Insert Disk collects Sargon 3 (III) for the Commodore Amiga.
Today’s retro game review features a classic chess program for the Commodore Amiga. Sargon 3 once stood as the world’s best chess software program. We take time today to look back at this forgotten classic.
Greetings game collectors and welcome to today’s show. Since the early days of computing people have been in both awe and fear of our ever developing technology. Computing and gaming have long gone hand in hand but so have computing and Artificial Intelligence. Combine the three and you get artificial intelligence games. Chess has long history of development within computing, for decades the game has been used to test whether computers can out-think their human counterparts. Chess lends itself well to this type of theoretical question. The game has a standardised number of pieces, board and rule set making it an ideal modelling base for programmers and mathematicians.
The chances are that if you were a computer user in the 80’s or 90’s you encountered at least one chess simulator. Most likely the Chess Master series, Star Wars Chess or my all-time favourite Battle Chess. There was one series though that slipped quietly around the outskirts of the mainstream games though. That game was Sargon 3. This channel doesn’t usually feature much chess but today is an exception as the story of Sargon 3 is worth sharing. Sargon 3 although perfectly usable for the masses in the home found itself competing against some of the best chess minds in the world in the 1980’s.
Sargon 3 finished in seventh place at the October 1979 North American Computer Chess Championship. In December of 1979 it easily won the second microcomputer chess championship in London. In a change from Sargon 1 and 2 Sargon 3 was remade from the ground up. This version used a “capture search” algorithm and also included an expanded opening move repertoire. SARGON was introduced at the 1978 West Coast Computer Faire where it won the first computer chess tournament, a tournament held strictly for microcomputers. Sargon III was a complete rewrite from scratch. Instead of an exchange evaluator, this version used a capture search algorithm. Also included was a chess opening repertoire. Sargon 3 also has the notable distinction of being the first third-party executable software for the Macintosh.
Now this may shock you but I was a member of the Chess club and after school programming club when I was in high school. I’ve always been one of the cool kids. As such I have a lot of respect for this type of software. I’d rank myself as better than the average man on the street at chess but I’m certainly no professional. Although I can’t give you the chess master’s verdict on the game I can show you what’s on offer. First of all you will notice the weight of the box. It’s much heavier than a standard game package. Close to 400g in total. The front cover is rather bland and this honestly looks more like a training package than a commercial game. The back of the box lets you know that this is “the world’s finest microcomputer chess program”. It also highlights that the game is from novice to master and has a library of over 68,000 moves. There’s also a call out that it is the most sophisticated algorithm in chess software. Sargon 3 has beaten a chess master with a ranking of over 2200! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess_title
So, what we’re looking at here is some fairly industrial AI. Upon opening the box you find a soft green bed of foam to protect your disk. You will then also find two booklets. The first is printed in German language and is black and white print only. The second manual is a little more accessible for English readers. The manual is packed with chess knowledge. Everything from the official rules to special moves. There’s also a complete run down of the in game features. Everything from time limits, hints, draw offers and all of the usual features you would expect to find in a chess game. The special features menu can help with opening moves, tactics and strategy. Here is also where you will find an option called “Great Games”. Select this and head back to the manual to look up one of 107 legendary games. I’m going to re-live the magic of the 1974 match between Karpov vs Spassky from Leningrad. The manual has pages of great games to choose from (96) and a brief description of the match. If you’re a hard-core chess player this is a great feature to learn from the masters.
Although a true accomplishment for AI chess programs it wasn’t until nearly a decade later when a computer won both a chess game and chess match against a reigning world champion under regular time controls. The IBM computer Deep Blue beat reigning world champion Gary Kasparov. In terms of computing history this was a turning point. We had entered the age where computers could out-think us on a fair playing field. Kasparov disputed that Deep Blue had won and that IBM had used human intervention citing that he sometimes saw “deep intelligence and creativity in the machine’s moves”, suggesting that during the second game, human chess players had intervened on behalf of the machine. Anyway, back to Sargon 3. How is it to play? Well, as you’ve probably guessed it’s incredibly tough. At best I could give the software a good run for its money but the software was able to analyse a depth of seven moves ahead easily within short time limits.
From an experience perspective Sargon really is exactly how it looks here. No fancy graphics or animation. It’s just a very straight forward experience. For what is does its near perfect. I feel that I’d rather still be playing something more light-hearted like Battle Chess though. Typically chess software does not hold its value well as there is almost always a new edition available. Sargon 3 is no different. Don’t expect to pay more and a few pounds for this game. The programming dedication and execution isn’t reflected in the collecting price. In terms of collecting this one I’m going to have to be critical and say no. Although the game is great to play it’s very easy to get a more modern and better looking chess simulator off the shelf for pennies. For historical value though it’s a nice item to have and I can imagine that dedicated chess and programming fans would be pleased to be gifted this one. The manual is fantastic and the software a true accomplishment. If you happen to have the chance of playing a Sargon game I think that you will appreciate the skill needed to not only create but beat this timeless classic.