Posted on April 2, 2019 by Wesley Surber

Review: Chess Studio for iOS

Apple likes to tout its iPad Pro and similar devices as laptop replacements. A few years ago I wouldn’t have entertained such a notion, but these days I’m doing more and more of my work and play on my iPad. In fact, my Macbook has been in a box for sale on Ebay for the past few months. My lower-budget Windows laptops tend to compliment my iPad device just as well. While Chessbase remains a staple of my chess database management, a new program has readily taken over much of my annotation and chess management work on the go: Chess Studio.

Full-Featured Chess Manager

Chess Studio proclaims itself to be the first program for iPhone and iPad to effectively manage portable game notation (PGN) files and I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve been using it for years and it’s hard for me to believe that I haven’t taken the time to write a review. So, here we go…

Replaying a game in Chess Studio. (Credit: Campfire Chess)

Chess Studio is obviously the brainchild of someone who loves chess and is equally as frustrated as I am with the lack of effective chess utilities on mobile devices. Once a PGN file is imported, it can be sorted, appended, and edited in an almost endless variety of ways. For me, this makes it an ideal application to use as a companion for reading electronic publications like Chess Life or the growing library of chess books available on Amazon’s Kindle.

Reading Chess Life alongside Chess Studio (Credit: US Chess/Campfire Chess)

As you can see from the image above, it works extremely well for playing through PGN games while reading the annotated publication. The ability to quickly add new variations, delete variations, add annotations, and make comments to games puts Chess Studio light years ahead of anything else currently available. The board is well designed with several color scheme options and chess fonts. There’s also an extensive settings panel that lets you show/hide coordinates, change some of the board’s basic behavior such as legal moves, and font size.

Adding annotations in Chess Studio. (Credit: Campfire Chess)

Note: My #1 issue with Chess Studio is the yellow background on the move list. I sent the developer a request to let users change that option and he assured me in a response that the option to change that color is coming in the future.

Capitalizing on New Tech

As I’ve mentioned in reviews for several new products including ChessNoteR, I love that chess tends to drive advancements in technology or unique utilizations of existing tech. Chess Studio is a nice program, but what really makes it a powerful utility is its integration with the rest of the Apple iOS ecosystem.

Accessing a PGN file from another app. (Credit: Campfire Chess)

The image above shows how Chess Studio integrates itself into the shared items menu throughout iOS. PGN files detected by the operating system are provided an option to copy themselves directly into the program. That’s how I access files from The Week in Chess and Chess Life. This makes it nearly effortless to import files into Chess Studio.

Final Verdict

Chess Studio is an excellent program for chess players and enthusiasts on the go. It’s well-supported and under continued development, unlike many of the programs rotting away on the Apple Store and Google Play. Well worth the purchase!

Posted on March 4, 2019 by Wesley Surber

ChessNoteR Forges A Digital Pathway

Editor’s Note: Purchase your own ChessNoteR for a 10% discounted rate by using the code CAMPFIRECHESS when you checkout. This offer is good until 30 April 2019, so don’t wait!

One of the things I love about chess is how it leverages technology and even drives advancement of new hardware/software or repurposing of old hardware/software. Throughout history, engineers and developers have found ways to incorporate chess into their projects. When new supercomputers are designed, chess gameplay is often the first thing to be implemented as a way of demonstrating the new system’s intelligence. Programs like Deep Blue and Google’s AlphaZero are just a few examples of this push. But what about the everyday chess player sitting in a smokey club trying to decide which Sicilian Defense line to follow? Well, technological advances in the club have also modernized the game. Few people use manual clocks anymore in favor of digital clocks with increment controls and other unique features. And, for a growing number of players, paper scoresheets are being replaced by a growing field of electronic ones.

This brings me to today’s topic: electronic scoresheets and a dangerous new contender. My regular friends and readers know that I’ve used the Plycounter electronic scoresheet for years and even did a review several years ago. It’s a small touchscreen device that uses a stylus to move the pieces. It’s been an OK device that, honestly, hasn’t held up as well over the years as I had originally hoped. That’s why I’m pleased that I was fortunate enough to get my hands on an emerging device called the ChessNoteR.

Re-purposed Technology

DISCLAIMER: Black Mirror Studio graciously provided me with a ChessNoteR to test and review.

As you can see, the ChessNoteR (pictured above) looks a lot like a cell phone. Well, that’s because it is a re-purposed cell phone! The ChessNoteR I tested is a Motorola Nexus 6 cell phone running a custom flavor of Android OS called ChessNoteR OS. While the device still bears the mark of its previous life as a cell phone, it immediately boots into its custom OS that only runs the ChessNoteR app and its support services. I found the interface to be relatively easy to set up. Upon booting, it enters into a default setup wizard that enables a user to connect to WiFi and input their own user information. You can opt out of the WiFi settings, but you’ll lose some of the more interesting features if you do. On that note, WiFi access has been one of the biggest hurdles for electronic devices being certified by US Chess. Access to telecommunications services is forbidden during official tournaments, so that has squashed the hopes of many iPhone and Android apps of being certified for tournament play.

ChessNoteR is the first device to find a way around this. At its core, it’s an Android app, but it owns the device. So, you cannot run any additional apps and you cannot run the notation app with WiFi enabled. It’s this feature that gives ChessNoteR the leverage it needed to become certified. I’ll get into the software next, but I wanted to note that it comes with two different delivery methods. The first option is to buy a pre-configured device from the website. The second option is to buy your own used Motorola Nexus 6 and ship it to the company and they will load the software onto the phone and configure it for a much cheaper price.

Exploring the Software

The core of ChessNoteR is its software. As I said, you can buy a pre-configured device or ship your own to the company for configuration. So, what about the software? Well, I must say that I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen so far of the software. The interface is very clean and user friendly. You can tell that the designer has put a lot of work into it. There are options for inputting your rating and demographic information which auto populates on scoresheets and in the exportable PGN files (sweet).

Once you start a new game, the device disables it’s WiFi service and you cannot exit the game without ending the game. This prevents a user from exiting their game and using it to reference any other information that might be stored on the device during a tournament. You’ll also find that you can drag the pieces to any point on the board. This is an important part of certification through US Chess because restricting piece movement would be a form of electronic coaching. For example, you could actually play 1.e6 on the device and it would properly annotate the move.

The notation interface also enables you to change the board colors to better suit you if blue and white (the default scheme) are not your preferred colors. Typically I change the board colors to match my favorite color scheme which matches that of Chess.com’s default dark green scheme. However, I enjoyed the blue and white design of the ChessNoteR app, so I left it alone.

Next Generation Feature Set

Sure, it’s cool to have your games in electronic format on a hand held device, but what good is the device in the world of tournaments and real chess? Well, this device seems to have that covered as well. ChessNoteR enables a user to export games in multiple formats.

  • First, you can export the games in the traditional PGN format for use with Chessbase and other desktop (or mobile) database applications. Plycounter also does this, but it requires installation of a third party application. ChessNoteR takes advantage of built in hardware support through the Nexus device to export the game.
  • Second, you can export the games on a professionally designed scoresheet with signatures that are ready for submission to a TD. When a game is complete, the user and opponents sign their scoresheet using the touch screen. Those signatures are exported on the scoresheet in PDF format via WiFi transfer using integrated Dropbox functionality! So there’s no need to connect to a TD’s computer. Just connect to their WiFi and submit your game to be officially logged electronically.

I’m a big Chromecast and video streaming user, so I was pleased to see that ChessNoteR supports wireless video casting, which allows you to cast your game to a device using a device compatible with Android video casting. This is great for reviewing games with a coach or for those times when your chess study demands 4K high definition. ChessNoteR does not support Chromecast itself, but instead supports some built-in protocols in smart TVs from Samsung, LG, and others through standard Android OS protocols.

These are nice features that bring the convenience of digital scoresheets and notation to the tabletop chess world with a minimum amount of hassle. The controls and features are intuitive enough that anyone who uses a cell phone or tablet should have no problems using it.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been using my Plycounter for almost five years and it’s certainly taken a beating. The screen is showing significant signs of wear and overall the device feels much more cumbersome than it did when I first reviewed it. I was extremely excited to have an opportunity to test out the ChessNoteR and I am very pleased with it. The screen is much larger and more responsive than anything you’ll find on the market today.

The only thing that I don’t like is how the device comes stamped with the giant Nexus logo on the back. There’s a small label on the device with a QR code for certification data, but the logo bothers me for some reason. In no way does that affect the device operation. Instead, it effects my OCD tendencies more. This can be fixed with a simple skin or decal from a place like SkinIt or DecalGirl.

Bottom line? You won’t find a better device for the price for digitally tracking your tournament games. Check out the ChessNoteR on their official website. You can also find a large selection of videos on the ChessNoteR official YouTube Channel that demonstrate the various device features and how to use them.

RATING: ♟ ♟ ♟ ♟ ♟


ADDENDUM: I didn’t realize how out of it I’ve been lately. In researching this article and doing the review/evaluation of this device, I realized that Plycounter ceased operations in February 2018 and the Monroi Personal Chess Manager is not available for purchase on their website.

Posted on January 29, 2019 by Wesley Surber

The Awesomeness of lichess.org Studies

Chess has a reputation for being a game of intellgience both on and off the board. In recent years, this has manifested heavily in the realm of information technology development. Chess engines continue to get stronger by the day and programmers of all skills are constantly developing new tools to help players analyze, sort, annotate, and improve their games. One such recent development is a growing feature on the popular lichess.org website called studies.

The study system on lichess is, at its core, a highly advanced PGN creator and annotator. It allows a user to create a new study that can be public or private. New moves, annotations, and other elements are automatically synced with the lichess server and between all of the users with access to the study. This makes studies an excellent utility for chess teachers and exhibitions since users can see, follow, and even provide collaborative comment on a game or position. To use the study utility, simply select study from the Learn menu on the lichess website. A list of available public studies will appear for you to choose from.

If these public studies do not suit your tastes, there are options on the side of the page to create your own studies. This is where I found the study function to be most useful for me.

Using the study tool, I am able to create a private study where I can create an individual chapter for each part of a video series I am following or game I am studying. This way I am able to make annotations, draw arrows or circles, and then share those studies with a highly limited audience if I want. Additionally, the study tool provides the user with an option to download each chapter as an individual PGN file in the format of an annotated game. Or, you can download the entire study as a PGN database to be opened in most chess database programs.

For me, the best part of this system is the collaborative elements. It opens up a world of possibilities for digital interaction between teachers, students, and general chess enthusiasts in an intuitive and easy-to-use way. If you have not tried it out, visit lichess.org and check it out.

Posted on October 12, 2017 by Wesley Surber

lichess.org on iOS Is Mobile Chess At It’s Finest

Editor’s Note: This review focuses exclusively on the iOS (iPhone/iPad) version of lichess, but the Google Play version contains all of the same features as it’s Apple counterpart. Performance and compatibility will vary depending on the device used.

Not long ago you could find me singing praises of the Chess.com app on iOS. The app received a major update a few months before the site’s V3 design went live. But this entry is not about Chess.com or it’s mobile app. This is about an app that has emerged as a serious competitor to the largest chess website on the internet: lichess.org.

lichess.org is a 100% free and open source chess platform that offers many of the same features you would find on major competitors, but with some noteworthy differences.

  • Zero advertising! In an age where the internet seems more saturated with advertisements than meaningful content, lichess strips away the advertising model and relies on user donations to fund its operations. There are no premium or exclusive memberships although certain donation levels can get you a special identifier showing that you sup port the site.
  • Unlimited free access! In keeping with the earlier line about advertising, all of lichess’s puzzles and training aids are free to all users. This is definitely an attractive feature for players not wanting to pay for tactics and puzzles.

These are great features, but lichess really shines in its mobile offering, especially on iOS. The lichess iOS app is one of the most polished and useable chess apps out there!

The home screen displays a random Puzzle of the Day along with quick options to start a new game. Simply click the board to access the lichess puzzle repository and begin your training with access to thousands of free tactics.

Clicking the Create a Game button brings up a mobile version of the lichess game creation screen. Users can then link up with thousands of other lichess members and try their skills against more than a dozen different chess variations.

Bullet and Blitz seem to be very popular with many of lichess’ higher-rated players. Personally, I enjoy the 15+15 classical (rapid) time control because it has a nice balance of requiring chess experience while allowing for some time to conduct a deeper positional analysis. Regardless of your personal preference, the lichess app has nearly endless options for setting up the chess game of your dreams.

The lichess app also comes with an analysis board and local engine analysis for reviewing your games. I have also found this helpful for playing the game on the app with a person sitting next to me. Additionally, the Openings Explorer is a feature you will find on most chess websites, but I love how lichess’ version is almost seamlessly integrated into the analysis board. This way a user can easily switch back and forth between local Stockfish engine analysis and the Openings Explorer. This is an invaluable tool when conducting post-mortem game evaluations.

Final Verdict

These days it seems like the world of internet chess is growing faster and faster. New services crop up regularly and existing ones continue updating and refining their products. lichess is not new, but it is one of the more recent services to make a splash in the digital chess world. In my opinion, lichess is set apart from others in that it is a labor of love for its developer and those who maintain it.

Combine these small differences with the depth of features and the price (free), lichess’ mobile app is easily the gold standard for playing the royal game on the go.

Campfire Rating: ♟♟♟♟♟

Download the lichess mobile app from the App Store or Google Play.

Posted on February 26, 2017 by Wesley Surber

Five Beautiful (and expensive) Chess Sets

Chess sets offer artists and other creatives with almost endless possibilities to design custom and unique pieces. I came across some beautiful albeit pricey sets on the web the other night and decided to share them here for your viewing (or possible purchasing) pleasure. These sets are in no particular order:

chess01

RawStudio Leather and Steel Chess Set ($507 USD)

RawStudio’s chess set is inspired by industrial design and those little puzzles you can find at Toys-R-Us or various mall kiosks. It looks very beautiful and designed for portability, but I cannot imagine being comfortable carrying my $500 chess set out and about.

chess02

The STACK Chess Board [Limited Edition] ($450)

This cool board is like Legos or an Erector Set for chess! The board itself combines from four separate pieces into a full-size board. The ability to break the board down makes it perfect for travelers and for convenient storage if $400 for a nondescript chess board is your thing.

chess03

Black Tower Dragon Set ($150)

Chess has long held a place in science fiction and fantasy lore. In the real world, companies have created countless sets based on dragons, fairies, aliens, and other characters from classic stories. This, however, is one of my personal favorites! The glass board is perched on a highly detailed tower and the gold/white creates a unique look for dragon-theme boards that are often depicted with darker purple and red colors.

chess04

Hand-Turned Rustic Log Chess Set ($220+)

This is one of those chess sets you will see repeatedly on Tumblr or Pinterest feeds and I have fallen victim to clicking it several times before seeing the price and running for the hills. $200+ might not seem like alot for a chess set, but the size of this one makes me cautious. However, the rustic artwork and craftsmanship of the set is certainly among the best out there. This seems like more of a collector’s item than an actual day-to-day game board.

chess05

King Arthur Fantasy Chess Set ($1,350)

Much like the dragon chess set above, sets involving castles and midieval themes like King Arthur are commonplace. However, this is one of the most detailed and beautiful sets that I have ever seen. For someone who loves chess, fine woodwork, and the legend of the Knights of the Roundtable, this thing is perfect! It is only when we get to the price that my heart stops and disappointment sets in.

Posted on December 17, 2016 by Wesley Surber

Product Review – ChessBase 14

Even numbered years are tough on the wallet because two of the largest software products I use typically release their major updates during those times. Now that Logos has taken my money for a major update, ChessBase has officially released the next major version of its popular database software. I’ve been using it for a while now and have seen enough in this update to explore those new features here on the blog.

Interface Updates

Interface and aesthetics used to be a developer’s afterthought in software design but that has radically changed over time thanks to Apple and other major corporations finding new ways to create cultural trends by integrating technology into everyday life through elegant design. ChessBase 13 did very little to modify the user interface despite some advances in the Windows Aero system. ChessBase 14 makes up for that by almost completely revamping the user experience to reflect interface changes on par with the latest version of Microsoft Office. The toolbar and ribbon has been fully updated and now integrates better with the rest of the operating system than previous versions.

Another excellent interface upgrade is the addition of highlighted variations on the main board window. For me, a major challenge of studying analyzed chess games has been the complexity of multiple variations, but ChessBase 14 fixes that with a cool new feature where the entirety of the current variation is highlighted in the notation pane! For me, this nifty little feature was worth the price of upgrade alone! Other minor refinements to the interface include deeper integration with ChessBase Account and some other upgrades that all serve to streamline the user experience.

Functional Updates

Of course no update would be worth the investment if it did not enhance the overall functional experience. ChessBase 14 still uses many of the same tools and resources as it’s predecessors but also adds some powerful analysis functions. The best of these, in my opinion, is the poorly named tactical analysis. This function brings the long-sought full game analysis of Fritz to the core ChessBase program. Users can now load a game in ChessBase 14 and perform a full analysis with the engine of their choosing without having to hop over to the Fritz, Houdini, Komodo, or similar GUI to complete the analysis. Online services like lichess.org and Chess.com, but I think that nothing beats letting Stockfish or a similar engine tear apart a game using local processing power and a predetermined amount of the user’s time. lichess.org can give me an analysis in a few seconds, but engines can go all night while I’m sleeping; allowing me to wake up to a full analysis of my most recent game.

The upgrades to ChessBase 14’s interface and deeper integration with ChessBase Account adds solid, useful functions to the program that definitely makes it worth the investment. The ability to upload games to the user cloud introduced in ChessBase 13 is still present with easy access to the user’s ChessBase Account added to the interface ribbon. One login allows the user access to the whole of their account and cloud databases as well as the powerful ChessBase LiveBook analysis tree. The ChessBase user cloud offers around 200MB to store PGN databases online, but most people are going to prefer alternative services like Dropbox or OneDrive which offer much more storage space with effective interface options for Windows.

The program also feels much more snappy and responsive than previous generations, which is pleasing given the increased portability of today’s computers. I use ChessBase on a Microsoft Surface so seeing some refinement in the program’s performance is welcome for those of us who consider themselves chess road warriors. Using the database itself on a portable device did not place a strain on the battery until activating an engine like Stockfish or Fritz, but that’s raw processing power for the engine; not ChessBase.

Final Thoughts and Overall Value

I skipped ChessBase 13 because most of its updates did not seem worth the investment, but ChessBase 14 is a solid update to an already powerful chess database system. There are several different packages available that include add-ons such as Mega Database 2017, which activates some immense reference abilities with over 6.5 million games. Both the software and the database are available as separate purchases but are a much better value combined together as a package.

Purchase Options

  • Base Software Download: Link.
  • Mega Database Download: Link.
  • ChessBase 14 with Mega Database 2017: Link.

Campfire Verdict: ♟♟♟♟♙

Posted on October 1, 2016 by Wesley Surber

The Queen of Katwe – A Movie Review

Too often movies are judged as success or failure simply on the amount of money generated by theater, advertising, and merchandise revenue. With those factors typically making up the outcome measurements for modern films, most chess movies are doomed to commercial failure from the start or face relegation to independent distributors. Last year’s Pawn Sacrifice is a perfect example of the challenges faced by chess films. The film opened to high hopes, received mixed reviews, premiered almost two years after completion, received a positive review here on Campfire Chess, but has since disappeared into the abyss of forgotten films and misbegotten biopics. In reflecting on Pawn Sacrifice prior to reviewing The Queen of Katwe, I realized that Pawn Sacrifice simply does not have the creative longevity to remain at the forefront of modern chess cinema. Perhaps some of the early reflections (including my own) were the result of hype and excessive expectations that were ultimately underwhelmed and left disappointed. That is why when I went to see the film reviewed in this article, I was cautiously optimistic about the outcome and determined to guard myself against personal biases.

Cautiously optimistic…

The Disney biopic The Queen of Katwe, which is based on the life story of Phiona Mutesi, premiered in theaters across America on Friday night and yours truly was there with my beloved to watch the film. I was pleasantly surprised to see that we were among 40-50 moviegoers in the theater for the 1845L showing. In contrast, Pawn Sacrifice was less than 15 the night of its local premier. After suffering through a collection of disappointing trailers (and one about dogs that had me bawling) the movie finally began and we were treated to just over two hours of Disney’s interpretation and dramatization of the life and trials of Phiona Mutesi.

Capturing Ugandan Struggle and Pain

Because this was a Disney movie, I was interested to see to what lengths the producers would go to portray the depths of pain and suffering endured by Phiona and her family in the Katwe slums. It only took a few minutes to realize that the producers had used subtle nuances present in the daily lives of Kampala’s slum citizens to maintain a sense of vibrancy while showing a deep and resounding pain felt by Phiona and her family. Singing and dancing for personal pleasure soon gave way to singing and dancing in the streets for money to buy dinner. The daily struggles presented throughout the film were never lost in the mixture of chess and personal victories, but those struggles also never whitewashed the sense of achievement and growth brought on by Phiona’s challenges and triumphs.

Phiona was played expertly by Madina Nalwanga and her coach by David Oyelowo, but it was without a doubt the exceptional Lupita Nyong’o who played Phiona’s mother that stole the show. There were times throughout the film that I wondered if the story was actually about Phiona’s mother and less about Phiona and her brother. Yet, these powerful moments where we were treated to following Phiona’s mother through her daily struggles provided the audience with a wonderful context for the challenges that Phiona would face. Why would a mother hesitate to accept scholarships or growth opportunities for their child? These questions and many others were answered by the unique way in which the filmmakers frame the challenges, failures, and triumphs of Phiona in the parallel worlds of chess and life through the eyes of her mother. It become apparent early on that Phiona is certainly her mother’s child; a woman who refused to roll over or accept that she was not capable of rising to a higher level of achievement.

Are We Still Looking for Bobby?

It is hard to write a chess film review without comparing said film to the classic Searching for Bobby Fischer, but doing so with The Queen of Katwe sets a new precedent in chess cinema. That 1991 film staring Joe Mantegna and Max Pomeranc is often seen as a benchmark for chess filmmaking and storytelling. Many people, including myself, hold it dear as one of the best movies about chess ever made. Yet, I could not help but wonder as I watched The Queen of Katwe with my wife, if we were not watching what could become the Searching for Bobby Fischer of the 21st century.

Earlier this week I wrote about how the Daily Caller wrote a hit piece on Phiona Mutesi quoting anonymous Grandmasters and others leading up to the film’s release. The intent of that article was to paint her as a subpar chess player undeserving of any sort of international attention. Yet, such language and disrespect is not levied at young Josh Waitzkin in press releases for Searching. Josh was (and still is) considered a legitimate chess prodigy although he has mostly given it up to pursue other activities. In her native country of Uganda and among the most powerful chess professionals in Africa, Phiona is a chess force to be reckoned with. The hit article certainly weighed on me as I watched the film. Fortunately, I was pleased to see that the filmmakers had treated Phiona and the chess world with an enormous amount of respect.

Phiona expresses her desire to be a chess master and receives both good and bad advice throughout the film, but never is the idea of rising to the top of the chess world presented as an option to Phiona without an enormous amount of personal commitment and support. Even when Phiona attends the Moscow Olympiad, her defeat becomes the crux of the film’s final act in which she finds herself struggling to play for fear of losing.

Ultimately, The Queen of Katwe exposes something about Phiona Mutesi that is often lost in stats, PGN files, and ELO references: her humanity. The film expertly balances the philosophy and challenges of playing chess but also shows how chess can bring out the truth of human struggle and triumph. Such stories are often overplayed in cinema, but here it is professionally mixed to where the chess victory is never really undermined by the struggles that it seeks to solve.

A Final Verdict…

The Queen of Katwe was much better than I had anticipated and it tugged at the heart strings in a way that only Disney can manage. It was easy to be empathetic with Phiona and her relatives facing daily starvation and deplorable conditions in the Katwe slums. The outstanding performances combined with some great chess scenes that were obviously supervised by chess professionals that cared about how the game was represented on screen, it is a film that is definitely worth seeing. Yet, I think that only time will tell if it has the longevity to remain a classic in chess cinema. The story of Phiona Mutesi is still ongoing, but that is the crux of the film’s entire premise. Life never stops, and those places were are used to are not always the places we are meant to be.

I only hope that Phiona and this film continue to inspire people to pick up our game.

Posted on by Wesley Surber

Product Review – Voice Master Chess Set

Many chess players and learners have moved their games into the cloud via Chessbase, Chess.com‘s servers, or the myriad of other iOS and Android apps available for tracking and analyzing a player’s repertoire. For me, this often involves playing on Chess.com on my iPhone or using Stockfish to store and analyze games on the go when I am away from my laptop or ability to access my Chessbase database. Yet, the steady transition of chess players to cloud systems over the years has not entirely eliminated a nostalgic piece of chess history: the computer chess board.

An interesting memory of chess I have as a kid is playing against a computerized board that belonged to my dad. I remember that it had a small LCD display, some red LEDs along the side to indicate the current move, and came with an annoying voice assistant that was always ready to pounce on your emotions once it had destroyed your chess game. The hauntingly annoying words of that board are forever engrained into my psyche: “Hi, my name is Chester! How about a nice game of chess?”

The IQ Toys Voice Master electronic chess board.

As time progressed, many of these boards were relegated to discount bins at bargain stores or the miscellaneous aisles at Goodwill locations. However, I came across a computerized chess board for sale at a Toys-R-Us here in San Antonio a few weeks ago and the item piqued my interest. Was there still a market for these things? And, if there was…what kind of other boards were available out there? A quick Amazon search revealed a mixture of the same problems faced by manufacturers of other niche products: a collection of worthless products with 1-2 star ratings intermixed with legitimate boards.

I spent the next few days researching options and finally decided on a mid-range board from a company called IQ Toys. My Voice Master electronic chess set came a few days later and I thought that now was an appropriate time to write a review given that I have had about a week to play with it. So, here is what its like to use a classic digital chess board in the age of the chess cloud…

Voice Master pieces are of high-quality construction.

Construction and Presentation

Given the plethora of cheap chess sets out there, it is important for a product to present a pleasing aesthetic. This little board was well packaged and it was immediately apparent that it was of a high quality construction. The box included the board itself, a set of white pieces, a set of black pieces, and a complete set of disks for checkers. I could go off on another tangent about the constant bundling of chess and checkers pieces together, but I digress. I tossed the checkers disks into the garbage and unpacked the small, magnetic chess pieces. The board itself does not come with a way to plug it into the wall, so it requires 4 AA batteries. Fortunately, so do many other toys I have purchased for my kids, so after loading the batteries and setting up the pieces, I clicked on the power and set to starting my first digital chess board game since the traumatic days of Chester…

Voice Master size comparison to 12″ MacBook.

Game Play and Observations

It was very straight forward and easy to get a new game started. Without wanting to adjust the options such as game strength or piece odds, two clicks on the key pad and I was underway. I quickly realized that it was going to take some getting used to how the pieces interfaced with the board so that I would not be inundated with a particularly annoying buzzer when it encounters an error. The player gently presses the piece down on the board and follows the instructions on the LCD board. After a few times of having the buzzer scare my dog and receiving more than enough interesting looks from my wife, I muted the board sounds and continue on. As with most chess computers it did not take long for me to hang a piece and lose the first of many casual games against the device.

Voice Master vs. Stockfish 7 via ChessBase GUI on Microsoft Surface 3.

I have yet to beat this board, which is nothing new for me and is nothing that I did not expect. However, I was curious to get an idea of how strong the board is on a normal setting. I felt as though I was playing against a 1500-1600 ELO player and decided that the best way to compliment any kind of review of the product would be to put it into an engine match against Stockfish. I fired up my Fritz 14 GUI and launched a new game against Stockfish with White and me manually inputting moves for Black on behalf of the Voice Master board. Although there were some moves made by the Voice Master board that warranted a ?? or similar marking, I avoided annotations in the game unless the board itself provided some form of text alert.

As I expected, Stockfish made short work of the Voice Master board although I was shocked at some of the moves and warnings offered by the board as the game approached its brutal conclusion. Specifically, move 21.Rxg7+ was flagged by the board as requiring caution. When the board asked me if I was sure that I wanted to proceed with that move, Stockfish’s analysis of the move bringing it to within (#8) with 21…Kxg7 22.Qg4+… at this point was more than enough for me to chuckle at the device’s overconfidence. The same thing occurred two moves later after 23.Rh7!! with the board asking if I was sure I wanted to proceed. Needless to say that the board lost shortly thereafter.

One interesting point of the game above is that the board seemed to completely ignore Stockfish’s attach after 21.Rxg7+ and go its own way. Very little was done to counter the coming assault although the board continued to offer coaching advice and precautionary alerts despite Stockfish having it at a #4 disadvantage.

Overall Verdict

The construction, appearance, and usability of the Voice Master board is nice. It does not have the cheap appearance or feeling that comes with many electronic boards sold in stores or online today. Learning the proper level of pressure to apply to the pieces during gameplay can take some practice and I highly recommend turning off the board sounds until you have a firm grasp on that pressure. Otherwise, a player can expect to be inundated with the horrific error buzzer mentioned above.

As for playing strength, the board seems perfect for beginners to mid-range skill players. It offers a classical tactile chess experience without the need to hunt down a physical opponent. However, it might be too little of a reliable challenge for some players as demonstrated in the demo game where it ignored the final mating combination almost entirely. The board retails for $39.99 on Amazon.com (as opposed to $99.99 on sites like ChessUSA.com), which makes it a nice gift for your favorite chess lover or child looking to get started playing the game. At least it does not have the taunting voice of the dreaded Chester set I mentioned in the beginning.

Posted on July 11, 2016 by Wesley Surber

Product Review – Most Amazing Moves

I am not sure why I have struggled to finish this review, but hopefully this 4th draft will be the final version. This also turned out to be the first post of July 2016. Normally, I would already have posted several entries, but this is been a challenging month.

Alas, on to the review we go…

Like most chess players, there are certain games and moves that have left an unmistakable influence on my life. Of course, classic games like Morphy’s Opera Game and Fischer Game of the Century are highlights, but some classic games of Staunton, Casablanca have earned their way into my collection of PGN databases and FEN diagrams. So, imagine my excitement when I discovered a DVD on the growing Chessbase library that brings many of those games together in a single collection: GM Simon Williams’ Most Amazing Moves. Although the DVD itself was published in January 2015, I only recently managed to pick up a copy and go through it in its entirety.

The DVD Itself

Most Amazing Moves is a 4-hour collection of video commentary by GM Williams on a mixed collection of games featuring some of his own experiences intermixed with games from the greatest players in history. Combined with his unique brand of humor, Williams provides the viewer with an exciting overview of the games and exploration of how some seemingly small moves can change the course of a game or even the course of chess history. If British humor is not something you are accustomed to, and some of his comments could seem offputting. However, I found all of his commentary and insights into the games extremely refreshing.

The DVD itself begins with some relatively popular classical games, but it is the exploration of key moments in these games that separates this DVD apart from others. Personally, as a man who is fully aware of his chess deficiencies, I enjoyed Simon’s repeated jabs at the viewer further assumed inability to see the most amazing move and the meaning behind what makes it such an amazing move. Throughout the DVD, Simon begins by offering brief commentary on each game before moving on to a Chessbase quiz that allows the user to guess the next set of moves. There were moments in these quizzes where it seemed that no amount of calculation or guessing allowed me to determine the correct move. However, there were other times when I was able to guess the correct move, but only because it fit with a theme carried over from one or two games earlier. Or, I was able to determine the correct move but not immediately ascertain exactly why it was such an amazing move. Fortunately, Simon provides detailed explanation of the moves and even some witty comments on variations that can be selected by the user. Some of those variations come with honest and heartfelt chess instruction while others are met with a look of disdain and utter confusion and why the person would even consider trying to guess the moves. Here is an example of the gems that make up the bulk of the DVD:

While there are many examples of amazing tactics demonstrated throughout the DVD, Williams does not focus exclusively on tactics and also provides the user some opportunities to review great positional chess games as well. This variety as a unique flavor to the DVD which helps to diversify its target audience and simply add to the overall fun of watching some of the greatest chess games in history.

About the Author

GM Simon Williams is from Surrey, England and earned the title of Grandmaster in 2008 after finishing his third GM-norm at the Hastings International Chess Congress. While he continues to play in a variety of settings, Williams has recently transitioned from playing regularly in tournaments to focusing on chess commentary, tournament organization, and publishing. He runs his own website which is published a series of instructional DVDs and he is well-known for his commentary on Chessbase and Chess24. His sense of humor and depth of chess knowledge add a unique flavor to his instruction and commentary that, in my opinion, is much needed in the world of professional chess.

It is apparent throughout the DVD that Williams had a blast organizing, researching, and filming this product. There are many examples in the DVD from his own games and he is not shy about acknowledging the perception that can come with focusing on himself in a DVD titled Most Amazing Moves, but there are no instances throughout the four hours of DVD commentary and instruction where I felt that a game or move had been represented that was not amazing in itself.

Final Verdict

As I write this review, Most Amazing Moves is available in the Chessbase Shop for €29.90 and is available on physical media or via download option. For that price, which is consistent of most of Chessbase’s DVDs, it is an exceptional bargain for such an amazing collection of games. Both beginners, intermediate, and advanced players will appreciate the nuances of these amazing moves. If you do not have a copy of Chessbase, the DVD itself comes with a copy of Chessbase Reader or you can download the free Chessbase Reader from here. I give it 4.5 pawns out of 5.

Campfire Chess Rating: ♟♟♟♟♙

Further Reading: Chessbase Review (2015)

Posted on June 22, 2016 by Wesley Surber

Watch Chess App Brings Grandmasters to Your Wrist

I love discovering new chess apps and web services! Recently as I was looking for new (and useful) apps to install on my Apple Watch I came across a cool little app called Watch Chess (FacebookTwitter | iTunes). Mainly searching for an app to display chess games or maybe even lucky enough to play a chess game on my watch, I was blown away by the functionality of this little gem and knew that I had to offer it a short review!

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The app’s home page is simple and intuitive with a colorful list of available broadcasts. Clicking on the tournament image brings up a list of rounds for that tournament that include dates and easy select for kibitzing the game of your choice. The interface is mirrored on the Apple Watch with the only difference being the absence of the colorful tournament buttons. Each board is clear and easy to read on the Apple Watch just as it is on the iPhone. Although some people might be turned off by the lack of an engine interface, that is no reason to stop most users from enjoying the app’s presentation of high-level chess.

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Watch Chess is one of the few apps out there that offer full support for the Apple Watch. While some people still consider it to be a novelty, the Apple Watch is growing as a tool to supplement people who use iPhone or other Apple products. The app works as well as any other Apple Watch app with custom notifications and the ability to use the digital crown to scroll through archived games. Unfortunately, this means that the app also suffers from some of the watch’s setbacks including some slow load times for games. Apple has promised to fix these problems by moving more of the operating system on to the device itself with the coming release of watchOS 3 this fall.