The Chessmaster series has seen a lot of incarnations, and, at least within the chess non-elite, is considered to be one of the best chess games out there (I'm not sure what the chess elite consider to be the best -- but I would wager that they would have a fair challenge from any of the Chessmaster titles). At the same time, the game isn't particularly graphically intense, which made it only a matter of time before it made its appearance on the PalmOS platform.
So what exactly is Chessmaster? It's a chess simulator. To clarify that, Chessmaster isn't precisely a game (isn't JUST a game, in any case). It is designed to not only have you play chess as a pastime, but also to coach you and improve your chess play level. With that in mind, do take into consideration that this review is written by a chess layman - I used to play chess as a kid, and even attended a few local tournaments (where I didn't do half badly), but apparently a decade of being on IRC and of playing the likes of eXtreme PaintBrawl and Daikatana have not been kind to my logical mind, because I found myself completely inept playing Chessmaster. Remember one thing, though; Chessmaster isn't Deep Junior, and as such, it is not designed to model human instincts and make human mistakes; it is a computer, and it does not hide that, which means it goes for the most logical move, after calculating a couple of moves ahead (which you can adjust in the preferences, to save waiting time).
The wealth of options and menus in Chessmaster is truly staggering. This is most definitely THE chess platform for the Palm, and it doesn't even pretend to limit itself to anything. Interesting is the Mentor menu: you give it a timeframe, and it will analyze the possible future moves for you and give you an answer. The reason you are asked for the time is that it thinks for that amount of time, and attempts to perform the maximum number of moves possible within that time span. Sadly, though, I have experienced two faults of that mode: first off, too often does it generate a result that says "your situational advantage will improve" or "no significant advantages can be gained"; where the former means you move some pieces around and don't really gain any ground, and the latter means you are, basically, screwed. The latter is, obviously, user error, but I would expect the Mentor to advise me of good moves, not just normal moves... But of course, I do admit, it is youthful impatience on my part - chess is a strategic game, and it's hard to just magically come up with all-devastating moves. Only the USA can do that. The second problem that I had with the Mentor was that it assumed the computer would make moves that it actually did not. Now again, I'm not sure whether that is pseudo-human reasoning or what, but the Mentor would tell me that the computer would make such a move, and I should respond thus, and so forth; except the computer didn't make that move, and the whole Mentor thing became useless for that time segment. I mean, hey, isn't it the computer? Doesn't it know which way it will move?
Since the engine has a relative amount of simplicity both in terms of graphics and in terms of pure action (or lack thereof; since all games can be scripted and no graphics and positioning need to be worried about), Chessmaster has a really cool feature: you can play any of the classic games of chess history. 151 games are available, among them famous matches like the Kasparov-Karpov match of 1991, Botvinnik-Capablanca match of 1938, and even the Frank Poole-HAL9000 match of 2001 (the 2001 that never happened). Big kudos to Gameloft for taking the effort and implementing these classic games into the game.
There are a variety of settings you can set in regards to how the computer plays. Not only are there about a dozen different styles of players to compete from, anything from a complete beginner to total experts (with a few grandmaster-style players in between). You can fine-tune preferences for protecting pieces, as well as tune the attitude of the AI (whether it is offensive, defensive, or whether it is a logician and so forth). Among game play modes, you can choose from normal play, blindfold play (where black, white, or both are invisible), tournament play (where a defined number of opponents compete against each other), and Championship, which automatically sets the opponent to the toughest level of difficulty and monitors its play so as to never falter during the game.
Along with the Mentor mode, there are a variety of other tutorial modes to help you figure out your ABCs in chess. For instance, the Chess Rater mode will display a board, and tell you that white or black is to move. Depending on the difficulty level, there may be more or less possible moves; and you have to evaluate the board and choose the correct move given the circumstances. The Chess Tutor shows you the different aspects of the game, like Sacrificing, double attacks, combinations and so forth.
In essence, there isn’t really much I can say about ChessMaster – perhaps, in a way, because there is too much in this game to describe in a few short sentences. In essence, this game is the best chess simulator for the Palm, and it probably gives some of the desktop ones a run for their money, too – it doesn’t have the fancy graphics of the current desktop games, but it sure has the backend logic to compensate. This isn’t Deep Blue or Deep Junior, but most human players don’t necessarily need a computer of that level to challenge them; and ChessMaster most definitely measures up. As far as future enhancements go, I would hope to see two things: one, a high-resolution version for Sony Clies, perhaps even a hi-res+ version that would allow removing the Graffiti area to have extra information (for instance, the toolbar buttons and the notation are currently displayed at the expense of board size – those could be moved down on the screen). If you are a chess enthusiast, this is probably a dream come true for you. Two, an option of auto-saving, so that it would be possible to quit the application and have it keep the state of the game – currently, you have to save the game for it to re-appear when you re-enter the application.