Five-time World Computer Chess Champion

by ChessBase
2/16/2004 – It's the five-time World Computer Chess Champion. It comes with a huge database and opening book. It comes with dazzling new 3D boards. And it's the subject of this week's ChessBase Workshop. It's Shredder 8 and you can read all about it in Steve Lopez' latest column.

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previewed by Steve Lopez

People have been saying for years that the way to get a computer to play a strong chess game is to make it play "more like a human". Of course, this implies that everyone is going to agree on what exactly constitutes "playing like a human" (yeah, like that's ever going to be agreed upon). Chess software programmers figured out a long time ago that "brute force" (getting a program to try to see everything out to x number of moves) just wasn't going to cut it. So programmers began to build chess knowledge into their programs. State of the art chess programs today don't evaluate as many positions as their predecessors did, but they certainly "understand" more within that limited range and are able to choose stronger moves.

This is why programs like the phenominally popular Shredder are so successful against both humans and other computers. Shredder has won five major computer chess championships and has done exceedingly well in "human vs. computer" challenge matches. Does it play "like a human"? I get asked this all the time. I think nearly all current chess programs play like a human to some extent. Perhaps a better question would be, "How would you characterize Shredder's play?" I often use Chess Tiger as a means of comparison, since the two programs' styles of play are nearly completely antithetical to each other. I often compare Tiger to Mikhail Tal -- it sacrifices material (sometimes unsoundly) and likes to live on the tactical edge. I compare Shredder more to Tigran Petrosian; Shredder will certainly bust out with some tactical fireworks when the situation requires it, but its overall style of play is pretty positional and rock-solid. When Shredder gets a good position (and it usually does just that), it's very hard to crack it.

Shredder therefore surprises a lot of players, especially computer chess old-timers like myself who still remember the days when you could sometimes sucker a computer program into playing profoundly silly moves like bizarre pawn pushes. Those days are gone for the most part. Players who expect that kind of thing really get surprised by Shredder; as I said earlier, I find Shredder's play to be rock-solid and much more positional than most chess programs.

It's that combination of strength and positional acumen that makes Shredder so danged popular. Shredder fans will be excited to know that a new version, Shredder 8, has just been released. As with previous versions, you can tweak the engine six ways to Sunday:

I want to call your attention to two areas of this Engine Parameters display. First, note the pulldown menu near the bottom. This gives you five different "preset" styles of play for the engine to use. The default is "Intelligent", but you can try any or all of these settings to see how they affect Shredder's play.

The toggle that really struck me is near the top of the display: "Prefer open positions". Isn't that a given? It's been a truism for years in the computer chess world that computer programs always tend to prefer open positions. So why would there be a toggle for this in the Engine Parameters display -- and why would the default setting be the "off" position?

That, friends, is the single best illustration I can give you as to how different Shredder is from other chess engines. Most chess programs avoid closed positions like the plague. Shredder loves them. It's no wonder that many computer chess afficionados start to visibly salivate when they hear of a new Shredder release.

Of course, there are piles of other tweaks available to you in this display. Another one of major importance is the "threads" toggle. If you have a multi-processor computer you can set this value to the number of processors in your machine, and Shredder will use them when calculating moves. That's why there's no Deep Shredder -- the standard Shredder 8 program already supports the use of multiple processors.

You can have many hours of fun just playing around with the parameters display, but there's a lot more included with the Shredder 8 package. You also get a database of over a half-million chess games from the years 1749 through 2002. You can use these to look up openings, positions, players, you name it -- then just load a game and play through it right there on your computer screen. Shredder also has its own opening book, tuned to its unique style of play. The new Shredder 8 opening book contains more than two and a half million unique positions based on more than 520,000 actual chess games.

But there's more. Believe it or not, the first things I want to look at whenever I get a new ChessBase chess program are the new 3D boards. Shredder 8 has the photorealistic 3D "Spanish villa" board that highlighted the Fritz8 package. But there are also two new 3D boards included that are exclusive to Shredder 8. The first is the new HiRes Wood board:

I can tell you exactly what this set is based on. I'm one of the lucky guys who owns one of those gorgeous Drueke chess tables (and, making a long story short, I acquired it as a bonus/gift from a past [non-chess] employer when the company had an exceptionally good year). This 3D set is a dead ringer for my Drueke table. The light-squares of my set have tended to yellow a bit with age (they're supposed to do that, by the way) so they look just like what you see in the illustration and the pieces that came with the table are a near-exact match for what you see in the pic. Playing on this 3D board is just like playing on a Drueke table, sans the feel of the pieces in your hands of course.

The other 3D set also impressed the heck out of me and for much the same reason. It's called the Sculpture set:

Here again, this set is another "blast from my past". Back when I was a teenager (while Fischer was still World Champion), chess sets were hot sellers in toy and department stores. One company produced a line of "historical" chess sets, with pieces based on various periods from history. They had a Napoleonic chess set, a medieval set, a Roman Empire set, a Revolutionary War set (which still inhabits my collection, by the way), etc. Although this Sculpture set isn't from any set historical period (in fact, you'll see a mix of cultures in the selection of characters used as pieces in the set), it reminds me very much of those old 1970's historical sets. So this set, too, caught my eye and tickled my fancy.

But, of course, the main attraction of Shredder 8 is the chess engine itself. It's been the World Computer Champ multiple times and now you can match wits with what's arguably the strongest chess engine ever programmed. What more could you ask for?

Until next week, have fun!

© 2004, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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