Since the baby came, I usually don't get a straight uninterrupted hour in which to play a game of online chess. And online chess doesn't have a "Save Game" option or a pause feature. So I needed a computer program that would play me. Sounds like no problem, right? Chess AI is practically solved.
Well, it is a problem. Even the dumbest of chess programs, as long as they don't purposely blunder, have a rating at least in the 1600s, which is much better than me. The trick is to find a chess program that feels like a human. But for the most part, when I play chess programs set on "easy" levels, it feels like this:
I'm getting my ass kicked - I'm getting my ass kicked - I'm getting my ass kicked - the program just made an incredibly stupid blunder, like hanging a queen. I win.
That's no fun. It's torment followed by a hollow victory.
Then I discovered Fritz 8. Fritz 8 has a "friend mode" where it automatically adjusts to your play level (handicapping itself binary-search wise). At the low levels, it no longer relies on its extensive opening book; and its blunders are subtle - it opens itself up to attacks, it gives away pawns. The kind of thing a player about my level would do. My only complaint would be that it sometimes makes moves that are clearly pointless - like moving a piece and then moving it right back where it was. It's rare that a human at my level does that - we're too stubborn.
And now I have my save-game and pause. And I have an indicator of how well I'm doing - currently, my Friend Mode Handicap is 300. My goal is to get that number down.
On a side note, I do still manage to get in an online game now and then. I notice that I keep playing against the same people - these people have played hundreds of games and they're still at the same level. I have a couple of theories: 1) we're all at a plateau that nothing short of dedicating our lives to the game will break us out of. 2) the quality of play, across the board, is getting better. Imagine there were only two chess players in the world, and they used the Eco rating system. As they played each other, they would continually get better. But they're both getting better, so their ratings would stay the same.
The things I tell myself to feel good about myself.
Oh, I almost forget. Fritz 8 also has the coolest game analysis feature I've seen. Trying to decode the output from my previous chess program was murder. Fritz 8 will have output like "Prevents intrusion on h4", "White prepares the advance of a5", "Doesn't get the cat off the tree", "Does not help much", "and Black can already relax." And classic chess notation (+/-, +=, etc) for who ends up in the better position.