Little monsters!

4/18/2002 – At this very moment there are ordinary people, just like you and me, walking about with devices stuffed in their pockets that have the capability to scare mere mortals out of their collective wits, especially when it comes to playing chess. These little monsters are the new generation of pocket PCs. James E. DuBois has written a nice review here.

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LITTLE MONSTERS!

A review by James E. DuBois

Fiendishly designed with large amounts of RAM and special processors the little mosters have an appetite for numbers; the hardware has already surpassed most available applications. They are still a far cry from the modern supercomputer, but are within the performance range for chess playing purposes of a mid-priced desktop PC functioning with readily available consumer software. The rapid advance of playing strength achieved by today's programmers would certainly impress even the late Seymour Cray of Cray Blitz fame. His generation struggled to overcome the parallel program problem of connecting computers together to work on the same problem at the same time without crashing. The new generation has proven that brute force can now be found in ounces instead of tons.

Pocket PC proper refers to a device that runs on the Microsoft Windows CE platform or "WinCE" or "CE". This in turn means a device that has no startup time or a boot process. To the uninitiated any small handheld object that is being utilized may seem like a pocket PC. In actuality it could well be the WinCE rival, Palm, a.k.a. Palm Pilot. The Palm PDA (personal digital assistant) revolutionized the simple organizer. With the Palm (the "Pilot" was dropped after a 1998 lawsuit was filed by Pilot Pens) users could connect to their home PCs to share data and install programs. Shortly thereafter a chess program became available for the Palm OS. This was Pocket Chess developed by Scott Ludwig and it is still available. The estimated playing strength for the latest version is approximately 1750 and remains a staple for the well-rounded general Palm user.

Richard Lang's Chess Genius raised the bar to above the 1800 mark. After its release in February of 2000 the race (perhaps unintentionally) for a master rating definitely seemed to be on. Lang's hallmark is obtaining maximum performance from a minimum amount of processing power. For the sake of clarity, this is not the same exact program that defeated Kasparov in the Intel Rapid tournament of 1994. The actual chess engine is a further development of the 1987 world champion Mephisto Roma program.

Chess Tiger completed the transformation for the Palm from class player to high expert by metaphorically adding fangs and claws. Christophe Théron wrote the first PC version in 1987 in C, the language still used by the current program. Based on a 1997 rewrite that facilitates knowledge-guided searches and also utilizes a small portion of RAM for hash tables, Chess Tiger is a quiet predator that has no compassion in the endgame.

The industry is now changing in that Palm is losing market share. Palm sales have been reported down for a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest factor is human nature and our insatiable demand for more power and more speed. ChessBase of Germany decided the time was right to unveil their entry, Pocket Fritz for the WinCE OS. Pocket Fritz is a bit of a misnomer. The man behind this program is Stefan Meyer-Kahlen, a computer science graduate that developed the well known and award winning Shredder program. He politely dismisses it as a case of semantics and agreed that ChessBase should retain the more recognizable Fritz name.

During the recent Mainz Chess Classic as a side match, Pocket Fritz managed a draw against a top ten player, GM Peter Leko, rated 2730. Keeping this in mind, one can quickly become demoralized even before pushing the power on button. Doctor Frankenstein supplied the electrical current to his creation and the countryside was never safe again. The same can be said for the tournament and online landscape. The concern is real that players will become devious enough to enlist the aid of the miniature brainiacs during over the board play. The only clue an Internet opponent will have if this is occurring is the fact that the program still plays very much like a computer with hallmark crushing tactics and the never retreat mentality. It is a very safe assumption that Pocket Fritz has broken the 2200 barrier and improvements are underway. Playing against this strength is definitely not for the faint of heart or for those that become easily frustrated as the average tournament player can expect sound thrashings game after game after game. Consider it a moral victory if the twenty-move mark is reached before the crushing begins of your King's bones. The only mercy is the "coach is watching" option which allows moves to be taken back, however defeat is inevitable.

Even Pocket Fritz must beware for Chess Tiger has been stalking the same platform and will soon escape from the confines of a much slower hardware environment. Chess Genius has already made the transformation. Although not as brutal as Pocket Fritz, it certainly can tear small pieces of rating flesh from experts with its perceptive opening play. Both relish being fed positions to analyze as they digest them with surprising ease and almost always reach the same conclusions.

Mankind's ego suffered a setback after Kasparov lost to the Godzilla of chess machines, but this should not be the case here. The truth is that technology continues its relentless march forward and the fear is that someday soon these impish information appliances will be unstoppable. Human chess players must simply come to terms with this and take advantage of the situation. Don't look at them as little monsters, but rather as fantastic teeny chess friends that reside in a pocket.

  • A previous review on Pocket Fritz by Frederic Friedel is here.
  • Visit our catalog page with all Fritz programs here.
  • You can buy Pocket Fritz in the ChessBase shop here.


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