A knight's tour

Chessmaster 2000 logo Colossus Chess X logo Sargon III logo

The first human versus computer chess match was a disaster. The computer got frustrated working out each move on paper, the human got bored waiting up to half an hour for each move. Things have improved since then, as Alastair Scott finds out.

BEFORE I start, word about gradings. Under the Elo system, a player who has played sufficient competitive games is given a number, known as a grade, which is a reasonably accurate description of his playing strength. Elo grades range from 700 for the beginner to 2,800 for a world champion.

The average of all graded players, who make up about two per cent of all chess enthusiasts, is about 1,500. A good club player will normally be graded 1,850 to 1,900. The big three Amiga chess programs are Logotron's Sargon III Chess, Colossus Chess X from CDS and Chessmaster 2000 by The Software Toolworks.

SARGON III is a small program, only taking up 105k. Even better, it runs from Workbench and can multi-task. ON a 512k Amiga you can have three games of chess running at the same time. And it has an impressive pedigree, having been written by Dan and Kathe Spracklen, the people who wrote the software for the first commercially available chess computer back in 1977.

Because of its size, Sargo is definitely no-frills. There is no 3D board, but a very clear 2D one makes up for this, with colours set by preferences.

Presentation is excellent. Full use is made of pull-down menus and requesters. The pieces move quickly and smoothly, rotation of the board through 180 degrees being almost instant. Moves can be spoken as they are played, and the voice used is more pleasant than most Amiga speech.

The game has nine playing levels, with only the lowest three - 5 seconds, 15 seconds and 30 seconds per move - giving a reasonable length of game, as these times are very approximate. One time it took almost two minutes to make a move on the lowest level.

A 68,000 move opening book has plenty of variety and some dubious lines. The full board editor is the best I've seen on the Amiga, and there is an "infinite" playing level which, in principle, allows mates of any length to be solved, giving enough time and patience.

No printer facilities are provided but games can be saved and loaded via either a dialogue box from within the program or an icon on the Workbench screen. The moves can also be saved as an Ascii file, ready to be loaded into a word processor.

There are 107 "great games" and various other positions ready to be loaded in and replayed, although the comments in the manual about them are very terse given that Sargon III is targeted at beginners.

A very elegant program which packs a lot into small space.

COLOSSUS X is an upgrade from the 8 bit Colossus IV, written by Martin Bryant, an expert with 12 years' experience of computer chess programming.

No multitasking, but four sets of chessmen (standard, oriental, futuristic, medieval), a good 3D board which can be tilted and rotated, and a very poor 2D board which is small and over elaborate compared to the clear black and white board in Colossus Chess VI.

Sprite movement is jerky. There is a bug in which part of the display is obliterated when a piece moves along the eight rank. Non-Intuition and suspiciously Gem-like menus are used, with hot-key shortcuts. Silence, beeps, voices or continuous music can accompany your moves, and the program can speak in five languages, with all text altered to suit.

An infinite number of playing levels are available with six different time controls, including "all moves in x minutes" and "y moves in z hours", all chosen from foolproof menus. A full board editor, albeit with clumsy control, is provided. Mates in five, as well as selfmates and helpmates, can be solved.

There is an 11,000 move opening book. The program, more often than not, plays unusual and dubious defences. The book can be altered via a crude text editor - certainly not recommended because the master disc is altered and a crash while accessing the disc may corrupt it. This happened to me. CDS replaced my disc.

If you play an opening which is not in the book your next few moves will be saved to disc for future reference. This slows the program down to a snail's pace, and again there is a danger of crashes.

Endgame play is very good, but that opening book needs revision to eliminate some of the bad lines. Games can be saved and loaded. The disc directory is not displayed on screen, so if you forget a filename you'll have to fish out your CLI disc to read it. There are 29 human v computer games and 10 problems on the disc. Moves and the board position can be printed.

All sorts of extra weird and wonderful options round the program off, including Blindfold Chess, where you hide one or both sets of pieces, and Play to Lose, an easy mode for beginners.

Colossus X is a reasonable program which could have been much better. The graphics are so-so and the program is strangely sluggish, taking a few seconds even to clear the screen and set up the starting position. It gives the impression of being a badly ported ST program. Gimmicks like the fancy chess pieces and continues music would be better removed.

CHESSMASTER 2000 is the best presented chess program I've seen on the Amiga, with large, clear 2D and 3D boards, full use of Intuition, hot-key shortcuts, smooth sprite movement and silence, speech, beeps or bursts of music to accompany your moves.

Unlike Colossus X, which uses a separate screen to display the list of moves and its train of thought, Chessmaster 2000 uses small windows which overlay the main board and which can be closed in the normal manner. Open several of these windows at once on a vanilla A500 and you may get to meet the guru.

There are 12 playing levels, all of the form "x moves in y minutes", and a full board editor - up to mates in 10 can be solved. There is a 20,000 move opening book. One interesting feature is that there is a Coffeehouse mode, for interesting but possibly unsound play.

Best Move suffers from a lack of randomization - once Chessmaster 2000 and my FDE chess computer played two identical 60 move games in a row, the probability of this happening by chance being over one in ten thousand.

Games can be saved and loaded as well as erased or renamed. Moves can be printed: Chessmaster uses proper algebraic notation (Bg2 or Nxe5) as opposed to Colossus's over-fussy notation (Bf1-g2 or Nf3e5) or Sargon's medieval notation (F1-G2 or F3xE5).
There are 100 grandmaster games to look at, including some recent Kasparov-Karpov Battles.

Chessmaster 2000 is the best presented and the strongest program of the three on trial here. Its only weakness is its endgame. The upgraded Chessmaster 2100, which is presumably even stronger, is due for release any moment.

ALL three programs obey the laws of chess, including underpromotion and draws by threefold repetition of position and the 50 move rule. They can all force the standard mates, including the difficult King, Bishop and Knight against King.

All three programs announce mate, Colossus X and Sargon III resign gracefully in lost positions, Sargon III allows you to offer draws, and will declare a draw when there is not enough material to force a win - King and Knight versus King, for example.

I decided to set up an all-play-all tournament between the programs to find the strongest. FDE is my Fidelity Designer Excellence, a dedicated chess computer which cost £155 and which has been advertised US Chess Federation grade of 2,083. Each challenge consisted of a match of six games at 30 seconds per move or nearest equivalence.

The result, as shown in Figure I, leaves little doubt as to which program is the strongest player.
Chessmaster 2000 has a good opening book and a very powerful middlegame in which it frequently builds up strong attacks from nothing. All three of its losses were in the endgame, in which Colossus X, if it managed to survive, outplayed it.

Colossus X would have done better if it had desisted from playing odd openings which gave it poor middlegame positions, made worse by a stolid and unadventurous playing style - three of its games against Sargon III were mover 100 moves.

Sargon III's style is attacking, rather like Chessmaster 2000, but less successful because it is unable to plan in depth. All three of its draws were by repetition, when it had a superior position but ran out of ideas.

The Fidelity computer did well, except against Chessmaster 2000 when it repeatedly lost in the middlegame. After a long book opening - up to move 20 in both cases - it is remarkable how the FDE neglected his queenside and how quickly Chessmaster 2000 took advantage.

To test processing speed I set up mates in two, three and four, and asked the programs to solve them. The results are shown in Figure II. The blank in Sargon III's results is where, despite prodding it, it refused to find mate in two. It took four seconds to find mate in three instead.

The FDE dedicated computer, as you would expect, is the fastest. There is not much too choose between the three Amiga programs in speed. All three programs will give most players a good game, and are about a fifth of the price of a chess computer of similar playing strength. A bargain in anyone's book.

Figure I: The league table after a two-month round robin, each match consisting of six games. One for a win, half for a draw
  CM2000 FDE Col X Sargon TOTAL
Chessmaster ...... 11½011 0011½1 1011½1 12½
FDE 00½100 ...... 110½½1 ½111½1 10½
Colossus X 1100½0 001½½0 ...... 0½½111
Sargon III 0100½0 ½000½0 1½000 ......
Figure II: Speed of response
FDE 1 sec 5 sec 33 sec
Colossus X 3 sec 5 sec 467 sec
Chessmaster 3 sec 54 sec 518 sec
Sargon III ----- 63 sec 695 sec

Figure III
Estimated ELO
Ease of use
Range of options
2D board
3D board

TOTAL 1899 1944½ 2070½