Overtom's weblog

RULES OF THUMB  (2 october 2005)

If you want to know the playing strength of a chess computer, probably the best way to find out is by pitting it against other computers.

But not everybody has a host of chess computers available, So is there another way to judge how well a machine plays?

Usually, a rough estimate can be made by using a few rules of thumb, such as:

  • more program memory means stronger play. After all, the program memory contains the computer's knowledge of the game.

  • new computers play better than older ones. Both hardware and software have got better over time.
Recently, I acquired two new chess computers for the Overtom Collection. One was a the Kasparov Travel Champion, which has 16K of program memory and dates from 1992.

Travel Champion

The other was the Novag Opal Plus, with the same amount of memory, but produced in the year 2000.

Opal Plus

With its 14 MHz, the Kasparov computer is somewhat faster. So if we pit it against the Novag (8 MHz), and give the latter some more time, there shouldn't be much difference in playing strength, according to the first rule of thumb.

Since the Novag is eight years younger, we may even expect it to be the stronger computer.

Well, I had both computers available, so why not organize a test match? Let's have a look at the first game:

White: Kasparov Travel Champion (15 seconds/move)

Black: Novag Opal Plus (30 seconds/move)

As you can see, not for one moment did the Novag computer manage to form a serious threat to the Kasparov machine. But let's give the Novag machine a second chance.

Although with the passed pawn on a3, white's game is far from enviable, white could have offered some more resistance with 37.Qxc8 Qxc8 38.Rd8+ ... Now the white queen and rooks can do little more than commit harakiri in order to postpone checkmate.

White Novag Opal Plus (30 seconds/move)

Black: Kasparov Travel Champion (15 seconds/move)

Although the rules of thumb might suggest Novag is the better computer, these two games clearly show the opposite.

There is another thing: the  Novag machine has the size of a travel computer. But it can hardly be used as such. If you have to interrupt the game, there is no way to cover the board. So you can't carry the computer about, or your pieces will fall all over the floor.

Besides the chessmen are so small that it takes considerable dexterity to handle them. Moreover, the magnets tend to pull the chessmen together.

It's clear that, however cute the Opal Plus may look, the older Kasparov computer is superior in about every respect.

One question remains: why is such an old computer so much stronger than a modern one?

One answer might be that the 16K is mainly occupied by openings. Another solution is that the older computer was programmed by Frans Morsch, who -- if we believe his colleague Ed Schröder -- can do more with a limited amount of memory than any other programmer in the field.

Frans Morsch

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