Computers for pros and cons

As someone who has been writing on a computer for almost 40 years, I have a lot to be grateful for.

Hans Niemann, the prodigal prodigy

In the old days, when I did most of my writing on holidays, I had to lug suitcases full of reference literature to various European destinations. Now I can get all the same information from a device that fits in my pocket.

My Macs (one in London, one in France, one for in-between) not only give me facts, but they also make it easy to process them into text. Granted, they don’t prevent errors of judgement, but at least they correct errors of typing.

I’m telling you this by way of a disclaimer: I’m no computer Luddite. I am, however, a man who has learned the hard way that everything in life, no matter how seemingly wonderful, has a downside.

The important chess theorist Siegbert Tarrasch (d. 1934) put that piece of homespun wisdom into the context of his game. “Even good moves,” he wrote, “are at the same time bad. For, while taking control of some new squares, the moved piece relinquished control of the old ones.”

Chess itself vindicates such prudent sagacity. Computers burst into it in the 1980s, and by the late ‘90s they reached grandmaster strength. In 1997 the engine Deep Blue beat world champion Kasparov, regarded by some as the best player of all time.

Now, 25 years later, a top grandmaster has as much chance of beating a top computer as I have of beating a top grandmaster. That’s why major computer engines only ever play one another. Human players use them the way I used reference literature, for background research.

Push a button, and you get every game your next opponent has ever played since infancy. Another button, and the computer will helpfully point out gaps in his opening repertoire, along with the best ways of exploiting them.

A laptop computer contains an opening library greater than any physical library every did. An amateur learning the game or a professional expanding his horizons has an invaluable tool at his disposal. All good?

Eh, not quite. For many chess lovers will agree that computers have hurt chess more than they have benefited it. And this chess lover, who played his last competitive game 35 years ago, believes they have killed chess.

The way tournament chess used to be played, each player was given a certain amount of time to make a certain number of moves. At grandmaster level, the usual time control was 2.5 hours each for the first 40 moves.

Assuming that the allocated time was used up, the game would take five hours to that point. If it still remained unfinished, it was adjourned to be finished the next day. The players would then spend hours analysing the adjourned position, trying to find the best strategy.

Those who had coaches, seconds, or simply friends eager to help, used their assistance. That was considered above board, although Bobby Fischer used to complain, justifiably, that the whole Soviet chess establishment pooled their resources to analyse adjourned games between Bobby and one of their own.

See where I’m going with this? Computers make adjournments impossible because the position would be analysed by two computer engines, not two players.

When the Soviet world champion Botvinnik adjourned a difficult position against Fischer in 1962, it took him and half a dozen other Soviet grandmasters a whole night to find the drawing sequence. Today, Botvinnik would push a couple of buttons and go to sleep.

Since games can’t be adjourned, they have to be finished in one sitting. This means that five hours for the first 40 moves simply isn’t on. What if there are another 40 moves to play? Take it from someone who used to fritter away his life in this manner: a few 10-hour games in a row is a shortcut to a loony bin or a cemetery.

Hence more and more tournaments are played at faster time controls, with as little as one hour, half an hour or even ‘blitz’ five minutes for the whole game. When I was a youngster we played a lot of blitz for fun. Now top grandmasters are playing it for hefty cash prizes.

Reduced time tends to lead to reduced quality, and not only in chess. I can write most 1,000-word articles in an hour, but they usually turn out better if I take a little longer. The same goes for chess: the faster it’s played, the more blunders there are, and the less depth of thought.

Then there’s cheating, the laws of human nature still not having been repealed. Grandmasters have been known to claim a call of nature and then play with their mobile phones in the lavatory – either to tap the position in or to call a friend waiting in front of his computer screen at home.

Those were the early days in the battle between fair play and modern electronics. The current cheating scandal erupting in professional chess shows we’ve come a long way since then.

A fortnight ago, the 19-year-old American grandmaster Hans Niemann was accused of cheating when he thrashed one of history’s best players, Magnus Carlsen. In the preceding few months, Niemann’s rating had skyrocketed at an unlikely pace, going up by 200 points.

In tennis terms that would be like a county player becoming a top-tenner within a season – well-nigh impossible. In Niemann’s case it wasn’t just statistical improbability that raised doubts. The precocious youngster had some previous: he had already been caught cheating electronically twice, first at age 12, then four years later.

When he trounced Carlsen, everyone, including the great man himself, was sure Niemann had cheated. In fact, when Carlsen next had to play Niemann the other day, he demonstratively resigned after one move in protest.

The cheating charges are backed up by a fair assessment of the breath-taking advances in computer technology and electronic communications. Tournament organisers are trying to counter with spot checks and even body scans. For today’s miniature electronic receivers can be implanted into various crevices and even the flesh itself.

In Niemann’s case the suspicion is that he inserted a vibrating radio receiver into his anus, raising questions about both his integrity and sexual orientation. That way he is alleged to have been in direct rectal contact with a computer engine operated by a friend off-premises.

As a result, random pat-downs and body scans have been augmented by devices monitoring radio wave frequencies around tournament halls.

So far the idea of employing part-time proctologists (or, in women’s tournaments, also gynaecologists) hasn’t been mooted, although it’s the first one coming to my dirty mind. I wonder how a player entering a tournament hall would react to the command “bend over and spread’em”.

Just in case, Niemannn offered to play naked from now on, in a sealed room equipped with electronic signal scramblers. Kinkier and kinkier, as Alice didn’t say.

I’ll leave it for the experts to argue whether or not Niemann cheated, this time around. Let’s just say that the net effect of computers on the ancient game isn’t unequivocally positive.

And not just on the ancient game. The epistolary genre, for example, is moribund, being ousted by your LOLs, Smileys, OMGs and – presumably – FUs.

Youngsters growing up with computers don’t learn how to write and add up for there is no need. And even if they know how to read, which isn’t to be taken for granted these days, their minds are only tuned to snippets of a few sentences at best. And even those are ungrammatical and typically incoherent.

Computers make our lives easier, which isn’t always a good thing. They can also make our lives miserable by encouraging fraudsters, hackers and trolls – and that’s even before we’ve considered the possibility of a computer error unleashing a nuclear holocaust or, on a smaller scale, guiding our airliner into a mountain.

By trying to iron out some human imperfections, computers may in fact encourage many others. In any case, a tool is only as good as its operator. Computers are like a knife: in the hands of a surgeon it can save a man; in the hands of a criminal, it can kill him.

I wonder what Siegbert Tarrasch would have to say about the modern state of the game he loved. “Das ist verrückt”, would be my guess.

7 thoughts on “Computers for pros and cons”

  1. We will probably never know what happened in St. Louis between Magnus and Hans. Over the board is far different from online chess, but maybe a player who has twice been caught (and admitted to) cheating online should not be allowed to participate in open tournaments?

    I did enjoy the original wave of chess computers, receiving a Fidelity Mini Sensory Chess Challenger for Christmas when I was 17 (I’ll never know how my mother fit that into the budget – I think it was $60 back then!). It allowed me to play on my own, without a human opponent. I still have it.

    I know the pros of computers, making my living on them for better than 30 years. I also understand the cons – the hours of time wasted via modern social media sites. I firmly believe the modern “chess engines” have ruined the game. Players just memorizes openings as played by the engines. I think modern players lack the creativity of the old masters. Commentators use the engines to further their analysis, so everyone is an “expert” and can criticize a player for not seeing a certain move. Of course, that could just be the old curmudgeon in me speaking out. Perhaps using Bobby Fischer’s Chess960 in tournaments would bring back that creativity. (This chess variant makes the memorizing of openings irrelevant, as pieces on the back rank are shuffled, randomly.) Of course, that does not negate cheating using a chess engine.

    Anyway, a nice break from the real troubles of the day!

    1. It’s not all bad though. In my chess-playing youth, people talked about impending ‘draw death’. Too many top players drew too many games, some of them immediately out of the opening. I recall one candidates’ tournament back in the ’60s when all 16 games among the Soviet players were drawn (they all went out for a win against Bobbie Fischer, 18 at the time). Today’s grandmasters play much more aggressively because computers do. If in my day someone like Tal was an exception, today he wouldn’t be. Also, many opening lines that in my days were considered suicidal have been revived. For example, a much higher percentage of games for White seem to feature early moves like g4 and h4. But on balance I do think computers have killed the game.

  2. “In 1997 the engine Deep Blue beat world champion Kasparov, regarded by some as the best player of all time.”

    Blue won only by cheating. It was not solely playing the games by itself. Had been programmed to respond in a certain manner to a patented Kasparov move that no one had an answer to. There was human intervention.

  3. At its best, chess is an art like music or poetry. The great games are remembered not because of who won, but because of how he won. But is there a computer that can create beauty as Morphy and Capablanca did?

    Part of the beauty is in the notation, so I hope you’ll consider replacing your Europhile “g4” and “h4” with the traditional “P-KKt4” and “P-KR4” in future. Incidentally, both moves play a part in the allegedly risky “Six Pawns’ Attack”, which I never had a chance to try because I never played against a King’s Indian Defence.

    I also never tried the Tarrasch Defence against the Queen’s Gambit, but that was because I never understood its principles. Dr Tarrasch, like most German philosophers, was too subtle for me.

    1. You are right about notation and I stand corrected, but the ‘Europhile’ system is what I grew up with, playing junior chess in Moscow. And I never played against King’s Indian for the simple reason that I was an e4 player. Sorry, P-K4. I did push my Kt and R pawns forward against the Caro-Kann defence, having seen Tal do so when I was a child. Oh to be young again.

      1. I never knew much about Tal. My first chess hero was Viktor Korchnoi, and even his brave struggle against Karpov ended in tedium. (Do all anti-Soviet struggles end in tedium? Does entropy triumph even in chess?)

        But nowadays, isn’t it disgusting that the Kings and Queens aren’t permitted to choose their own genders? A rainbow march to abolish gender distinctions in chess ought to be arranged ASAP.

        1. Tal was my idol when I was a chess-playing boy, as he was for all of us. In addition to being a wonderful sui generis player, he was and immensely charming man who didn’t mind chatting to aspiring youngsters. I suspect you may be of a younger generation, for whom Tal was more of an archival memory than a living presence.

          For the record, I also advanced those pawns against the Pirc and the Sicilian Dragon, quite profitably in both cases.

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