My 'weak club player, class C level' chess computers

Mephisto II

Year: 1981
Programmer: Thomas Nitsche, Elmar Henne
CPU: 1802 @3.5Mhz
ROM: 12Kb
Elo level: 1422
(1458 FIDE)
CMhz: 0.46
Rperf: 88%

I initially entered the famous Mephisto 'briquette' program in my collection with the Mephisto Mirage form factor (see below within this page). Actually I was not that much keen on getting another chess computer requiring keyboard input for moves coordinates... But the announcement of a Mephisto 1X for 40€, including mains adaptor and manual led me to move and buy this famous 'briquette'. Considering an adapter is worth 15€ if you need to buy one, the computer itself was offered at 25€, it was not worth to do without... The manual is indeed a 1X one, but the removable cartridge is stamped 'II' and tests reveal it is actually a Mephisto II. Thus a software very close to the IIS one hosted in the Mirage - but the appreciably lower speed and the form factor give this chess computer enough difference to get its place within my collection, and I kept it. I discovered a very pleasant to use keyboard, it is large enough and keys are responsive with a soft but neat catch. The
Nitsche and Henne program is reknowned for offering a close to human-like play, thanks to a highly selective analysis resulting in a very low speed (analyzed nodes per second) compared to conventional programs which, at that time, aimed mostly to pure speed.

Scisys Sensor Chess + SPM

Year: 1982
Programmer: Julio Kaplan
CPU: 6502 @2Mhz
ROM: 4+2Kb
Elo level: 1445
(1475 FIDE)
CMhz: 2
Rperf: 83%

I discovered the nice playing style of
Kaplan/Barnes programs using the below Chess Companion III. Then I bought stronger with the Tandy 2150. I was curious about playing an older and smaller program version (the chess computer was launched in 1981, but the inserted Strong Play Module dates from 1982). I like the design, it is a pretty device featuring a led for each square, and the leds are magnificently integrated, being level with the board overlay. The whole device is a bit heavy and bulky, especially the original mains adaptor. The overlay has suffered some marks of usage and tends to stick out, mainly around the module place. Nothing unexpected with regards to the age for a chess computer that was offered for 39,90€, complete including original package, manual, mains adaptor, chessmen and the Strong Play Module. An additional motivation for buying was my will to populate more this playing strength category, that fits me well. Actually the Sensor Chess rating fluctuates between the low limit here, and the high one within previous category; thanksfully the module helps a bit. Despite a quite strong computing power regarding the category, Sensor Chess can quite easily be caught in tactical schemes, thus revealing a limited tree search. Its strength appears to be related to chess patterns knowledge (no doubt J.Kaplan's mark), basic but efficient: forks, pins, masked attacks, opened lines... Chessmen it tries to jointly make active are quite well coordinated. Talking about user experience, diods are perfect but the push-sensitive squares and panel keys require too much pressure before reaction; and sound management is a bit odd: a bip confirms both from and to-squares recording, on player's move, while on computer move, the single from-square gets a bip for confirmation, and the player must rely on the square diod lighting off to make sure the to-square has been input. As chessboard sensitivity is not great, a second bip would have cleared any doubt. 

Novag Carnelian II

Year: 2005
Programmer: Dave Kittinger
KS57C2616 @8Mhz
ROM: 16Kb
Elo level: 14
58 (1485 FIDE)
CMhz: 0.78
Rperf: 88%

Liking vintage chess computers does not prevent from showing some interest with more recent ones. Despite Dave Kittinger did not work any more for Novag at this time, the program is a derivative of its predecessors, with Novag's engineers work to provide many more playing levels (here are 128 of them!). A significant part of the 16K ROM seems to be used to manage these sophisticated levels and the opening book; and the tiny RAM (768 bytes available, less than 1K!) led to removal of pondering. As a result, the playing level is significantly below the one of a good old 'true' 16K Kittinger program (you may check the Constellation in stronger category page). The microcontroller used inside is not announced by Novag, but the performance level provided by this 8Mhz singlechip is fully consistent with the performance of former devices from the same brand, using a 8Mhz 6301Y (external clocking, four times divided for the computing of CPU instructions, resulting in 2Mhz actual CPU clocking). The probability is therefore very high for the Carnelian II to host a similar microcontroller. Update: as a clone of Opal+, Agate+ and more, and according to this low-midrange list from forum, the singlechip should be a KS57C2616, a 4 bits microcontroller, with only 768 RAM nibbles. Being significantly less powerful than a 6502, the loss in strength compared to old 16K devices is much explained. I bought this chess computer still enclosed in its original packaging, at a reasonable price (75€), and despite the limited playing level I do not regret this buying: the push-sensitive board is very soft and responsive, very pleasant to use, and the small wooden pieces are nice and consistently sized, with a quite strong magnet providing a good holding on the board. Playing style is a bit passive, but assuming the program gets an advantage, it is able to attack quite brilliantly. One of my preferred opponents, as a conclusion.

Applied Concept Sargon 2.5

Year: 1979
Programmer: Dan & Kathe Spracklen
CPU: 6502 @2Mhz
ROM: 8Kb
Elo level: 1465
(1491 FIDE)
CMhz: 2
Rperf: 84%

Mr and Mrs Spracklen's programs left a mark on my early personal story with computer chess, including Sargon I and II running on  my old TRS-80, my correspondence game with Sargon II running on an Apple II, then the Excellence. I mention as well their top Othello program running on the Fidelity Reversi Challenger dated from 1981, on a Sensory 9-like hardware, which will leave its own mark on several international tournaments organized by the French magazine l'Ordinateur Individuel. Sargon 2.5 is reknown for being the very first program made available on dedicated hardware and offering acceptable chess skills, thus a must-have in my collection, but hard to find. It is as well one of my highest second hand buying cost, 150€ on German eBay. The program is exactly Sargon II with added ability to ponder over its opponent's move, thus justifying the 2.5 release name. However this is not a permanent brain feature: pondering does not continue once the expected set level is met. Cumulating the 2Mhz speed of the 6502 and this thinking anticipation make the Sargon 2.5 able to use level 2 while respecting the 15 seconds per move pace, whereas Sargon II either on overclocked TRS-80 (Z80 @2,66Mhz) or on Commodore 64 (6502 @1Mhz) cannot exceed level 1. Permanent brain will later be provided in Spracklen's programs starting from Sargon III and its derivatives. The Sargon 2.5 module is connected here in a Great Game Machine (de luxe edition of the Modular Game System, featuring a leather coated board). The module starts up with a light blue LEDs displayed message 'Boris awaits your move' - here we are on a familiar ground! The display keeps on displaying the board one full row at a time, with symbols for each piece, a very useful feature assuming one need to check or update the position. The text speech concept inherited from the very first Boris continues with Sargon 2.5; but the messages are selected according to the more or less advantageous position, thus being more relevant. As Sargon requires the evaluation of the position, the message if any is displayed at the end of the thinking time - thus delaying the display of the chosen move. A key to speed-up or abort the streaming of the message would have been useful. Talking about keys, the keyboard despite being quite primitive is very sensitive and thus pleasant to use.

Scisys Kasparov Chess Companion III

Year: 1986
Programmer: Julio Kaplan
CPU: 6301Y @8/4Mhz
ROM: 16Kb
Elo level: 1521
(1533 FIDE)
CMhz: 1.68
Rperf: 88%

The 2Mhz clocked 6301Y microcontroller (8Mhz divided by 4) is typical for 16K chess computers designed for the general public, it is available at a lower cost than a 6502 but is less powerful. As far as pure computing power is concerned, it is nevertheless roughly worth a 1.6Mhz 6502 one can find, for instance, in an early released Sensory 9. I have bought this one (50€) to include a Julio Kaplan (seconded by Craig Barnes) program into my collection, and I was not disappointed with it. The chess skills of the former junior world champion provide a very interesting playing style to this chess computer, less stereotyped than others to my humble opinion. I read in the Wiki of website its permanent brain is supposed to ponder three most plausible opponent's move, but the manual does not mention this clearly, and my tests revealed one and only one pondered move, which is reasonable assuming the very weak hardware (only 256 bytes of RAM!). This is a limit of a singlechip microcontroller such as the 6301Y: it includes CPU, RAM and ROM within a single component, a cost reduction industrial concept, thus adding external RAM would kill the logic. One must manage the situation as is, whereas a 6502 CPU will mandatorily benefit from RAM components which can be scaled as needed (2Kb for instance are available in a Sensory 9, that is to say 8 times more).

Mephisto Mirage

Year: 1984
ProgrammerThomas Nitsche, Elmar Henne
CPU: 1806 @8Mhz
ROM: 16Kb
Elo level: 1532
(1541 FIDE)
CMhz: 1.06
Rperf: 91%
KT: 1339

The Mirage module hosts the Mephisto II'S' program, once again accelerated from 6.1 to 8Mhz. I initially bought this module with its dedicated push-sensitive board (75€), but a row of squares started failing shortly after I got the board. Not a serious issue, I bought bare at reasonnable price (45€) on the German eBay the modular board shown here. Once the module inserted and the mains adapter plugged in, the Mirage was restored ready to play. On the other hand I had some trouble to find convenient magnetic pieces: the magnet is mandatory to trigger the 'reed' switches hidden under the playing surface, a sufficient magnetic power is required, but too much of it results in gathering or repelling pieces, and may eventually trigger aside square's switches. Magnetic sets pieces revealed either too small with regards to the board size, either too powerful because of the larger magnets inserted in large chessmen (King, Queen). I finally bought a set of pieces from a modular board, once again on German eBay (28€); they are designed with the consistent size to be used on the board and to be stored in the drawers beside the module, and the magnet size is constant whatever the piece. I enhanced the plastic pieces with felt to soften the contact with the playing surface, without disrupting the magnetic field. Playing comfort is at top level with the modular board, fortunately as the small keyboard provided on the module is quite unpleasant, the keys are small and provide a rubbery feeling. Cumulating the attractive sensitive board, the human-like playing style of the program, and the level I can still beat, this is one of my favorite chess computers. Well, to be fully honest, it is my favorite one.

With this Nitsche & Henne program, I expected an unusual profile, as a result of Khmelnitsky's test. Actually not, with regards to the main characteristics we are used to with other programs from the same era: a strong defense, able to recognize threats, rather leveraging counterattack than attack; and with better tactical skills than strategic ones. The much little grasp of sacrifice is as well a very common feature. Calculations ability is not as reduced as I feared. As a conclusion, the most obvious characteristic touch of the Mirage is as well shared with other devices from the same age, but outstandingly aggravated here: the fading strength, starting from the opening phase which is exceptionally strong here (Elo 2330!), to the much weakened endgame; going through a solid middlegame.

Fidelity Champion Sensory Chess Challenger

Year: 1981
Programmer: Dan & Kathe Spracklen
CPU: 6502 @1.95Mhz

ROM: 32Kb
Elo level: 1579
(1576 FIDE)
CMhz: 1.95
Rperf: 91%

Sargon 2.5, introduced previously in this page, was the first dedicated device with a decent playing strength, but this chess computer is among the first ones to be known for enhancements regarding the endgame. It is as well the first Fidelity device to include a Spracklen program. So, it is the forerunner of the whole lineage of strong Fidelity chess computers, and it already has some genes (including thinking over opponent's time) of Sargon III that will reach the market two years later, late 1983 for the Apple II, before being adapted to other microcomputers in 1984. Above all these considerations, it is the winner of the very first World MicroComputer Chess Championship (WMCCC) in London, September 1980. It will make its domination very clear by winning also the first Official North American Microcomputer Chess Championship held in San Jose, California, in the same few days. It won each and every nine games in nine rounds, considering both competitions. It will hold the place of best performer in Europe Echecs magazine's tests from November 1981 to April 1982, being only evicted by its successor, the twice as fast Fidelity Elite Champion Sensory Chess Challenger (the name gets a bit long, doesn't it?). In addition it is a beautiful device, with a heavy wooden frame and a nice finish. It reuses the 1980' Voice Sensory Chess Challenger casing, the only visible change being the "Champion" label. The content is much different, as the "Voice" includes a much weaker Ron Nelson's program, leveraging a Z80 clocked with 4Mhz, providing less performance than the 2Mhz 6502. On another hand, both chess computers are equipped with synthesized voice (mine speaking French, with some funny results: "castle"-"short" translates into "roque"-"petit", while the correct way to say it in French is "petit roque"), and 64 classic grandmaster games, to train oneself finding the best moves. One can as well select, and use for training, any opening line you may choose. Should you deduct the size of the ROM enabling these features, with the voice as main one, the resulting program size can be estimated between 16 to 20 Kb, for fair comparison sake. Another unusual feature offered by the Champion is to enable tournament levels (number of moves to be played during a given time, including a primary period and a secondary one - e.g. 40 moves in 10 minutes, then 20 moves every 5 minutes). The setup process is somewhat complex; using the small six keys keyboard on the sloping console. According to the function you enter in, keys have different meanings: getting the user's manual is thus essential. The small soft keys tend to loose conductivity with time and usage (as do old television remote controls) and can so require firm press, not to say they can end completely inoperative. That was the actual situation with this device, otherwise mint condition, complete with the original mains adapter, the user's manual, and the Rexton case (Fidelity Electronic's vendor in France), bought for 105€ on French "le bon coin". Dismantling/reassembling is a bit tricky but practicable, and I glued some small circles punched from a strong aluminium paper inside the keys; so the keyboard is enabled again. The small wooden chessmen are really nice, I am pretty sure Fidelity purchased them from France to the Chavet company (already imported in the US, e.g. provider to the "Pacific Game Company", and to "Cavalier"). I let you check, comparing with THE reference piece, the Chavet knight:

Mephisto Maestro Travel

Year: 2004
Programmer: Craig Barnes
CPU: H8 @7Mhz
ROM: 16Kb
Elo level: 1587
(1582 FIDE)
CMhz: 4,55
Rperf: 87%

After the tiny Calculator Chess, this device is the second one being a pocket chess computer, and being battery operated, within my collection. And it is a Saitek, and a Craig Barnes as well... Actually I was looking for a program from this author running on a more powerful hardware, and I had an opportunity to buy this quite mint condition Maestro Travel, close to my home, for a fair 35€. It is a nice looking device, designed like a PDA, despite being somewhat more bulky than most personal data assistants. Like a Palm, it features a touch screen one uses with a stylus. Chessmen design is clean and easy to recognize, the lit-back display provides excellent playing comfort. This form factor is fully relevant for playing while being mobile: you will not lose any small piece from a pocket chessboard. The program shows some obvious bugs, as an example it can announce mate in two (an actual situation) and stalemate with its next move! But don't run away, in most won situations, it actually wins... As comparing to a handheld is relevant, it is slightly stronger than PocketChess running on a 4 to 5 times faster Sony Clié (Dragonball @33Mhz).

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