Playing Against a Computer

Chess has been positively affected by advances in technology such as database programs that allow us to have access to millions of games at the click of a mouse. Thanks to the database, I can find games completely suited to the lessons I’m teaching to my students. Chess playing programs are also a great resource, giving every chess player an instant opponent anytime they wish to play a practice game. More experienced players can fight it out against their silicon opponent, using it as a training partner. However, beginners often end up developing some bad habits by playing against software programs and those bad habits will land them in a potential sea of misery when they face a human opponent. While I encourage my beginning students to play against the computer, I offer some guidelines to keep them from developing computer chess related bad habits.

Chess playing computer programs offer a number of varying opponent strengths ranging from absolute beginner to master. While the beginner should start out playing against a lower rated computer opponent, they should note that at its lowest levels, a computer program is going to play a sloppy game, especially when it comes to the opening. A beginner who plays against a computer set at a lower level is going to find that the computer tends to break the opening principles completely. Such examples of breaking these principles includes opening not with a central pawn but with a flank pawn, developing pieces to the edge of the board, moving the same piece twice during the opening phase and moving the King prior to castling. Because we all like to win our games, the beginner may play the computer program at its lowest levels, vowing to set the program’s rating strength at a higher setting later on. Playing against an extremely low level, the longer our beginners stays at that level the greater the chance of developing bad chess playing habits. Because beginners are still learning the underlying mechanics of opening theory, they don’t have a complete grasp of the subject matter and start taking unnecessary risks during the opening because the computer is playing in a slap dash manner. Always apply the opening principles to your game no matter what the computer program does. If the computer leaves one of its pieces hanging, don’t capture it unless there is an excellent reason, such as improving your position. Just because the computer plays sloppy chess doesn’t mean that you should. Remember, you’ll be facing off against a human opponent who is going to apply the opening principles to his or her game. If you play a poor opening your opponent will use it against you. This is why it is always better to play a computer program at a higher strength.

Depending on the program, a suitable level for the beginner should be around a 1200 to 1400 rating. Most chess programs play basic beginner’s openings at this level. At this level the absolute beginner is not going to immediately start winning games. However, they’ll face off against more realistic openings such as they’d find when playing a human opponent with a little chess experience. The program is more likely to make moves that adhere to opening principles. It is better for the beginner to play against a higher program setting that a lower setting. Playing stronger opponents is how you get better at chess.

Some chess playing programs have a series of controls that allow you to customize the computer’s playing ability. These controls allow you to adjust piece mobility and center control, to name a few. These should be set at the half way mark for the beginner. When you chose a playing level on Fritz, such as “Moron” (yes that’s the name they gave it), you’ll see that the control for “Center Control” goes to its minimum. Set it a bit past the middle point and you’ll get a better opening out of it. I tell my students to explore the various game controls so they can get the most out of their software.

Middle games are often where the beginner gets into trouble when playing against a computer. Chess playing software uses brute force to determine a response to your move. Computers are over glorified calculators at heart and a chess program can easily plow through 162,000 positions per second. That is brute force calculation at its best. This means you’ll want to employ very basic principles to your middle game play and not try to outsmart the computer. If you’re going to attack make sure you have more attackers than defenders. When defending, have more defenders than attackers. Develop your pieces to their most active squares before picking a fight on the board. Another important idea during all phases of the game is not to get greedy.

A computer tends to be greedy, grabbing pawns and pieces any chance they get. The beginner should not do this as well. Only capture to improve your position. Many chess programs will grab a pawn because it gives them a material edge. However, the name of the game is checkmate and in the end that’s what counts. Of course, you don’t want to lose a bunch of material so be aware the computer likes to take whenever it can. To avoid losing material, check your pawns and pieces every time the computer makes a move. Is one of your pawns or pieces under attack? If so, considering moving the attacked pawn or piece or defending it. Which of these two choices least weakens your position?

Playing against a software program can be a good way to get some experience on the board. However, you have to know a bit about your software program so read the manual. If you don’t want to read the entire manual, read the sections pertaining to setting the playing levels and making adjustments to the program’s playing style. If you do this, you’ll have a decent sparring partner. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).