With the FIDE World Chess Championship 2016 having recently concluded, and Magnus Carlson retaining his title in a series of thrilling tiebreaks, I thought it was time to check out some programs that would let me get my chess on. I’m not anywhere near the level of the Grand Masters, but I still hope to improve my game so that I can at least have an enjoyable time online and have enough knowledge to recognise past mistakes and learn from them. Back when I was first playing, I had basically three options: Battlechess for DOS (which only worked occasionally on my knackered 286), a random program that came bundled with my Windows 95 computer (and was stupidly easy to beat on the hardest difficulty, even for a 10 year old) and The Chessmaster for the Game Boy (which was so hard it still gives me nightmares). Coming back to chess after a long absence, I didn’t feel like shoving batteries into my Lexibook chess computer and trying to remember what colour squares the kings go on. I wanted something simpler. Something easy to pick up and play. Instead, I got Fritz For Fun 13.
It’s worth backing up a bit at this point. Fritz For Fun 13 is not what I first thought it was. It’s not a pickup and play program, like Simply Chess, nor is it intended to be. Instead, it is presented as a fairly advanced tool designed to not only play chess, using the well known Fritz engine, but provide in-depth analysis on your games, or games on the Chessbase database. When I got my copy, I picked it up for almost nothing in the Bundles Stars Timeless Bundle (all the way back in September 2015!), so I only gave it a cursory glance. I saw that it came with a free month of ChessBase Membership, which is nice, and 101 Checkmate puzzles, which sounded interesting. Upon installing, I was… surprised, when it decided to install a bunch of different components. Then, I was presented with this. WTF?
My first impression was that I was looking at a really old game, or possibly shovelware. That was the only explanation I could come up with for there being this old style of horrible Flash launcher and not having everything available from within a single application. The top link in this launcher leads to the main game itself, which we’ll look at more closely in a minute. The second option is a client for playing against human players using the playchess.com service. Finally, there is a database application for the analysis of games.
This is where you will likely spend most of your time and as it’s also the top option, we might as well start here. Click on the Fritz link and you will be greeted with this window.
I have to say, it’s not the most friendly thing I’ve ever laid my eyes on. There is a ribbon style interface at the top and absolutely no indication of how Fritz actually works. I gave up after about 10 minutes and read the manual, which is a must if you want to get the most out of this program, although it could also do with an update as this sexy piece of 90’s hardware demonstrates.
Once I’d fiddled with the settings a bit, it was time to try and find my way around the program. The left part of the window is the chessboard and it is here that you will make all of your moves. You can have a 2D or a 3D board. The 2D board is pretty much what you would expect if you’ve played computer chess at all over the past 20 years. The 3D board should render the scene in 3D, allowing for a realistic playing experience, but it falls short. For one thing, just rendering the scene put a heavy load on my computer, even though I have a mid-powered rig that can eat a heavily modded Skyrim for breakfast. Once the 3D effect had loaded, it was at best underwhelming…
…and at worst laughable.
Seriously, the chess program I was using all the way back in the mid 90’s had more convincing 3D than this. Hell, even Battlechess for DOS looked better. I think I’ll stick to my 2D view for the rest of this review.
To the right of the window, you can see the chess clocks which tell you how much time you have left to complete the game. By default, you can play various speeds of Blitz game, or you can play a longer game with tournament style time controls. Below the clock window is the notation window, which records all of the moves made so far and below that is the engine status window. Having found out how to set the time to my liking, my next challenge was to set the engine up to be around the right difficulty for me. This proved to be easier said than done. Fritz does include a “Friend” mode, that is supposedly adaptive in difficulty, but I’ve never had much luck with it. You can also set handicaps, which give the computer a personality, but other than the playing strength, I’m not sure how to configure the thing to play at my level. You can also play a rated game, but I didn’t go there because I’m not sure exactly what it does. I assume that it gauges your ELO rating by some sorcery or other, but the manual was a little vague on the subject.
There are also a plethora of tools to help you improve your chess game. You can do various exercises such as checkmate training to help you practise certain scenarios. The problem is, I couldn’t get them to work. I cracked it eventually – it turned out I needed to tell it which database to use, but as the database wasn’t labelled, say, “Training” it took a bit of finding. Anyway, once it was set up, it worked OK although it is a little temperamental and I found some errors in the solutions. One exercise, for example, was “Attack Training” where I had to identify all of the pieces that could be captured. Off I went, but the software indicated one piece that could only be captured by teleportation – and it wasn’t even me just getting mixed up about the en passant rule.
You can also have the engine analyse a game, either yours or someone else’s and it will attempt to indicate good moves or blunders. The problem is, that the comments it applies make so little sense that it left me more confused than when I started! This process can also take a very long time, especially as the engine is restricted to a single core in this version – Fritz 14 rectified this with the “Deep Fritz” DLC.
There are also options for Kibitzer – which is essentially an engine that plays the game in parallel and allows you to consult it for guidance and you can set various visual aids, such as seeing what the computer is thinking and seeing which pieces are under threat. Going back to visuals for a moment, there are several built-in themes for both the 2D and 3D environments. In 2D, you can choose from various types of wood for the board, or even go crazy and have it set to pink like I did a few images ago. You can also select a piece set from a limited number or options and choose a preferred background. For the 3D, you choose the whole environment rather than customising different components, but the performance hit is so great that I never use them. An irritating “feature” is that if you set up a custom 2D theme, like my tasteful pink example, then choose a 3D theme, the custom 2D theme disappears, leaving you with a stock theme.
So, with the Fritz component itself, I’m overall more confused than impressed. Let’s take a look at the next section.
This section of the software is a desktop client that allows you to play against other humans on playchess.com. You will need a username, but if you already have an account with ChessBase (to use your free month of premium membership, for example), you can use that one. There are various rooms that you can enter and you can then challenge someone (or in a couple of the rooms, an engine) to a game of chess. You can play Bullet, Blitz, Rapid or have custom time controls and it is possible to observe games in progress. Here is a game I happened upon that seemed to be a duel between Stockfish and Houdini – both well-known chess engines.
When I was online, there were about 3500 players logged in, which isn’t bad, but my usual haunts Chess.com, lichess.com and Chess24.com were able to manage 25,000, 19,500 and almost 7000 respectively at the same time. The client itself is pretty good, but there isn’t anything there that couldn’t be got in an easier to use format elsewhere. Once it became apparent that this is a premium only service, I took myself elsewhere – although I think that if you have a ChessBase account then Playchess is part of your subscription. Either way, I think I’ll stick to my usual hangouts.
This final part of the program is probably the most confusing. Here, you can view a database of games which can then be analysed. All of the games that you play in the other parts of the program are saved here for your review and “enjoyment”. This part of Fritz is a very thinly disguised database program, so much so that I thought I had taken a wrong turn at my D: and ended up in EVE Online.
In order to get much use out of this part of the software, I had to find it some data to, erm, base. I went onto Chessbase and used the free 1-month membership that you get for buying this software, but I couldn’t find a way to make an offline database. After a little googling, I found Kingbase.com, which provides a free database in a variety of formats. It’s slightly out of date, but it will do for my purposes. I downloaded the database and fed it into the program. After a brief import process, all of the games are now available for me to look at. Double clicking a game will load the game into Fritz, which will then allow you to play through the game move by move and perform any analysis you like.
Honestly, though, this part of the software doesn’t so anything that SCID doesn’t already do for free and I’m not even sure how to get the Chessbase database, which you have to pay to access, to work with this program. Perhaps I’m missing something? Oh and the checkmate puzzles I mentioned? I have no idea how to get them to work either.
Well, that about wraps it up for Fritz for Fun 13. While I have no doubt that it is an exceptionally powerful tool that can dramatically improve your chess game, it is so hard to use that I struggled to perform some pretty basic functions. The software also feels like a victim of “stick a larger number on it and change the splash screens – they’ll never notice”. Other than the ribbon interface, Fritz feels worn and a little antiquated, aiming itself pretty squarely at those who have used it since its files were stored on floppy disks. Does this make it a bad program? No, in fact, if you are patient with it, you can probably get a lot out of Fritz. This version has the advantage of being pretty cheap and coming round on sale frequently, but there are more up to date versions available, including DLC for Fritz 14 that can now take proper advantage of multiple CPUs.
But, let’s be honest about this, most of us are never going to need that much power, as the majority of people using it are not likely to be FIDE titled players. The cost of the later versions to me is prohibitive and it relies heavily on Chessbase as a selling point – which is something I can live without for now with the other tools I have found. The whole presentation of Fritz feels dated and overly awkward even in comparison to free software. Hell, here is a bonus screenshot for you of me benchmarking my computer using the built in benchmarking tool. Note what it is being benchmarked against…
Maybe I’m missing something fundamental, but I found that Fritz For Fun 13 gave me much more frustration than fun. Ultimately, if you just want to play a little chess and have some tools to improve your game, you can’t go far wrong with a combination of some websites, Lucas Chess and SCIDvsPC – all of which are free and a lot easier to use than Fritz For Fun 13.
Fritz For Fun is developed by Chessbase and published by Viva Media. You can buy a copy on Steam for £14.99.