There was a time a few years back when Mindscape's Chessmaster series actually had some competition, but about the only serious rival on the market nowadays is Sierra's Power Chess line. Even with its incredibly strong chess engine it, though, Power Chess just can't match the incredible array of teaching tools found in the Chessmaster games.
So the decision as to which chess program to buy is a no-brainer, right? Actually, the answer is a definite maybe. Chessmaster 6000 is unquestionably the most feature-packed installment in this classic series, and chess fans deciding on their first chess program should rush right out and grab it. But if you already own Chessmaster 5500 or even Chessmaster 5000, you might want to consider whether you've exhausted the features of those games before buying the new version.
And what are the new features? Mindscape has significantly expanded an already impressive chess tutorial, adding considerably more topics that progress in a logical and easy-to-follow order from general chess concepts through the first crucial moves in a game and on to endgame strategies. Better yet, all the tutorials now feature voice commentary, and while that might seem like a small addition, it truly goes a long way in helping you stay focused on each lesson. Josh Waitzkin, subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, is back again as the "host" of the program, and the number of his voice-annotated games has been boosted to 14. These are a real treat for beginning and intermediate players, and even advanced players can glean new perspectives from the 21-year-old Waitzkin's commentary.
Another addition is the inclusion of nearly 100 "personalities" - computer-controlled players that range in skill level from sheer novices to grandmasters. There's also a gallery of world-famous grandmasters to compete against, as well as the Chessmaster program itself; if you can beat the Chessmaster, you probably don't have much need for this program except for storing and annotating your own games.
Of course, all the other powerful tools of the Chessmaster series are back in full force. There's the wonderful natural-language advice option, which analyzes your position and suggests the appropriate moves (and tells you why the moves are good); auto-annotate, which constructs a complete analysis of any game or position; an Opening Book with over 2200 opening lines; a database coach that identifies openings and shows how the game can progress from that point on; and much, much more.
But there is one small disappointment here, and while it was probably unavoidable on Mindscape's part, it still makes Chessmaster not quite as enjoyable as it has been in the past. Chessmaster Live, which was hosted for the last couple of years by Mindscape, provided a way for Chessmaster owners to log on directly to the Internet and challenge other Chessmaster owners. There was an option to play for free, as well as subscribe to The Chessmaster Network for $19.95 a year and take part in classes, tourneys, and ranked games, and best of all the interface was a breeze, and the network performed relatively well in terms of bandwidth and latency.
But with the release of Chessmaster 6000, Mindscape has moved Chessmaster Live onto Mplayer - and the results don't exactly have me jumping for joy. With Chessmaster 5500 and Chessmaster Live, you could be up and playing in a matter of minutes; going through Mplayer, you might spend a good five or six minutes just logging on and waiting for advertisements to be downloaded before you can actually get to a screen where you can find a game.
This happened three times in all, and by the time I finally got on Mplayer (which seems to be running slower than I ever remember it), I was cranky and bored - not exactly the mood you want to be in when starting a chess game.
To be fair, Mindscape probably had to take Chessmaster to Mplayer because it couldn't afford to keep the network going, even if everyone had ponied up and paid the $19.95 membership fee. And at least Mplayer and Mindscape have created a patch that makes it possible for Chessmaster 5500 players to compete online as well. But it's unfortunate that Chessmaster 6000 doesn't have support for any other type of multiplayer mode.
If that bothers you, you can always pick up Sierra's Power Chess and play on the World Opponent Network - but that means giving up all the wonderful features exclusive to Chessmaster 6000. In the end, I still have to say that the Chessmaster line is the only way to go if you're looking for a chess program - but I'll also take this chance to say that Mindscape should make the effort to provide some other type of multiplayer support for Chessmaster 6000 and all future Chessmaster games. It's the least they can for the millions of customers who've made it the best-selling chess program of all time, don't you think?