[NOTE: as of 2011 the Excalibur Grandmaster is not currently available. The closest substitute is the Novag Citrine. This review may be helpful to some though who would desire to buy the Grandmaster used.]

Here’s a frank, hands-on review of the Excalibur Grandmaster computer.

ChessHouse feels that it’s important to be familiar with the computers and show you what the computers offer, and why or why not they may be a good choice for you.

It helps us be familiar with them, and answer your questions, or give you the answers to the questions you already have in mind before your have to ask!

I’ll cover the Excalibur Grandmaster today. I have one sitting right here and have been playing and testing with with the manual open.

After spending time reading the manual, playing the computer in different modes, and levels, I give this computer a 8.5 out of 10. I never recommended this computer with optimism, but now I feel I can – to the right person.

I guess the fact that I’ve been around hardwood computers made me feel that it was not a very high-end computer. And the pieces are not heavily weighted.

However, actually setting it up and giving it a few games – I come away with a different impression.

I give Excalibur a lot of credit, because it’s very easy to learn how to use this computer. (at least it was for me, and I feel that in 15 minutes, I understand most everything)

I don’t have to press down on the squares – the computer recognizes each move as it’s made. That’s great. Since I’ve played a lot of tournament chess, I also like the vinyl squares, which by the way, are very authentic in appearance and feel!

The pieces are white/black as you can see in the photos, and sized very nicely to feel like club pieces. They are a tad lighter than a weighted set, but heavier than a standard plastic set I think.

Other than the vinyl board, the whole unit is plastic… but there are some smart things about it. They actually put the reset key right in a handy place on the TOP of the computer! can you believe it? It’s not hidden away underneath. The great thing is that I haven’t had to use it at all.

This is a good time to talk about reliability. ChessHouse has seen a few grandmasters come back with “dead” squares. But that’s out of hundreds of them. We feel this is a relatively reliable computer, and if anything goes wrong, ChessHouse stands behind purchases and will do our very best to be available and assist. You will also be able to take advantage of a one year warranty from Excalibur.

Ok, onto the great stuff.

is it good for playing with a friend?

There are two good size LCD displays. One on each side. So if you want to play with your friend (which this computer is IDEAL for), then each player has a chess clock to time their play. You could select any timing level you want… or play blitz (5 minute) chess.  Then you can watch your time count down or hit the bottom to watch your opponents time as well.

If you are playing against each other, you can also have the Excalibur Grandmaster monitor or rate your moves. Or you can even get hints during the play. This would score your move choices and help you understand how well your are playing.

is it for beginners?

Now that I know what this computer offers, I will recommend it to beginners. Not only is it a wonderful, fullsize, real board, to practice and play during your supplemental DVD, book, and software studies, but the actual modes it offers give practice hints and scoring.

One of the BIGGEST helps to beginners that this computer offers is the square name printed right on the square!!  I love it!  I’m not a beginner, but I know how helpful this will be to those that need it. So, when you see a move on the LCD readout. You can know exactly which square (E2-E4) to move the piece!

You might wonder how an LCD can provide this input. Well, you can request a hint, cycle through your options, and let it show you a score for any move possible.

Scoring is a three digit number, where 150 equals a pawn, etc. And from there it will estimate and create it’s partial scoring scale, mathematically incorporating all the pieces on the position.

There are 100 levels. When you first buy the computer, it starts out in Level 6. This is the easiest, where it’s limited to looking ahead one move. And of course it won’t let you make illegal moves, and it knows all the rules of chess including en passant, castling, stalemate, etc.

Now, if….. yes if you can’t beat it on the beginner level you could give the computer a handicap and have it play “short” a few pieces 🙂

You can also verify the position of the pieces on the board in case you forget where a piece should be or if your youngster is helping you move a few pieces at once.

Oh, and you can easily switch sides, or ask the computer to make your move, by pressing the MOVE key any time.

There is a “Threat Warning” which will show you if any of your pieces are being threathened.

Another good feature for beginners is the Book Opening Learning. There are 32 openings by name that you can choose to play, and the Excalibur Grandmaster will guide you through them.

more on levels

I think the level setting is very intuitive and easy.  Hit the level key. Choose from 1-100. Move by 10’s by holding down the key. Simple.

The first level is facinating. It will use your average time and move accordingly.

The next few levels (2-6) let you limit the number of moves it can see ahead… three, two, or one move.

Level 7-36 require the computer to move in a fixed time from 1 sec, to 3 minutes per move, depending on which level you choose.

Leverls 37-66 are averaged time, so it will take an average of the specified amount of time from 1 sec to 3 minutes per move over the whole game.

Remember, any time a move is “a given” or required, or the only move possible, the Excalibur Grandmaster will move immediately. This is also true if the Grandmaster still recognizes the position as in it’s opening book.

Levels 67-89 will be very popular because they are countdown (aka sudden death). I know… that’s weird if you haven’t heard that before. This is where you’d choose a game like 5 minute blitz (Level 70), or any length of game from 2 min to 120 min.

Levels 90-93 are Tournament Levels. You can choose from some popular ones like 40 moves in 120 minutes; then 20 moves every 60 minutes thereafter…. or 40 moves in 60 minutes. etc.

Level 94 is a good one. Infinite Search. Say you want the computer to analyse a position for a long time… or overnight.  You can choose level 94 and let the computer think. Then, when you press MOVE it will make it’s move – whatever the best move is that it found.

Levels 95-100 help you with “mate finding”. Not dating. Checkmate finding. These are programmed specifically for helping you find Mate in X. Say you find a chess problem in the New York Times and can’t come up with the answer. Now you can setup this position, and the computer will do the work for you :).  It will do Mates in 1 to Mates in 6.

You can set up special positions. Change a position. Add a piece, remove a piece, all with the Setup features. The manual explains this simply and clearly.

is it for strong players?

Yes. It’s ideal not just for beginners, but I think stronger club players and even experts.

With an estimated rating of 2200 (Master level), it will give a strong game even to experts. If you want a super strong way to play against a computer, of course you’ll need to search out chess software.

But all-in-all, it’s relatively strong and better than a host of other chess computers.

In case you are wondering, this computer will not hook up to a PC. Some have asked this, but that’s not part of the design.

in summary

I think that for the price, this computer offers quite a lot, especially being the only full size computer, and currently the largest, practical, computer vs. player or player vs. player model.

I’d give the computer an 8.5 out of 10. It’s not the toughest plastic, and it doesn’t have a super quality appearance, but with all that it offers, I think that the vast majority of you will really enjoy it.

I think it would be great as a gift for an uncle, dad, or grandpa for playing at home. Or for a child that’s serious about improving.