Review: Macintosh Chess Downloads (Part I)
ATPM reviewed five chess software programs in the September 1999 issue. Since that review, Sigma Chess was upgraded, and Vanessa Chess was released. Since Macintosh chess software is my hobby (I own dozens of Macintosh chess programs, and maintain the Macintosh Chess Software Index), I volunteered to write about them.
Sigma Chess 5.12 is the strongest Macintosh freeware/shareware chess program reviewed in ATPM. I’ve played 100-game matches between each of five programs using the excellent freeware chess umpire/database program, ExaChess Lite 2.1. Sigma Chess beat all the others—their score against Sigma Chess was: Crafty 14.11B (47%), MacChess 4.0e (39%), Screamer 1.0 (25%), and Vanessa Chess 2.01 (10%).
These days, chess strength should seldom be your primary decision factor in selecting a chess program. With the power of modern Macs, even Vanessa Chess is a much stronger player than most humans when set to full strength. For an opponent that is challenging, rather than unbeatable, one must usually set the computer to an “easy” level, or limit the number of moves the program looks ahead to one or two moves (“fixed depth 1” or “fixed depth 2” in computer chess argot).
Price and convenience of acquisition are important factors, and commercial programs can’t touch the price of freeware/shareware programs (Vanessa Chess is $10 shareware, the other four are freeware) or the convenience of downloading.
Two other important factors are ease of use and features, which is why I’m not reviewing Crafty: Most of Crafty’s features can only be accessed through a command line interface.
Developer: Ole K. Christensen (product page)
Requirements: PowerPC-based Mac with System 7.5.
Recommended: 800x600 display with thousands of colors, 10 MB of application RAM.
Sigma Chess is the strongest, prettiest, and most full-featured freeware/shareware GUI Mac chess program.
It has many nice things no other Mac freeware/shareware chess program includes, such as a double-clickable chess tutorial (“Rules of Chess”), an illustrated online manual, and a collection of instructive games, endgames, combinations, and chess problems. The last ATPM review rated Sigma Chess 4.02 higher than all the rest, and Sigma Chess 5.1.2 is much better than 4.0.2, with many major improvements and a host of minor improvements.
Starting with Sigma Chess 5, Sigma Chess was optimized for Power Macintosh, making it much stronger.
If the “Novice Levels” in Sigma Chess are too easy for you, Sigma Chess 5.0 now has a “Playing Strength” feature, where you can set Sigma Chess’s approximate strength numerically (higher numbers are stronger), as an alternative to setting the time Sigma uses or the number of moves it looks ahead.
Sigma is the only free Macintosh program with the option of displaying the board in a 3D view using “true perspective” pieces like those in the commercial chess programs Chessmaster 6000 and Virtual Chess.
The 3D display has been polished since the earlier version. The menu bar is now visible in 3D mode, the optional digital clocks are less obtrusive, and the side to move is now indicated by glowing yellow LEDs embedded in the right edge of the wood board. These changes are representative of the many improvements made throughout the program.
The Sigma Chess 2D Display
I personally prefer the 2D display, which I think is the nicest looking Macintosh chess interface available at any price. The pieces are gorgeous, and the on-screen control buttons save a lot of time otherwise spent in travelling to the menu bar. The menu selections each have color menu icons. I like these icons, but those who don’t can turn them off in “Preferences.” I also love the digitized sound of the felted pieces landing on the wooden board, and the “clack” of wood on wood when pieces are captured, though I usually have this turned off in “Preferences” so as not to annoy others.
For those who like chess puzzles of the “White to move and mate in 2” variety, Sigma Chess is the only Mac program whose “Mate Finder” mode is not only guaranteed to find such a mate if it exists, but which will find all such mates, if you tell it to.
Sigma Chess has scores of other features, including rating your play, annotating your games, and printing them in double-column format with diagrams and comments. If there is something you want Sigma Chess to do, you can probably find out how in the online manual.
Developer: Schubert-it (product page)
Price: $10 (shareware)
Requirements: 200 MHz PowerPC-based Mac, Mac OS 8.6, 12 MB application RAM.
Recommended: G4-based Mac with Mac OS 9.
Trial: Fully-featured (30 days)
Vanessa Chess has a nice-looking interface and a reasonably complete set of features (albeit far fewer than Sigma Chess).
Three things about Vanessa chess might make it a better choice than Sigma Chess for some tasks: it can read games out loud, it is much weaker than Sigma Chess, and it can print formatted game scores with color chess diagrams.
The ability to have games read out loud is one I wished for when studying games from chess books. When playing such games on a physical board, I found my attention distracted by the need to look back and forth between the book and the board to follow the game. Almost all modern computer programs are an improvement in the sense that games stored in the computer can be viewed on-screen without needing to look away. However, some feel that the best way to study for over-the-board play is to play games out on a real board. With a program that reads chess game moves out loud, this can be done while keeping one’s attention on the board. The only other downloadable program that does this is the $10 shareware program PGNTalk, which doesn’t play chess or print games.
The tournament results indicate that Vanessa Chess is about a tenth as strong as Sigma Chess. Paradoxically, this can be a good thing. If you find other chess programs too overwhelming, it may be easier to configure Vanessa Chess to a comfortable level. Besides the usual ability to limit the computer’s thinking by setting a time limit or the number of moves it looks ahead, Vanessa Chess offers a unique “Adaptive strength” feature that is supposed to match its strength to yours, but I have not used it enough to know how well it works.
The Vanessa Chess Interface
One use of computer chess programs is printing games with diagrams and notes. Vanessa Chess and Sigma Chess Lite are the only Mac freeware/shareware chess playing programs that let you do this. Vanessa Chess is the more capable program in this regard. While Vanessa Chess does not permit printing in figurine notation (mini-icons rather than letters for pieces) like Sigma Chess, it is the only program that allows your printed game to include color chess diagrams, multiple diagram formats, and multiple annotation fonts and styles. If you want to print nice-looking chess output, Vanessa Chess might be worth considering for this alone.
Also in This Series
- Review: Macintosh Chess Downloads (Part I) · February 2001