Chess System Tal 1 & 2

The reason why this post took so long is that I have been gravely ill over the holidays, as well as rather busy. Also, the chess program that this article mostly is about had to be re-constructed from scratch, by me, from numerous sources. It literally is a lost piece of software that I have brought back to life, and that task was not easy.

SOME HISTORY
Chess has been described as many things, from a complex board game, to an intellectual pursuit, right on down to “a game that gives me headaches”. There is even a major new movie out now about the darkness of chess genius Bobby Fischer.

But, from the first moments that computers could solve complex math, and display even the most primitive of graphics, there has been a never-ending quest to build the most unbeatable of chess-playing computers. Nowadays entire tournaments are staged, with computers playing other computers, in merciless digital battles on the board.

These machines can be traced back to a 1949 science paper in which computer pioneer Claude Shannon said of programming a computer to play chess that “Although of no practical importance, the question is of theoretical interest, and it is hoped that…this problem will act as a wedge in attacking other problems…of greater significance.”

It was in 1956, in the US, that Alex Bernstein, an experienced chess player and a programmer at IBM, wrote a program that could play a full chess game – and it played the game VERY poorly. Even a total amateur could defeat it. But, he is credited with the first computer chess.

Eventually regular commercial computers were put to the task, at a friendly but competitive level, of being programmed to play chess – with the goal of beating each other, and also of beating actual humans.

It can actually be said that even the most basic of computers from the end of 1979, with the proper chess software installed, could probably defeat most basic, totally casual, chess players about 90% of the time.

While a few differing concepts about how computers can go about playing chess emerged during this era (playing tactical vs. playing positional) computer chess software basically all settled down into what is known as a ‘brute-force’ method of figuring out what moves to make. This involves the CPU crunching numbers, based solely on the current position of the board, and calculating numerous moves ahead to find the best move.

Back in the era of the 1980s-2000, with relatively slow CPU speeds compared to nowadays, this resulted in long waiting periods between your move and the computer’s – as it crunched a long series of calculations. Improved CPU speeds made these ‘perfect move searches’ shorter, and deeper, but a fundamental problem still remained: This is not how humans play chess.

When I look at a chess board, I do not quickly scan the board to find the 1 or 2 relevant pieces that should be moved, and then only calculate moves for those 1-2 pieces some 20 moves deep. This is just not how the human brain operates. Our brains look at clusters, or patterns, of the pieces, and we look for replies, surprise moves… perhaps even random moves just to confuse the opponent.

To this very day, however, almost all available chess programs still use the old brute-force search method to calculate moves – resulting in horrifically powerful games that not even the best grandmasters in the world can defeat.

In order to have a chess program play like a human you have to split the calculations into two separate routines: Calculate the tactical position, but then also dump that position over to a set of rules that asks: Is this how a human would play? This has a side effect of drastically reducing the computer’s playing strength, but also presents the player with a fantastic and exciting game of chess that feels fundamentally far more human.

SOLUTIONS

To date there are really only a handful of solutions to the ‘impossible to defeat’ brute-force computer chess issue:

Buy an old copy of Chessmaster from Amazon (which is really the ideal solution, as it features numerous human-like personalities, games, fantastic chess sets, and more). But this can have issues with running on modern OS platforms.

Buy a copy of Komodo chess, which is the strongest chess engine that also attempts to play like a human. (Note: Do not purchase the mobile version of Komodo, from the app store, it is a neglected and wholly broken app).

CST2Download my newly-restored copies of Chess System Tal 1 & 2.

CHESS SYSTEM TAL

Chess System Tal 1 was designed, from the ground up, to emulate the unpredictable, almost random, and wholly human aspects of chess AI – very much so in the romantic style of grandmaster Tal himself (which is why they eventually gave it that name). Almost every aspect of the game’s “personality” can be adjusted.

While copies of Tal 1 can be found in some remote locations of the internet, a few key files were missing (one of which I have never been able to locate, and that is the executable that is supposed to prepare/compress new opening books. You can indeed still make an opening book, but it will remain large).

Things that I did to restore this masterpiece of chess joy included:

  • Prepping a full PDF copy of the original manual
  • Obtaining nearly 99% of the original DOS files, and making sure they all worked
  • Totally rebuild the missing database files from high-quality Chessbase PGN files, Chessmaster 11 games, and tracking-down the obscure Paris 97 games that the readme file mentions
  • Rebuild a totally new opening book, bringing the program’s opening style fully up to modern standards
  • Creating a couple of new personality files

After playing several games in it, and experiencing only one crash at the end of a game (probably due to the uncompressed opening book that I created, but the game completed just fine) I found myself really enjoying how this program plays chess.

Chess System Tal 2 isn’t quite as good as the original, except that the AI routines were enhanced further, and the entire program was given a quick port to a Windows environment. I absolutely have never been able to locate a single, original, and working real copy of this program, and because the original programmer basically rushed it from DOS to Windows, it is a sloppy “upgrade” in many respects.

For example: In order to tweak the personality of the AI, you have to go to the original DOS version, create a personality file there, save it, and then replace the file chess.sty in CSTal’s directory … that is just poor programming. I have already copied-over the personality files and opening books from the original DOS version, and put them into directories.

One new feature of CSTal 2 is the ability to use Endgame Tablebases, which are questionable as to how much strength and playing ability they actually add to the program (chess studies have come to the conclusion that in human vs. PC games such tables are only really used in maybe 10% of all games, but in PC vs. PC matches the use goes up dramatically more).

I had to really make some efforts to locate the original program that generated the tables themselves, since they are basically an obsolete format originally designed back in the 1990s. It can generate 3-piece tables very quickly; 4 piece tables in not too much time; but the 5-piece tables will occupy your PC for a period of time, depending wholly on how many of them you queue-up to generate at a time.

Also note that CSTal 2 doesn’t recognize compressed TBs, so the 5-piece tables will occupy a notable amount of space.

Personally, myself? I only bothered to generate 3, 4, and 5 full sets for my copy of Chessmaster 11, and just have left Tal2 without them.

Click on the Downloads area of this site for a package containing both games, and enjoy the original inside of DOSBox, and the 2nd version inside of any version of Windows (note that the online functionality of version 2 has been broken for many years now).

TECH NOTES:

  • For CSTal 1 in DOSBox, set Cycles=Max (just type that before launching the game)
  • Unzip CSTal 1 to an easily-accessible directory, and then type mount c c:\<directory> to make the directory accessible within DOSBox, then type C: and then type CD\<directory> to switch to the program
  • Execute the file called RUN.bat (type RUN) to start the program, and you want to select the Paris 97 version of the game, since it was the latest version created
  • Read the manual.

Quick update

Next post is being worked on…

Questions

I am an avid gamer that suffers from depression, ADHD, Mitochondrial disease, and anxiety. I am open and honest about it.

Do YOU suffer from similar ailments? How does it affect your gaming?

Are there certain games that have lifted you up from depression?

Are there games that have put you into a depression?

Are there certain games that give you anxiety attacks?

Even without such ailments…

Do you find certain games appeal to you more, or less, depending on seasonal differences? For example, I find myself drawn towards opening up the windows, getting a cold drink, and playing something on my Nintendo during nicer summer days far more than during the winter.

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