Remember that famous line from the movie "Wall Street": "If you want a friend, get a dog." Well, take it from me, if you want a chess buddy, buy a chess program for your PC.
I'm a "patzer," a chess player who knows how to move the pieces fairly well but is forever doomed to mediocrity. Like all patzers, I play for pure love of the game, knowing that Garry Kasparov - even on his worst day - could play 30 opponents like me at once and crush us all.
Still, I've had fun during the 25 years or so that I've played chess. It's a good game for the mind because it requires concentration and other mental skills, including the ability to plan, analyze and make decisions.
But there's a negative side, too - chess often brings out the worst in people. Remember that chess is warfare confined to a board, and it appeals to our instinctive drive for power, domination and territory. One player wins, the other is vanquished. Victory is declared when the enemy king is terminated.
So it's not surprising that in the heat of battle, bad feelings arise.
I played one guy who would fly into a rage and swipe the pieces off the board when he was losing. Another liked to talk trash when he was winning, which was most of the time. The tables turned one day when I lured him into a trap and peppered him with insults as he squirmed. He got so angry that he bolted for the kitchen and started pawing at the silverware drawer. "Stay there until I get back," he snarled.
Even online, you're likely to run into bad attitudes. I've played a number of people who disconnect when they get in trouble during a game, and I'm sure that others are using computers to show them the right moves.
That's why it's often better to play against a computer. If your PC annoys you, you can shut it down. You can also ask the computer to teach you the correct moves and fine points of the game, something few humans are likely to do unless you hire them to tutor you.
Luckily, you have plenty of choices , the first one being whether to buy a chess program for your PC or invest in a dedicated chess computer - basically a chessboard with the electronics and programing built into the base. It communicates with lights and sometimes a keypad.
When I got involved with computer chess more than 10 years ago, PC chess programs were pretty crude, and the game was dominated by dedicated chess machines.
My first was Mephisto Mondial 68000XL from (ICD) Your Move Chess & Games in Huntington Station, N.Y. This little gadget, with a Motorola 68000 microprocessor running at 12 megahertz, is primitive by today's standards, but it plays a formidable game.
If you like feel of chess pieces, you'll find plenty of good machines, starting at less than $100. A top-of-the-line model, like Mephisto Exclusive nearly $700.
As PCs have become much more powerful, computer chess programs have become better and much cheaper. Like chess players themselves, these programs are rated on a numeric scale. An average patzer like me is rated at about 1,500, while Garry Kasparov, the reigning human champ, is rated at 2,790 by the International Chess Federation. Many chess programs can play above the master's level of 2,200. That's the top one percent of chess players in the world.
PC chess programs are divided into two categories: commercial and professional. Commercial programs have entertaining graphics, multimedia tutorials and other features that make them a good choice for beginners to intermediate players. Professional programs aren't as fancy, but they often play at a higher level and have tactical features that make them better suited for advanced players.
Chessmaster 6000 (Mindscape, Windows 95/98, $39.95) is the Cadillac of commercial programs. It has superb graphics and a variety of features designed to teach the game and make learning entertaining. First, you can choose from 95 opponents - each with a photograph, biography and unique playing style and skill level. You can also create a custom opponent.
Graphically, Chessmaster offers a variety of 2D and 3D boards chessboards in styles ranging from marble to wood. You can also choose the kind of chess pieces you use.
If you like to listen to classical music while you play, you'll love Chessmaster 6000, which has a large library of optional background music by masters including Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. You'll also find a variety of voice responses. For example, the program can tell you if you make an illegal move or annotate your move list.
There are tutorials for beginning to intermediate players, and a virtual coach who can suggest the best moves while you're in a game.
More experienced players will enjoy Chessmaster 6000's database of 300,000 actual games. You can get detailed information about each contest, including a move list, opening, results, event ratings and player ratings. You can search for games by opening line, board position or multiple search criteria.
If you have a sense of humor, Extreme Chess (Davidson/Simon and Schuster, Windows 3.1/95/98, $29.95) sends obnoxious messages while you're playing, and if you take to long to move, it grunts and makes the sound of impatient fingers thumping on a table. But don't be fooled by its antics; this is the commercial version of the professional Fritz chess program, which once beat Kasparov in a stunning upset.
Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess (Davidson, $37.95, Windows 3.1/95/98) is a good beginner's choice. Ashley, an International Master, walks you through the basics and intermediate techniques.
For children 9 years old and up, Chess Mates (Theatrix, Windows/Mac, $34.95) provides an entertaining introduction to the game, featuring Wigby the Wizard and animated chess pieces.
Intermediate players should look at Chess Mentor 2.0 (Aficionado, Windows 3.1/95/98, $79.95.) The program teaches chess concepts and techniques in conjunction with separate modules covering different phases of the game. The modules, which can be purchased for $24.95, cover subjects that range from positional play and tactics to king and pawn endgames.
Intermediate and advanced players will find a formidable teacher and opponent in the Chess Genius Gold collection. This $39.95 chess playing monster for Windows 95/98 has a database with more than 500,000 master games, and it learns from its mistakes. Chess Genius is the brainchild of Richard Lang, one the chess world's foremost programmers, and is well worth the money.
Your Move Chess & Games recently sent me Rebel 10 (Schroder BV, Windows 95/98, $59.95), perhaps the strongest professional program on the market. The publisher says it won a 14-game tournament against other programs, scoring 10 straight wins and finishing 10-4.
Rebel 10 has features that make it a great training aid for even the highest-rated chess players, including an "anti-grand master" mode that will steer it into positions where it has the advantage, as opposed to positions where human grand masters play well.
In an eight-game match last year with the world's No. 2 chess player, Vishy Anand, Rebel 10 won five games. Weaker players have the option of playing Rebel 10 at various strength settings. You can also research openings from its huge database and use it to analyze critical positions. To learn more, visit www.rebel.nl.
For information on these and other programs, contact Your Move Chess & Games at www.icdchess.com or call 800-645-4710.
The U.S. Chess Federation (800-388-5464, www.uschess.org) is also a good source of chess books, equipment and software. For information about the highly-rated Fritz5 program, surf to Chessbase USA's home page at www.chessbaseusa.com.