The wonderful world of chess machine emulators

by Albert Silver
9/15/2021 – Even if it is from before your time, any chess player will know there was a time when standalone machines were the dominant computer opponents, ranging from compact plastic jobs to large wooden boards to fill any player with envy. That time is gone, and many of the machines are disappearing, but you can play any one of them, free, thanks to the amazing chess emulators.

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The golden years of computer chess

The year was 1988. It was a time of wonder and excitement. One would enter the electronics department of a fancy retail store, or visit one of the rare dedicated chess stores, and face rows of dedicated machines that promised to provide us with a partner in chess. The earliest ones, even top of the line, were still struggling to reach the lofty goal of….. 2000 Elo. There were plenty of contenders, but none quite there yet, except perhaps in blitz or rapid games. In France the most famous tester of such was Pierre Nolot, whose monthly column on chess computers in Europe Echecs was followed assiduously by players all over. While there were a number of brands, the Big Two were Fidelity and Hegener and Glaser, the latter famous for their line of Mephisto machines. For most users, the prices these fantastic machines commanded made them unattainable luxury products, and in all fairness they looked the part.

The Mephisto computers were the Rolls-Royce of standalones

These reminiscences are more than just remembering the way things were, it is also about a time when those very same machines were very realistic opponents for the amateur. Nowadays of course, such machines are really the object of collectors, and the irony is that classics such as the Fidelity Mach III, or Mephisto Almeria are still out of the reach of most enthusiasts. Or are they?

This is what it evolved from

While there is no secret workaround to buying one of these units, you can actually play one on your PC, and not just one, but any of hundreds. No, these are not modern ‘translations’ of the code to run on a modern processor. These are bonafide emulators that reproduce not only the unmodified original programs themselves, but also every chip and transistor of the hardware they ran on. These virtual reproductions of the machines not only provide all its buttons, options, and beeps, but the exact speed of all the original electronics as well as the programs and opening books from yesteryear.

The world of emulators

How is this possible? How does this work? To be fair, this all started with a popular project, still very active, called MAME, which stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. Its mission was to document and reproduce the original arcade machines that were disappearing as consoles and home computers took over the video gaming market.

MAME is the almighty reference in emulators

While adaptations certainly existed, the original games themselves were in danger of being lost to time. As a result, engineers and enthusiasts began to get a hold of the original hardware and produce exact reproductions in software. This process is known as emulation, not to be confused with simulation, and in this case was aimed at digital preservation, so that these works were not lost forever to future generations. As the years passed a sister-project known as MESS, which stood for Multi-Emulator Super System, also grew though with the aim of not simply preserving old arcade video games, but all other machines such as calculators, PDAs, personal computers (such as the Apple II, Commodore 64, etc), and more. In time, MAME absorbed MESS and they joined forces to produce the largest emulator framework around.

Galaga - the source of many a misspent youth

The project allows so many amazing experiences, and speaking from the perspective someone who was a teenager in that era, pining over the Galaga machine at the café next door, it can be magical. However, these efforts soon inspired a special offshoot in the emulator world: the chess machines of yesteryear.

How to get the chess machine emulator

Link to Franz Huber's webpage

Housed in the wonderful homepage of Franz Huber is a special build of MAME/MESS which comes with hundreds of chess machines, allowing anyone to play these machines exactly as they operated back in the day. Huber is a software engineer who has authored chess projects such as Chest, a program whose only purpose was to solve mates, and has spearheaded massive efforts to not only emulate these old machines, but to even reproduce their appearance as closely as possible. Inasmuch as a physical auto-sensory board can be represented in 2D that is. When asked about it, he explained,

my main motivation is to avoid having these old chess computers and programs disappear completely sometime in the future due to hardware failure or other reasons.

To get started, on the main page, click on the link to CB-Emu where you will be taken to his private Cloud folder.

I say private, which may sound as if a breach of confidence were being made, but this is the link shared on the main page.

Here, click and download the file, then extract the complete contents into a folder of your choice.

Once this is done, enter the folder and double-click on the file CB-Emu-exe as above. This is the emulator with all its ROMs for chess machines.

Exploring the chess machine emulator

Let’s double-click on one to illustrate: the Mephisto Almeria 68020. This is the program by Richard Lang that won the 1988 World Championship. Mephisto machines were essentially modular and could be fitted into a plastic housing as in the image, or the luxurious wooden auto-sensory boards they were most famous for.

To start a game we click on the right arrow and then click on the green Ent (Enter) button. Now, bear in mind, you get to enjoy the machines, but they don’t come with a manual, so either look it up, or be ready to do some experimenting.

The machines can vary enormously in appearance as well as functionality. You will notice a good number with detailed custom graphics to reproduce the original machine as faithfully as possible. Notice this lovely reproduction of the Novag Super Constellation.

Some machines may also display slightly different playing behavior. For example, take the Novag Super Expert. When doing captures, you need to press the captured square twice for it to register the complete move. If you don’t, you will get errors.

Some machines may come with a small separate board, such as the Mephisto I. The reason for this is that this chess machine actually had no board. You played by entering the move played, and it replied by giving you the coordinates of the move it played.

You were expected to play the moves on a board of your own. In this particular case, an instance of Winboard is opened for you to do just that.

As you can see, the possibilities are absolutely enormous, and the accessibility of the opposition (in most cases) can make this a much more engaging experience too. In future articles, or even a video, some of the particular machines may be explored more deeply, but for now, by all means download this stroll down memory lane and enjoy the machines from a time when an expert level (2000 Elo) chess computer was still an unachieved goal.

Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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hainza hainza 9/16/2021 03:40
Did the emulator uses the original ROM of the old machines ?
If so, is this legal, or is there no copyright on the code ?
jbdreher jbdreher 9/16/2021 05:05
`@Albert Silver - Well, I have to commend the programmers and everyone involved for their attention to historical accuracy and verisimilitude! I had use of several machines "back in the day" (early '80s through the mid '90s) and am struggling to remember them. I believe most of them were Fidelity or Saitek, but Mephisto, etc. were coveted luxury items that graced the few colored pages of Chess Life and were priced well beyond my parents' budget and even my dreams at the time. I had one unit that would flash korean hangul in red LEDs when it was thinking and seemed to flicker more when I was winning! Childhood memories!
Albert Silver Albert Silver 9/16/2021 03:49
@jbdreher - Although there are translations to run some of these classics in a modern UCI environment, these emulators aim to reproduce the originals to the T, meaning the complete electronics, and their speed, at least so the programs run identically to the original dedicated machines. My own personal dedicated machine back in the day was the Fidelity Excel 68000. It came out at the same time as the Mach II, and was a slightly slower and weaker version (and significantly cheaper), but like the Mach II, it too boasted the first hashtables ever implemented in a consumer dedicated machine.
jbdreher jbdreher 9/16/2021 02:08
I still have my Saitek Kasparov Travel Companion 2100. I think having these emulators available is wonderful historically. (1) I also think the advantage of an emulator is that it moves at modern computing speeds. The electronic engines used to move at a snail's pace at higher levels, forcing you to wait for minutes on end. (2) I think playing these engines now will be fascinating because their opening repertoires are frozen in time, so you can see how your modern opening repertoire fares against older "book." Sometimes you may find a novelty or uncover an what seems to be an interesting continuation against human play (perhaps notwithstanding the ravages of time and AlphaZero computer analysis).(3) If you dreamt of playing such engines but could not afford one at the time, now is your chance!
Michael Jones Michael Jones 9/15/2021 09:53
Happy days! I can't remember the makes or models, but I had one "standard" chess computer and later (18th birthday present) a portable one with a hinged lid and pieces with pegs to slot into the hole in each square. No idea what their playing strengths were in Elo terms - on the lowest levels they blundered pieces in just about every game, on the highest they took me to the cleaners, but somewhere in the middle I could get a decent game against them. They didn't come with a "resign" or "offer/accept draw" function, so unless you chose to resign yourself by pressing the "new game" button, every game had to be played out.
Albert Silver Albert Silver 9/15/2021 08:58
@adbennet - Lol! I was so intent on writing it and making sure it was up to spec that I must have forgotten to add the author. Fixed.
adbennet adbennet 9/15/2021 07:37
Should not this article have a byline?
semprun semprun 9/15/2021 02:35
Nice! I still have 2 (!) Novag super expert, beautiful machines with a (perceived) strength of 2100-2200. They were wonderful in their time. One is mine, the other a gift to my dad...
Justjeff Justjeff 9/15/2021 01:13
Nice! I learned the intricacies of the English Opening (Botvinnik system) by endlessly playing a Fidelity Mach III. It was just strong enough to punish me for errors but not *too* strong.