Why I Stopped Playing Chess Against Artificial Intelligence

Why I Stopped Playing Chess Against Artificial Intelligence

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A decade ago, I purchased myself a digital chess board, because I was looking for “someone” to play chess with. Playing online, after all day at the office, staring at the computer screen, was not an option. My digital chess board, Mephisto Exclusive, quickly became my best friend. I named him Morf. Alright, it’s MORF – My Other-Reality Friend. Although, on bad chess days, the F stands for Foe. Yet, other times for Follower, for when instead of playing chess I blog about it, and Morf just lays there on the table patiently waiting to be turned on.

That is all nice, until we had a “fight” and I clearly saw our substantial differences.  Now I call him the Slayer (ok SLAYER). And we are no longer “exclusive”. But we’ll get to that shortly.  

My initial relationship with Morf was that of a girl-meets-boy. Innocent, exciting, dreamy. All I could think of was how wonderful it was to finally find a perfect match for my chess skills. I couldn’t wait to get home from work and play a game with Morf. Even butterflies were in the air.

Morf played at a Master level. He would beat me 99% of the time, unless I took a move back or asked for a hint, in which case we were pretty even. But as time went by, the magic of our friendship was starting to fade. I realized that I wasn’t having fun with Morf. Something was amiss. Morf almost never blundered. Boring. He always played safe and clean. Very boring. He took no risks and gave me little opportunity to exploit his position. Bummer. He wouldn’t even respond to flirtation (not that I tried)! Forget that! Morf was missing an entire human element – that exact human touch that makes the game so beautiful, powerful and irresistible.

Oh, and when he did checkmate me – his lights would light up like when you win a lottery in a casino, and it would sing “ti-tu-tu-tyoooo”. “Yea, thanks for rubbing it in, you – 8x8 kingdom of wood-chips figurines with magnets attached to the buttocks!” Pardon my language.

“Opponents” like that, just suck out all the joy that chess has to offer. Human opponents, on the other hand, make mistakes, miscalculate, blunder, take risks, make funny noises when deep in thought, succumb to or put on psychological tricks and pressure, and can even follow intuition when logic defies all odds; something machines cannot do.

Humanizing Morf                                                                                                                          

I tried to humanize my Morf by having my husband, whose chess rating is 1400 points below mine,  play against me as my “fake” opponent, using Morf. This was before we got married. “Listen, John,” I pleaded, “I get that you don’t really know how to play chess, but would you please pretend for just one game that you are veeeery good and move the pieces for Morf as if it is you who is playing? He will tell you what to do.” “Sure” my future husband agreed reluctantly … It was awkward.

We both felt like Morf was insulting John’s high intelligence. “Am I winning or losing yet? What’s taking this so long?” John would ask. “You are … uhm, winning,” I’d confirm.

John asked me to never torture him like this with Morf ever again, once we got married. Oh, and he also asked me to never eat straight garlic in his presence. My two wedding vows … Oops, I now side-tracked. Back to the story.

Is Chess A Game Of Two Egos?

“I like the moment when I break a man’s ego,” Bobby Fisher once said. As cruel as it sounds, I’m guilty to admit I feel the same when it comes to chess. Forgive me, but it’s human nature, no matter how much some of you will deny it; no matter how spiritual, “monk”-ish or uncompetitive you are. In fact, if you have adopted a monk-mindset, then, according to Buddha, or Wikipedia (ref1), you also know that chess should be banned from your life forever, for that same reason. You can’t play good chess with a tamed ego.

But my Morf can! He plays chess and is egoless! I think it bothers me. When I beat him on a rare occasion, I can’t rub it in in his “face”. And, when I lose, my ego gets crushed too. As for Morf – he remains unaffected, monk-like. For that, I renamed Morf to Slayer, or SLAYER - Soul-Less, Artificial, You – Egoless, Robot!

When I calm down, I do try to remind myself in vain that “I am not my ego, thoughts or emotions. I am the awareness behind it all; a higher consciousness,” as Eckhart Tolle would say. He would be so disappointed in me.

What did Sigmund Freud Say About Egos?

“The pleasure of satisfying a savage instinct, undomesticated by the ego, is incomparably much more intense than the one of satisfying a tamed instinct. The reason is becoming the enemy that prevents us from a lot of possibilities of pleasure.” Whaaaa? To translate this into chess language, what I think Freud is saying is this: don’t tame your ego and pretend to be nice to your opponents when you win: “Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss, here is a tissue”. When you win, you win! Show them how you truly feel! Scream “gotcha”, then rip off your shirt, throw it down on the floor, flex some muscle, if you’ve got some, and … ROARRR! (Note to women: even if you are voluptuous like I wish I were, this would be inappropriate, so you’ll have to contend yourselves with a quiet … meow.) You’ll get much more pleasure out of the game this way. Sigmund Freud would have been proud of me.

Can’t do that with SLAYER, though. It couldn’t care less if you are tame or savage, egotistic or monk-like, fully dressed or entirely topless.

What about top Grandmasters?

How do you think Garry Kasparov felt when he won his first match against Deep Blue in 1996? I’m guessing like this: “I won. Now where is my dinner?” It was so expected that no one even remembers or talks about this.

Now how do you think Kasparov felt when he lost his last and final game to Deep Blue in the 1997 rematch? Angry, frustrated … in denial. He “argued that the computer must actually have been controlled by a real grand master,” (Ref 2) a notion that started the conspiracy theory against the machine. “Yet the reality was that Deep Blue’s victory was precisely because of its rigid, unhuman-like commitment to cold, hard logic in the face of Kasparov’s emotional behaviour.” You see, even Kasparov couldn’t emotionally handle playing against a machine. It’s just not fun, it’s weird and there is no psychology involved.

Judit Polgar also remarked that “chess is thirty to forty percent psychology. You don't have this when you play a computer. I can't confuse it.” Neither can I, Judit.

Off to the closet Slayer goes, grounded for life.


Our 10 Year Anniversary

Needless to say, I’m still happy I’ve got Slayer. They say money can’t buy you love, but they are wrong. It's been 10 years since I’ve spent my $500 on Slayer and I did love him at one point. Maybe I still do. He helped me practice my openings and keep my chess skills alive through all these years.  It’s just that a “Smurf” that I am – I decided that it wasn’t fun anymore. As a chess player, I would always want my chess ego go head-to-head against another one … And if I ever manage to tame it, I would be content with the “ti-tu-tu-tyuuu”.


Ref 1:

Ref 2:

Former Canadian Girls Chess Champion (1999 tied for 1st, 2001 1st place)

Busy mom of two

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