Last week I presented the Linux versions of a few games and pastimes from the pre-computer era. They are the applications that I always end up installing on the computers of all senior citizens who ask me, "How could I use this PC for games?", but they still are great fun for everybody. I deliberately left chess clients out of that post, because I didn't want to make it too long and chess deserves (at least) one whole post anyway.Therefore, this week I'm going to present the four graphical chess clients that I use and recommend in the same scenario of my previous post. Let me shortly summarize what that scenario is, before looking at the software: end users who, in almost all cases, have quite old computers that wouldn't bear a compiler even if I had the time to use it, without any continuous Internet access. That's why I only consider native Linux programs that are available as binary packages for the most common GNU/Linux distributions, that don't need Internet access to do their job, and use local chess engines with the same characteristics. Over the years this choice has led me to the four applications presented below. Please note that, even if "no need for the Internet" remains a must-have feature for me, all of these programs do let you play online with other users, either directly or through portals like the Free Internet Chess Server. Another common feature is the possibility to suspend a game, save it to a file and resume it later.
Eboard has a relatively simple interface, which comes packaged with a few alternatives graphical themes. You can use this client to play against the computer, a remote server, or directly with another Eboard user on a remote computer. In the last two cases, you can chat with the other player using the text entry field in the left bottom corner. Eboard also makes it easy to teach chess to somebody. You can replay a whole game and explain its strategy by moving back and forth, move by move, with the VCR-like buttons in the lower part of the window. You may also automate Eboard actions, or create custom ones, by writing scripts and binding them to extra buttons.
Knights is my personal favourite. Unless installation issues (see what I write about Xboard below) or explicit user requests prevent it, this is the first Linux chess client I suggest these days. It has a pleasant look that is customizable by downloading new themes straight from the configuration panel. If you feel the need for it, you may also have animated moves. Selecting "Computer engine" for both players, you may even study chess by watching the computer play against itself. Knights comes with lots of functions, but the default user interface is very simple. The top bar only displays, in full view, the really important buttons: Offer Draw, Adjourn (that is save the game to resume it later), Pause, New game and Undo/Redo. The final reason why I like Knights is that, even if most users won't need it at all, pressing F1 opens a complete user manual.
PyChess is a full-featured client, to the point that it may be a bit intimidating for computer novices. One of the tabs in the two right panes is an Opening Book that "tries to inspire you during the opening phase of the game, by showing you common moves made by chess masters". Close to the Book, there is a chat client. The other tabs show Score, Move History and comments about each move. Two Pychess features I like are its "hint" and "spy" modes. When you activate them, Pychess will give you hints with a green arrow or let you spy the next move from your opponent with a red one. Pychess also lets you play more games in parallel, each one in a separate tab.
Xboard is one of the most ancient graphical chess clients for Linux, and it shows. There's nothing to complain about on the technical and performance side, mind you: at that level, Xboard has all the functions that matter. However, the look of the GUI is a bit intimidating and quite archaic, with menus and buttons coming straight from the 80's that really stand out in any current window manager (and may be harder to read for users with vision problems). A more serious issue is the fact that some features aren't integrated with the rest of the desktop. On my current Fedora 14 system, for example, nothing happens when I click on the documentation entries in the Help menu (of course, this may be a packaging bug in the RPM I used, not Xboard's fault!). In spite of this, I still install Xboard sometimes, for a very important reason: of all the programs in this page, Xboard is the one with the least dependencies, that is the easiest to install, and probably the faster to use on old computers with very little memory and hard disk space.
Marco Fioretti is a freelance writer and teacher whose work focuses on the impact of open digital technologies on education, ethics, civil rights, and environmental issues.