Can Computers Play Chess?

February 24, 2011 at 1:02 am (Guest Post, Icepick)

A guest post by Icepick

[Ed. note:  Icepick agreed to my request to promote this to a post in J’s honor.  As I told him, J was riveted by chess and was quite a strong player, although — as with writing and jazz — his true genius was as a generous and penetrating appreciator of other people’s brilliance.  He could watch high-level chess play for hours.  He didn’t play more because he feared falling into chess and never coming out. In the words of an old Russian proverb in a book of chess quotations he treasured:  “Chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe.”]

I have seen computers play pretty mean games of chess. Wait, let me check….

I have to date played 7605 games against the BulletB program on the Internet Chess Club. I’m currently +950. Disappointing, but those are 1 1 games, and I’m just not that good with a mouse, so my current ratio is probably about as good as I can hope for long term.

Based on my experience of playing a few thousands of games against people live, and another several thousand against people over the internet (still looking for a day where I can play against people on all seven continents in one day – personal best is five continents in one day) I think I can be a reasonable judge of whether or not a computer can or has played chess.

And the judge SEZ – Computers can and do play chess.

As for the Turing Test – too few human beings can pass it.

*    *    *

A further elaboration:

Machines have been built that do most PHYSICAL feets better than humans. (I believe John Henry got his ass whupped long ago.) Autonomous machines (robots) started getting used in manufacturing decades ago. And adding machines have been faster than (most) humans for a long time now.

But what happened over the last few decades with chess playing computers was a different matter altogether. Chess was chosen for a reason – namely that it was a very difficult game that didn’t come down to a simple formula. (Unlike, say, tic tac toe.) The variety of different pieces also separated the game in complexity from checkers. (Checkers HAS been largely beaten by the computers. Only Marion Tinsley could match them.) Chess requires memory (a specialty of computers), calculation (another specialty of the silicon monsters), pattern recognition (not a strength – or at least it wasn’t a few decades ago), and positional judgement.

That last was somewhat mysterious – the good chess players knew better than the poor ones when a position had something in it. The very good players had a better sense than the good ones. The very best were better still, and the true greats leave everyone baffled. But it’s hard to define what the “it” is. It was more than just pattern recognition, although that was part of it.

I remember an anecdote about Bobby Fischer. He was playing in some open tournament somewhere in his youth. He walked by the board of an acquaintance, looked at the position for maybe five seconds, and wandered off. Years latter he ran into the man again and asked him, “Did you win that game against so-and-so?” The man replied that he hadn’t won, so Fischer quickly explained to the man what he should have done to win the game. A mere glance at a complex position was enough for Fischer to judge the position accurately and formulate the winning plan. FIVE SECONDS. Such powers mystify us regular players.

Then there was the story of Capablanca explaining an endgame to some other masters. He stopped by an analysis session and started explaining the position to them, one they had been working on for some time at that point. He said something along the lines of “this piece should be here, and that one there, and then White wins easily.” They asked for variations and he replied that he didn’t need them – once he knew where everything went the rest was elementary. I’ve heard similar stories about (amongst others) Bisguier (an under-rated American GM), Kasparov, Tal, and especially Karpov. Even Kasparov (the greatest chess player ever – human player anyway) seems in awe of Karpov’s ability to just know where the pieces belong.

So this positional judgement thing was a great challenge. It was a perfect problem for the programmers.

In the early years they hoped to mimic a human approach to the game. That was the great hope of early pioneers, including Mikhail Botvinnik, the greatest of the Soviet players (and their longest tenured world champion). Botvinnik also happened to be an engineering whiz, and he hoped to construct a machine to mimic the human mind’s functions. He failed miserably.

Early on the programmers realized that the strongest element of a computer’s ability was the calculation aspect. So they put more and more effort into algorithms to evaluate positions along strictly mechanistic means, and to calculate as many positions as possible. No gestalt in this approach, nothing “holistic”. This approach bore fruit.

And it was ultimately this approach that led to the creation of programs that could best all but the strongest humans. And as it stands today, the humans really can’t hope to win a match save by glitch in the machine. They might tie (the match, not any individual game, which they still win on occasion) with best play, but that’s all they can really hope for. In about five years I doubt they will have any hope at all of even winning a single game off the best programs. It’s changed that much.

In addition, these programs have shown people new ways to play the game. Their calculating abilities have revealed any number of flaws in old approaches to specific positions. About ten years back they even started occasionally started showing new strategies and positional motifs in certain positions. (I remember a game with a Re3 lift that kind of blew everyone’s mind – computer programs weren’t supposed to DO that.) But it wasn’t understanding, it was more and more calculations.

These days the best of the younger grandmasters show unmistakable computer influence on their style of play – not just in the opening preparation but throughout the game. (I thinking most notably of Magnus Carlsen’s relentlessness and Hikaru Nakamura’s tactical wizardry.) The computer programs have changed the game. (The old-timers generally don’t seem to like it – they believe it has removed much artistry. I don’t entirely agree, as their is much beauty in the new stuff as well. Times change.)

But the sad upshot of all of this has been that computers don’t think like people when playing chess. The more … call it … holistic approach never worked. Botvinnik would have been disappointed, as is his latter successor Kasparov. The big loss isn’t for chess, it’s for understanding how human thought works, and determining if it can be duplicated. Chess just didn’t hold the answer.

OTOH, we have observed two things in the meantime. First, that computers CAN solve extremely complex problems through systematic refining of brute force algorithms. Second, that humans can learn to mimic that approach, within limitations. So some things have been learned.

But there is still hope that the computer guys can do something different. The hope now rests on coming up with good Go programs, as that game turns out to be much more difficult for programmers to figure out. I’ve heard they hope to have some success with poker playing programs, but I expect that to be a bit less worthwhile. Poker can be reduced to mathematics fairly easily (for a computer at least), and some clever application of game theory ought to insure enough variability that I expect such a program to be better than pretty much all humans in the not distant future. (Assuming it hasn’t happened yet. I only follow that peripherally.)

But the upshot has been this – the brute force “materialist” approach works. And I mean that both from a chess esthetics viewpoint (computers, like Victor Korchnoi, are suckers for grabbing all the material they can get) and as a programming solution to complex problems.

*     *     *

(The BulletB program I mentioned is one that has been “lobotomized” to play at around a certain strength at certain time limits. The Crafty program upon which it is based is a pretty solid free-ware program developed primarily by Dr. Robert Hyatt. Interestingly for me, the program’s origins date back to 1968, the same year as my birth. I’ve been lucky enough to play a few games (fewer than five, I think) where I have managed to draw a non-lobotomized version of Crafty. )

* But the humans are catching up. There’s a reason that we have so many people who’ve become grandmasters at 13 these days. Playing programs and especially databases have drastically altered the learning curve. The kids are getting programmed too these days.

*     *     *

H. G. Wells’ description in this piece is wonderful. Here’s the best extract:

The passion for playing chess is one of the most unaccountable in the world. It slaps the theory of natural selection in the face. It is the most absorbing of occupations, the least satisfying of desires, an aimless excrescence upon life. It annihilates a man. You have, let us say, a promising politician, a rising artist, that you wish to destroy. Dagger or bomb are archaic, clumsy, and unreliable–but teach him, inoculate him with chess!

I must say, however, that the game does have some charms. The Dutch GM Hans Ree once said, “Chess is beautiful enough to waste your life for.” If you don’t understand that statement, if you don’t feel it in your soul, you aren’t really a chess player.

About three years ago I started entering all my existing live game scores into a database. I forget what the total is, but it’s around 300 games, if memory serves. Those are just the live tournament games, plus some games from high school matches, and together they span 27 years now. Not a great big number, not by any stretch. I’d play every weekend, given the opportunity, but they haven’t always presented themselves. But I played regularly with a couple of diehards back in my Maryland days. One of them has played in over 655 EVENTS since late 1991, and the other has played in over 1273 EVENTS in the same period of time. They’re both lifetime Class B players at best. But they’re out playing every chance they can get. And that’s just the rated events they PAY to play in. I can find one of them online just about every day, looking for more action. I just checked a recent tournament they both played in, and I recognized every player in the tournament. Dedication, baby!

So the short bit is that yes, it can dominate/ruin one’s life!

*     *     *

Another proverb from J’s book of chess quotations, this one German:

No fool can play chess, and only fools do.


  1. Icepick said,

    Love the German proverb! I’ve heard the gnat/elephant one attributed to India. If so it probably aplied to the old Indian precursor Chatranj (sp?).

  2. Peter Hoh said,

    In the book, Searching for Bobby Fischer, there’s a passage in which a chess coach tries to dissuade the father/author from pursuing lessons for his son, who has demonstrated remarkable talent. The coach’s advice is essentially, “Why would want to ruin your child’s life?”

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  5. amba12 said,

    I’ve never heard of Chatranj, but chess in Persia — I think? — was called Schachmat — kill the King (Shah) — from which comes the word “checkmate.” Chess is still called Schach in German.

  6. Maxwell James said,

    I had the pleasure of playing some games against Joshua Waitzkin when I was a kid. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the thousands of hours he saved me, by showing me early on that chess was not something I was meant to master.

  7. Ron said,

    I kind of lost interest in chess around 13-14. I kept wanting to experiment with the rules; putting 4 boards together to act as 1 board and tripling the number of pawns, having one side take all the knights and the other side take all the bishops….but no one wanted to play with these wacky notions and playing chess ‘straight’ was too boring, so I quit.

  8. Icepick said,

    It’s been a while since I read my chess history books. The Indian game was actually called Chaturanga. It moved to Persian and became chatrang, and hence to the Arab world to become shatranj. The things on forgets….

  9. Icepick said,

    Incidentally, one can play Shatranj at the Ineternet Chess Club if you can find an opponent. It’s a very slow game, however. Believe it or not, the modern version is the fast variant.

    Josh Waitzkin (the subject of The Search for Bobby Fischer) grew up to be a rather interesting person. He’s a martial arts world champion in the rather obscure (or it seems so to me) art of Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands. He’s also written a book called The Art of Learning. His website can be found here.

    Fred Waitzkin (Josh’s father) wrote Searching for Bobby Fischer and Mortal Games, both of which are about chess. (Mortal Games covers the rather eventful year of 1990 for then World Campion Garry Kasparov.) The two books between them give a great view into the world of chess – everything from the homeless bums hustling games in NYC and Moscow to the level of world championship matches. Highly recommended if your interested in the culture around the game.

  10. Icepick said,

    Ron, there are lots of variants on the game. Personally I think the two craziest are Bug House and Crazy House.

    Bug House is a team game with two players on a side. One player on each team plays white, the other black. When you capture an opponents piece you hand that piece to your teammate. (So as Black I would capture an opponent’s White piece, and hand it to my teammate playing White on his board. My teammate on his move can then either move as usual, or place a piece that I’ve captured on the board. It’s almost always played with a timer so someone about to lose just can’t wait forever to see what happens on the other board. It’s nuts, and the pieces take on different values. A Knight in hand (as opposed to on the board, can easily be worth as much as a Queen. Play ends when on player is checkmated or runs out of time, and his team thus loses. It’s crazy-fun, and it will totally ruin your abilitty to play the regular game of you play it alot, unless you’re under 18. (I don’t think I’ve ever met a decent junior player that didn’t love to play bughouse. And by decent I don’t mean a prodigy, I just mean someone who knows more than just how the pieces move.)

    I’ve heard of people trying to play bughouse with even larger teams, too, but I just don’t see how that can work well.

    And then there’s Carzyhouse. This is a variant played on the internet. It’s similar to bughouse. The differences are that it is played by one person on a side, and you can drop pieces you’ve captured. So if I’m White and capture a Black bishop, it becomes a White bishop that I can drop on my next move.

    I’m really not sure which of these games is crazier, but it’s probably bughouse. Watching teammates shout at each other about what they need makes it a great spectator sport live.

    There’s also atomic chess – captures cause explosions that take out any pieces (but not pawns) on adjacent squares. The game ends when one side’s King gets blown to Hell. There’s a couple of different versions of the game where the object is to lose all one’s pieces and pawns. Captures are mandatory in those forms.

    And then there’s Kriegspiel – neither player can see the other player’s pieces, otherwise the play is the same. It’ requires two boards, one set of pieces, and a referee to let each player know when they’re in check, or if a move is otherwise illegal. On internet playing sites the servers act as the referees. This form is very challenging.

    And then there’s faery chess, upside-down chess (the pawns are one square away from promoion, blocked by their own pieces), Alice chess (played with two boards and one set of pieces – a piece moved on one board passes through the looking glass to the other board; I’ve never tried this one, it sounds too weird to be interesting), double-wide (similar to what Ron was describing), and on and on and on.

    Ron, the problem may have been that you just weren’t in a place with enough chess players to find those interested in variants. Easier to do in the internet age…..

    A list of variants can be found on Wikipedia. Chess is a little like poker when it comes to variety, but only a little – most favor the original game.

    Oh, and this ignores various games from the Eastern world. The Japanese and Chinese both have their own versions of the game, games such as Shogi. Those tend to bwe more tactical ikn nature, as the pawn equivalents capture straight ahead, meaning that locked pawn chains (perhaps the main feature of the European game) don’t/can’t form.

  11. Ron said,

    Yes, Icepick I think it’s certainly true that back then you were limited to those around you in a way we understand less and less! (and that’s a good thing!) It wasn’t just the wacky variants though; it was the sense of experimentation being the norm and not the exception. I came along at the point of the rise of board wargaming (I have 300 of these things!) and we constantly had to come up with ad hoc rules to cover a host of problems, many in the game designs themselves. This led to a long, long tenure as a referee for a wide variety of role-playing games….jeebus, I still have almost 30 year old unresolved plots! ( and sometimes people still ask!)

    I wound up seeing games as slow-motion paper computer programs to be edited/massaged/flogged into shape. The creating was more interesting to me than the playing. None of this is meant to slight chess at all….I just went in a different direction.

  12. callimachus said,

    Great post!

    Chess is an exercise of character, not just mental skill.

    Old books written by chess players about how to play chess are some of my favorites; audacious, arrogant, exact, contradictory.

  13. amba12 said,

    Those four adjectives somehow remind me of four used by Chögyam Trungpa in the book Shambhala. He says the “four dignities” of a human being are “meek, perky, outrageous, and inscrutable.”

  14. Icepick said,

    I came along at the point of the rise of board wargaming (I have 300 of these things!) and we constantly had to come up with ad hoc rules to cover a host of problems, many in the game designs themselves. This led to a long, long tenure as a referee for a wide variety of role-playing games….jeebus, I still have almost 30 year old unresolved plots! ( and sometimes people still ask!)

    My high school chess club also served as the unofficial AD&D club. In fact, at least half the people only played chess so they would have a convenient place to congregate for plan for RPGs elsewhere. (I was one of the people in both camps.) Unfortunately, we had no decent people running the games, so they were always a mess….

  15. amba12 said,

    Where was Ron when you needed him . . .

  16. Icepick said,

    Old books written by chess players about how to play chess are some of my favorites; audacious, arrogant, exact, contradictory.

    Aron Nimzovich’s My System contains some of the best invective I’ve ever read. Unfortunately my copy is in storage, so I can’t give exact quotes, and I’m loath to quote them inexactly – even if it is only in translation. His enemy, Siegbert Tarrasch*, was good with invective as well. Siegbert has my alltime favorite quote about chess, “Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy.”

    * Spellings of many of these names keep changing. German spellings are most common now, so Nimzovich will most often be seen as Nimzowitsch these days. This is mainly because the biggest provider of chess software, ChessBase, is a German company. Therefore most everyone uses German spelling’s these days, save for a few of us die hards.

  17. Icepick said,

    Where was Ron when you needed him . . .

    I was thinking that. If only we had had a decent DM….

  18. Icepick said,

    Chess is an exercise of character, not just mental skill.

    Well, competitive character doesn’t always translate to the non-competitive part of life.

  19. Ron said,

    5 years D&D, 20+ years running Traveller, Plus, Paranoia, Rolemaster, Ars Magica, Champions….(this info is for those who are familiar)

    I was even an early playtester for Ogre… (again, Old Skool game knowledge for those who know!)

    I did a trick when I started my role campaigns that I still like: I made each player write a 1 page description of themselves that they had to read to the group and a 1 page description that they gave me, the DM….and they could the same thing or very, very different…..I would get years of plots out of this exercise alone…

  20. Icepick said,

    I recognize several of those games, especially Traveler and Champions. There was another super hero based game at one point, and damned if I can remember its name. As for the one page character descriptions – briliant.

    Query: What did you think of alignment systems? I always thought they were rather constricting, unless you were playing someone specifically dedicated to a certain point of view – a demon worshipper pretty much WOULD be chaotic evil….

  21. Ron said,

    The other superhero game was “Villians and Vigilantes” (There was another one called Superhero 2044 which had some interesting concepts, but too many flaws)

    I’ll be posting something here shortly….watch this space!

  22. mockturtle said,

    I’ve always admired the strategic intellect and patience required to be a good chess player as my own chess playing experience was limited to elementary school during rainy recess periods and I was never any good at it. But–may I be so bold?–is it not really just a bloodless substitute for the real thing? Planning and executing a real battle–now that’s the ticket! ;-)

  23. Icepick said,

    Villians & Vigilantes, that was it! Thanks!

  24. Icepick said,

    But–may I be so bold?–is it not really just a bloodless substitute for the real thing?

    ** shakes head **

    The amount of ego at stake in a serious chess game is enormous. I’d rather get beaten to pulp in a fist fight than lose a game of chess to someone I don’t like. Fischer, that most ruthless of players, said it best, “The object is to crush the opponent’s mind. I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.” That isn’t all of it – there’s beauty, and humor, and the joy of solving difficult problems. But when playing, ego matters.

  25. callimachus said,

    Tarrasch was the one I have (there’s a cheap, Dover reprint edition available). It’s chock full of examples, mostly of games won by Tarrasch. In his introduction (as I recall), he suggests his readers are idiots and just about forbids them to so much as touch a chessboard until they have mastered the book.

    Pawns don’t defect to the other side, refuse to sacrifice themselves, or fail to execute a move because they were all out drinking the night before.

  26. mockturtle said,

    I wasn’t referring to hand-to-hand combat but to one general pitting his wits and his balls against those of another general.

  27. A said,

    “meek, perky, outrageous, and inscrutable.”

    That’s an odd four, somehow.

  28. amba12 said,

    You hadda be there.

    He makes a case for it, which you can read on Amazon Reader (I tried to put a link there, but the link now sticks an ad in the comment, which pisses me off) by looking up Trungpa, Shambhala, and then typing “meek, perky” into the “Look Inside This Book” search box. There’s a whole section for each one.

    All human beings experience the four dignities in some form. Meekness is basically experiencing a humble and gentle state of being, while perkiness is connected with uplifted and youthful energy. Outrageousness is being daring and entering into situations without hope and fear, and inscrutability is the experience of fulfillment and uncontrived, spontaneous achievement.

    Come to think of it, this book might suit you just now.

  29. Callimachus said,

    what about Bashful?

  30. Natural Style Chess said,

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