Over the years, rival software publishers have tried to steal the thunder from Mindscape's Chessmaster series in a lot of inventive ways. Electronic Arts turned to the hugely popular Garry Kasparov (Kasparov's Gambit); now-defunct Capstone focused on "neural network technology" and an AI that was supposed to learn from mistakes (Grandmaster Chess); Interplay tried everything from animated fantasy figures (Battle Chess) to getting the endorsement of the United States Chess Federation (USCF Chess); and even using the name of the most famous figure of modern chess didn't help Mission Studios (Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess).
But the Chessmaster shrugged off these parries and thrusts as easily as a grandmaster humbles an A-class player, until finally there was only one last opponent: himself. Once you've crammed everything you can think of into an interactive chess program and then wrapped it all in a clean, elegant interface, there just aren't too many ways to make the next version more attractive to the target market: chess players ranging from rank novices all the way up to low-level national masters.
Mindscape's answer to this dilemma wasn't simply to add more games to the program's already immense database (which it did) or create a better method for evaluating players' approximate ratings (which it also did). Instead, it chose to give the game a face-lift - and the results are at once satisfying and disquieting.
At first glance, it looks as though the cosmetic changes were pretty drastic. In place of the spartan pull-down menus of previous Chessmaster games is a "frames" interface featuring readily available icons along the left side of the screen that take you to the program's seven main components. At any point during play, you can immediately access the game room (for unrated games), the classroom (tutorials, drills, puzzles, ratings exam, and Josh Waitzkin's games), the tournament hall (rated games against computer and human opponents), the library (classic games, openings database, and chess glossary), kids room (with features for younger players), database (a mind-boggling array of move variations), and Chessmaster Live (for multiplayer games). Click on one of these icons, and in addition to the main window featuring a chessboard for play or a database for study, you also get a "shortcuts" menu to make it easier to access features within that particular component of the game.
Mindscape is clearly trying to get users into the online mindset with this new interface, but I actually found it less efficient than before: The shortcuts window takes up space that could have been used for more important windows such as chess clocks or captured pieces. Besides, you can still access all the functions from the old pull-down menus at the top of the screen. And the backgrounds that someone apparently thought would liven up the presentation - blue-tinged montages of chess-related photos - just make things look ugly. Even the chessboards and pieces, impeccable in all previous incarnations, look worse because of the addition of this extra glitz.
The only other big change is the beefed-up emphasis on children's chess. Josh Waitzkin (subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) is the host, and his easygoing demeanor is sure to make the sometimes-intimidating world of chess seem a lot more inviting for younger players. But beyond that, about the only substantive things that differentiate the kids room from the standard classroom are the kid-friendly boards and pieces and the allotment of "Master Class" points. The manuals says these are "similar to gold stars that you often get in school when you do well on a test, or when you help the teacher clean the white board after class."
Chessmaster 7000 now features a full suite of multiplayer options - LAN, modem, and TCP/IP - along with Mplayer support, but unfortunately no sort of matching service is provided for players to exchange TCP/IP addresses for Net play or phone numbers for modem connections. That wouldn't be a problem if Mplayer had a more active Chessmaster 7000 community, but when I logged in three nights in a row, four was the maximum number of players I found - and none of them seemed to be in the mood for playing or chatting.
The big questions are these: Should you buy Chessmaster 7000 if you don't have a chess program? And should 6000 owners spend the $19.95 to upgrade? If you already have Chessmaster 6000 and don't have a kid who wants to learn the intricate game of chess using dinosaur pieces, I can't really recommend spending money for what's little more than a cosmetic overhaul to an already classic product. And you may even find that you prefer Chessmaster 6000's clean and simple interface to this update.