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PC Review - 'Fritz 9: Play Chess'

by Reldan on Feb. 20, 2006 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Experience chess excellence with Fritz 9: Play Chess' extraordinary new features. Let Fritz teach you with over four hours of instructional videos, position explainer, training modes, and friend mode! Enjoy chess like never before. Play against fully interactive 3D opponents in hyper-realistic game environments.

Genre: Puzzle/Board
Publisher: Viva Media
Developer: ChessBase
Release Date: November 28, 2005

Computer chess games have been with us for decades now, but in recent years, a lot of attention has been paid to the digital chess scene due to the media coverage of the highly televised and heavily promoted matches between Grandmaster Garry Kasparov and IBM's Deep Blue (and the later rematch against "Deeper Blue"). Chess has been seen as the pinnacle of battle between man and machine – a purely logical game in which the best humans can still compete with and beat the most advanced supercomputers on the planet (side note: Go is a much better example of a game in which humans can really beat the hell out of computers). Fritz 9 promises to be even more advanced than IBM's chess supercomputer, and it comes with high praise – Garry Kasparov himself uses it to help analyze games, and an earlier version played Kasparov to a draw in a chess exhibition match several years back.

But what does this mean to you? I have no doubts that this may very well be the most powerful chess program on the planet, but to be honest, I don't need a computer program which plays at an International Grandmaster level in order to provide myself with a personal challenge. I may be smart, but I'm not THAT smart. My overall experience with Fritz 9 is that it has a fantastic chess engine surrounded by a clunky, non-intuitive interface.

Honestly, this isn't so much a game in and of itself as it is a program you can use to analyze the game of chess. You can certainly play chess against Fritz, and you can even handicap Fritz to give yourself a fighting chance, but the real point of this software is to set up board positions or try out openings and see what unfolds. It's like having a chess grandmaster in the room with you to force you to consider the best move in any situation. This can be useful in both developing your own skills – you can see if Fritz agrees with you on any given move – and for testing how a skilled opponent would react to any particular moves you make.

The program itself uses a very basic, if not simple, layout which looks more like some sort of business application or shareware than anything else. The GUI is similar to what you'd find in Word or Excel: a standard title bar with drop-down menus and some shortcut buttons laid out below. The appearance and interface is one of professional software that assumes you already know what you're doing

You can do a lot with Fritz 9 if you can figure out how to use it. If you're just interested in playing chess, one of the most useful features is the ability to connect to Chessbase.com and use their network to find real opponents from around the world. Fritz can help you become a better theoretical player as well, with literally with over a million tournament chess matches which you can watch unfold. It has a complete opening book and a checkmate searching tool as well. You can watch an hour's worth of chess lessons from Master and Grandmaster players (such as the aforementioned Garry Kasparov), but it's obvious these are only included as samples of larger chess lesson systems which you can buy. Still, it's quite nice to have the 3D board laid out before you while a grandmaster goes through board positions and explains the finer details to you, complete with colored arrows to annotate what the grandmaster is talking about.

The chessboard itself can be shown in either 2D or 3D, and while the 3D board looks decent, it certainly isn't anything special. It would have been sweet if the developers had managed to include some of the really cool effects you can do with mirrored images, dynamic lighting, and the various texture mapping techniques, but that certainly isn't the direction this program was headed. What you get are basic chess pieces which appear to be wooden, metal, or stone on a similarly textured board.

It isn't that a person couldn't figure out how to make everything work if he took the time, but it seems excessively difficult to get into a position where you're able to navigate the software and feel like you're getting some positive benefit out of it. I don't see Fritz 9 being even remotely interesting to beginners or completely new players; they would not even come close to being able to follow what's going on, and the interface would probably scare them away from the title for good.

Fritz 9 can also be pretty slow. For comparison's sake, Deep Blue could process roughly 200 million positions per second, while my Athlon 64 3500+ tops out at around 1 million positions per second. While Fritz in theory uses faster a algorithm than Deep Blue did, Deep Blue still had a few orders of magnitude more processing power. What this boils down to is that Fritz can take a while when it's going all out.

Fritz 9 is ideal for players interested in seriously developing their chess games, but fails to do much for the casual player or players new to the game. If what you need is something to take your game to the next level, or you're some sort of chess theorist looking for a way to test your ideas, Fritz is for you.

Score: 6.5/10

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