Match Wits Against A Digital Grandmaster

The eyes of the computer world and the chess world are focused on New York this week.

That is where the best player in the history of the game takes on one of the most powerful chess computers ever developed. Last year, champion Garry Kasparov beat the computer in a six-game match. But this year's machine, called Deep Blue, is twice as fast and could pose a greater challenge. The meeting is historic (even if you'd rather watch Michael Jordan move to the hoop than computer scientists pushing pawns). You can keep track of all the action through IBM's special Web site (www.chess.ibm.com). Or you can experience almost the same caliber of play on your home computer.

Chess software has gotten so good in recent years that for $50 or less, you can turn your computer into an expert that could beat all but the world's best. That's a new benefit for most chess players. While computer opponents can't substitute for real opponents completely, they have plenty to teach beginners as well as experts.

Several software programs can teach beginners. One of the newest and liveliest is "Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess" from Davidson/Simon & Schuster.

Mr. Ashley, an official commentator at the Kasparov-IBM match, takes a '90s approach to the game: knights are compared to Ninja fighters, beginners learn pawn moves by taking a "touchdown challenge," and the strategic concepts of the game are explained in ways that children will relate to.

Perhaps you're beyond the beginner stage and want to improve your game. One fun program for the occasional player is Power Chess from Sierra On-Line. It's not the kind of tutor that drowns users in that weird-looking chess notation (Be4, cxd5, etc.). Instead, it analyzes games in plain English.

Power Chess does this with an entertaining cast of characters. You can challenge the Queen (she's a character in this case, not a chess piece), who is the program's best player. Or you can play another opponent and have the Queen as your ally, dropping hints or offering after-game analysis.

The most interesting opponent is the King. He doesn't play a perfect, computerlike game. He gets impatient when he's ahead and unduly cautious when he's behind, making small mistakes. He's designed to adapt to your level and play just a little bit better than you do. The Queen won't help you during games with the King, but she will analyze each move afterward. The visual display and her explanations are the most down-to-earth and user-friendly I've seen. If you play chess for fun, this is the program to get.

If you're an aspiring tournament player, however, try the classic program from Mindscape called Chessmaster 5000. This software (which is also available for the Macintosh) has gone through several versions and just keeps getting better.

For example, you can easily program the computer to play at different levels or even like certain grandmasters, such as Kasparov or Bobby Fischer. The program's "mentor" offers hints, advice, and in-depth analysis of your games. The software also includes a database of 27,000 games as well as various tutorials.

For an even stiffer challenge, try Extreme Chess from the same company that created the Maurice Ashley program. It is based on one of the top chess programs, called Fritz (a newer version of Fritz is being used to analyze the Kasparov-Deep Blue match). Sierra has added a new interface on the program and a 50,000 - game database, giving such thorough analysis of each game that its developers suggest you give the computer a couple of hours to make its calculations.

This could be the week to put a grandmaster in your computer.

* Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my In Cyberspace forum at www.csmonitor.com

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