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Chessmaster XI: Grandmaster Edition

The Chessmaster series of programs has been humiliating humans since 1986. In an industry where game franchises are here today and gone tomorrow, it is quite an impressive run. Part of the reason for this longevity is that the Chessmaster series was never content just to crush its flesh and blood opponents; rather it always came packed with some wonderfully instructive tutorials to help the would-be grandmaster improve his game. As such, the series quickly became a favorite of club players the world over. Now after a three year hiatus, the latest edition of the program has emerged. Does Chessmaster XI: Grandmaster Edition live up to its respected pedigree?

Chessmaster XI installs easily enough arriving on a single DVD. Once loaded, a chessboard flashes across the screen with a musical fanfare. Three options are presented for the player: Learn, Play and Fun. Each offers its own set of features, so let’s take a look at them one at a time.

Learn

The Learn portion of CMXI offers a wealth of tutorials suitable for chess novices through advanced players. Within you will find “The Academy,” a tremendously robust set of tutorials that, taken as a whole, are the next best thing to attending an actual chess academy. Within its virtual walls your choice of studies is broken down into three groups: Josh Waitzkin’s Academy, Larry Christiansen Attacking Chess, and the Chessmaster Tutorials.

International Master Josh Waitzkin, the child chess prodigy featured in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, provides a series of lectures in his Academy - yes, lectures. One of the great things about the Chessmaster series is that it has always made very aggressive use of the audio and visual capabilities of the modern computer, often utilizing animated lessons with audio commentary. In CMXI, Josh Waitzkin talks you through a series of lessons in a very affable and reassuring manner. What lessons are available? Here’s a quick rundown (with explanations by me):

1. Introduction: the basics of playing chess, from setting up the board to reading algebraic notation
2. Arsenal: the essential tactics of chess, such as forks and skewers
3. Strategy: the essential stratagems of chess, from opening moves to “the art of the trade”
4. The Art of Learning: based upon Josh’s new book of the same name, this section covers the major facets of gameplay, from playing well to handling the pressure of over the board competition
5. Endgame Course: how to play the all important endgame well
6. The Psychology of Competition: how to win the battle of wits
7. Annotated Games: some of Josh’s favorite games, annotated by him.

Of the above sections, The Art of Learning is the newest facet to CMXI as amply noted by the flashing “new” label on the sections tab – you got to hand it to Ubi for honesty on that one. Within each section you will find a wealth of chess information. Many of the lessons come complete with interactive quizzes and annotated games by Josh. It can be a really instructive to play through a game move by move as Josh vocally describes his strategy for a particular game. In addition to strategy, Josh also explains his emotions during the course of a game, something he is lately interested in addressing to help competitive players deal with the stress of over the board competition. It is a nice touch that these tutorials are broken down into sections that do not need to be completed sequentially, thereby allowing players to explore the topics as they will.

Along with Waitzkin’s Academy, Larry Christiansen’s Attacking Chess and the Chessmaster Tutorials provide a solid grounding in all things chessic. Larry Christiansen’s Attacking Chess is a collection of classic games vocally annotated by him that go a long way in teaching basic principles from real world examples of top caliber play. The Chessmaster Tutorials are a series of comprehensive lessons, broken down into beginning, intermediate and advanced levels, which cover just about every aspect of the game with Bruce Pandolfini’s Rating Exam and Larry Evans’ Endgame Quiz being worthy of special note. Taken together, these three modes of learning offer many hours of entertaining and informative chess instruction that will take the chess neophyte from rank beginner all the way to advanced play. Sure, those of us who have owned previous iterations of Chessmaster may have come across these components before, but their continued presence is welcomed nonetheless as an occasional refresher course still pays dividends.

Also in the Learn portion of the program is the Famous Games section. This is exactly what it says: a huge collection of famous games stretching from 1619 to 2007 - over 800,000 entries! While these games are annotated, they lack the vocal annotation of the Academy. Nonetheless, there is a lot of learning contained in this collection and is well worth the attention of any student of chess history.

CMXI also contains a database. Now, if you’re a beginner, the advantages of a well organized database might not be immediately clear but for advanced players it can be very helpful to have all your completed games automatically sorted. This ability can facilitate your studies by quickly identifying your strength and weaknesses in certain reoccurring openings or positions. CMXI allows you to do this using such criteria as opening used, length of game, name of opponents, final result, and more. CMXI also now allows you to search for games using a five-star rating system involving such categories as: fastest game, most impressive moves, or “pawn wars.” Of course, while in the database you can step through the moves of each game. And if a particular game needs closer scrutiny, you can send it to the training section of the program for closer analysis with a click of the mouse.

The last portion of the Learn section is the Openings subdivision. It is here that you can practice a particular opening with CMXI explaining the accepted moves and then asking you to reproduce it one move at a time with hints, if you need them. There is an openings book editor which allows you to step through the moves of a particular entry, sorted by the opening repertoires of the great players, to learn which moves they prefer in a particular variation via a branching reply tree. And, of course, if you think you’ve come up with the latest opening novelty, the editor will allow you to record your bit of chess wisdom by crafting a new opening book.

Play

The second portion of CMXI is entitled “Play” and encompasses seven subsections. No doubt the most used will be the “Train” subsection where the player has access to the full AI as both an instructor and opponent. The main portion of your screen is occupied with the chessboard and pieces, which can be selected from 2D (better for serious analysis) and a slew of 3D combinations (both faux 3D and real 3D, assuming you have a set of glasses which were not included for some strange reason). This version of Chessmaster now incorporates ten brand-new 3D chess sets from luxury set designer The House of Staunton, along with a whimsical Rayman Raving Rabbids set (alas, suffering from a bug that displays erroneous coordinates from the black side of the board). All the 3D sets can be moved, sized and tilted to the players liking.

Along with the chess set, there are a variety of windows that the player can have open, from the standard move list, configurable according to the preferred method of annotation, to the computer’s textual thinking lines, visual thinking lines (where the AI’s strategizing is displayed on a little chess board), captured pieces, and more.

Training mode is the best place for some sparring against De Koning, Chessmaster’s AI engine that is now enhanced to take advantage of multithread and multiprocessor PCs (rated at 2956 on my quad-core). CMXI comes replete with over 190 different opponents, one of the reasons why I have always considered the Chessmaster series to be the best product for beginners. While other chess programs often go for the throat no matter how much you ‘dumb-down’ the AI, there is always a fitting opponent to be found here. Take your pick of opponents or make your own, set the game parameters (time control, color, odds or blindfold play) and off you go. As you play, you can have Chessmaster offer brief helpful hints or more detailed advice, or even have him warn you of a bad move with the “blunder alert” option.

Once you complete a game, you can have Chessmaster analyze it for you. This is perhaps one the best reasons for having a program such as CMXI as, in this age of horsepower-heavy PCs, it can study any game and provide very helpful tips on how to play better. While other chess programs, such as Chessbase’s Fritz, might enjoy greater renown for its deeper analysis, I have always found Chessmaster’s verbose “natural language” analytical functions to be superior for chess neophytes and a close second for experienced players.

Players who get tired of simple sparring can check out the “Ranked Play” portion of the “Play” section. Unlike the “Train” subsection, “Ranked Play” disables all coaching functions and rates every game as in real world competition. It is in this section that the prospective chess player really matches wits against a silicon opponent and can get a relatively accurate evaluation of his playing ability as his rating inevitably waxes and wanes after confronting opponents of different skill levels. Another side benefit of rated play is that certain CMXI chess sets can only be unlocked with a pre-set amount of rated play victories.

“Set Up Position” is the third subsection. It is here that the player can create a custom position on the chessboard and have the computer analyze it or just start a game against a silicon opponent from a specific configuration of pieces. I find this ability comes in handy when I am stumped by a chess puzzle and need some analysis to crack it or when I like to gain a deeper understanding of a specific position I have encountered during play. As in the “Training” sub-section, hints and advice are available here.

“Tournaments” is yet another subsection of “Play” and a particularly enjoyable one at that. Regrettably, not all of us are able to pack our bags for the weekend and head out to a regional tournament. CMXI provides suitable alternative by providing a whole host of pre-made rated tournaments to participate in. Arranged according to skill level, from Apprentices to Masters, with a bonus “Style” tournament, there is competition here for every chess player. Can’t find a tourney you like? Again, CMXI allows the player to craft a new one from scratch by selecting the type (Swiss or Round Robin), time control and specific players. Once the tournament is under way, the competition can be fierce and fun. The player can even watch his computer opponents play their games in real time – sometimes resulting in some thrilling upsets! – or have the games quickly resolved so as to move the tourney along more expeditiously. Overall, I have always found this section of the Chessmaster series to be one of its most enjoyable, if strangely under-utilized, components.

The last portion of the “Play” section is an option to participate at Chessmaster Online or establish a LAN game. If there was one major flaw of the previous version, Chessmaster X, it was that Chessmaster Online was far inferior to many of the public chess servers available on the internet. Opponents were scarce, play was buggy and the server lacked many of the standard features found at sites such as the Free Internet Chess Server (FICS) and the Internet Chess Club (ICC). Chessmaster Online has reappeared in this version, but alas, little has changed. The server is still buggy and players are still scarce. Ubi has added some features, such as correspondence play and clans, but it all seems like little more than an obligatory multiplayer afterthought. For example, take the new correspondence chess ability. This clever addition would seem be a great boon to the community until you discover that it is hamstrung by the fact that the server does not notify players by email when it is their turn to play - an all too necessary function provided on even the most basic chess servers out there. In short, unless you are just too lazy to set-up an account at FICS or the ICC, there still is really very little reason to visit Chessmaster Online.

Fun

The final section of CMXI incorporates the lighter side of chess. The first section, also entitled “Play,” is a colorful, stripped-down version of CMXI made especially for teaching children how to play the game. Utilizing animated sets and featuring coaching and hint options, this is the place to start that budding chess enthusiast. My only complaint is that it lacks an ability to either send a completed game back to the training portion for analysis or even the ability to save a game in progress.

Another subsection is “Puzzles,” and it is just that. Long a favorite of chess fanatics, this section allows you to select from eight different puzzle categories, from the simple “find the hung piece” to the more engaging “mate in one” or “mate in two.” Overall, this section provides you with the same type of head-scratchers as often found in your local paper’s chess column and provides a nice diversion.

The third subsection is entitled “Mini Games” and provides a selection of addictive little games such as “Fork My Fruit,” where the player has to use a chess piece to attack two or more fruits placed about the board for points, or “Minefield Chess,” basically the classic Windows’ Minefield game, but this time using chess pieces (it is surprisingly addictive in this format!). The third is “Pathfinder,” a game suspiciously like the old arcade-classic Centipede. With the release of the second patch, Ubisoft has added a fourth mini game entitled “Chain Reactions,” where the player must connect the movement paths of (at least) three pieces of the same kind. Of all the games, I found this one this is the most original and complex.

The final subsection is called “Learn the Basics” and it little more than the Chessmaster “Kids Academy” from previous editions. Again, like the other tutorials (speaking of which, why these tutorials were placed here and not with the others in the “Learn” section is a mystery to me), it provides a complete set of lessons and annotated games to help the next “young Fischer” discover the sublime rules of the game as well as learn the habits necessary to play well. It is divided into three sections: tutorials, drills and Josh’s Games, some of which are repeated in the “Learn” section, with each providing part of a solid curriculum for chess mastery.

CMXI vs. CMX

Some of the current owners of Chessmaster X are enquiring as to whether or not CMXI is worth the cost of upgrading. I would have to say no. Taken all in all, CMXI is not a full-blown new program, as CMX was compared to CM9000, but is little more than an incremental upgrade. Really, with the exception of the new House of Staunton chess sets, the chess mini-games and the Art of Learning tutorials, the changes are all largely minor. Considering that CMX is currently patched as close to perfection as possible while CMXI is still teething, you might as well wait a few months before making the upgrade. However, Vista owners might have good reason to jump on board as soon as possible as I had found CMX to be less than happy in a Vista environment.

Closing Comments: 
Chessmaster XI offers a wealth of chess knowledge and fun in one complete package; it really cannot be beat in this regard. While other chess programs may have stronger engines, CMXI is still the champ when it comes to the category of chess edu-tainment, doubly-so for youngsters. While not perfect, due to some scattered bugs and the lackluster online portion, CMXI is still the finest chess value available anywhere. Whether you’re a complete novice or a seasoned club player, this is the next best thing to having a world-class chess academy in your neighborhood. The motto for Chessmaster X was “teacher, mentor, ultimate opponent” and while this series may no longer be the world’s “ultimate opponent,” a title currently held by Rybka with an astounding 4-CPU rating of 3113, CMXI continues the tradition of being one heck of a fine teacher and mentor.
 
Genre: Strategy
ESRB Rating: N/A
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
More Information: Official Web Site
 
Verdict:
8.0
Pros & Cons
Pros: 
A return of a classic title; new Josh Waitzkin tutorials; more chess sets and activities.
Cons: 
Multiplayer component remains inferior to other chess servers; bugs; less a new program than an incremental upgrade to CMX.
Game Info
Publisher: 
Ubisoft
Developer: 
Ubisoft
Release Date: 
October 30, 2007
ESRB Rating: 
Everyone