iPhone Chess: Hiarcs

Apr 10, 2011, 10:52 PM |

Mobile Chess with Hiarcs on iPhone

If you had told me when I first started playing chess that one day my phone would be able to beat me at chess I would have thought you were mad. Phones used to be made of bakelite and had two real bells inside that jangled when a human operator connected a call to your four digit number. Chess on your phone meant speaking moves to a friend over a scratchy line.

Try doing a search on the App store for 'chess' and a bewildering array of results are returned. Some of the apps listed are nothing to do with chess while others don't deserve your money. I have bought many chess applications for iPhone, so I thought I would review some of them. These reviews are strictly from the viewpoint of an amateur: I am not a strong player - having given up chess most of my life to work and have a family - but I am trying to learn and get better during my spare time. I suspect there are a lot of people on chess.com in a similar situation.

For some of us it matters not whether the chess engine we play is 2700 Elo or 2600 Elo: both those numbers are so ridiculously far above our abilities that we are beaten comprehensively every time, sometimes in well under 25 moves. What matters to us is how useful the program is as a sparring partner on our own level, and how easy to use the program is.

Hiarcs for iPhone

This program is one of the more expensive chess apps, I paid $13.00 on the Australian iTunes store. Along with Shredder and Chess Tiger, Hiarcs is my favourite sparring partner so my first review will be about it and my general impressions.

Some chess programs and apps are not very good at emulating a lower classed player: instead of playing at, say a consistent 1400 Elo, they will play at around 1800 or 2000 (so it seems) and occasionally make a bad blunder, but then recover from their blunder and crush you regardless. This isn't generally the case with Hiarcs.

I found that on any Elo below 1200 it will make the occasional blunder, even some howlers, randomly hanging a piece out to dry for no apparent reason. Look for an open file and you can deliver a back rank mate without too much trouble. In other words it is playing much like someone still getting used to the game.

Once you set it to 1200 or 1225 it starts to play more solid beginner level chess. It won't openly hang a piece for you any more; and the simple back-rank mate is no longer an option. Obvious sacrifices are defended against and it is fruitless to hope that the engine hasn't noticed your sneaky build up for a brilliant attack on f7.

On the attacking side, the engine at lower levels will eagerly develop an attack against you but almost every time I found it possible to fend off the threats, while much like a beginner the engine appears to be so excited by its prospects of winning that it doesn't notice your own counterattack quietly developing.

As you wind up the Elo rating of the engine it becomes much like playing real life club players: no longer will a simple combination easily win a piece, but perhaps you might get a positional advantage, or end up with a better end game. On the top levels Hiarcs basically annihilates any defence I can come up with, it rapidly seizes the initiative by the throat and never lets it go. If I could play as well as Hiarcs I would be very happy!

Adapt Strength
This is an option where Hiarcs will seek to play at your level by trial and error: the engine Elo will be adjusted up or down depending on whether you win, lose or draw each game as you go. At first the swings in strength can be a bit extreme, over several games I alternately was thrashed or I easily won. Soon I was playing long protracted end-games, and I felt the engine was pretty evenly matched against me.

Generally I prefer to set the Elo strength to where I really struggle to hold my own against it, and keep it at that level until I have triumphed. Once I have beaten the engine a few times on a given level I then increase the Elo by 25. I have sometimes been surprised at how much harder it is to overcome Hiarcs with such a small adjustment. You might find a different way of sparring, but for me this works because I don't mind losing, but being completely humiliated is de-motivating. If I think that I 'nearly had him that time' I am encouraged to analyse the game, learn from my mistakes, and come back motivated to beat Hiarcs next time.

Your in-game rating
Hiarcs tracks your rating against it with your own in-game rating. I would caution anyone against using their rating against Hiarcs as a measure of OTB strength, but it does work as a way of tracking your long term progress against the program. Hiarcs is strict on this too: if you become bored with a game because you are obviously going to win and opt for a 'new game', Hiarcs treats this as you resigning and it goes as a loss into your record. Your rating then drops. I found this out the hard way after using it a few times to experiment with different opening ideas, quitting the game once into the middle game. I wondered why my rating had dropped so low, it was because Hiarcs considered each re-start as me resigning! You do have the option of re-setting your rating if you need.

Playing Style
Something I haven't fully explored are the different playing styles offered by Hiarcs. Choices are: solid, active, aggressive. I have so far only played against solid. At full strength on 'solid' I find Hiarcs violent enough, the thought of it rampaging through my feeble positions on 'aggressive' gives me chills. It's great to have the choice of styles there for in case you ever feel your games against Hiarcs are a bit samey.

Chess clock settings
Most over the board (OTB) games involve a clock, so how well a chess program deals with this is important. Shredder on iPhone for example has no clock what-so-ever, to me this is quite a short-coming. Hiarcs does have a range of basic time limits you can set, either minutes per game, minutes per game + secs per move, or time per move. Strangely though if you run out of time you do not lose. This is not such a problem as you can always employ the solution I do: if my time has run out then I consider I've lost the game and I resign the game. Alternatively I can keep playing if I want. Hiarcs itself definitely can get into time trouble - when it has scant time left it starts moving with great alacrity and as a result move quality suffers. I don't know if this is true on higher Elo ratings.

Other features
As you would expect you can set up a position for analysis by Hiarcs, or for playing out a given opening line. I use this feature when I am traveling with a chess book - I can set up and go through example moves. For analysing games you've played against Hiarcs you can email the pgn of a game. I use this feature all the time, whether I win or lose I want to know where I went wrong, so I email the game and then load it into my desktop computer for analysis, then it gets added into a database.

Not many apps are perfect, and Hiarcs is no exception. There are a couple areas for improvement, but nothing seriously wrong. It could do with more flexible time controls, we should be able to type in exactly how many minutes per game or move for example, instead of having a limited choice. There should also be the option for the engine to resign a lost position. Yes, this is a hot topic on the discussion forums here with players greatly affronted when their opponent won't resign, but this is different. There needs to be the option when playing a computer. Sometimes it is good practice to have to grind out the win, but there are times when there's no point. If Hiarcs has any time up its slieve then waiting several minutes to play out an easy staircase mate is tedious. If you care about your afore-mentioned in-game rating though, you just have to play out the win.

You do need to be careful with your finger placement too, this is more a function of the iPhone form factor than the program. A couple times I've had Hiarcs almost defeated, and my fat fingers have registered the wrong move giving a stalemate, Hiarcs then triumphantly announces a draw and that goes into my record. Too late to take back the move! Of course during a game you can take back as many moves as you wish ( bad practice generally because that's a crutch you can't rely on OTB ) which is handy for when the screen registers the wrong square, but if the move results in Hiarcs mating you, or a stalemate, it's a loss or draw and no argument.

Some of the limitations of Hiarcs on iPhone are due to the 'GUI' (graphical user interface, in other words the board, pieces, buttons, menus etc) that houses the chess engine. This GUI wasn't written by the Hiarcs engine developer, and the GUI was developed as a non-commercial undertaking. It's freely available to other iPhone chess developers - hence the uncanny similarity in look and feel between a few of them. This isn't a criticism of the GUI developer who gets praise for generously giving his work, but an acknowledgment that some limitations might remain long term and so we just need to live with them. On the other hand I would pay double the price for a program that had some extras, including iPad compatibility. Perhaps that would make it rewarding for developers to spend time on improvements.

There are enough different piece and board themes to choose from in Hiarcs to satisfy most people, I prefer clean and simple designs. If you are looking for duelling hobbits or star wars chess, this isn't the game for you.

Hiarcs is more expensive than some chess programs but I do feel that it plays more like a fellow human than others I have tried. I can't offer scientific evidence of this, except that there are other reviewers far more qualified than me that agree. Hiarcs can be a tactical monster but there are times when its positional maneuvering is impressive, at least to a amateur like myself.

Do yourself a favour when playing chess on the iPhone: unless you are out and about, get out a proper chess board and only refer to the screen for the moves. Duplicate everything on the chess board. It's the closest thing to having a real opponent, and a better way of preparing for OTB play than squinting at a tiny screen for hours. Hiarcs makes a sound to indicate it has made its move, which means you are able to concentrate on your board while waiting for moves. I have spent many happy hours with Hiarcs and a tournament chess set, the final cost weighing in at a few cents per hour.

Hiarcs is recommended. Its variable strength is very good, meaning it's useful to a broad spectrum of players.

There are plenty of other good chess programs for iPhone. Next review, maybe, will be Shredder on iPhone.