Tuesday, July 8, 2008

McChess: Shredder Chess

First, the preamble, in case you missed it from my last McChess article. At the moment, I run OS X and only OS X, so although Shredder Chess comes in Linux and Windows flavours, I won’t say much, if anything, about the alternative platforms. You also may have noticed from my last article that I don’t say anything about the strength of the chess engines. I’m not anywhere near being a good enough chess player to evaluate such things. In fact, since all the major chess programs rate in the mid to upper 2000s on the Elo scale, chess engine strength will probably never be a concern to me. Or for most other chess players, for that matter. Unless, of course, you are the type that likes to use software to cheat during your online matches, but let’s not delve into that mess, shall we?

So, on to the review!

Shredder Chess comes in three versions for the Mac: Shredder Classic 3, Shredder 11, and Deep Shredder 11. The user interfaces are pretty much the same for all three, with the real distinctions among them being under the hood. Classic is sort of the starter version of Shredder with a lower and less powerful engine. The midrange version is Shredder 11 which has the latest and strongest engine, while Deep Shredder has the same guts behind it, but will load balance calculations in parallel if you have multiple cores or multiple CPUs, giving you a benefit of faster calculations.

More important for the chess bottom feeders such as myself is the user Interface. This is far and away the best chess UI I have used on the Mac. It has a minimalist look to it, which I appreciate. The menu system is (mostly) right at home on OS X. Options and actions are (mostly) where you would expect them, and (mostly) work the way you would expect. The graphical elements a simple but beautiful.

There’s a reason for all the parenthetical “mostlies” in the preceding paragraph, because there are a few bits of weirdness lurking in the UI that will perplex at least a few virgin Shredder players.

The first of the oddities is the Mode -> Levels dialog box. This is strangely modal [sic]. At the top of the box are the buttons for “Time Per Move,” “Blitz,” and “Time Controls.” That is all well and good, except that those three options are mutually exclusive, so whichever of the three is being displayed in the dialog box is the time control being used. You’ll note that the “Limit Strength” slider is at the bottom of the box for each time control option. This probably isn’t the greatest of explanations, but as soon has you give Shredder Chess a try, you’ll see what I mean. If you compare this dialog box to similar boxes in other OS X applications you’ll understand just how counterintuitive this all is.

The next somewhat dubious bit of the interface involves saving and loading PGN files. Shredder keeps games in what it calls “databases.” Basically this just means that the PGN data for each game are stored in a multi-game PGN file, which is what Shredder calls a “database” (Not to be confused opening book databases). So, you can load a game from a single game PGN file, but to save a game, it must be added to one of these database files, or you can create a new database file into which you save the current game. Again, this is a bit of an awkward description, but that just goes to show how bizarre this saving/loading thing works. At any rate, it’s highly unintuitive to the uninitiated.

One more complaint: If you want to pause a game, you choose Edit -> Stop Clock. That’s all well and good (although I don’t consider stopping the clock to be a form of editing, but let’s ignore that point for the moment). However, there is no “Start Clock” to be found. Instead, to get the clock moving again, you simply make your next move.

Considering how well Shredder Chess is put together, I don’t think any of the previous problems are accidents of inattention. In fact, once you realize what is going on, they are actually much more efficient methods of controlling the software. It’s a bit like how some folks feel about the command line. Many find it cryptic to learn, but once you get the hang of it, the command line method is actually the most logical and elegant solution.

Unlike most chess software, at least as far as I can tell, there is no window that displays the captured pieces. This oversight is a bit surprising. I mean, let’s face it, even in OTB play you don’t have to count pieces; you just look at the side of the board to see what’s been captured.

Having got all that out of the way, I’ll give a rundown of the major features of Shredder.

Shredder has most of the options you would expect in a top-notch chess program. Customizing your opponent’s style and strength of play is straight-forward, if a bit hard to find. Preferences -> Engine Options -> Extended will land you in the spot you’re looking for. Here you’ll find lots of goodies, like your opponents preference for certain pieces, preferences for making combinations, preferences for aggressiveness, and so on.

There are options for installing your own chess engine and for adding your own opening book. Apparently there is a large online database of games that you can subscribe to, although I haven’t done that just yet.

You may recall from my review of Chessmaster that my main interest in that bit of software comes from all the learning tools it contains. For better or worse, Shredder Chess has little of that stuff. None of the chess lessons or drills or exercises. It will show you hints and threats, and if you turn on the “Chess Coach,” Shredder will happily tell you when you are about to make a boneheaded move. On the other hand, I find the analysis in Shredder to be more useful than that in Chessmaster. Admittedly, the analysis in Shredder is rather cryptic to a chess n00b like myself, but once you get used to it, I much prefer the Shredder style. Related to analysis is the histogram window, which is great when you are looking for where you went wrong in the game you are analyzing. Just run the game through the analyzer and look for the big spike in the histogram to find where your big mistake occurred.

Shredder Chess has no auto-annotation. At first, this seemed like a big plus for Chessmaster, but, as it turns out, this feature in Chessmaster is almost useless, so I don’t mind it’s omission in Shredder.

And, as they say, that’s that. I’m Stick, reporting from down on the gridiron. Back to you, Bob.

1 comment:

Bruce Fredman said...

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