Almost no one knows this, but I’ve been a bit of a chess fan for a good part of my life. I watch “Searching for Bobby Fischer” every time it’s on. I was saddened by the recent announcement that Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest player ever, was retiring from chess. And every time I stumble across a Civil War chess set, I think about reaching for my wallet. But I rarely play, and haven’t undertaken any serious endeavor to become a more skilled player since a few weeks of study as a junior high school student.
That’s why when given the opportunity to review Fritz 8 Deluxe
, I jumped at the chance. When it comes to chess software, UbiSoft’s Chessmaster
is the name most gamers have come to recognize. But visit the chess sites on the web, or talk to any member of the chess community, and the software mentioned most often will be the Fritz engine by Chessbase.
In researching the prior versions of Fritz, there could be no doubt that it had the most powerful chess AI playing engine commercially available. Due to a lack of features, clunky interface, and a high price point, Fritz was relegated to those players who weren’t challenged by the less powerful Chessmaster engine, or who wanted a higher level of statistical analysis of their play. With this most recent release, Chessbase has made it’s strongest push yet towards the mainstream or occasional chess gamer.
In playing Fritz 8 Deluxe
, the first thing that strikes you is the control the gamer can exercise over the playing environment. The playing modes available range from several different types of tournaments, to “Blitz Mode”, Fritz 8’s form of speed chess, where each the game lasts no longer than 25 minutes, and can be set to as short as 5 minutes. In addition, the actual engine chess engine, or AI, that the user plays against is selectable and customizable.
Several chess engines are included with Fritz 8 Deluxe
, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. These engines can be further customized by selecting Friend Mode, a mode in which players can select a handicap (much like in golf) that is representative of their level of skill. Choosing this mode essentially ‘dumbs down’ the chess engine selected closer to the level of the player. As you play the engine in Friend Mode, the game will automatically adjust your handicap to match your increasing level of skill.
The controls are beyond simple. The interface is mouse based, with the exception of keyboard shortcuts for menus, so controlling your pieces is straightforward. In addition, the game will not let you make a move that the rules of chess do not allow, so if you’re just learning, you don’t have to worry about beginners mistakes.
While sounds aren’t all that important in a chess game, the graphics of the chess board are. And graphics are one of the biggest advances in Fritz 8. 6 new truly 3D boards have been included with this new version, all offer a unique look and feel, and vary enough from each other to create a decent range of gaming environments.
When it comes down to the most important part of the game, the play, the onus is comes back to the gamer himself. I played about 20 games in various modes, and the computer wiped the board with me in nearly all of them, most of them in a short amount of time, and without straining its obviously deep analytical database. In one of my very few good plays, I actually made the engine look several levels deeper than it had in any other prior position before making a move. Sadly, my next position wasn’t as good, and 6 moves later, Fritz had me in checkmate.
Once I started utilizing Friend Mode, I felt a little more competitive, and over several games, my handicap decreased slightly, as my play slowly improved. Friend Mode, along with the Beginners Course (an audio and video tutorial), is the place to start in Fritz 8 Deluxe
for anyone new to chess or chess software.
Once I felt comfortable playing against the engine, I used the games online connection to the Chessbase Playchess server, and played live against other players around the world. Unlike some games where playing against non-english speaking players, chess is a universal language that made my games against Russian and French players as exciting as those against players from the U.S. Of note, I actually managed to win one of my online games, further proving my slowly increasing skill.
The Playchess server is easy to use, and setting up or joining a game is very straightforward, and even just chatting can be very educational. The rating system in the game is based on the actual Elo rating used to describe the skill of chess players worldwide, and is helpful in finding players close to your own skill. Fritz 8 includes 1 year of full access to Playchess.com, so you have plenty of time to work on your game before going global.
The last, and perhaps most exciting feature, is a short set of video tutorials by World Champion Garry Kasparov. Kasparov uses his years of experience in explaining the intricacies of chess to make the various topics he presents understandable to even the beginning player.
While I found I truly enjoyed my experience with Fritz 8 Deluxe
extremely enjoyable, and barely tapped into some of the advanced features, I did find a few flaws. These flaws centered entirely around getting the beginning player up and running within Fritz 8, and advancing as a player. Teaching the basics of chess and helping the very new player learn the ropes. There’s not really a step by step guide through early games, and while hints and suggestions are available, these aren’t really provided in a way that benefits the true novice.
Finally, I looked for a way to encapsulate what I felt overall about my time with Fritz 8. I found what I was looking for in a conversation I had with F. Leon Wilson, a Master level chess instructor and founder of www.chesslearn.com
. “When it comes to chess software, I base my recommendation on the level of the player. To those who are just beginning, and in need of a strong tutorial, I recommend Chessmaster
. But for the advanced player, Fritz 8 Deluxe
is far superior. Fritz contains stronger engines and a deeper database. For those students learning opening books, or looking for move analysis, it is ideal.”