Do Not Misuse Your Chess Computer!

Do Not Misuse Your Chess Computer!

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My favorite episode from The Prince And The Pauper happens towards the end of the story:

"Speak up, good lad, and fear nothing," said the king. "How used you the Great Seal of England?"

Tom stammered a moment, in a pathetic confusion, then got it out: 

"To crack nuts with!"

I always thought that cracking nuts with the Great Seal of England was the biggest possible misuse of something. Not anymore!

The way most people use their chess engines beats the hilarious episode from the Mark Twain's book by a wide margin! 

Look at the live transmission from any chess super-tournament and you'll see a chess engine working on the side providing all the variations and evaluations for spectators. The poor viewers get used to the fact that at any point of the game they have the best possible moves in the position spoonfed to them. As a result, they forget how to think on their own and in most cases, they have a very distorted view of a real-life chess game.

I would divide such people in two opposite camps. 

The first group of chess players thinks that playing chess is super easy. Well, they are right, it is indeed simple...if you have a chess engine at your fingertips! Here is an example:

I was watching the game live and just like I always do, I turned off the chess engine. I saw that after 37. Qd6, the threat 38.Qe7 is deadly and should be stopped at any cost. I also saw that 37...Qd3 was bad due to a simple combo 38.Nxe6!

While I intuitively knew that there should be a defense against 38.Qe7, I still couldn't find it! I still didn't see a defense when Karjakin quickly played his move 37...Qd3. I couldn't believe my eyes! Usually grandmasters see combinations like 38.Nxe6 almost instantly; besides, excellent tactical vision is the trademark of GM Karjakin.

I had no idea what was going on until Sergey explained it during the press conference. It turned out that he also saw that 37...Qd3 was allowing the tactical shot 38.Nxe6, but just like me he didn't see how to stop the 38.Qe7. So, in time trouble (he had about two minutes left) he had to play 37...Qd3 as the lesser evil.  

This simple and honest explanation was something foreign for all the Monday-morning quarterbacks. They claimed they all saw such a simple move as 37...Qa4 instantly and Karjakin needed to learn how to play chess. By the way, I noticed that the less a person understands the subject, the more aggressive his judgment becomes!

When you explain to such people that they saw 37...Qa4 instantly only because of the computer engine working in the background, they usually say something like, "yes, I had the engine running, but believe me, even without any engine I would see this move in about 10 seconds. It is such a simple move!"

The second group of people who heavily use computer engines is just the opposite of the first group. After years of relying on chess engines, they forget how to think on their own and start believing that chess is way too complicated and only computers can play good moves.

Here is another game from the same match, Carlsen-Karjakin, as proof of this phenomenon.

In the comment section of this article where I analyzed the endgame, I got a number of people expressing a similar opinion, which can be summarized by this comment:

"This was played with just seconds left on the clock, in a rapid game, with a world champion title at stake. And you guys sit with the solution and monster computers but can't understand how he missed it. Facepalm."

This is a valid opinion! As I mentioned above, many Monday-morning quarterbacks make this mistake, thinking that a move is very simple just because an engine finds it in 0.1 seconds. But as I said, I don't use engines and somehow I was able to find the win on my own almost instantly.  

Moreover, I gave this position as a test to my students rated above USCF 1400.  Almost all of them found the solution in less than 30 seconds. So I guess this is not such a difficult task after all. But to be fair, all my students knew that there was a solution and Carlsen didn't.

Had Magnus known that there was a strong sequence of moves in that position, I have no doubt that he would have found the solution in less than three seconds.

I think all these people using chess engines non-stop make the same mistake. If you don't trust me, listen to the "professor." Here is what super-GM Boris Gelfand says in his excellent book, Dynamic Decision Making In Chess:

"I suggest that those who start out young should study chess without computer assistance for years, in order to understand the game before you use this powerful tool. As Kasparov said: the main thing to understand about engines is when to turn it on and when to turn it off."

Have you noticed that GM Gelfand is not a luddite who calls for destroying computers? He calls them a very powerful tool. He is absolutely right; the engine is an extremely powerful and useful tool if your goal is to get better in chess. You just need to follow Kasparov's advice.

So how should you use a chess engine? In my opinion, the best way to use it is to correct your own human mistakes.

Here is what you should do. After you've finished a tournament game, analyze it on your own. No engines! After you finish your analysis and write down the main variations, as well as the lessons you learned from the game, it is finally time to use a chess engine!

Go to and enter your game move-by-move. You'll be surprised by the results!

First of all the engine will immediately point out your big blunders (hanging pieces and missed checkmates in one!).

Then it will suggest better moves that you should have played. Compare your initial analysis that you wrote down with the engine's suggestions. The computer will correct your mistakes in both the actual game and the analysis! 

Sometimes you'll find something really unusual. Imagine that the engine refuses to accept the move you played in your game. It doesn't say it is good or bad; it simply doesn't allow you to enter the move.  It means only one thing: you played an illegal move and both you and your opponent missed it!

Do you think it doesn't happen too often? If a super-GM played an illegal move and the world champion didn't notice, then believe me it can happen to you!

Here Black played 30. ... 0-0 and reportedly during the game no one noticed that it was an illegal move!  But when the game was over (Black won!) and they started entering the moves into a computer, the engine alerted everyone that Black cannot play 30...0-0 as his rook already moved! 

To summarize, here is what you should and should not do if you want to use an engine to get better in chess:

  • Do not use an engine when you are following a live game played by strong chess players. Try to understand what's going on using your own head!
  • Do not use an engine to analyze your games before you did it on your own.
  • Do use to check the conclusions and quality of your own analysis.  

It will help you to identify the major blunders (or even illegal moves!) that you played. It will point out the critical points of the game and show you your major shortcomings.  

As a result you will understand and learn the lessons from your games better.

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