The death of chess

Chess have featured on da-boss before but what prompted me to write this post was the recent FIDE World Chess Championship match played between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen. I watched the live streaming of a few games (I know, I know…) and it struck me that the event was dominated by something that was not even allowed anywhere near the players. Computer chess programs.

Carlsen is a representative of the new breed of players who cut their teeth in tournament when computer programs were approaching a Grand Master level of human chess. In the old days players typically studied in-depth a few openings which they used in competitive games and avoided the variants they were unfamiliar with. For example Bobby Fischer typically opened E4 and, when responding to E4, usually chose Ruy Lopez or Sicillian defence. To target such a consistent player his opponents would have needed to spend tens of hours studying the opening lines Fischer favoured. This time consuming approach was not practical and Fischer largely got away with his in-depth but narrow opening repertoire.

Computers have changed all that since they can analyse any position in no time at all. When players are preparing their tactics against a particular opening they are assisted by computer analyses which have already identified the promising variations and traps to avoid. This greatly reduces the amount of time spent on studying the lines expected to be played. Consequently, a player with a limited opening repertoire can easily be targeted by computer aided home preparation. His opponents just need to remember the right moves recommended by the chess engine. The special quality of Carlsen is that he plays a number of different opening and so is much harder to nail this way. He does not expect to achieve early advantage by playing his favourite lines but rather aims to steadily grind his opponents down in complex middle game positions. This approach is much better suited for the era of computer chess than Fischer’s narrow preparation.

When a chess tournament starts the silent influence of computers is even stronger. The contestants are absolutely forbidden any communication with the outside world by means of phones, pagers or any other wireless devices. The tournament venues are thoroughly searched but there have been allegations of players using hidden smartphones in the toilets. Most pundits chose not to use chess engines in their live streamed commentary of the Anand-Carlsen match to give the coverage a human dimension. But this created an impression that the event was happening in an artificial information void. The contenders had no access to the clearly superior technology because of fair play and the spectators chose not to use it to have more fun watching the event. Human chess are no longer about the absolutely best play possible – the goal is to get as close as possible to the level of computers, but without actually using computers.

Any artificial, limiting rules are bound to be pushed and there are already signs that FIDE is losing the fight against the mobile communication devices:

This is reminiscent of the doping issue in sport – using the technological advances to increase one’s competitiveness. The mechanics of cheating in chess could be trivially simple. A pager set to vibrating mode strapped on player’s body could advise him what moves are recommended by a remotely run chess engine. For example buzz-buzz-buzz … buzz-buzz … buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz … buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz  would mean “move from C2 to D4”. The chess officials can frisk search for pagers but how long before a device will appear which will fit in a player’s ear?

So the human chess are going the way of the dodo. This is not necessarily a bad thing since progress relentlessly takes humanity towards more efficient technological solutions. Until we accept it clowns like Ivanov will piss the chess purists off and pretend to be great players.  What to do about it? From now on I intend to focus on the computer chess championships. Why bother following the imperfect human imposters with the World chess crown?


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