Shopping for adult Christmas games is a bewildering experience this year. They are so diverse. Word games. Number games. Board games. Computer games. But there is a way out of the maze: stick with one of the oldest games and the most up-to-date technology—computer chess.
Experts generally agree that the latest products from Fidelity and Chafitz are the class of the field. Fidelity's Chess Challenger 7 (suggested retail, $100) is simple, attractive and, by the standards of such games, inexpensive. The unit consists of a chessboard and a keyboard. After the player enters a move by hitting keys, the computer responds by flashing electronic commands on a screen that is part of the keyboard. The squares of the chessboard are marked 1-8 vertically and A-H horizontally. To make the most common pawn opening (E2-E4), hit the appropriately lettered and numbered keys and another one marked "enter." The computer may flash back the classical response, "E7-E5," and you're off and running.
CC7 can be set for seven different levels of skill (and the levels may be changed in mid-game), allows the player to add or subtract any number of moves at a time, can change sides, plays against itself, knows the basic openings and holds its own in the middle and end games. "It's a solid sparring partner," says 16-year-old Evan Katz, a Roslyn (N.Y.) high school junior and contributor to Personal Computing magazine, who is already one of computer chess' leading nonprofessional experts. "One slip and you get knocked out. Considering the comparatively low price, it's the best game on the market for the majority of players."
Another Fidelity product, Voice Chess Challenger ($325), employs both a screen and a "voice" that growls in low monotones. The Voice's vocabulary ranges from simple commands that name the computer's piece to be moved, and where it is to be moved ("from F8 to A3, bishop move"), to obscure chess terms ("en passant"). Voice Chess Challenger uses some 40 different openings and will suggest moves—upon request—at five of its 10 middle-and end-game skill levels and throughout its opening book. The way to gain the advantage over the machine is to make unorthodox responses to its pre-programmed opening-game knowledge.
Chafitz' top-of-the-line computers play better chess than Fidelity's do. That's because the industry's leading programmers, Chafitz employees Dan and Kathe Spracklen, created the Sargon 2 module that beat a $5 million computer in Washington, D.C. last year and its more sophisticated offspring, Sargon 2.5, that whipped every opponent it faced—including Voice Challenger—in the recent European Microchess Championships. The 7-level Modular Game System ($375), which uses the Sargon 2.5, boasts several features the Fidelity machines lack. It has an optional rechargeable baiter) pack ($40), displays the board rank by rank on its screen instead of piece by piece, continues to calculate while the player is thinking and can hold a discontinued game in its memory for five or six days. Unfortunately, its program is filled with amusing but sometimes repetitive messages ("I need help...Spot me a queen") that are displayed on a screen, and as a result it has a limited opening book compared to that of the Voice Challenger. But MCS more than makes up for that by being modular; it will accommodate updated chess programs and other computer-game programs Chafitz will be marketing in coming months.
Then there is the ultimate gift, Chafitz' Auto Response Board ($875). It's almost human. The computer "senses" moves made by the player and replies by illuminating lights on two squares—one for the piece being moved, the other for the square to which it is being moved. There are no keys to hit. The player only needs to move the pieces. Like its sister MGS, Auto Response is modular and 7-level and comes equipped with the Sargon 2.5 program. Because there is no facility for displaying messages, Auto Response has more storage space and, thus, a large opening book. An excellent teacher, it can suggest moves and help two inexperienced players by buzzing to signal illegal moves. "It's the epitome of deluxe computer chess," says Katz. And it is the epitome of good taste, with a wood-inlay board and hand-carved Staunton wood playing pieces.
Associate Editor Harry Shershow of Personal Computing, the only magazine that carries a regular column on "intelligent" computer games, offers this advice for consumers, "Test out the machines and make sure you're getting the latest models. Better yet, bring along the person for whom you're buying."
Using a board isn't the only way to play computer chess. If you don't mind tying up your television set for hours at a time, the Atari video game can be hooked up to a chess program that is easy to operate and plays in the CC7 range. And if you happen to own a home computer, you may be able to play on it, using a $30 Sargon 2 cassette. It fits the TRS-80, Apple and PET home computers.
Soon chess computer games may well have tournament-style time clocks, print out games on paper and play more and more like humans. But even the less sophisticated computers now available will provide a merry Christmas for your favorite gamesman.