Excalibur's King Arthur

by Chris Kantack

Why this review?

Excalibur's King Arthur Chess Computer - click for larger imageWhen I first started this website, I was only going to limit myself to reviews of handheld chess computers.  But I had so much fun assisting Excalibur in testing out the King Arthur tabletop unit, that I decided a review was justified.  As you read through this page, I hope you'll understand why I've got so much enthusiasm for this chess computer.

King Arthur is Special!

Another view of King Arthur - click for larger imageBefore I first received King Arthur, I occasionally came across the photo and literature of the unit when browsing thru various chess catalogs.  Frankly, I didn't give this chess set much thought.   I figured King Arthur was just another tabletop chess computer that somehow incorporated an LCD display as some kind of gimmick.   After having played with King Arthur for a few months, my opinion has changed considerably.  King Arthur's LCD display is no gimmick!  With the functionality made possible by the display and excellent press sensory board, Excalibur has made King Arthur into a superb chess teaching and playing unit!   I especially recommend King Arthur as a gift to someone who is new or just beginning to learn chess.   If you have a young son or daughter, nephew or niece, or anyone else whom you wish to introduce the game of chess to--King Arthur would make the perfect gift!  Of course, King Arthur isn't just for those new to chess.  Anyone, who prefers the look and feel of a press sensory tabletop chess unit over a handheld device or computer software only program, should consider purchasing a unit like King Arthur!


What is King Arthur?

King Arthur is a tabletop chess computer that was first introduced in July of 2000.   King Arthur is unique in that it cleverly incorporates the same LCD display used in Excalibur's fine LCD Chess and Talking LCD Chess handhelds.  The entire unit has overall dimensions (Length x Width x Depth) of 12" x 10" x 1 1/4".  The chessboard area measures 8" square with black and silver squares.  Thus each square measure 1" on a side.  King Arthur uses standard Staunton style pieces - click for larger imagePre-printed in the right hand corner of each square is the algebraic coordinates of that square.   Pieces are plastic with the white pieces a solid white.  Black pieces are correspondingly a solid black.   The King measures 2" in height.  Pawns are 1" tall.   One end of the unit contains an LCD display and control buttons.   The display is the same size and style as that used in the LCD Chess handheld.   Thus the display has an overall diagonal measurement of 3 3/4 inches with a diagonal chessboard measurement of 2 3/8 inches.  close up of King Arthur control panel - click for larger viewOn both sides of the display are the various  buttons used for game/position set up and control.  These "membrane type" buttons are well-spaced with each button approximately 1/2 inch long.   The bottom of the unit provides a compartment for piece storage as well as access to the battery compartment.  Like the Excalibur handheld units, King Arthur is extremely efficient in terms of power consumption.   The three AA batteries required will run the unit for 500 hours or more.   (This can easily translate to years of play depending on your usage!)

King Arthur appears very well built and durable.   The overall matte finish of the unit is very resistant to any scratches or fingerprints.  (I've given my unit a lot of abuse and it looks as good as the day I first received it.)   Usually I have my unit set up in my bedroom for weeks at a time and it even seems to be resistant against collecting dust.   Should you ever spill anything on King Arthur, it should be quite easy to clean up.  Probably the only potentially vulnerable part of King Arthur is the LCD display area.   As long as it doesn't suffer from any serious trauma, King Arthur should provide many years of reliable use.


An Excellent Manual!

The documentation included with King Arthur is quite thorough and is especially appropriate for those just learning chess.  In addition to the U.S. Chess Federation's "Let's Play Chess" summary sheet, Excalibur provides King Arthur with its own 52 page operating manual.  This booklet provides text and illustrations covering all aspects of the unit.  The manual, broken down into 10 chapters, covers:

Chapter  1: Quick Start & the Basics
            This first chapter covers battery installation, piece set up, how to make moves, and how to place a
            game "on hold".

Chapter  2: Key Functions & General Layout
            This chapter provides a large illustration of the unit with a quick description of each function key.

Chapter  3: Special Keys and Features
            The third chapter goes into additional detail on many of King Arthur's game play features.  Specifically,
            it covers starting a new game, playing black, switching sides, adjusting display contrast, playing without
            using the physical pieces, move takeback, levels of play, display options, forcing a move, getting hints,
            displaying piece threats, replaying a variation, practicing blindfold chess, turning off the sound, computer
            vs. computer and human vs. human modes.  Also, there is a paragraph on how to adjust the unit's auto-
            matic shut-off time

Chapter  4: Getting a Rating at the Round Table
            Here is discussed Excalibur's rating feature.  Specifically this chapter covers viewing your rating, submitting
            a game for rating, and how the rating is calculated.

Chapter  5: Special Messages From Camelot
            This section provides info on the various display messages.  Included are the indicators for checks, ratable
            game status, two-player mode, piece threat, draw, stalemate, forced (mate-in) checkmates and regular
            checkmate messages.

Chapter  6: Some Special Chess Moves
            This chapter covers capturing pieces, castling, pawn promotion, and the en passant move.

Chapter  7: Too Hard?  Too Easy?  All About Levels
            Discussed here are the 4 beginner levels, fixed (1 ply) level, the 67 timed levels, and infinite search level.
            Also mentioned are the FAST (selective search) and Rand (random choice of good moves) options.

Chapter  8: Teaching and Training Features
            This section talks about the 4 major teaching and training functions that King Arthur provides.  Specifically
            explained are the 5 special mini-games and 3 mating practice positions provided.  Also explained is the
            Mate-problem training feature which gives you 31 mate-in-two and 1 mate-in-three problems.  King Arthur's
            opening book trainer feature is explained.  34 book openings are available with the ability to add your 
            own custom book opening.  Also listed in this chapter are the 16 great games built-in into King Arthur.
            This chapter closes with an interesting summary annotation of each game.

Chapter  9: Setting Up Special Positions
            Here is explained, all the features that King Arthur provides for special position set up.   I find King Arthur's
            implementation of position set up, interesting and quite easy to use.

Chapter 10: Important Technical Details
            This final chapter discusses how to reset King Arthur should the electronics ever "freeze up".
            It also provides the general warnings not to abuse the unit and battery information.  Finally,
            this chapter discusses the high and low-pitched beeps that emit from King Arthur.  (High-
            pitched beeps provide confirmation of a move or function.  Low-pitched beeps indicate an
            illegal move or invalid key combination.)


Basic Operation

Using King Arthur is nearly as easy as playing on a regular chessboard.  You move your pieces normally, with the addition of providing just a little downward pressure on the piece before and after your move.  In its "default" mode of operation, King Arthur works this way:   As you touch the piece you're about to move, momentarily press down on it until you hear a beep.  This will mean that the computer has registered which piece you're about to move.  Move the piece to the desired target square--removing your opponents piece if necessary.  As you land your piece on the target square, just apply a little downward pressure on the piece.  The computer will beep again registering completion of the move.

King Arthur displays the move in algebraic notation as well as flashing the piece to move - click for larger imageAdditionally, while you're making your move, you can use the LCD screen to verify piece registration and movement.  For when you first register the piece you're about to move, the computer will flash the selected piece on the LCD display as well as display the algebraic coordinates of the piece.  Upon completion of the move, the display will be updated accordingly.

Once your move is completed, King Arthur will begin to calculate its move.  When the computer is ready to move, it will beep and display its move on the LCD screen.   The move will be illustrated in two ways.  Not only does it display the actual move (piece will flash alternately between its "From" and "To" squares), but it also displays the from and to algebraic coordinates on the top of the screen.  You will then need to physically make the move for King Arthur in the same manner as you made your own move. 


Some Features Worth Highlighting

Excalibur's implementation of the LCD screen, provides King Arthur with a lot additional functionality you won't find in a lot of other tabletop chess computers.  For example, because piece registration is also confirmed on the LCD display, you need not have the sound turned on when using the unit.   (Setting the SOUND option to 0 will mute all sounds except for the error tone when an illegal move or invalid key combination is pressed.) 

Another great option, easily made possible with the LCD screen, is Excalibur's HELP feature.  With HELP turned on, King Arthur will highlight all possible target squares for a selected piece.  This is of great benefit to players just learning the moves of the pieces.

The TOUCH option is also pretty neat.  It's function is when you wish to play without the physical pieces.   When TOUCH is turned on, you simply press the from and to squares on the chessboard to make your move.  After the computer has decided on its next move, it will make the move automatically (as if you were playing on a handheld unit).  So, if you don't own a handheld, you can sort of use King Arthur as a makeshift handheld unit via the TOUCH feature.

Many fans of computer chess like to see what moves are being considered by the computer.  If you're playing at level 6 or higher, you can use King Arthur's INFO option.  With INFO on, this option will display the best move the computer has found so far along with the "move depth" that King Arthur is calculating at.

Another unique feature made possible via the LCD display, is being able to play (or just practice) blindfold chess.  With the "Board" key, you can turn on or off the piece display at will.   Thus, by playing without the physical pieces, you can test your skill at visualizing piece placement in your head.   


The Only Feature I Don't Like

I always think that a review is more realistic when the reviewer has something bad to say about the product.  With King Arthur I just have one minor quibble.  When you are playing the black pieces (and you choose to have the black pieces on the near side of the board), Excalibur will refer to the chess coordinates just as if you were playing white.  It must do this because each square is pre-printed with the algebraic coordinate as if white was on the near side.  For those of us who record our games, this can be quite disconcerting.

Fortunately, I have come up with a few good workarounds.   First you can choose to play black but leave the black pieces at the far end of the board.  To have the computer play white in this manner, simply press New Game, Setup, Mode, then Move.  Thus the computer will play white from the near side and the displayed coordinates will be correct.   The other alternative when playing black, the one that I prefer, is to go ahead and set up the black pieces on the near side.  When the computer displays its move, just ignore the algebraic coordinates that are displayed and just look at the LCD pieces themselves to see the move that needs to be made for the computer.  Thus you can record the "true coordinates" of each move and not worry about the displayed coordinates that (in my opinion) are incorrect for this type of play.  


Strength of King Arthur

The strength of King Arthur will vary a bit depending on what version software you have.   (When you press New Game, the version number will briefly appear to the left of the word "PLAY".)   My unit shows a 27 which means version 2.7.   When King Arthur was first introduced, its software version was 1.2.  Excalibur currently lists King Arthur's strength at 1750.  For the currently produced version (2.7) I tend to think an Elo range of 1450 to 1550 may be a bit more accurate.  I base my opinion on my own strength estimates of the Touch Chess handheld which is now also running version 2.7 software. 

1450 to 1550 Elo: Is that good?

If you're a prospective buyer of King Arthur and are not familiar with chess Elo ratings, don't worry about it.   1450 to 1550 Elo means that King Arthur plays a pretty darn decent chess game.  Experienced strong club and tournament players are likely to be stronger.  But for those new to chess, you'll likely get many years of play before you can consistently be King Arthur at its toughest levels.  Of course, if you are a strong club player (over 1600 USCF Elo or better) and plan on buying a chess computer for yourself, I'd recommend getting a Palm PDA and purchasing either ChessGenius or Chess Tiger.  As for myself, I doubt if I'll ever be as good as King Arthur.  I'd guess that 75 to 80 percent of the world's chess players would find King Arthur to be more than enough of a challenge.


King Arthur is a Good (if not Great) Value

King Arthur is not always easy to fine but still can be purchased at Amazon.com for around $50.  At this price King Arthur is a fine value though there are many similar systems available from Excalibur as well as other manufacturers that are equally attractive and may offer other features that you may wish to consider.  Many of you may be wondering how King Arthur compares with  Chess Station (the combination handheld/tabletop computer) which is reviewed elsewhere on this site.    King Arthur is much easier to find on the internet and as the advantage of being larger than Chess Station (for those who prefer a larger unit).  King Arthur also features an integrated storage compartment for the chess pieces.  Personally, I find it much easier to register piece moves with King Arthur.  (That is, King Arthur's board does not require as much piece pressure as Chess Station.)  Chess Station, on the other hand,  has the big advantage of offering very convenient handheld portability along with tabletop play.  You may also wish to compare King Arthur with the Alexandra the Great unit also reviewed on this website.


Any Questions!

If you have any questions or comments, send me (Chris) an email at: chessinfo@kantack.com.  Or click on the envelope icon below.

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My Computer Chess Pages

Handheld Chess Overview        LCD Chess vs. GameBoy ChessMaster

Talking LCD Chess        Touch Chess

Chess Station        Alexandra        King Arthur

Chess Tiger        ChessGenius

My Other Chess Reviews

GameTime II        Fancy Chess Set        A Parent's Guide to Chess


email chessinfo@kantack.com if you have any questions