Tyler Cowen, Computers and What They Mean For Chess Amateurs

Tyler Cowen is a chess master, food writer, world traveler, a blogger with over 40 million visitors and, incidentally, an influential economist and Professor at George Mason University; in other words, a polymath.

Let’s talk about the chess part.

As the noble blogger Kenilworthian noted back in 2006:

As a youngster, Professor Cowen played at the Westwood and Dumont Chess Clubs in Bergen County. As he improved, he played more often at the Manhattan and the Marshall, where the competition was stronger. By the time he was 16-years-old he was rated about 2350 (which would have put him on the same pace set by Bobby Fischer in the late 1950s).

Then he gave up the game.

“I realized I wasn’t going to become a professional. There are no benefits, no retirement. It was not the life I wanted to lead. And I fell in love with Economics.” As an economist, of course, he knows a lot about diminishing returns….

All of this is quite interesting in itself, but it’s a preliminary to why we should pay close attention to Prof. Cowen’s take on computers, chess and the interaction between the two. I urge you to read the whole thing, but I want to focus on a few points that seem to me to be different for non-masters (I’ll just say “amateurs” as shorthand), as his take is basically about computers and grandmaster chess:

1. Databases equalize preparation opportunities for the top players. Those who rise to the very top have very strong creative skills. In relative terms, being a chess “grind” is worth less than in times past.

Not necessarily for amateurs. By “preparation” he means openings, and the big difference here is that our games won’t depend on opening finesses at move 15 or 25 that lead to an initiative. Our games will most often be decided by tactical errors. Databases can be fun and useful, but they’re not critical. Being a “grind” always was worth less as an amateur. And honestly, blunder prevention is more important than great creativity.

4. Chess is an area where educational reform has been extremely rapid and extremely successful. Chess education today revolves around learning how to learn from the computer, and this change has come within the last ten to fifteen years. No intermediaries were able to prevent it or slow it down. Humans now teach themselves how to team with computers, and the leading human players have to be very good at this. The computers which most successfully team with humans are those which replicate most rapidly.

Not much applicable to me or my corner of the chess world. Certainly, we can learn from computers, but (thankfully) we can still play over Alekhine or Tarrasch games out of a book and derive a lot of value from “slow food” chess! In fact, for amateurs this is likely a far more effective method.

5. There are many more chess prodigies than ever before, and they mature at a more rapid pace.

Unless you meet ‘em at an Open where they’re a nine-year-old rated 2157, this is N/A.

6. We used to think that computers would play chess like we did, only “without the mistakes.” We now know that playing without the mistakes involves a very different style from what we had imagined. A lot of human positional intuitions are garbage, and the computer can make sense out of ugly-looking moves. A lot of the human progress since then has involved unlearning previous positional rules and realizing how contingent they are. Younger players, who grew up playing chess with computers, are especially good at this. For older players, it is a good way to learn how unreliable your intuitions can be.

There is some value to this for amateurs, but not in trying to play “without the mistakes,” which the world top 10 only occasionally achieve. But being open to “ugly-looking moves” as a way to expand your vision does have something to recommend it. When analyzing one of your games with a computer, note especially the moves it finds that you never thought of because they didn’t look “right” positionally and open your mind to these possibilities.

7. Highly exact and concrete analysis, and calculation of variations, is now the centerpiece of grandmaster chess at top levels. We have learned how to become more like the computers. The computers have taught us well.

On this one, I think that Cowen may be off on his time line. This has always been true of grandmaster chess, at least from Lasker onward. Computers didn’t invent exacting, accurate calculation (though obviously they do it very well). Going back to the previous point (6), I think that “positional rules” were more something grandmasters wrote about for the masses, as a way to help guide the beginner, than something they took seriously themselves as some kind of doctrine. The whole “Soviet School” was about concrete calculation rather than generalization, in my understanding.

Which is not to say that calculating well isn’t important to amateurs. It is, but you’re not going to be facing someone who can calculate “like a computer,” so just do your best and have fun!

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