Rise of the Machines

Has the creation of chess playing programs and their subsequent use for game preparation ruined the game of chess? While it may not have completely ruined our great game (yet), it has taken some of the excitement away that comes from purely human play. Further more, it appears as if the silicon beast is raising a new generation of chess players that won’t make a move unless Houdini or Stockfish gives them the green light to do so.

A chess game can be a work of art. Art’s creative process requires taking chances. Sometimes those chances lead to absolute failure, but sometimes those chances lead to absolute beauty. Will the chess engine lead to artless, dull games? Can we find a way to balance computer play and human play in our own quest to improve as chess players?

For those of you with little understanding of playing software, what I’m talking about when I say “chess engine” is the heart of a chess playing program. Chess engines use brute force to determine what it considers it’s best response to your move. The chess engine can weed through hundreds of thousands of potential moves in the blink of an eye, finally settling on what it considers to be the best of those moves. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot match this kind of brute force thinking. This is why most of us simply cannot beat a strong chess engine.

The advent of the chess engine and GUI (Graphical User Interface) have given chess players access to an opponent anytime of day or night. They serve as an excellent sparing partner, allowing us to improve our game through play or practice. They can help us achieve our goal of becoming better chess players but we must tread lightly in regards to our usage of such programs.

These types of programs serve another useful purpose in that they allow a player trying a new move in a specific opening, for example, to see how that move might be successfully or unsuccessfully refuted. This is where the trouble often starts. A player might enjoy playing an opening, one of the Indian Defenses for example, and has done quite well with that opening at the local chess club. This same player reads a variety of chess periodicals and discovers to his horror that his favorite Indian Defense is no longer being played by master level players. It isn’t being played because a popular chess engine has come up with a way to refute it. Our club player decides that if top level players no longer employ his favorite opening, he shouldn’t either. He decides to switch to another opening which leads to a decline in his rating because he doesn’t play it as well. Of course, this is a simplified example but there are a lot of players that follow this type of thinking.

Younger players who have developed their chess skills to a higher level often take the opinion of the chess engine as if it were a direct message from some higher power. If chess engine “X” says this is the move to make then it must be right! If chess engine “X” refutes your opening then your opening is weak! With many younger players its as if the dreaded machine (or chess program in this case) is allowed to make decisions for them.

I was talking to a younger player about an opening he played and he kept repeating the phrase “Houdini says that this is the better move” over and over. I asked him if minded having his thought process controlled by a computer program. Of course, he was appalled by this notion and went to great lengths to carefully explain that the world’s top players employed the same method of computer preparation. I asked him if he considered himself a creative player. He said he didn’t understand the question. I went on to explain that creativity often meant taking chances in an effort to explore uncharted territory. He was quick to point out that trying to be creative in chess could only lead to lost games and a decline in rating points.

Because many players will simply accept the chess engine’s decision regarding a specific move as absolute, they don’t attempt understand the reasoning behind that move. If the engine’s suggested move occurs in the opening, a player might accept that move at face value and adjust the remaining moves of their opening around the engine’s move. Don’t play a move unless you fully understand the reasons for it. Of course, at Grandmaster level, players will understand the engine’s reasoning. However, at lower levels you’re apt to get into trouble. Develop your own chess brain before relying on the silicon monster. To quote my father (a U.S. Marine) “there was a time when men only had their wits to rely on when playing chess.” Of course, this is the same man who thought that standing in your underwear in a snow storm was an exercise in character building. The point is, you need to have a well developed skill set to understand why a chess engine makes a specific move. In fairness though, a decent portion of the moves made by chess engines do make sense to your average club player. However, it’s the moves that go over their heads that somehow seem to stick!

One of the reasons I enjoy the era of chess prior to computer analysis is because players had to use their own minds to work out positions when preparing for matches. Players took chances, albeit calculated chances, but chances all the same. Taking chances is a fundamental part of creativity. There are so many possible positions within a single game of chess that surely there must be some uncharted positional territory on the sixty four squares just waiting to be discovered by the intrepid and creative explorer.

It should be noted that I use Houdini in my work as an instructor and coach. However, it does not have the final say in the chess world I live in. It is a teaching/learning tool. I value my chess engine and it has helped me immensely with my own improvement. However, I insist on questioning it’s solution to every positional problem. I teach my students to ask a fundamental question when it comes to a computer based move: Do you understand why it is making this move? The move is of new use to your chess education unless you understand why it was made. By asking this question, students don’t simply accept the engine’s choice. They are forced to think for themselves and learn a bit in the process.

Where I see the worst use of engines is on many chess forums where a 1100 rated player will start picking apart the games of Magnus Carlsen as an amateur analyst, depending on the chess engine to do all the work and giving it none of the credit. It’s akin to someone bragging that they beat up a professional martial artist but not telling you they showed up in an armored tank to do so. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology but I love using my own mind more. At the rate this craze over using chess engines is going, chess tournaments of the future may be a case of laptops opposing one another in the tournament hall. Well, there you have it. Here’s a game to enjoy until next. No computer nonsense for these two players!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).