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DOES BARBIE PLAY CHESS?  (16 april 2005)

As you may know, I'm the self-appointed curator of the Overtom Chess Computer Collection.

An important characteristic of every chess computer is: how well does it play? Needless to say this is one of the first things I have to find out whenever a new chess computer arrives.

But how do you know whether a chess computer is a champion, or just a simple toy for beginners?

What I usually do is organize a little match between the new computer and chess program Fritz

You'll probably think that not many chess computers will have a chance against Fritz. And you're quite right about that. But Fritz's thinking can be limited to one ply -- which is one move for white and one for black.

Recently, I received one computer made by a factory that most people will associate with Barbie, yes indeed: Mattel. In the early eighties, Mattel made one chess computer.

The computer dates from 1980 -- which is antique for a chess computer. Let's see how well it plays against one-ply Fritz.

By setting it to one-ply Fritz may be severely curtailed, it still knows how to orchestrate an attack on the black king:

Fritz 4 (one ply) -- Mattel Computer Chess

Let's now see if Mattel plays any better with white. Mattel sets up a reasonable game and doesn't seem to have too many problems during the first 25 moves. From move 48 onward, black is prepared to sacrifice all his pieces to allow his a-pawn to queen.

Mattel Computer Chess -- Fritz 4 (one ply)

In both cases, Mattel appeared to possess insufficient knowledge of chess. In the first game, Mattel did not see that gaining material would fatally weaken his king position.

In the second game, Mattel failed to see which passed pawns were the most valuable.

Nevertheless, in 1980 this must have been quite a nice computer - although the chessmen were rather hard to distinguish on the rather crude LCD-screen, as may perhaps be visible in this picture:


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