Fancy a Game of Chess?
Back in the dark, dark days when the internet was a mere stripling, used mainly by the government and the military; and the World Wide Web was something you only heard about on the news or “Tomorrow’s World” style technology programs; there were only a few ways to get a good game of chess.
You could join a chess club – if there was one local to you. But the quality (and friendliness) varies enormously, (believe me). Unfriendly clubs can put newcomers off within minutes, despite the fact that clubs need a regular stream of new players and beginners coming through to survive, you would be surprised how many times I’ve turned up to a club, finally got someone to play against, only for them to crush me two or three times in a row, then grunt and move on. And when you consider that clubs generally meet maybe once a week - and may have matches or other events already scheduled to take place, it can take a little while to become a regular playing part of even a friendly welcoming club.
Another option was to take up postal (sometimes called “correspondence”) chess, sending and receiving the moves via the postal service - perhaps using specially printed postcards or windowed envelopes. At this rate, moves take days, and whole games could last years. It can prove tricky to find the enthusiasm for a game that may not get into the middlegame for several months. And that relies on you finding someone willing to agree to play such a game in the first place.
But then, from out of the wilderness came The Internet (with capitals); a vast global technology network, the “Information Super-Highway”; and it appeared to some as though it was designed with chess in mind. Originally, you could play over early internet services like IRC (Internet Relay Chat) or Telnet, then commercial chess programs offered online aspects to their software, so you could - with the aid of the chess program and a dial-up modem (I sometimes make beeping noises when I log in to my wireless broadband just out of nostalgia) enter into online play against other humans in REAL TIME over a dedicated chess server.
Ultimately of course, this lead to commercial chess servers; services that you had to pay for, but could offer so much more functionality and sophistication than the free to play servers - often using a custom-made dedicated Graphical User Interface (GUI) for the purpose. Such servers generally required a yearly fee, but then offer many more features and much more content than their free counterparts.
The two Granddaddies of commercial chess servers are undoubtedly ICC (Internet Chess Club) and Playchess.com; Both have their supporters and both have a lot to offer in terms of functions and content. But the one I want to look at is Playchess.
“The Ultimate Chess Experience” is the tag line on the Playchess website. Now they may be over selling themselves a little there (I had a very good chess experience last year with a Norwegian blonde, and a game of “strip chess”) but you have to allow them a little artistic license. The truth is that there’s a heck of a lot there for any chess enthusiast of any level.
Now Playchess does have its own proprietary software interface (as I mentioned above) but the company who run Playchess – “ChessBase” (the name of the company) – have tied the server in with their flagship software programs “ChessBase” (the name of the database management software) and “Fritz”, their premier chess playing software (which is actually a “family” of software including the engines Fritz, Komodo, Rybka, Hiarcs, and Junior – all running under the same “Fritz” interface). This means that the interface for Playchess will be familiar to anyone who has used ChessBase programs in the past.
You can download a free version of their software at www.playchess.com which comes with limited functionality and some older (now free) engines. And this is a great way to get started and get familiar with the interface. This limited free access only allows you to play games as a “guest” (so you won’t have a rating”) and you cannot access any of the more sophisticated features. You can purchase a “Basic Access” code from ChessCentral (costing - at the time of writing - 32.90 Euro for a year - about $43) which will allow you to login as a full member with access to live commentaries and training. The rub being that you have to pay extra each time you do – to the tune of 50 Ducats. “What’s a Ducat?” I hear you cry; well it’s the server-based monetary system used by Playchess for all their added extras, which can be purchased using real money from the ChessBase shop at a rate of 10 Euro (~$13) to 100 Ducats. While that may sound expensive, you can buy a “Premium Access” code for 49.90 Euro (~$65) that lets you access ALL the live commentary, training, and everything else for free for one whole year.
If that all sounds complicated and expensive, well it is, but ChessBase have simplified the whole thing in one very commercially astute way - if you purchase one of the “Fritz Family” of playing programs (not including Fritz” itself – we’ll get to that shortly), then you get a code for one year free “basic” access to Playchess.com RIGHT THERE IN THE BOX. This makes the ChessBase chess engines MUCH better value than they first appear, and it gives ChessBase a user-base for their services. Sure, this is a bit of nifty marketing to get you to buy an engine in the first place – but if you want some top class playing and analysis software, you might as well get one that gives you access to all this online goodness too!
Now Fritz is the ChessBase flagship playing program; and any upgrades to the interface are bundled with the latest version of the Fritz engine. However, the Fritz engine hasn’t topped the chess engine rating lists for some years now, so in order to keep the Fritz engine relevant, and to encourage the take up of interface upgrades, ChessBase offer free PREMIUM access to Playchess with codes from Fritz software, which at just $49.95 makes the single-processor version of Fritz 13 AMAZING value. Think about it – a premium access code by itself is about $65. So if you buy Fritz 13 you’re actually SAVING MONEY! On top of which you get a year’s free access to everything that Playchess has to offer.
So just what is there available on Playchess? Firstly – there are A LOT of players. Somewhere in the region of 20,000 a day - according to their server statistics - with skill levels ranging from beginner to Super Grandmaster. Even Garry Kasparov has been known to show up from time to time, and players such as Hikaru Nakamura, Mickey Adams, and Nigel Short pop by regularly. But for mere mortals, they have a main playing hall, and even a beginner room for those just starting out.
They have plenty of regular lectures and lessons from people like GM Karsten Mueller and FM Valeri Lilov, and you can guarantee that if there’s a super-tournament on, then Playchess will be covering it with live commentary from players such as GM Danny King, and IM Lawrence Trent. There are also the facility for private lessons with several GM/IMs offering their time (for payment of course), but one-on-one training with a master is something most players could only dream of even ten years ago! In fact I tried the system out with my housemate – who just happens to be an IM – it was a very straightforward and intuitive system. We were sitting next-door to each other at the time of course, but my point is still the same.
You can even let your PC battle it out with PCs around the world in the “engine room”, where (unlike the other rooms) chess-engine play is not only encouraged it is positively expected. Watching two top engines try to tear each other apart can be entertaining and informative, and I’ve tried it for engine testing with great success; though be warned that there are people out there who are prepared to pay THOUSANDS (TENS of thousands even) for the very latest and greatest hardware, and if you’re harbouring a desire to see your dusty old laptop up there at the top of the ranking lists, you are liable to be sorely disappointed.
Of course, it integrates seamlessly (as you might expect) with ChessBase software programs. And any games you play/watch get automatically added to their own database on your computer, which you can peruse and analyse at your leisure.
Are there any downsides to Playchess? Well not really. I would say that it possibly has fewer master-level players than say ICC (FMs/IMs etc) but there’s still a considerable number. And for the average club-level player like me, there’s a veritable feast of opponents ready and willing to try their skill. Some people have bemoaned Playchess’s limited “chat” functions, though I personally consider that a plus - if I want to chat, I will go to the pub, rather than a chess serverJ. Finally, there’s not a great deal of the “extra” stuff that’s free, but considering the fantastic value of a “Fritz” playing program, I don’t see it as much of an issue.
In short, it’s a slick, simple, and a joy to use. In a world where there’s a heck of a lot to choose from, the choice is easy.