The World Computer Championships: A History
[Editor's note: David Levy is the president of the International Computer Games Association.]
The history of chess programs competing in tournaments is exactly 50 years old. In February 1967 the program MacHack VI, developed at MIT primarily by Richard Greenblatt with some assistance from Donald E. Eastlake, took part in a local chess tournament (for humans) in Massachusetts in which it lost four games and drew one, achieving a USCF performance rating of 1243. By the following month Greenblatt had improved the program and it managed to win a game (and lost four) in its second tournament, for a performance rating of 1360.
After further improvements, MacHack’s third tournament result (in April 1967) showed a significant improvement, winning two and losing two, for a performance rating of 1640, sufficient for it to be made an honorary member of both the United States Chess Federation and the Massachusetts Chess Association.
By 1970 there were sufficient researchers developing chess-playing programs for a chess tournament in which all of the participants would be computer programs. Thus the first ACM North American Computer Chess Championship was hosted by the Association for Computing Machinery at its annual conference in New York. The winning program was CHESS 3.0, developed by David Slate, Larry Atkin and Keith Gorlen at Northwestern University. For most of the 1970s Slate and Atkin dominated the computer chess tournament scene (Gorlen dropped out of the team), winning the ACM event eight times out of the first 10 championships.
The first few ACM tournaments were so successful, and they created so much publicity and interest in the computer world, that those of us involved in its organization decided to emulate FIDE, the World Chess Federation, by organizing a World Computer Chess Championship. And so it came to pass that the first WCCC took place in Stockholm, at the Birger Jarl Hotel, in the summer of 1974. Guest of honor was the former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik, who was himself a researcher in the field of computer chess. The British entrepreneur publisher Robert Maxwell donated a medal for the first champion, which was won by the Soviet program KAISSA, developed by Mikhail Donskoy, Vladimir Arlazarov and Anatoly Uskov.
Two moments from that tournament remain etched permanently in my memory. During the tournament one of the American programmers present was enjoying the world championship so much that, while on the telephone to his wife from the tournament hall, he was heard to say: “Gee honey. This is great. Better than sex.” (His marriage did not last.)
The other notable event for me from Stockholm was the closing dinner, during which President Nixon’s resignation speech was relayed live to all of us in the hotel’s dining room.
During the mid-1970s computer chess became more formally organized with the creation, in 1977, of the International Computer Chess Association (ICCA). By then the WCCC had become a regular event, held every three years.
By 1980, considerable enthusiasm for developing chess programs existed for many hobbyists to try their hand at creating a strong program. But it was clear that hobbyists were mostly at a big disadvantage relative to the academic developers, since hobbyists were mostly working on home computers while most academics had access to mainframe computers costing millions of dollars and providing super fast (for those days) processing power and much bigger computer memories.
The ICCA therefore decided to organize an annual World Microcomputer Chess Championship, which took place almost every year from 1980 to 2001. In the earliest years of the micro event the dominating programs were those developed by the American husband and wife Dan and Kathe Spracklen, whose SARGON software became the most popular commercially available program. The Spracklens subsequently signed a contract with Fidelity Electronics, which resulted in dedicated chess computer products incorporating their programs. After the Spracklens came Richard Lang from the UK, whose software won or tied first in seven of the micro World Championships from 1984 to 1990. And when the improvements in playing strength of Lang’s programs began to wane, his place was usurped by, amongst others, the programs SHREDDER (Stefan Meyer-Kahlen of Germany) and JUNIOR (Amir Ban and Shay Bushinsky, Israel).
By 2001 the computing power available from microprocessors had become sufficient for the micro brigade to successfully challenge many of those developers who had access to mainframe computers, so the point of holding a separate micro world championship had disappeared, and since then “anything goes” as far as the hardware at the WCCC is concerned.
In 2002 the ICCA morphed into the ICGA (International Computer Games Association) which also organized events for programs playing games other than chess. Nowadays there is the annual Computer Olympiad, running alongside the chess events, where games such as hex, go, abalone, Chinese chess, and many others each have their own tournaments.
The World Computer Chess Championship (WCCC) normally takes place every year, with no restriction on the computer hardware on which the programs may run. This event aims to find the world’s best chess software/hardware combination. The quality of the software is paramount, but because faster hardware is of benefit to a program, the ICGA also organizes the World Chess Software Championship (WCSC) which is a “uniform platform” event, where every participating program runs on hardware equal in memory capacity and processing power to that of all the other participants. In this way the WCSC finds the strongest chess software, irrespective of the computer on which it runs.
And for those who enjoy the quick cut and thrust of speed chess, we also organize the World Computer Speed Chess Championship.
Results of all of the events mentioned in this article can be found at in the Wikipedia article.
Results of the 2017 championships can be found at the official site.
This year the ICGA is delighted to partner with Chess.com in bringing these world chess championships to all Chess.com members, live, as the games are taking place in Leiden, in the Netherlands. We very much hope you will enjoy these chess battles. The strongest programs participating in Leiden are approximately 500 Elo points higher rated than the human world champion!