it was portable, although the cursor-controlled input still felt wrong and the password saves were, quite simply, a pain, so once again I never really got into playing the game.
Touch Screens Change the Game
Chess is changing. I hope chess is getting more popular, more spectacular. — Alexandra Kosteniuk
Jump forward a few more years and how things changed! Gadget-wise, I was toting a Handspring Visor, I bought Christophe Théron’s amazing Chess Tiger program, which played aggressive gambits and was a good partner to learn from, and suddenly I was enjoying computer chess. The touch screen was the natural way to control input, Tiger looked good, had a wealth of options, played well and it was easy to save and resume games. In short, I was finally enjoying playing computer chess. Not only was Tiger far superior to either of the previous programs I had bought, the portability and intuitive interface offered by the Handspring Visor ensured that it was far more practical to use.
I enjoyed Tiger for several years but, as technology progressed and I upgraded first to a Palm Tungsten E and then to a Palm T|X, I was prompted to look for a program optimised for the new processors and so I found my way to Mark Uniacke’s world-famous HIARCS program, which was justifiably renowned for its excellent positional play and human-like playing style.
As my T|X grew long in the tooth, I jumped the sinking Palm ship and bought an iPod touch, before upgrading to an iPhone. I knew this was the future, even in the pre-App Store days when I still kept my T|X around as a dedicated chess machine.
Apple’s App Store
I spend hours playing chess because I find it so much fun.— Magnus Carlsen
Since the launch of the App Store, there have appeared a steady stream of chess apps and I have bought more of them than I care to count. I was initially amazed that, thanks to the extremely competitive nature of App Store pricing, even the best of those sold for well below what I had paid years before for Chess Tiger and HIARCS on my Palm PDAs. The downside of this, of course, is that if apps don’t earn their keep, we can’t expect developers to bring us new features. Perhaps this is why, despite the incredible power of Apple’s recent hardware, many of the best chess apps on the platform are sadly neglected. Worryingly, three of the five apps which I have most enjoyed on my chess journey have not been updated since October 2014.
One app which is still being updated was one of the earliest chess apps on the app store — Joachim Bondo’s Deep Green. Aimed at casual players, it boasts a beautiful user interface, and although it lacks more advanced features such as changing the engine’s playing style or analysing games, it offers everything you need to enjoy a nice game of chess. My only complaint is that at the easiest levels the app tends to play some really odd moves, seemingly a case of pitching you against a dumbed-down computer opponent rather than a balanced weaker player. Equally, the engine isn’t the strongest on the market if you are a master-level player. Despite these caveats, the overall experience is enjoyable, and I’m happy to see that Joachim still maintains Deep Green.
Another gem to find its way on to the App Store was Tord Romstad’s wonderful, open-source Glaurung, which has since evolved into Stockfish. Despite being a free app, it boasts a ridiculously strong engine which can play some quite startling chess, all wrapped up in an understated, clean interface. Given how strong the engine is, I would like to be able to analyse different variations with the app, and it would be nice if the playing strength was mapped to Elo rankings instead of Stockfish’s own scale. It would also be nice if the app was updated more regularly to keep it in line with the latest desktop engine, which is now a couple of versions ahead. Having said that, there is really no reason for any chess fan not to own Stockfish.
Stefan Meyer-Kahlen’s multiple-championship-winning Shredder engine doesn’t need any introduction to computer chess enthusiasts. In addition to a comprehensive list of features, Shredder offers a collection of 1000 chess problems to puzzle over. It was also the first app to calculate your Elo rating after each game and adjust the engine strength accordingly. Strangely for an app with Shredder’s pedigree, it launched without clocks for timed play or variations for analysis, and although clocks have since been added, you still can’t play different variations.
I was delighted when HIARCS appeared in the app store and competing against this excellent engine on my iPhone certainly didn’t disappoint, but what did disappoint was the overall quality of the app. Much as I love how HIARCS plays chess, the app has always lacked polish and has never been complete. From the poorly adapted, cluttered version of the Glaurung/Stockfish interface which it uses, through the features missing from the Palm version from years before, to the long-standing bugs which have never been fixed, the HIARCS app has always been a case of unfulfilled potential. What a sorry state of affairs for an engine which was such an important part of my computer chess journey.
From Generation to Generation
I still love to play chess. — Anatoly Karpov
After the disappointment of HIARCS, imagine my surprise when out of the blue my one-time favourite, Chess Tiger, appeared for the iPhone under the strange (I later discovered search-term-friendly!) guise of CHESS℠, before settling on its current name of Chess Pro — with coach. Despite arriving late to the party, it is clear that Christophe Théron put a great deal of thought and effort into bringing his engine into the App Store. Chess Pro — with coach plays a great game and offers virtually every option you could want, including playing styles, game imports, multiple variations and thousands of Grandmaster games to analyse and study!
The 2016 Tiger engine is a vicious opponent for seasoned players which is far ahead of the venerable Palm version. At the same time, it is also a more rounded player and the beginners and coaching options are the best I have seen for newcomers, gently guiding them as they improve step by step. Could anything make the app better? Not much, to be honest. The one thing which is missing (and which Christophe has confirmed will be coming in an update) are names for book openings, and although the interface is nicely laid out, I would personally prefer a flatter, more modern design. However, even ignoring any possible future enhancements, as it stands I consider Chess Pro — with coach to be far and away the most complete chess app available, which is rather fitting considering it was Chess Tiger on the Palm that got me into playing computer chess in the first place.
Just as my computer chess playing has come full circle with the Chess Tiger engine again being my machine partner of choice, so too has my over the board playing come full circle. I began my chess journey with my dad, eagerly learning from him until I surpassed him. He continued to challenge me until, sadly, he could no longer play. Now it is my turn to share my love of the game with my young daughter, just as my dad shared his love of the game with me. Now it is my turn to guide and inspire the next generation as they embark on their own chess journey.