App of the Day: Social Chess

The head that wears the crown.

One of the beauties of smartphones, and especially tablets, is how beautifully they fit traditional board games. The daddy of them all is chess. It's been rather brutalised by technology in the past, one of computing's pre-emininent challenges being a program that could defeat a human grandmaster, until, in 1997, Deep Blue finally felled Kasparov. It's a mighty achievement, tinged with tragedy.

15 years later, supercomputers seem like relics and you can buy a chess app called HIARCS Chess that wins real-world tournaments, dispatching grandmasters as a matter of course. There's a bewildering range of tutorial programs, problem-setting, and multiplayer-focused apps. Some even do all three. But if you just want to play the king of games against other people, then the best of the bunch is Social Chess.

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Ello 'ello, it's the mighty Grob attack! The key is to get your bishop on g2 ASAP, and force your opponent into developing his pieces awkwardly.

The thing about Social Chess is that it isn't rammed with features: just all the ones you need. It incorporates the ELO rating system and lets you search for similarly ranked or random players. Finished games can be saved or emailed. Players can chat, there are no ads, and you can have five games on the go for free. If you want to play more games simultaneously then it's 3 for a year's sub, which I handed over after the generous month's trial without hesitation.

Far too many chess apps use an elegant and universal set of symbols or surround the screen with hideous border trimmings. Social Chess keeps things simple and classy. Play is asynchronous and updated across multiple devices, games are very easy to find, push alerts can be turned on, and basically these are perfect conditions for royal pwnage. Pawnage.

Playing people is the key. Because the thing about computers is that they never play especially well or badly, or get spooked by an odd move. Openings are a good example, because there are so many possibilities and yet the majority of human players cycle between a couple of standards. It's a bit like how everyone in Street Fighter 4 online matches goes for Ryu or Ken. So in Social Chess I've developed a soft spot for the sheer chutzpah of Grob's attack, where white immediately sends his king knight's pawn forwards. It's a devilish move, one that plays against every instinct a player has about positioning and structure, and has become my go-to opening.

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The iPhone interface isn't quite as lovely but does the job.

You couldn't practice Grob's attack against a computer, because it would respond to it logically. But humans are sniffy about moves like this, and that's why it's brilliant. Few see past the shaky-looking scaffolding to the nasty tricks and skewers the move sets up. It throws an amazing amount of players clean off. Hey, they all count.

Opportunities for odd openings aside, Social Chess is the best chess app because it's the simplest. Among obvious competitors, the Chess.com app is more cluttered and expensive, while its free version has ads. Zynga offers Chess with Friends, meanwhile, which has a rather industrial look, freemium pricing, and no ELO. But if you just want to get it on against similarly-skilled opponents in one of history's finest games, no messing, Social Chess is what it's about. And if white opens with b4, surrender fast.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.

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