In an era of 99 cent Chess programs for the iPhone and iPad, there is one that clearly stands out above the rest. If you’re serious about either learning chess or playing a challenging opponent on these platforms, tChess Pro by Tom Kerrigan, even though it will cost you $8, is not only fabulous, but it’s the best computer Chess program this reviewer has ever encountered.
My technical writing career launched with reviews of the Dan and Kathe Spracklen’s Sargon for the Apple II in the late 1970s at 6502 Micro and Byte. I’ve been playing against all kinds of Chess programs, both dedicated boxes, desktop and handhelds, as well as desktop computer versions ever since. tChess Pro is not only one of the strongest Chess programs I’ve encountered, but it has the best User Interface (UI) and features of any Chess program ever written. You will get your money’s worth for $8. As for myself, I would have paid much more for this gem.
What sets it apart? Here’s a quick list.
- Full screen, Universal app on the iPad. One of the few that support that mode so far.
- A running score in Portable Game Notation (PGM) on the screen with the option to either e-mail it at the end or cut and paste elsewhere.
- The ability to set the ELO rating for the computer opponent and play a rated (or unrated) game.
- Computer ELO rating up to 2500, nearly Grandmaster level play.
- An opening book library that interactively teaches and guides in move selection.
- An analysis mode explained on the author’s Website.
- Breathtaking 2D and 3D wood or marble plus Staunton or Chess diagram view. 3D has high polygon count.
- A listing of sample games “PGN Database” with the ability to access the Internet and add game collections.
- A display of captured pieces in a corral.
- A Learn Chess mode.
- A blindfold mode.
In a recent ten game playoff versus Caissa Chess 2.1.1, tChess Pro scored +8 -0 =2. It was looking at 450,000 positions per move with a 10 second limit on a Mac mini with the iPad simulator.
Sample Display of 3D Board, Wood
Of course, iChess Pro has all the other obligatory features of a chess program.
- Ability to reverse the board.
- Play the computer as White or Black.
- Chess clock. Under “Time control” one can set any time control desired, up to 3 stages, with or without a Fischer increment. This controls the time that the chess clock displays, and the clock will turn red for the side that flags.
- Ability to set computer limit on either seconds per move or ply. (A move by just one player, a so-called half move.)
- Hints and ability to take back moves.
- Visual highlights of possible moves and/or the last move.
- Manual mode for stepping through a game from a book or magazine.
- Ability to manually edit a starting position. Useful for chess the so-called Chess Problems (puzzles).
The first thing I noticed about tChess Pro was the clean UI. There is a thin panel of icons along the bottom that control the app (L-R) Go back, Go forward, reverse the board, give a hint, opening book (optional), Actions and Settings.
At the top, from left to right, is the corral of taken pieces, the chess clock, and the listing of the game. (If playing back a saved game, tap on the listing to see a popover. Then select the move from which you wish to start the playback.) This UI puts a large screen front and center and keeps the controls accessible yet inconspicuous.
My personal taste goes to classic Staunton* white and rosewood pieces on a wood board, but for those who prefer it, there is a blue, chess digram look and also a greenish and white marble look with white and ebony pieces. When in 3D, there is a popover than explains how to manipulate the board (under Appearance setting).
I have spent most of my time playing Chess on a Mac against Sigma Chess developed for the Mac by Ole Christensen.
Sigma Chess 6.1.6 on Mac
This is a very strong chess app, but has a somewhat cluttered display and isn’t as pleasing as the minimalist UI of tChess. Also, there’s something cooler, a je ne sais quoi feeling, when playing full screen Chess on an iPad. You almost feel like Dr. Frank Poole**.
But I digress.
One of the things I liked a lot about tChess Pro is the ability to set specific ELO rating of the computer. Many years ago, I played at 1700+, but my skills have dwindled since then. Also, along the way, PC/Mac chess programs have gotten stronger and always wipe me off the board. So in my current renewed efforts, it’s both fun to play against a setting of 2000 (and watch yourself get crushed) or set the computer at 800 and have your way with it, like the old Sargon days. Then you can e-mail yourself the listing and relish your victory over the computer, like this easy win against an 800 setting.
PGM screen shot of my game from e-mail
Part of returning to serious Chess play is dealing with modern opening theory. tChess has the most common 15,000 opening moves from over 125,000 Grandmaster games. The opening book popover will display the percentage of how often each move was played from the curent position.
Opening Book Popover (Neo-Grunfeld opening)
I found the app to be very stable since I started using it early this week. It has never crashed or locked up on me, and that’s one of the features Mr. Kerrigan touts. I noted that there is no landscape mode, but that isn’t a negative in my book. It just probably doesn’t make sense for the UI to be cast into that geometry.
I really like the ability to track your rated games and see a graphic of your rating history. That makes for a great environment for those who are working hard to improve their game.
The End Game
tChess Pro is a complete system for both beginners and experienced players who are working on their opening book and tactical and strategic skills. It is beautiful, well thought out, has a great user interface, and a strong feature set.
However, if you just want to mess around at lunch with your iPhone, there is a light version, t Chess Lite, for 99 cents. But be aware that it is limited to an ELO rating of 1200. The iPhone version is identical to the iPad version, but the iPad version supports the larger screen natively. It’s a Universal binary.
If you’re going to spend 99 cents on a Chess program, tChess Lite comes highly recommended. I have downloaded and played against both Chess Pro and Chess-wise for iPhone, and I don’t like them nearly as much as the tChess pair in terms of look, feel and features. Of the two, only Chess-wise supports the iPad full screen natively, so you’ll be in 2x pixelated mode with Chess Pro.
tChess Pro, in my 30 year experience with computer Chess programs, is the very best I’ve ever seen. You won’t go wrong spending US$8 if you have even a casual interest in Chess.
* Hint: when playing on a physical board, stay away from the fancy, pewter or plastic sets found at souvenir shops. The complex designs can be both fragile and distracting.
** Explanation of the game used in the movie: 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This article from 2007 at The Mac Observer has some additional Chess history and pointers/links. Note that Mac OS X comes with a free Chess Program, GNU Chess. It plays well, but has a limited feature set.