The webmaster of GMChess.com has graciously invited me to write a short (ha!) article for his website. As some of you are aware, I maintain the Chess Program Reviews Site. On the site, I have reviews and other interesting information to help you get the most out of your chess software. But I have never really discussed how I got started with computer chess. For those that are interested, you can read about it in the first half of this article. For those that are not, I would recommend that you skip to the second half, where I will make some predictions about what is ahead for the chess software industry.
CONFESSIONS OF A COMPUTER CHESS WIDOWER
My first taste of computer chess came in the early 90s. I was helping another author with a book about Internet medical resources, and as part of the research, we test-drove various computer connectivity providers. Back then, names like GEnie, Delphi, AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe were the titans of the nascent online world. Many of today's big Internet service providers did not yet exist, and AOL was the only one with any kind of graphical user interface for getting online.
At about this time, AOL created a program that let you access the Internet through their interface. This was the beginning of the end for me. I downloaded a program called SLICS, which was one of the first PC-based graphical programs for playing on the Internet chess servers. Using SLICS, I could log on to the free Internet chess server in the US. From then on, I was definitely hooked and lost many hours of sleep as a result.
While I enjoyed playing chess online, I also liked to follow conversations about the various computer chess programs. I did a little research and purchased a program called Chessica, which was the only commercial chess program for Windows at the time. Chessica was in fact a Windows version of Fritz 3, which was only available then as a DOS program. Soon after I bought DOS versions of CT-ART and Studies, along with Revel and Kasparov's gambit. CT-ART and Studies were interesting because they were really some of the first tutorial programs to have a format that many people liked (in fact, I still use both these programs to this day).
Around this time, I realized that there was really a dearth of information concerning any of these programs-and that it was really very easy to spend a lot of money very quickly (I should know). I decided to start what was then called the "Chess Widower's Home Page" so-named because of a fewcomments my wife made about my hobby.
The home page truly had humble beginnings, with a few paragraphs on each program and a five-point rating scale. At the time, the main source of information on chess software was the print periodical "Computer Chess Reports" (CCR), published by ICD Chess in New York City. CCR tested playing strength very well, but I felt people also wanted to know about program features, so I tried to focus on usability, stability, and customer support in my short articles.
After my page was up for a little while, I purchased my first database program - Chess Assistant for DOS. I was exceedingly happy with Chess Assistant. It was very fast, and the concept of a statistical opening tree was groundbreaking. Now the inclusion of an opening tree in a databaseprogram is truly considered to be a necessity, but back then it was revolutionary.
Shortly after my purchase of Chess Assistant, ChessBase released their windows database demo. If I could point to one pivotal event that revolutionized chess study, it would have to be the release of this demo. Many people that had never seen or thought of a chess database before got exposure to one through this software. Even though the expiration date on this program has long passed, I still see people trying to set their PC clocks back so that they can use it.
The ChessBase demo was an extremely clever way to promulgate the ChessBase file format and user interface. This continues on to this day - there are a ton of sites containing Chessbase format files. I am convinced that ChessBase owes a large part of their commercial success to this demo (that and their excellent products).
Some time after ChessBase for Windows was released, Chess Assistant also came out with a Windows version. And today, there are many other windows chess programs available. While many purists still consider DOS to be a better environment (at least for chess engine playing strength), most chess software development is for Windows.
I really hadn't intended on giving short shrift to all the playing programs on the market. It's just that my focus is more on databases and tutorials. Most of the improvement in playing programs takes place "behind the scenes". And it is also incredibly difficult to objectively evaluate chess engines. But to be sure, programs like Fritz and Rebel have had a huge influence on the market. Fritz is still the best selling playing software among serious players, and Rebel has continued to appeal to those that want a more human-like opponent.
In the past couple of years, new software releases have reached the market at an incredible pace. Many playing and database programs now have a one to two year update cycle. And the rate at which new tutorial programs are introduced is positively mind-boggling.
As the complexity of chess programs increased, so necessarily did the level of detail on my reviews. Today programs are so numerous and complex that it is a major effort to review even a tenth of what is available. And while keeping up with the reviews sometimes has me feeling a bit overworked, I would not have it any other way. It's simply exciting to influence all this fast-paced technology.
To a certain extent, the innovation I've talked about has fostered a more than a little chaos in the marketplace. When someone first takes a look at all the programs available, it can be a little overwhelming. In fact, when I stepped back and looked at my site, I realized the reviews lacked cohesion and some were a little too technical for chess software neophytes. I decided that they, and my site, needed a guide or handbook, and the "Chess Software Sourcebook" was born. The book serves as a guide to the world of chess software and provides an instructional manual on how to use a computer to perform typical chess-related tasks, such as game analysis and opening study.
My site is now called Chess Program Reviews (CPR) (http://members.aol.com/rjpawlak/ch_widow.html), and many of the reviews are mirrored through Chessopolis (http://www.chessopolis.com/csr), one of the premier chess portals on the Web.
GAZING INTO MY CRYSTAL BALL
What does the future hold for chess programs? Of course I cannot know for certain, but I can see some trends emerging, particularly with regard to chess engines and chess software in general.
As far as chess engines go, I don't think that a clear winner will emerge, and the top programs will continue to vie for the number one spot. It also looks like the most successful programs will be those with a hybrid approach to engine development. That is, the line between the fast searchers and the knowledge-based programs will continue to blur. I do think however, that it will be a while before a new engine comes along to challenge the dominance of programs like Fritz, Chess Tiger, Junior, Rebel, Hiarcs and Shredder.
The trend toward integrating databases and chess playing programs will also carry on. In fact, we can probably count on seeing more functions integrated until we have something akin to Microsoft Office for chess players. For some time now, we have witnessed playing programs with database features (Fritz and Rebel) and vice versa (Chess Assistant, Chess Academy and Chessvision). Look for greater incorporation of databases, Internet functions, e-mail chess, tutorials, and playing programs within a single software package.
The two trends I have discussed above may have some consolidating effects on the industry. Clearly, the most successful companies will have a firm grasp of program design in all these areas. Personally speaking, I do not want to see any of the current software houses leave the market. Because this competition has been responsible for all the incredible progress that has been made in the last few years.
Watch too for more handheld applications to appear. This past year brought the introduction of Chess Genius for the Palm, and I expect others to follow suit. Sales of handheld computing devices are going through the roof, and a clear winner in the handheld arena seems to be emerging (Palm OS). With a firm indication of where the industry is headed, software companies will feel more confident about allocating resources to the Palm platform. The only potential wrinkles in this area will be Palm's switch to the ARM processor core, which will affect chess engine coding efforts. But overall, a switch to the ARM architecture will mean a more powerful processor, which is good for chess.
And what about Linux? Can we expect to see a commercial chess database and playing program for Linux? Well, this is a difficult one to answer. As friends of mine know, I am rooting for the Penguin. However, I just don't see anything significant being released in the next year. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is the fragmentation that continues in the Linux community. The Linux desktop market seems to be split between Gnome and KDE, and while this split continues, developing for Linux is a chancy proposition. And the desktop market is really still quite small. Then there is the matter of development tools. The bigger chess software houses use Delphi and Microsoft tools for their development. But the Linux release of a Delphi equivalent (called Kylix) is a little behind. Also, it looks like Kylix will not use the standard set of graphical programming components that windows Delphi programmers are used to. And I would not hold my breath waiting for Microsoft to release Visual C for Linux . This means no Chessbase/Fritz and no Chess Assistant for Linux (this year).
Everyone has probably heard the buzz surrounding e-books. The recent Seybold conference saw the big players in the publishing industry talking about the "future" of publishing. Well, while those guys are talking about the future, you as a chess player are living it.
In fact, I think the traditional chess publishing industry may be in some trouble. Tutorial programs and electronic books can offer significant advantages over their print predecessors. For instance, the introduction of programs like "Mikhail Tal" and "Openings 2000" by Convekta (Chess Assistant) are very important. Why buy a book when the information is faster and easier to access by computer (not to mention cheaper too)?
In other words, we are beginning to see a significant movement toward electronic distribution. Of course, there will always be a place for books in the foreseeable future. But many types of books that were previously printed, such as opening references, are much better suited for CD-ROM. In fact, I expect opening books to be the first casualty to the electronic era. In the near future, electronic offerings from Informant, ChessBase, and Convekta will quietly take over more and more of the marketplace that once was solely the province of printed books.
If you have any questions or comments on this article, please feel free to e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org).