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Can Chess Survive Artificial Intelligence? 

Yoni Wilkenfeld

Computers are taking the error out of human chess — and the adventure

Last August, two dozen of the strongest chess players in the world met for a new kind of tournament. The ground rules were unforgiving: Each player would start with only fifteen minutes on the clock per game, competing in scores of back-to-back games against all the others multiple times. Players were eliminated in stages until only two remained, who would go on to play two hundred games to decide the champion. Competitors hailed from around the world, though a sizeable minority were American. All would face the constant scrutiny of fans through an online broadcast of the tournament on Twitch, a streaming website. A month of grueling play later, a victor emerged: Stockfish 220818, the strongest chess computer to date.

While many past computer chess competitions had the human programmers convene in person, in the Computer Chess Championship, teams submitted their software to run on the servers of Chess.com, which hosted the event. The Twitch feed showed not only the live game play, but “a real-time peek into” each program’s “thinking process and the lines they are considering,” said a post announcing the tournament. The website ran a single game at a time, back to back, with uninterrupted play for a month.

In November, while the chess universe was watching the official, human championship match in London, won by Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the computers — the game’s real elite — were still playing in their own continuous series of online tournaments.

Chess computers, also known as chess engines, have different personalities on the board. Stockfish, an open-source engine freely available and maintained by a community of programmers, has a clean, positional style, Pete Cilento, executive editor at Chess.com, told me by email. Leela Chess Zero, also known as Lc0, another open-source engine, “plays a more intuitive and hazy game,” he said. “It has gained so many fans because it plays superhuman chess in a human way.” Houdini, developed by programmer Robert Houdart, has a more aggressive and sacrificial style, which is why it has been compared to the great players of the Romantic Era. In a way, they are human: Behind every engine is a team of programmers, engineers, and chess experts.

Decades before self-driving cars or Siri, chess was an obsession of AI researchers, and getting a computer to beat a human master their holy grail. Today, twenty-two years after IBM’s Deep Blue shocked the world by beating then–world champion Garry Kasparov, chess computers have left humans in the dust. The latest generation of programs, such as AlphaZero, developed by the Alphabet-owned company DeepMind, is doing things that even their human creators don’t understand. Demis Hassabis, co-founder and CEO of DeepMind, has described aspects of AlphaZero’s decision-making as a “black box,” for example, how it assesses the overall value of a rook compared to a knight. “We don’t actually know.”

The impact of computer chess on the game — as still played by humans — has been twofold. First, computers have helped to flatten chess, increasing pure understanding of the game at the expense of creativity, mystery, and dynamism. Second, they have become intertwined with every aspect of chess, from play at the highest level to amateur study and the spectator’s experience. These two effects mirror how emerging technologies are changing the way we live. Chess today is a window into the future, when machine learning is applied to all kinds of human endeavors.

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Yoni Wilkenfeld is a writer living in New York.

Yoni Wilkenfeld, "Can Chess Survive Artificial Intelligence?," The New Atlantis, Number 58, Spring 2019, pp. 37-44.