Chess at 40 degrees below zero

2/23/2004 – What does a wildlife biologist in the Northlands of Canada do when the temperature plunges to arctic levels? With blizzards howling outside there is nothing better than sipping a hot drink by a crackling fire, playing a game of chess against Fritz. Thank heavens the program is not as cruel as the weather. Merlin Cypher explains.

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Fritz in Winter

By Merlin Cypher

Winters in the northern hemisphere can be interesting. I live in a small town surrounded by forests, lakes and massive outcrops of granite (the Canadian Shield) in Northern Ontario, Canada. This past month temperatures plunged past –30˚ C on their way to –40˚ C, and wind-chill was taking them past –70. Dressing for that weather requires wearing full facial gear that leaves us northerners looking like robbers searching for a bank. Still, the worse the weather gets the more determined some of us are to get outside – just for the bragging rights if nothing else. Plus, there is nothing like an arctic cold front with gale force winds to totally invigorate you and leave you with a sense of well-being, if it doesn’t freeze off an extremity or two first.


My backyard in the middle of winter


On cold calm days the ice-crystals dance and sparkle in the air and fall gently from a bright blue sky. Magical.

And after experiencing a howling blizzard there is nothing better than coming inside, and sipping a hot drink by a crackling fire; unless that is sipping a hot drink by a crackling fire, with a good chess partner called Fritz.

Less than eight months ago, I did not even know Fritz existed until I came across the name while reading reviews for chess books. A web search led me to some strange website regarding a cartoon cat, and there were certainly no chess programs there. A second choice led me to a more suitable site, and shortly thereafter Fritz 8 showed up in my Christmas stocking.

I installed Fritz on my laptop and began what turned into a delightful winter ritual. On Thursday and Friday evenings, I’d arrive home, peel off frost-laden layers, start a fire, greet Fritz, and ask him if he’d like to play a game. And so we’d settle in for a nice evening by the fire, listening to the wind blow outside, and we’d play.


A frozen waterfall

At first, I went through the different handicapped levels: Drunk, assassin, patzer. Fritz certainly lived up to most of these names, and he even out-patzered me. Tiring of easy victories and feeling a bit full of myself I unleashed Fritz. To say I was vastly out-played was an understatement. At our next playing session, Fritz was back on his leash.

But this time I chose his Sparring mode. Here Fritz sets up little combinations for the opponent to find. During our after game analysis by the fire he would point out any combinations I had missed. In the Sparring mode, Fritz had become a chess teacher.

On one bitterly cold night I switched Fritz to his "Friend" mode. I wasn’t sure what to do with the handicap setting so I left it at zero, and I beat Fritz. For our next game though Fritz raised his playing strength, and I barely managed to eke out a win in an exciting well fought K and P ending. And in our third game of the night, he played so beautifully I didn’t mind losing at all.

The Friend setting is aptly named. Not only do I have a chance to win some games, I know that when I lose a game I won’t be “Fritzed” into dust. It feels quite a bit like playing a human player of your own strength. I especially like the chess coach function that will pop open and ask if I want to reconsider my last move. Most of the time the coach gives good advice, but like a human player may try to bluff you. A few times I ignored the coach and still went on to gain a large advantage within just a 5 or 6 moves. Once he even tried to tell me my winning move, which would eventually queen a pawn, was unwise.


An aerial photograph of Trout Lake, taken while participating in a Search and Rescue training exercise

In these past ten weeks I have come to look forward to our Thursday and Friday evening sessions by the fire. Fritz has become a reliable chess friend from whom I can learn so much, including humility whenever I think I’m getting good.

Sadly, our evenings of playing by the fire are quickly coming to a close. Our daytime temperatures have been rising above minus 20˚ C. In another two months things will be warm enough for some of our early bird migrants to arrive, and my mornings and evenings will be given over to monitoring their passage from the warm south to the still frozen lands further north. Although Fritz is a fine chess player, I doubt he has much interest in bird migration patterns.


Fritz is going to love this – Trout Lake in the Fall

However, this means my afternoons will be more open. I’m looking forward to introducing Fritz to some of our beautiful lakes and beaches. I’ll put on the sunscreen, take out the cold drinks, and see if Fritz would like to play a game. As long as I don’t take him swimming or bury him in the sand, I’m sure Fritz will be very happy to play chess in such beautiful surroundings. To me, it sounds like the beginning of another delightful ritual.

Merlin Cypher is a wildlife field biologist who travels to beautiful remote areas and monitors various types of wildlife from large and small mammals to birds and amphibians. In the winters he teaches biology courses to university students. Merlin writes: "I am fortunate in that I get paid to indulge in most of my hobbies, e.g. generally exploring remote areas to look at plants and animals." His other (mostly non-paying) hobbies include juggling, guitar playing, math and word puzzles – and chess, "which over the years has become less of a hobby and more of an obsession."

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