02 August 2013

Chess on the iPhone

Only a few years ago, I played against Chessmaster on my Motorola RAZR while walking on the treadmill. The RAZR had more RAM than my first desktop computer, and yet Chessmaster could be defeated on its highest levels. There were better phones in 2007, and perhaps there were better chess playing programs for the phone then.

Today the choices are overwhelming. There are many hundreds of chess apps available for smartphones, and the number seem to grow daily. There are apps for playing against the phone, and against human opponents. There are apps for reading chess books, solving chess problems, and studying master games. When I wrote "Chess on the iPad" (January 2011), the number of chess apps for the iPhone/iPad/iPod numbered in the dozens. Only one that I was able to find contained database features. Many were versatile playing programs. Some offered tactics exercises.

For online chess playing, a quick search of the app store for "chess online" from the iPhone turns up 145 results (the same search with the iPad brings 147). The actual number of apps must be lower, for when I scroll through the list, some apps reappear multiple times. Some have free or lite versions that appear in the list separate from full versions that are not free. Social Chess and the Chess.com app appear near the top of both searches. Some apps contain several games, including checkers, chinese checkers, and word games. One app is for Junqi, a game as closely related to Stratego as to Xiangqi (called Chinese chess).

After weeding out those unrelated to the target search, more than two dozen remain that offer online chess. Many of these connect via Game Center or to FICS. I have tried and continue to try many of these apps, and most prove that they fail to meet my standards. Live Chess by DreamOnline, Inc. is a good example. With 258 ratings in the store, it averages four stars. The description claims innovative graphics, and an app focused upon live online chess.

I found a game quickly; in fact, I was challenged within half a minute of logging on. My first move was awkward. After tapping my pawn, and tapping its destination square, I had to tap a third time on the pop-up bubble telling me the move in (slightly non-standard) chess notation. A few moves later, I captured a screenshot of this irritating feature. In the image, my opponent's last move is highlighted, as is my intended square. All squares where my queen may move are marked by shields (this feature can be turned off). My opponent's name is upside down at the far end of the board.

The chess pieces resemble balloons more than standard chess pieces. These can be toggled to show the board in 3D, and in that mode zooming and rotation are possible. I prefer Staunton 2D diagrams.

After the game, my opponent left me a message that he or she was returning to the lobby.* It took me a minute to find that there was an x in the upper left-hand corner allowing me to close this message and resume my search for the game score and some means of saving it. Later, reopening the program, I discovered that ability to save games is available as a $0.99 add-on.

The app runs advertising across the bottom when in the lobby, but not while playing. The second game took some time to find, and I did not need a PGN record. Although White's alleged rating was in the high-1900s, the game ended quickly. 1.f4 e5 2.f5 d5 3.g4 Qh4#. I had Black. My first game was a hard-fought draw, although my opponent missed an elementary tactic that would have netted a rook and pawn for a knight. After two games, I deleted the app and moved on. I would give it one star.

Chess Online by Digital Future Games is far worse. In the image (left), note the dark square in the right corner. The developers need to learn the rules of chess.

The pieces are standard Staunton, but with shadows, and they crowd the squares. Pawns should not be larger than bishops. The board is too small. The iPhone screen is small enough. The chess board should not be shrunk further by surrounding it with a thick border. Dots telling a player where the tapped piece can move do not appear optional. The timers count up, tracking total time used.

Chess Online is a Game Center app, and it awards points for wins, and for pieces capturered. I won some sort of Sir Lancelot Award when I captured my opponent's queen. Messages from the opponent obscure the game board, and then fade. As if the graphics are not bad enough, in the first game, my opponent was able to move his king two squares to escape checkmate. On my next move, I checkmated him a second time. Then, I received a message that I won by default because he abandoned the game. The second game ended the same way--by default when my checkmated opponent abandoned the game.

I could find no indication that games were saved in a format accessible to me.

It required an app as bad as Chess Online for me to begin to understand the praise heaped on apps like Live Chess. Neither is worth my time, but one is vastly worse. As I suggested in my review of  Social Chess (October 2011), mediocrity appears brilliant in light of true incompetence. Social Chess is simple, and reasonably good. It is vastly better than Chess With Friends, which is its major point of reference. But, to call it the "best chess app" reveals only the poverty of one's experiences with quality online chess.

There are good chess apps available. Indeed, there are quite a few. I play online almost every day with the Chess.com app. I have accessed FICS via Chess-wise Pro (see "Chess Tactics Training on the iPad"). I have played on ICC via several apps. The Playchess server has an app for its site. These apps all offer clean boards, some user choices in color and piece design (in most cases), full PGN support, and an abundance of competition challenging even for Grandmasters.

*The word "lobby" on a chess site always makes me think of Yahoo! Chess. Ed Collins offered a perceptive comparison table fifteen years ago that remains relevant today, "Yahoo! Chess vs. the Chess Servers." I get the sense that there are many yahoos in the app store.

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