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Kasparov on chess and computing power

January 27, 2010

One of the benefits of being married to a chess fanatic is that I can read articles like this one by Garry Kasparov and feel like an insider– after all, only an insider would understand what a Sicilian Defence is and could have told you that Magnus Carlsen is a rising Norwegian chess genius!

In all seriousness though, this is an interesting article on multiple levels. First, Kasparov writes about a period of time where artificial intelligence (AI) seemed not only possible, but imminent. I was in high school at the time  and I remember discussing with classmates the inevitability of Kasparov’s loss– even if he had beaten Deep Blue, IBM would simply have doubled Deep Blue’s computing power again so that it could analyze even further ahead into the game. At some point, the sheer brute force of calculations would simply overwhelm any human.

Later, while studying systems design engineering, I remember Deep Blue serving as a reference point for us: it represented certain possibilities for artificial intelligence (albeit in a crude form). My classmates at Waterloo took up co-op work terms at companies that were on the bleeding edge of this field. One of the most brilliant of them, Terry Stewart, is now conducting research in this area. All this to say that Kasparov does a good job here of evoking an era where technology presented different possibilities and could have moved in a different direction altogether.

Instead of a computer that thought and played chess like a human, with human creativity and intuition, they got one that played like a machine, systematically evaluating 200 million possible moves on the chess board per second and winning with brute number-crunching force….

It was an impressive achievement… but Deep Blue was only intelligent the way your programmable alarm clock is intelligent. Not that losing to a $10 million alarm clock made me feel any better.

What I also found interesting was Kasparov’s commentary on how people are learning to play chess differently these days because of computers.

The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again….It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before.

This is both obvious and amazing to me. It’s obvious because this is how everyone learns to play chess– at the beginning. As you play more, certain patterns become obvious; given certain opening moves, chess players have figured out best responses. These sets of opening “best responses” are classified into groups that are together referred to as opening theory. As Kasparov points out, some of these have developed over hundred of years and people like my husband have hundreds of books that cover these openings and detail their variations. Most of these books are actually useless unless you enter into that variation– which might take 16 moves (like the Accelerated Dragon). The possibility that opening theory might be seen as an archaic way of studying suggests a radical shift in how chess is now approached.

Equally remarkable has been the rise of “bots”– these are computer programs designed to play games. Chess may have received the most attention, but Checkers, as a game, has actually been solved– that is to say, there is a winning strategy that consistently beats humans.  And there are others too, on game sites like Little Golem, where bots play side by side with humans.

In 2005, the online chess-playing site Playchess.com hosted what it called a “freestyle” chess tournament in which anyone could compete in teams with other players or computers. Normally, “anti-cheating” algorithms are employed by online sites to prevent, or at least discourage, players from cheating with computer assistance. Full article.

My sense is that this is only the beginning of the fun. We’re not quite there yet, but one day in the future, human brains will be implanted with processors that will allow us to access data on this scale. The billions of calculations needed to beat Garry Kasparov (sans implant of course) in a game of chess will eventually be available to us all.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin Davis permalink
    February 8, 2010 8:32 am

    Great read.

    I consider myself a rather decent chess player. At one point I was downright addicted and my wife would beg me to stop playing.
    I was a member of redhotpawn.com and I used to play 90 games at once, however, on average, more like 60 games at once.
    It became like a drug. I was eating, sleeping and dreaming chess.
    There’s a great book on chess that your significant other has more than likely read, but if he hasn’t —well, then he’s in for a treat.
    It’s titled___The Chess Artist by J.C. Hallman
    You might be interested in reading it as well.
    Here’s an editorial review from Publisher’s Weekly:
    “During a postcollege stint as a blackjack dealer in Atlantic City, freelance writer Hallman discovered the chess community that thrives in dealer lounges. There he met 39-year-old chess master Glenn Umstead, who performed exhibitions while blindfolded and had “hoped to become the world’s first black grandmaster.” The two became friends and embarked on an exploration of the chess subculture, a grand tour that took them from Princeton to prisons, from windowless rooms to the “giant electronic chess room” of the Internet Chess Club (ICC). At his first tournament, in Philadelphia, Hallman found “watered-down machismo and bent personalities.” He visits the chess-obsessed characters of Manhattan’s Washington Square Park: “In winter chess players could be found in the park dressed in huge down jackets, the only problem presented by the cold being the difficulty of moving pieces while so encumbered.” He interviews Claude Bloodgood, a high-ranking chess player serving a life sentence for murdering his mother who once reputedly tried to use chess to escape from prison (he denies it). Much of the book is devoted to a fascinating visit to Kalmykia, an impoverished Russian province, whose president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is “a not entirely unsympathetic supervillain with a kooky plan to dominate the chess world,” evident in his 1998 construction of Chess City with its centerpiece, the Chess Palace, a five- story glass pavilion. Interweaving art and literary references along with the game’s 1,200-year history, Hallman summarizes the many meanings and metaphors of chess in the final chapter: “Chess had come to represent intimacy, economics, politics, theories bleeding from rhetoric to outrageous science.” Chess enthusiasts will enjoy this delightful tour.”

    • February 8, 2010 10:16 am

      Thanks for that Justin. I’ve gotten a flavour of the chess world through my husband’s love of the game so I know about its eccentric nature. Some of the backstories would make for amazing biopics! Life is stranger than fiction definitely applies to the chess world in spades.
      I’ll definitely direct him to the book and it sounds like an excellent read for me as well. Searching for Bobby Fischer also explored some of the same chess themes and I found that book fascinating as well.

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