Sunday, July 6, 2008

McChess: Chessmaster 9000

With any luck, this is the first in a series of chess software reviews. I should state up-front that, at the moment, the only operating system I use is OS X. So, although many of the programs that I will review have versions that run on other operating systems, I will only speak to those that run on OS X, and I won’t say much about the Linux and Windows versions.

So, I’ll press onward. Chessmaster has plenty of flaws, some of which are pretty nasty. First of all, its user interface is a bit of a horror show. In fact, it’s so screwy that I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that it is entirely out of place on OS X. The menus don’t follow any of the conventions common to most OS X software so finding the menu items you want can be a bit of a chore.

Some of the interface is just plain broken. The most annoying manifestations of this problem are the occasional invisible buttons. This is incredibly irritating and makes some of the dialog boxes completely unusable.

CM9k insists on chewing up CPU cycles even when it’s not doing anything. There is an option to tell CM9k to use fewer cycles when it runs in the background. As it turns out, this makes things worse, rather than better. Without this option selected, CM9k uses up processing whether or not it is running in the foreground. However, with this option turned on, CM9k uses all possible cycles on one CPU core when it’s running in the foreground. When it’s in the background it uses no cycles, but the messages sent to it by the OS pile up. So, when you eventually bring it back to the foreground it takes forever to respond to user input.

There are other UI related problems, but you get the idea. I think that much of this can be explained best by a brief history lesson about Chessmaster.

The Chessmaster franchise is owned by Ubisoft. CM started out life as a Windows program, and by all accounts the Windows version of CM suffers from none of the problems that I have just described. In fact, many of it’s users consider CM to be the best bit of chess software available for that platform.

The problems with CM began when Ubisoft decided it wanted to have a version of CM running on the Mac. Not unreasonably, Ubisoft decided to farm out the Mac port of CM to a company that specializes in such platform-related conversions. Unfortunately for us poor Mac users, Ubisoft chose Feral Interactive to do the conversion. Feral Interactive decided that instead of doing a proper job of this port, they would do the minimal amount of work to get CM running on OS X. Hence the incredibly shitty interface, and all types of other nasty bugs. In fact, from reading forum posts from irate CM9k users, for many people it took a couple of years before Feral Interactive produced enough patches to even get CM9k running on some machines. Yikes.

Here’s another little piece of bullshit: Chessmaster is one of those annoying games that requires the CD to run. Once CM9k has started, you can eject the CD, but you’ll have to drag it around with your laptop if you are going mobile.

Me, being the diligent sort that I am, did my research and knew about all this crap before purchasing a copy of Chessmaster. Considering all the nasty problems with Chessmaster on the Mac, you may be wondering why I didn’t just skip CM9k altogether. Despite all the cons, I figured that the pros were sufficient for me to take the plunge. There are actually many good reasons for using CM9k.

The first of such reasons is the inclusion of many learning aids. CM9k has a veritable cornucopia of tutorials, exercises, drills, and more. It also has a database of important historical games from which to study. For me, these features alone were enough to make me purchase CM9k.

Chessmaster’s analysis is fairly decent. Unlike most chess software, CM9k’s analysis includes auto-annotation that attempts to give plain language descriptions of its analysis. This is at least sometimes helpful with deciphering the analyses.

Another feature that I find useful is the tournament mode. At first, I considered this bit rather useless, but I’ve since changed my mind. If you play rated games in CM9k, it keeps track of your ratings, which, for me, is a great feature. I don’t really care much about my rating except that it is a good indicator of how well (or not so well) I am progressing as a chess player.

Speaking of ratings, another little nicety is the ability to choose your opponent’s skill level by category rather than by a numerical rating. You can choose from Beginner, Novice, Club Player, Strong Opponent, and Grandmaster, or “At My Level.” Particularly when I first started using Chessmaster this was a good bit of syntactic sugar because, well, what the hell is an Elo rating, anyway? Of course, I can answer that question now, but at the time I didn’t know what it was and I certainly didn’t know what *my* Elo rating was.

CM9k has a list of “personalities” against which you can play. This is something else that I originally thought was pretty goofy. It turns out that this idea of personalities is actually fairly powerful and an interesting concept. Each of the preloaded personalities not only have their own chess rating, but they also have a variety of other characteristics. For instance, some personalities are more aggressive than others, some prefer to keep their King safe, while others willingly bring their King into the fray. Some personalities prefer Bishop play over Knights. You get the idea. Better yet, you can create your own personalities against which to play. Like the strength ratings, this is surprisingly useful. If you find yourself having trouble playing in the real world against certain types of players, you can simulate them in Chessmaster and then get some decent practice in before you play your nemesis in your next grudge match.

There are options to ask CM9k to give you hints and advice, but I haven’t used those much yet, so I can’t really say if they are useful or not.

CM9k includes the usual stuff for a chess program, such as saving games, setting up board positions, and so on, as well as customizing the look of the board and the chess set.

Something that might be interesting to some folks is the option to play games in 3D. Personally, I can’t stand this feature because selecting the pieces is always a bit annoying on 3D boards. I find this is a problem with all chess software, so it’s not a fault that is particular to CM9k. I don’t like it, so I don’t use it, but it’s there if you are the sort that likes that kind of thing.

Overall, even with it’s glaring faults and warts, I have found Chessmaster 9000 to be a useful tool in my chess arsenal. If you think you can put up with the more irritating bits, it’s probably a useful addition to your software collection.

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