Monday, August 08, 2011

In Praise of the Machine? - Thoughts From an Aspiring Woodpusher...

Back in the early 80s I had, as a trainer, a Fidelity Chess Challenger 7 dedicated computer. A little bit of research seemed to show that it was rated, depending on the level, anywhere between 1100 and 1900. I figure 1100 was the 5 second response time and 1900 was the 24 hour response time. Tournament mode probably put the machine around 1350, and I think I can verify that based on the memory of my games with it vis-a-vis my rating at the time.

I think it could be agreed that one of the best ways to improve your chess is to play, and these days we have a wide range of options open to us.

From a machine perspective, its safe to say that the vast majority of commonly available programs out there can completely destroy a player like me, and I think that that may be true of most of us now. I was flabbergasted to see that some of these program's ratings were estimated to be above 3000. Wasn't 3000 supposed to be God's rating?

So, in installing chess engines on my computers, both for analysis as well as practice play, I wasn't all that worried about getting the "strongest engine." Oh, getting the strongest engine makes a lot of sense from an analysis perspective, I agree with that, but from a playing perspective, not so much, I thought. From a playing and practicing perspective it seems to me that you want stronger opposition, certainly, but you don't want opposition that you'll never win against. That gets discouraging. What I found interesting is that the chess engines I started trying - GNUChess, FairyMax V4.8, Scidlet V4.2.2 (Yes, I'm a Free Software Linux Geek. Moving on...) didn't seem to have "level" switches that I could see. There didn't seem to be an elegant way of hobbling the program. Everyone seemed to simply assume you'd want it playing at God strength all the time. Running the engines through Xboard, I managed to specify the depth level the engines would use. I found I could beat FairyMax at a depth level of 2, but am still working on a depth level of 3. Of course, these types of engines have a default depth level of 17, I think! FairyMax also had the advantage of not pegging my CPU.

What's your favorite program?

Computers, especially 30 years ago, were big practice deals because you could have an opponent anytime you wanted. These days another great option that is available is, of course, online play.

I'm divided when it comes to online play. Overwhelmingly my experience - and I can't claim much - is with FICS, the Free Internet Chess Server. I find most games online are played very, very quickly. I've never been a big speed chess player. OTB, it becomes a race to see if you can keep alive for longer than your opponent's flag stays up. Online you add issues of mouse clicks and lag into the mix. I've just not lept into it.

On the other hand, just like many things these days, I think a significant portion of the future of chess is online, and I'd love to see the US Chess community figure out a way of doing "official games" online. From what I understand, the USCF is trying to do this again. Their track record to date has not been good at this type of thing...and that discussion opens up whole 'nother can of worms, I'm sure!

What does everyone here use for online play, and what do you think are its best advantages?

Last, but certainly not least for members of the BCC, there is the option of challenging and practicing with your fellow club members! The value of this option cannot be discounted. Take advantage of it! Remember the Club is open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for open house if you can make it. You may not find Bobby Fisher, but you'll probably find someone who can give you a challenging and enjoyable game.

-Doc Kinne
BCC Member, USCF #12186200


Anonymous said...

I play internet correspondence chess on Time controls are generally 1, 3 or 7 days per move, in addition to a "timebank" (a sort of insurance if you're away from your games for a while). You can play up to six simulatenous games for free, or an unlimited number for an annual subscription of approximately $40. It's a lot of fun and I highly recommend it.

scott said...

I started playing chess a little over a year ago online. After a few weeks on FICS I was hooked, and decided to join ICC ( ICC has some really good regulary scheduled slow time control events open to members (like G/60, 45/45). In my experience, it is definitely easier to find slower games on ICC than FICS. Also, is a great online league where you play in 6 round tournaments with one 45/45 game a week (games played on ICC). You can play on up to 3 different teams in different rating sections at once. ICC membership also gives you access you a vast video library and weekly lectures by many well known GMs (called Chess.FM) I think ICC recently joined with World Chess Live, so that's another option. For me, the best advantage of online play is convenience - I can get a game slower than 30/30 almost anytime I want.

I enjoyed online chess so much I decided to look for a local club to start playing OTB, found BCC, and became a new member last month.

Ken Ho said...

Ah, Chess Challenger 7, my old adversary. Never thought you'd show your face in this town again. I could swear you played an illegal move in one of our games years ago....

I played briefly on the (free) Internet Chess Server (ICS) before it became the paid participation Internet Chess Club. Wikipedia puts that roughly around 1992-1995.

For many years, though, I have disliked playing computers or online. I like sitting across the board from real human beans (the greener the better for my own competitive results). As I wrote previously here, I enjoy chatting with my opponent during the game's postmortem.

And that general avoidance of "chess computerization" is just one of many reasons I will probably never make master. That blundering problem is another....

Welcome to the club, Scott!

Doc_Kinne said...

Scott, I look forward to meeting you! Thanks for the comments with regard to FICS and ICC. I'll take a closer look at ICC with what you've said. In either case, I think I just have to get used to the interfaces.