Overtom's weblog

HARD TO HANDLE  (9 february 2005)

When chess computers first appeared on the market, they formed a great attraction to many chessplayers. After all, isn't it wonderful always to have a willing opponent available? An opponent that doesn't make you feel humiliated when you blunder. You can even take moves back if you want -- which human opponents won't often allow you to do.

Initially, chess computers were rather weak and many a chessplayer found it gratifying to have an opponent that could easily be beaten.

When programs became smarter and computers faster and cheaper, a few hundred dollars would buy you a chess computer that most players had very little chance against.

These days, many people have a personal computer at home. Chess programs like Fritz, even if they are running on an old pc, will be able to beat most chess computers. So why should anyone who owns a pc still buy a "dedicated" chess computer?

One reason is that not many people carry their pc around on the train, the bus, the beach ... or on the toilet.

      chess on the toilet

For those who always want to have a chess computer at hand, there's a host of pocket computers available ranging from the weak to the almost unbeatable.

The American manufacturer of chess computers Excalibur has produced a small chess computer by the name of Escort. One may, however, wonder what kind of user it has been intended for.

The computer is the spitting image of the Novag Opal ( click), which looks rather pretty, I admit, but contains a rather weak program.

In one of my following weblogs, I'll try to show you a few samples of how this Escort plays. But I don't want to make this weblog too long. So for now we'll concentrate on its ease of use, or better: the lack of it.

While playing with this computer I found the chessmen quite hard to handle. They are so tiny that only someone with considerable manual dexterity can manage them. After all, Escort uses chessmen not much bigger than small matchsticks, albeit somewhat thicker.

To be honest, I don't see how you can comfortably take this computer with you on train, bus, beach or toilet. You would probably end up crawling over the floor looking for pieces that have fallen off the tiny board. The makers have obviously tried to hold the pieces on the board through magnets in their base. But these magnets attract each other, so that chessmen often spontaneously fall into each other's arms.

If this machine is not intended to be taken along, then I don't really understand why it must be so tiny.

Holes in the board to hold the chessmen in their place may not look very sexy, but it would have prevented the chessmen from falling off the board so easily.

The market for small chess computers may look more promising than that for tabletop models. But I doubt if this Escort is the type of small computer anyone could be waiting for -- however attractive it may look at first sight.

But as promised, in a following weblog I'll show you a couple of games it played. Let's hope more thought has gone into the program than into the design of the housing.

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