The Millennium Chess King is a standalone “tabletop” chess computer. It is easy and fun to use and can be an effective training partner for any chess enthusiast. The history of tabletop systems goes back to the 1980s. Back then, a chess computer was always a self-contained system – underneath the chessboard was the microprocessor, memory and integrated circuits. The user interface has a series of physical buttons on the board that you can press to choose your difficulty level or customize the computer’s setting.
Personal computers existed in the 1990s but they lacked the CPU and memory power needed to make them competitive against strong human players let alone other computers. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that PC chess software started to come of age. Intel released its Pentium CPU and suddenly PC software was outplaying Mephisto and other dedicated chess computers.
These machines never went away though. Each year, several manufacturers released a dedicated chess computer in an attempt to target chess players who prefer playing on a 3D board versus a 2D screen. If you asked me a month ago whether I preferred playing on a computer screen or a real board, I would tell you it really doesn’t make a difference. Little did I know this was all about to change.
Millennium Chess King – Performance
My friends at the Chesshouse sent me a Millennium Chess King – Performance computer. Before I dive in to more detail, here is a brief video to give you an overview of the product.
- Dimensions: 39 x 43.5 x 2.6 cm (15 3/8 x 17 1/8 x 1 inches)
- Square Size: 4 cm (1.57 inches)
- King height: 7.4 cm (3 inches)
- Menu operation: 7 language settings available
- Connections: USB, DIN, main adapter (9v DC)
- Processor: ARM Cortex M7 with 300 MHz, 2048 KB ROM, 348 KB RAM
- Program: The King by Johan de Koning
I am not going to cover every feature that the King has to offer. For a full list, check out the manual that can be downloaded here.
- USB PC link. Included with the Millennium Chess King, it allows you to export/import your games in PGN format to or from a PC. It also allows you to update your Millennium’s opening book and firmware. Check out Millennium’s website for more information on this. The USB PC-link DOES NOT allow you to play games over the Internet. That requires a separate module that you can find at the ChessHouse.
- User interface. There are 11 buttons on the front of the computer. These are used to navigate through options screens, takeback moves and change brightness and sound levels.
- Invert board – someone asked me how easy it is to switch the board so you can play the Black pieces from the bottom of the board. Answer: Very easy. Just go into Options and check the Invert Board button. Then, set up the board with the White pieces on top, Black on the bottom. It’s as easy as that Just remember to uncheck the box when you play White!
- Verify – this is a great feature that shows you the current board position. It helps if you are setting up a game or importing from PGN and want to know where all the pieces should be.
- Book1 & Book2 – You can choose a primary opening book for the computer (Book1) and a secondary book (Book2). The primary book is what the computer uses to play the game. The secondary book is used only if the game deviates from the move list contained in the primary book. For example – if you load up a Sicilian book and decide during the game that you want to transpose to another opening, the computer will not have those moves in its book so it will switch to its secondary book to try to find the best move.
- Chess 960. It should be noted that the King is capable of playing Chess 960, also called Fischer Random. While I did not play it any games on this setting, it is a nice feature to have if you want a change of pace from classical chess.
Initial thoughts and observations
My very first thought was how nice it was to be staring at a real chessboard. The frame is made of wood. The board itself has a plastic overlay that gives every appearance of a wood finish even when viewed up close. The overlay is necessary so you can apply pressure to each square before moving a piece onto it. The pieces are wooden. Each is weighted and has a nice red felted bottom.
Ease of use. Basically, once you connect the A/C adapter and power on the unit, you are ready to go. The King comes with a very short user manual (around 10 pages) that is written in several languages. The menu system on the Millennium Chess King is simple and intuitive. The arrow keys are used for menu navigation while the red and green buttons can cancel or accept a setting, respectively.
Customization. There are dozens of playing levels, each of them customizable to your style of play. You access them in two ways. Go into Options | Menu. From there you choose either Comfort or Expert.
The Comfort menu lets you play several levels of a watered down version of the Millennium Chess King. This is most applicable for club players or anyone under 2200 ELO.
The Expert menu is where you unleash the full playing strength of the computer. It also has advanced settings you can tweak. For example, you can decide how much processing power to use (10 mhz – 300 mhz) or if you will allow the computer to think on your time.
Playing style can be adjusted too. You have the choice of Normal, Active, Aggressive, Defensive, Solid and three User-controlled settings. This is a way to tailor the computers’ approach to handling certain types of positions.
Openings. Several opening books are available: Aegon1994, Open Games, Spanish, Semi-Open, Sicilian, Q. Gambit, Indian, Gambits. This is a great way to practice your openings from either the White or Black side of the board.
Changing the Millennium Chess King’s processor speed, style and opening choices leads to enormous customization that will change the computers playing strength in ways that will make it a constant challenge for any chess player.
The Millennium Chess King plays very strong chess as you would expect from a computer. However, it isn’t so strong that it is unbeatable.
After extensive testing, I would put the Millennium Chess King at around 2400 ELO. This is based on how it scored against a couple of master-level players (more on that later).
Like a typical computer it is at home in open positions where it can quickly find a plan and calculate the best line to play.
We found a mixed bag of weaknesses, much of them being determined by the machine’s opening choices. There were some deeply theoretical lines where Millennium played a series of moves from its opening book only to get out of book at a critical position where it would then choose a substandard continuation and get itself into trouble.
Even with these minor flaws, the Millennium Chess King plays chess at a very high level. You will have a tough time beating it and if you do, the win will be well earned.
Tournament play on your terms
Being a dedicated machine allows you to play a tournament-style game on your own terms. You can play a game that lasts hours, days or longer. Just start playing a bunch of moves, walk away from the computer to do some household chores and return to continue where you left off. This type of casual play is difficult with PC software because you need to keep the chess program loaded and available at all times.
A dedicated chess computer doesn’t have these limitations. Just start playing and take as much time as you need to fully analyze and play your game. Turn the machine off and the position stays in memory ready for your to resume the game at your convenience. It is a similar approach to what I suggested in a previous blog post but here, you don’t have to worry about transposing moves from a PC screen to a physical chess board.
The fact that the Millennium Chess King is not as strong as a commercial PC program doesn’t mean you should take it lightly. As I said before, it plays at the International Master (IM) level and to prove that I got help from a couple of my chess friends. FM Roger LaFlair (USCF 2430) and NM Tim Mirabile (USCF 2280) were nice enough to volunteer their time to play against the King. Both of them have experience playing computers so I was excited to see the results.
The first several games were training games, played at 10 seconds per move. The reasoning for this was for Roger and Tim to probe the machine for its strengths and weaknesses and get an understanding of its playing style. Once that was established, I cranked up the playing level to 30 seconds per move and configured the Millennium Chess King to use the Aegon1994 opening book with the Master book as backup.
NM Tim Mirabile (USCF 2280) played a 10 game match against the King using the time control 30 30. The King won 8-2. The machine is beatable but it takes a lot of work to defeat it as the next several games show. Below are some selected games from the matches.
Game#1 – Almost but not enough
Roger and Tim team up to play the Millennium Chess King in a 30 30 game. This was by far the most tactical game in the match. The opening was a sharp Sicilian, Velimirovic Attack where no punches were pulled. After the King played 14…b4, White replied with 15. Rd3(!), preparing to swing the rook over to the h-file and mate the Black king. The computer defended heroically and after a slight human miscalculation, the King got the upper hand and won. This shows you the narrow line one has to walk to beat this machine.
Game#2 – An unorthodox Smith Morra
The Millennium Chess King opts for the Smith Morra Gambit as White. This is not a common computer opening. After some unorthodox moves, the machine gets its pawn to d7 causing a lot of disruption in Black’s camp.
Game#3 – Unwinding from a closed position
A locked position where the Millennium Chess King has to slowly unwind its pieces and expand on the queenside. After a few pawn captures and help from the bishop pair, the computer secures the win.
Game#4 – Fireworks in a symmetrical English
The Chess King plays an inspired English Opening. After some pawn captures, the computer builds a c4-d3-e4 pawn chain in the center. Then, a well-timed f4 opens up the position for some razor sharp tactics.
Game#5 – The Longest Day
Tim defeats the Millennium Chess King with some resourceful defense and unorthodox tactics. He calmly marches his king to e5, sacrifices his knight on d7 to queen his pawn. Then he races his king back to a5 where he gets the computer in zugzwang. This is an excellent example of just how difficult it is to beat this thing. You have to be prepared to grind it out and pounce on any inaccuracy. This is exactly what Tim does.
Conclusion and final thoughts
The Millennium Chess King – Performance is an excellent choice for someone looking to invest in a chess computer. Its 2400 playing strength will give you countless hours of enjoyment as you try to match wits against it in a variety of customized play settings. Once you play it a game, you will become addicted.
The flexible opening book and adjustable playing styles will keep the Millennium Chess King from being too predictable. In terms of varied play, it has a 300,000 move Master opening book that goes as deep as 20 moves in some openings.
Playing the Millennium Chess King will force you to calculate more and build on your position – a theme I talk about quite a bit on this blog. Computers defend like iron which is why you have to accurately calculate your attack before launching it. We all need to be better builders –which means coordinating our pieces against an objective and making sure our opponent has no counter play.
Last but not least, the Millennium Chess King can be used as a chess board. Just turn off the power and you can play chess against a friend just like you would at a tournament. You can also use it to analyze games. The board and pieces are easy to look at and provide excellent support to meet all your chess playing and analysis needs.
What are your thoughts on dedicated chess computers? Please leave your thoughts below. Look for future articles on my adventures with the Millennium Chess King as it can provide instructive chess for all of us to learn from.