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?”
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.