Chess Apps – How Functional Are They?

CHESS AT YOUR FINGERTIPS

Mobile Chess Interface

Mobile Chess Interface

We live in a culture of apps. Without apps, our smartphones, albeit powerful devices, would be stripped to the bare minimum. Even texting is an application! The ability to utilise third-party software on your phone is what makes it an extraordinary utility. Once, you were limited to the applications your phone provided, but not anymore; now, we have the luxury of choice, an essential component to customer experience So, whilst it’s certainly true to say we live in a “culture of apps”, it might be more appropriate, and accurate, to say we live in the ‘age of customisation’.

When we came to sit down and write this blog post, we initially decided to select four or so chess apps and review each one in turn. But given the size and scope of the app world, we didn’t feel comfortable selecting a handful at random and passing judgement without a better sense of context and a wider knowledge of what was available. It was plainly too arbitrary. As such, this post will principally serve as an introduction to chess apps, why they’re such an interesting development, and a broad look at what they have to offer more generally.

 

RAPID GROWTH

Chess on your iPhone

Chess on your iPhone

We can shape our handheld devices and cater them to our specific wants and needs – if we so choose, of course. The basic utilities remain, but with a few clicks on your device’s store page, you can make it into a whole lot more. From installing your preferred news outlet to alternative instant messaging apps, such as WhatsApp or Hangouts, your phone is a thoroughly malleable item. There are millions of apps available (for an example of the enormity of this trend, check out Apple’s trajectory of apps available, measured against the amount of times downloaded – that’s over one million apps in four years) many of which are free and most likely cross-platform (there’s also a lot of money to be made in microtransactions, ads, app costs, etc.). Anyone can develop an app, upload it, and instantly gauge peoples responses to it, and then tweak it accordingly – updates are rolled out continuously in response to feedback, bugs, and so on. It’s an enormous enterprise, and it barely existed until a few years ago. Now, it’s bigger than ever.

CHESS AS AN APP

So it comes as no surprise, then, that are quite literally hundreds of chess apps there. Hundreds! A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the world of digital chess and cursorily looked at the computer programs powerful enough to usurp world champions (see Kasparov and the Deep Blue event). It’s worth noting that we find it unlikely that the increasing power of computer systems capable of playing extremely skilled games of chess will supplant the nature of chess itself. That is to say, we don’t see it leading us away from human-to-human interaction, but it does have something very important and valuable to say about chess, the game, itself, which we’ll get to in the coming weeks.

Minimalistic, accessible Interface for Android

Minimalistic, accessible Interface for Android

But that human-to-human play over a board has changed in many respects, principally with the proliferation of apps and their ability to allow players access to one another over their smartphones, tablets, and so on. It is possible to have a speed game of chess with someone on the other side of the globe and finish the game within less than ten minutes. This poses exciting new possibilities for chess, at least to some extent. With concentration spans arguably diminishing, and peoples time being ever more precious and limited, there’s a very real chance – and this isn’t backed up with figures, it’s simply conjecture – that less and less people are going to take the time to sit down over a chess board and participate in a game of some length. Unless you’re a chess enthusiast or a regular board game player that, we think, is a fair assumption to make. Now, that is not to say players haven’t participated in games via alternative modes of communication before, but now we’re seeing a different kind of engagement and a different kind of interactivity. With chess at your fingertips – whether you’re a professional, amateur, or just someone keen to know more – there’s a huge opportunity to reach out to a wider community.

LITERALLY HUNDREDS!

As mentioned in the introduction, our plan to review a select few apps was nixed when it was clear there were so many available. So, we thought a broader approach on what chess apps can offer would be appropriate.

In our Digital Chess post we covered a lot of the different features apps have to offer: the ability to retrace your steps and watch replays, correct a move should you be practising (or, as is always a possibility on a handheld device, accidentally3d chess clicked the wrong spot!), and to tweak the difficulty level of your AI opponent. This is often in the form of a difficulty metre, but more often than that now it’s a matter of tweaking the computer’s response time, as they’re generally very quick on their ‘feet’ and able to plan their moves ahead of time essentially instantaneously.

The aesthetic of the apps is also worth mentioning as it brings us back to choice. If you’re going to be playing on your mobile, what is it you want to be looking at? A chess board, obviously, but there’s a choice there between the flat, two dimensional boards and the 3D iterations of the game. Personally, we’re more in favour of the flat, birds-eye-view aesthetic; it’s clean, minimalistic, and simple. Many of them have audio, but that too can be tweaked (we don’t: if an app gets the sound just right, there’s a real pleasure in hearing the ‘click’ as your chosen piece is moved to its designated place on the board). And if you’re in the process of learning the game, almost all apps will happily provide an option to show where each piece can move once you have clicked on it. And besides replays, there are ancillary apps that allow you to keep track of your games and your movements without having to jot them down, allowing you to pour over the game after to plot it out differently.

Returning to the 3D chess apps, the problem begins with the aesthetics: they’re clunky, obtrusive, and, at least to us, are a move away from what apps ought to be: accessible. The idea is obviously an interesting one and it’s been around for some time, but the practicalities of playing on a 3D chess board via your phone seems to fly in the face of what the app should be offering: quick, minimalist engagement with the game. You can’t replicate the feel of sitting down with someone over a chess board, so offering alternative tool with a minimal interface is arguably the better option.

THE MAGNUS CARSLEN CHESS APP

The Magnus Carlsen App

The Magnus Carlsen App

One of the best apps we found is the official Magnus Carlsen app. Endorsed by Carlsen himself, this particular app is one of a kind. Indeed, it pushes up against one of the most important themes running through our posts: that chess is an essential tool in education, and one more than capable of making the world a much smarter place. As we’ve constantly iterated, chess apps bring accessibility, and they bring unity. Such is the mission statement of the team behind this great app.

The unique selling point for this app – which is free! – is that players can challenge Carlsen at various ages, from 5 upwards, when he first started taking an interest in chess. The computer is tailored to the skill set of Carlsen at these ages, and provides some background information on him as you progress. It’s fresh and exciting and allows players to engage with the chess world, which might otherwise remain on the periphery. There are learning videos, some of which are free, others of which have to be bought, and there’s also the opportunity to play Carlsen live should you win a tournament.

Thus far, this has absolutely proven itself our favourite app (alongside chess for android, which is super accessible and easy to use), and if you’re looking for a little more than just a standard chess game, then this is the app for you. Interestingly enough, Carlsen managed to lose at his ten-year-old self… I’m at age 8, the point at which most players begin to lose on average to the computerised Carlsen. Let’s see if I can get to 9…

 

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