My 'occasional player level, class D' chess computers

Fidelity Sensory Chess Challenger 6

Year: 1982
Programmer: Ron Nelson
CPU: 8048 @11Mhz
ROM: 4Kb
Elo level: 1229 (1313 FIDE)
CMhz: 0.85
Rperf: 74%

A relatively insignificant electronic chessboard, as it succeeded the Sensory 8 displayed in this page (see below), at a lower cost at the expense of removing the diods on squares, replaced by a reduced display (only two LED characters, while a CC7 for example displays four of them), featuring a weaker processor and less playing levels to choose from... Nevertheless, a few small enhancements including a slightly larger openings book (but still embryonic), and enablement to display a hint move, and also to take back two half-moves. The program is placed in a removable cartridge, but Fidelity never offered any stronger play module; only a "book openings" one for classic openings practice, and a "greatest games" module for master games study. By the way, both modules were as well available for the Mini Sensory (see previous category), but used different references: the cartridges were not compatible (!). To make it short, the modular feature was quite useless for such  mass market devices, by design limited by their low-end CPU. Indeed the playing level weakened with regards to the Sensory 8, but is ahead of the Mini Sensory+CAC, mainly thanks to a faster clocking. So, little reasons to add this one to my collection... but opportunity: 5€ on french "le bon coin", mint condition, complete with the original mains adapter and set of pieces, the small user guide like new, and the original packaging. How would you resist? And to be fair, without any protuberant LED on the board, it is a clean looking chess computer.

Novag Octo

Year: 1986
ProgrammerJulio Kaplan / Dave Kittinger (?)
CPU: 80C49 @15Mhz
ROM: 2Kb
Elo level: 1248
(1327 FIDE)
CMhz: 1.16
Rperf: 73%

A real low-end one... This electronic chessboard is designed for lowest cost, with minimal LEDs and Bristol board playing surface, very light plastic pieces, low-cost microcontroller and tiny 2K program. At least, a Kittinger one(*)... But the poor choice for setting the playing level prevents from best use of granted thinking time. A funny thing, the 80C49 has been widely used as a PC keyboard controller. Actually, it has been designed to support managing many input/output signals, so it was a good choice for monitoring a keyboard, and for a push-sensitive chessboard as well. Playing chess against the computing power of a PC keyboard is a must! I bought it for its processor I did not own until then, and because it was offered for 10€ in my neighbourhood (including the manual and the mains adaptor!). So I adopted the Octo boy...
(*) Update: a member of and fora, Michael, intensively researched about the origin of this program, and did spot some common code shared with Julio Kaplan's Mattel Computer Chess. Indeed Novag might have delegated to Heuristic Software, Julio Kaplan's company, the supplying of short programs for its low-end range of devices. Maybe Dave Kittinger did supervise the integration, or maybe he was credited just for marketing purpose; while saving time for more profitable efforts aimed at Novag's competitive chess computers. The 2k program used in Novag Micro II and relative devices (so Octo; and as well Presto and Micro III) appears to be a slimmed down version of the 4k Mattel Computer Chess; thus a Kaplan.

Novag Chess Champion Super System III

Year: 1979
Programmer: Mike Johnson
CPU: 6502 @2Mhz
ROM: 8Kb
Elo level: 1276
(1349 FIDE)
CMhz: 2
Rperf: 73%

A high-end chess computer at that time, featuring a strong hardware (2Mhz 6502), an advanced 8K program, expansion capabilities with a full chessboard LCD display and a printer; both can be plugged sideways after removing plastic covers. Sophistication mostly concerns chess features, not playing strength: under-promotion, 'en passant' capture, draw rules including stalemate, three-fold repetition and 50-moves rule, instant display of selected piece once 'from' coordinates are input... A very complete chess computer at that time, somewhat complicated to use. Mike Johnson belonging to David Levy's team will also author the Novag Chess Champion Pocket Chess / Chess Traveller (using 4Mhz Fairchild F8) and the Chess Partner 2000. Playing level is set, such as the Boris, with a timer, to the nearest second. I like it... The one I own, bought at a low price (20€) on German eBay, featured a quite unreliable keyboard: sometimes, randomly, a key input was erroneously scanned (for instance, a 'B' displayed instead of a 'A', a '4' instead of a '6'...), however carefully the key was hit (a brief or long press, a clear split between two hits, and so on...). Maybe one input out of twenty to thirty required to be cleared and restarted, this did not prevent playing but was uncomfortable. I realized some day this issue completely disappeared when I set the time switch to on. I used to play 'time off' to display the preferred move during program thinking time; whereas 'time on' displays the remaining time down to computer move. I faithfully get keyboard errors again whenever I set 'time off', and 'time on' results in a never failing keyboard scan! I do not know if this issue is specific to the SSIII I own, or is commonly shared by other ones. It also happened to my SSIII to be found stuck after leaving it a while (such as a quarter of an hour) on but unused; while during continuous play I never encountered such an issue.

Fidelity Chess Challenger 7

Year: 1979
Programmer: Ron Nelson
CPU: Z80 @3.6Mhz
ROM: 4Kb
Elo level: 1283
(1354 FIDE)
CMhz: 1.21
Rperf: 75%

My very first one! Bought brand new once available... Then bought again about thirty years later for 45€. This device made electronic chess affordable for most ones. The design is restrained and pleasant, despite being fully plastic made. The animated while thinking big red LEDs display is nice, it helps granting the Chess Challenger some personality (it seems to enter panic mode when put under pressure!). Even pieces are nicely designed, to such a point I sometimes use it as a passive chessboard. Playing level is weak, especially since I know its play inside out...

Mein erster / My first / Mon premier / Mephisto

Year: 1991
Programmer: Eric van Riet Paap
CPU: M50747 @8Mhz
ROM: 8Kb
Elo level: 1306
(1371 FIDE)
CMh : 1
Rperf: 78%

I got this chess computer as a gift, as a result of the interest I shared regarding the Stadlbauer Maestro SchachProfessor (introduced hereafter). The box is similar to the Mephisto Europa A one, made more simple with less keys and featuring more attractive colors for kids, and inside is the small 'Zen' 4K program from Eric van Riet Paap, running on a Mitsubishi microcontroller. As Kaare Danielsen did attract notice entering his 16K 6301Y microcontroller program in the 1986 world computer chess championship, Eric van Riet Paap succeeded in demonstrating his ability to program yet smaller, in 1988, during the 8th Dutch open computer chess championship, in Leiden, Netherlands. The podium gives an evidence of the tournament level: winner Quest (later sold as Fritz), followed by Rebel, Kallisto, The King... The microcontroller Zen used, a M50743, featured only 128 bytes RAM (256 for the M50747 powering the Mein Erster)! Despite Zen did not score any point during this competition, Hegener & Glaser jumped at the opportunity to complete the Mephisto series with small travel computers based on this program and on this very same series of microcontrollers (Mephisto Mini in 1989, soon to be followed by more). Actually the hardware is limited, not the programmer: Eric van Riet Paap did write worldclass Draughts and Awari programs, and his chess program Genesis got a gold medal in 1992, in the 4th computer games olympiads; tied with Hiarcs and The King, no less! The 'Mein erster' (the brand being German, I privilege its name from Goethe's language) includes, as the Maestro SchachProfessor does, learning exercises (mini games) increasing its ROM size to 8K, and a learning booklet with more than 90 pages is provided (it includes instructions for using the computer, scattered here and there amongst the lessons; so there is no actual user manual). Thomas Mally, co-author of the booklet with Helmut Weigel, grants the later one for the whole idea. I point out the exercises are different from the Maestro SchachProfessor's ones, and the graduating of difficulty is different as well: the Mein erster scales difficulty using more thinking time for the program as your opponent in mini games, while the Maestro SchachProfessor plays evenly fast, but offering  more or less favourable starting positions (complexity being raised with allocating more pawns to the computer). Played moves in a computer to computer comparison show evidence that, with a four years gap, Zen program versions slightly differ (in addition to the faster hardware used by the Maestro SchachProfessor). A nice addition to my collection, thanks!

Fidelity Sensory Chess Challenger 8

Year: 1980
Programmer: Ron Nelson
CPU: Z80 @3.8Mhz
ROM: 4Kb
Elo level: 1307
(1372 FIDE)
CMhz: 1.28
Rperf: 77%

What the hell is this Sensory 8 doing here? It plays accurately the same moves as above CC7... Apart from an additional playing level (2 minutes & 10 seconds average per move), it is actually the same repackaged program. Yes it is, but... it was offered in one single batch with the Mini Sensory+CAC, for 35€, a price I would gladly have agreed for the Mini Sensory alone. Thus I look on it as a free bonus gift! And to be considered, it is the first Fidelity device featuring a push-sensitive board, so despite being weak and mass market oriented, this chess computer is no blot in a collection. For nostalgia's sake, I prefer playing the CC7, despite the actual comfort of the sensitive squares and LEDs.

Yeno 320 XT

Year: 1994
Programmer: Kaare Danielsen
CPU: 68HC05 @2Mhz
ROM: 4Kb
Elo level: 1322
(1383 FIDE)
CMhz: 0.85
Rperf: 79%

I was keen on entering in my collection the famous 4K program from Kaare Danielsen. It has been very largely distributed under various brands, so better choose a low cost Yeno (I bought it for 25€) very easy to find in France (Yeno designed its production in France, before having it built in China, and K. Danielsen points out travelling to France in 1993 in order to adapt his 4K program for the 68HC05 microcontroller). It is a low-end device designed for the general public, with pieces a bit too large with regards to its size, thus difficult to handle because of lack of room, without any LED - a small LCD displays in sequence the 'from' square, then the 'to' one (such as Chess Challenger 6 does) and the control panel on the right is the poorest 'keyboard' I know of (with pressure sensitive small white rectangles arranged in zigzag). No real keys, one has to put the surface out of shape, for instance with one's nail... Fortunately, the push sensitive chessboard more intensively used is a bit hard but acceptable. The program provides several playing styles and I had fun testing them to check whether, for instance, aggressive was best for white, or defensive best for black, or any other arrangement... As a conclusion, normal style revealed the most efficient one. This small device is the first one within this list to ponder on opponent's time (permanent brain), though you wouldn't think so to look at it.

Yeno 301 XL

Year: 1988
Programmer: Jon Green (?)
CPU: 63B01X @8/4Mhz
ROM: 4Kb
Elo level: 1358
(1411 FIDE)
CMhz: 1.68
Rperf: 79%

The very first Yeno: it came before the Yeno 532XL by a few months. You can read about the 532 XL in the strong chess computers page (class A level). It shares its form factor with the 320 XT, but the facturing quality is far better, on par with the 532XL. Its program is slightly weaker than the 320XT one; on the other hand its processor (equivalent to the more commonly known 6301Y) being close to twice as fast, makes up for the gap, and further more. Identifying the authorship of this program remains unreliable: Jon Green is indeed named by David Levy, so I decide to stick to it. Within his business company, developping chess programs for various clients, David Levy onboarded not only reknown chess programs developpers (such as Mark Taylor, David Broughton, Richard Lang, Mike Johnson, Martin Bryant), but also programmers able to encode his algorithms on various microprocessors and microcontrollers. Anyway, this very same program powers as well two Chess King computers: the 1984 Triomphe (clocked half as fast) and the 1987 Counter Gambit. It is a pleasant opponent, even if somewhat weak, as it leverages balanded skills including some positional abilities to develop its pieces, and some tactical skills as well. Nothing to be feared by any experienced player, but enough to resist and make you happy to win. It has been sold using either of two sets of chessmen, most probably according to the year of its production: those displayed here, shared with the 532XL, rather original ones; or pieces that much look like Saitek ones, and are probably later ones. Getting the original pieces was part of my criteria when I decided to buy this one (29€ on French eBay, boxed, shipment included thus 24.90€ without shipment). By the way, I like very much the distinctive design of the pawn, for certain its "helmet crest" reminds me of Marvin, the Looney Tunes small Martian.

Stadlbauer Maestro SchachProfessor

Year: 1995
Programmer: Eric van Riet Paap
CPU: M38002M2 @4.91Mhz
ROM: 8Kb
Elo level: 1370
(1419 FIDE)
CMhz: 1.6
Rperf: 79%

I discovered this small initiation electronic chessboard after registering the Yeno 320XT for a chess computers tournament, whose participants were expected to play under the 1400 Elo points limit. I appreciated its rather decent playing style during the match it won against the Yeno; and I was happy to watch playing an Eric van Riet Paap program, it was the first time I did. I like variety of authors and brands in my collection, two birds killed with one stone! In addition, the singlechip 8 bits Mitsubishi micro-controller was as well unprecedented amongst my devices, and the category deserved some reinforcements. So, when I spotted this one on German eBay, offered for 9.90€, I didn't hesitate much. It is the only chess computer made by the Staldbauer company, based on an idea from Ossi Weiner (Hegener & Glaser had just been taken over by Saitek previous year, and he was going to create Millenium 2000 on the next year, with Manfred Hegener as a partner). The idea was to add chess training features to a chess computer. So, this device comes with a 75 pages educational booklet, including 56 exercises to be practised with support from the computer, activated using the levels set with a to g files. The last 8 squares from h file activate the usual playing levels, for games facing the computer or mate search. This program, backed up by a well stocked openings book, finds rather often good positional moves, with regards to its strength category; and does so endgame included. Its main weakness is tactics, it struggles over gaining or even keeping any material advantage. Its playing style, and its strengths and weaknesses as well, remind me of the Systema Challenge, with that one exception you will find the Challenge two categories ahead... But a decent positional play and limited tactical strength seem to be a smart choice for an initiation chess computer. I point out this device speaks German, using a limited vocabulary (that can be replaced by beeps), and the training booklet is as well only available in German language.

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