The ISA-Bus

One blog to bind them all.

Chess and Computers

Chess programs and chess computers go way back. Checkers programs are older, but chess programs were always more numerous and widespread. Affordable dedicated chess computers were available from the mid-70s on, long before the home computer boom. Some had small digital displays, but the more common arrangement was to have the circuitry underneath a standard chess board. Each field had an LED for the computer to signal its moves. The better ones had sensors in the board so that the human player could just make his moves as usual and did not have to type them in.

1968: Levy’s Bet

It took programmers a long time to come up with chess programs able to beat a good human player. In 1968, International Master David Levy made a bet that no chess computer would be able to beat him within ten years. He won his bet, in fact, it took more than another decade till a chess computer, Deep Thought of the Carnegie Mellon University, could beat him. But even Deep Thought was no match for Garry Kasparov, who would not lose a game to a computer until 1996, against a successor of Deep Thought, IBM’s Deep Blue. It was still only a game, not a match, for Kasparov won three and drew two of the other five games. The next year however, Deep Blue won the rematch.

1978: A Movie

In 1978, the year David Levy won his bet, there was a German-Austrian television production “Schwarz und weiß wie Tage und Nächte” (Black and White as Days and Nights), the story of a whizz kid (Thomas Rosenmund, played by Bruno Ganz) with an unhealthy obsession with chess. He overcomes his obsession, becomes a computer programmer, writes an outstanding computer program. The reigning world champion beats it and makes fun of it. So Rosenmund hones his chess skills again, beats the champion, but ends up in the psychiatric ward, completely burned out. The movie was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who would soon win international recognition with Das Boot and move to Hollywood.

1979: David Kittinger

At an event of the Santa Clara Chess Club the operator of a Cromemco Z-2 challenged a mainframe running Xenarbor 4 to a match and won. The program that accomplished this feat had been written by an electrical engineer in Anchorage, Alaska, named David Kittinger, who had written it mainly because he had trouble finding computer partners. He had named it Mychess. Later that year Mychess won the ACM North American Computer Chess Championship in the micro class. Subsequently he was hired by Novag and designed numerous chess computers for them, most famously the Super Constellation which due to Kittinger’s PSH (Pre Scan Heuristics) algorithms had an intuitive, almost human style of playing.

It seems that Novag had no use for Mychess itself and never acquired it. In 1984, it was published by The Software Toolworks (later Mindscape) for CP/M and DOS, and later developed into the Chessmaster series. The DOS version of Mychess had nice graphics in hi-res CGA and the option of time limits. The 1979 copyright notice on the title screen caused quite some confusion later on.

1981–85: Cyrus

In 1981, 25 year old British programmer Richard Lang wrote the chess program Cyrus in just six months of his spare time. He was the clear winner of the PCW-European MCC held in London in September of that year, where it ran on a Nascom microcomputer using a 4 MHz Z80 CPU. Cyrus could even hold its ground against a Cray mainframe at another tournament, losing only to its best program, Belle.

Intelligent Software hired Richard Lang immediately after the PCW tournament, and licensed his program. Cyrus became available on many 8-bit platforms, including the Taiwanese Enterprise 64 and 128 and the Hungarian Videoton TV Computer 64. In 1985, they released a PC version that supported IBM’s new Enhanced Graphics Adapter, probably the first game to do so. What more, it made far better use of its possibilities than most other games. Using only eight colors (only one of them outside the standard IBM palette), it presented a truly 3D (not just isometric) view of the chess board. Unfortunately, the company closed down soon after.

1984f: GNU Chess

One of the first projects of the GNU Project, before there was an FSF or GPL, was the development of a chess program. Its main goal was not so much to serve as a game, but as a basis for research.

The first version was written by Stuart Cracraft. The main author of versions 2 to 4 was John Stanback. In this era two widely distributed Windows ports were made (1991 and 1997). However, the program became “pedantically unreadable and unmaintainable and non-valuable from an educational point of view” (Stuart Cracraft in a post to the Bug-gnu-chess mailing list). In 1999, Stuart Cracraft announced a completely new version (5) of GNU Chess that would share no code with its predecessor. Chua Kong Sian would become the main author of this version.

A separate but related project is XBoard, developed mainly by Tim Mann and first released in 1991. It is a graphical user interface and has been expanded to support other forms like Chinese or Japanese chess. It has been ported to 32-bit Windows as WinBoard.

1988: Battle Chess

In 1988, Interplay made an interesting experiment: To create a chess program with some of the features of a mainstream video game. The result was called Battle Chess. Animated characters replace the standard chessmen, they obliterate each other in rather inventive ways (some of them were later re-used in Fallout), but nevertheless strictly according to the rules of classic chess. You can even turn off the fancy stuff and use it as a standard chess program.

It was quite successful, both commercially and in its goal, to wake an interest for chess in those who otherwise wouldn’t. Interplay released many versions and kept it on the cutting edge graphically. The original version was re-released for free distribution, so you can try it out for yourself.


One response to “Chess and Computers

  1. ECM December 26, 2012 at 18:37

    I can recall, vividly, how Electronics Boutique (American retailer, now part of the GameStop empire) used to have a dedicated section for computres up until, oh, 91? They basically demo’ed Battle Chess *endlessly*, for years on end, on the resident Amiga 500, which might partially explain why it went pretty much nowhere in North America 😉

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