Continuing the definitive series that began in 1986 with the first Software Toolworks, Inc. Chessmaster release for MS-DOS and Atari ST, Ubi Soft Entertainment takes over the development reigns with Chessmaster 9000. With more than a decade and a half of enhancements and improvements to build on, the designers have added over 60 new chess sets and boards, introduced a "blindfold chess" mode, and a new random opponent feature. International Master Josh Waitzkin, whose rise in the chess world was documented in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, offers a new "Psychology of Competition" chess course as well.
Players can benefit from new features like a Mentor Lines window (depth of advice), a Blunder Alert option, hidden opponents, and competition against other chess engines. In addition to the long-standing setup options of the series, The Kid's Room allows children or novices to work on drills, play practice games, learn to play, and monitor progress. Players have multiple options to set their "room environment" with personal preferences, enter a Game Room to analyze or play matches, specify levels of instruction desired in The Classroom, play rated games in The Tournament Room, or visit The Library to study more than 800 classic games.
The official Chessmaster web site offers a free downloadable "Chessmaster 9000 Endgame Database Generator" to use in conjunction with the existing Database Room features. Competition via the Internet or a LAN is available through the Chessmaster Live Room, with rated play available at the developer's website. Additional features include a new Endgame Quiz by GM Larry Evans, as well as tutorials by legendary instructor Bruce Pandolfini, GM Yasser Seirawan, Becca Martinson, and Evans.
Much as wargamers look forward to the next great hexagonal challenge to conquer Europe, so do many chess players look forward to the next release of Chessmaster. There's essentially no competition for this game, but thankfully, the developers march on, adding new features and doing their best to make the game appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Chessmaster 9000 is an excellent product that has something for both chess newbies and grandmasters alike.
While most people have probably played a few games of chess in their lifetime, it's a much smaller group that understands the true strategic complexities of the game. Chessmaster understands this, and the game ships with several dozen tutorials and drills. These cover simple things like how to set the board up, how each piece moves along with strengths and weaknesses, etc. As you progress, more and more complex issues are brought to the table, culminating with studies of some of the greatest chess matches ever played, even explaining the strategies used.
For the most part, the training is done well, but there are a few minor problems. First, each piece tutorial is about the same, save for the piece being described. There's a very obvious pattern being followed and if you pick up on it, you can make "correct" moves without knowing why. While the order in which pieces are introduced is just about perfect (Rook through King, with the Pawn last), some of the "correct" moves are not in fact correct. For example, in the King tutorial, you have to move your King out of check. The correct answer involves moving your King into a checkmate position with a Pawn, clearly an illegal move. However, since you have not gone through the Pawn tutorial move yet, you're given the idea that it was a safe move. If you pay attention, you'll catch this, but if you're brand new to the game, it can be confusing.
Finally, many of the tutorials involve clicking on all the possible squares that a particular piece can move to. Once you click on the squares, you're supposed to hit the "Done" button. Right beneath this button, though, there's a "Next" button, similar to a browser. Since all the tutorials involve clicking "Next" to go to the next step, you may accidentally hit this instead of "Done," just out of habit. Instead of correcting you, the tutorial just moves on and you don't know if you answered properly or not. There's a "Back" button for this scenario, but then you have to repeat the answer again and make sure to click "Done" to find out if your move was correct. It seems like a simple oversight.
Regardless of these niggling problems, the game introduces much more than basic piece movement and proper board layout. Once the basics are done, you're taught Castling, En Passant, Pins, Forks, defense, opening moves, specific piece strategies, and so on. Much of the information is provided by Josh Waitzkin, Bruce Pandolfini, and other chess notables. This is invaluable information, even for those that consider themselves decent players. The wealth of training and explanation contained within is unmatched, and the presentation is well done. The entire thing is narrated by a docile voice that encourages you along the way. It's not the most cheerful voice, but it's not a droning monotone, either.
Once you feel you're ready for a real game, there are multiple options to use. The most obvious is "Quickstart," which pits you against a computer opponent at your skill level. This game has over 1,600 (!) skill levels, so anyone from the complete newbie to the state champion will find a comfortable setting. While playing, there are perhaps too many windows opened by default. While anything can be moved, closed, resized, etc. (much like the many windows playing golf in Links), the initial layout can be overwhelming, especially if you opted to bypass the tutorials. You're shown captured pieces, the computer thinking, two versions of the board (a small top-down and the chess set you selected), a game history in algebraic notation (which can be changed), a mentor window, shortcuts, and more. It's a lot to look at.
Once you're comfortable with "Quickstart," the game's options really open up. You can place yourself in various scenarios: those you set up yourself, or famous (and not-so-famous) scenarios from the annals of chess history. Things like "Checkmate in 5 moves" and "Pinning to Win Material" are definite challenges, and without knowing it, you'll probably learn a thing or two about chess strategy. Additionally, there's a scalable Mentor system, which can offer you varying degrees of hints for your next move. If that weren't enough, a "Blunder Alert" can be turned on to keep you from making a really stupid move. Usually, the game will tell you why it's a bad move as well, explaining that such a move places your King in check, puts you in a Pin, will force lost material (pieces), and so on. It's a wonderful learning tool.
To make the game more appealing, the graphics are about as interesting as they can get for a chess game. There are tons of boards to choose from, complete with different piece sets and true 3D rendering with shadows. It's a bit overkill, but the pretty graphics give it a broader appeal. There are also sets specifically made for kids, where pieces look like various animals and the boards look more like Candyland or Chutes 'N Ladders. It's still a game of chess, but it's a nice way to introduce a younger player to the concepts behind this age-old game. This is also the only chess game I can remember that has an FMV opening of people playing chess through various time periods.
In the end, it's still chess. You like it or you don't. But while there are a few small issues with the game, you're not going to find a better chess player -- or tutor -- on the market. Add to that all the options you're given, and Chessmaster 9000 is the perfect product for new players and veterans alike.
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