Time to de-throne the chess computer


Things move slowly in the world of chess. That is probably why we are not doing anything about the elephant in the room, the real world champion. The chess-playing computer. Unquestionably, it is diminishing the world champions of today, as also the game itself. Sorry Magnus, no chess champion can really be a rock star anymore.

The reason why no effective action is being taken to rid the chess world of this menace appears to be that doing so would change the order of this world. Something like when sound first came into films, and nobody could tell which stars of the silent screen could make the transition to the talkies successfully. Another reason could be that FIDE is not what it used to be.

For, to get the computer out of the picture, we need to change the way the pieces move; ever so slightly should do. No castling on queen side. No castling after check. No double pawn moves. A pawn that crosses over gets the piece belonging to that square. Anything that makes the computer's endless repertoire redundant. Perhaps reverting back to the original Indian (or Arabian?) system would take care of the problem best.   

And why not? Chess has been virtually unchanged for the last one century or more. Sure, world championship rules, time controls, these have changed from time to time, but not the actual movement of the chessmen. Let us not forget that the game has evolved from the dice based Chaturanga of India, to the pieces having their own motive powers, and then being speeded up by the double move choice for pawns, castling etc. It is a man-made game and not a gift of the gods, although sometimes it does appear to be in its relentless justice on the board. There is nothing wrong in sensible and well thought out changes by the chess elite to meet the circumstances of our times. 

When the chess computer was just coming in in the 70's, chess players found the notion that it could one day outplay humans laughable. In the 1972 title match between Fischer and Spassky, the Russian allegation that Fischer was being helped by a computer was greeted with great amusement and FIDE boss Max Euwe responded by saying that "Computers play average chess, very bad..". I myself comfortably mated a computer at level 8 (on a real chess board with real pieces, with blinking lights to tell the computer's moves) 10 years later while waiting for my flight at Heathrow in 1983. Chess skill was considered simply too human. The truth began to dawn soon, as world champion Kasparov started having trouble beating Deep Blue, then drawing, then finally lost, in a series of games over a few years. Chess players then must have felt as I did, that some of the essence of the game, its mystique had been lost. 

Do we really need to make chess free of domination by the computer? You bet. Anand has very recently complained about how the computer devalues moves arrived at after intense thought at the board, under conditions of severe stress, by telling the onlookers the same move in a billionth of a second. It is only human that even a great chess player would be demotivated, knowing that the audience already knows the best move he could possibly make.

Is changing the rules to outwit the computer really such a big deal for the players or for chess? The very first example of human adaptibily in chess which immediately comes to mind is that of Sultan Khan, the Indian player who came with his maharaja to Europe in the late 1920's, and although familiar only with the Indian style of chess (i.e. pawns only one move, different rules for castling etc.) quickly grasped the Western way and was soon defeating the highest ranked chess players of the world. Somehow it gives me a lot of satisfaction that the biggest computer today could not have achieved Sultan Khan's feat. 

Next we have Capablanca, a bit computer-like himself in his unsurpassed technique, so bored with the lack of any worthy competition, that he suggested the addition of a few more squares and pieces to make the game more challenging. Remember, Capablanca ranks among the best players of all time, maybe even ahead of Bobby Fischer. We also have the well known phenomenon of the best chess players also being masters of the faster forms of the game, which are so different in feel from the classical version.

Einstein expressed this flexible quality in the make-up of chess players, with reference to Lasker, by saying that "his mind had that exceptional elasticity characteristic of chess players".

As long as the computer can outplay human chess players the game is that much duller and video-gamish. The computer needs to be eliminated from the world of chess. Why not pit human flexibility against it, by changing the game just enough from time to time? The time to change is when it starts beating the world's best players. When it catches up, change the game again. Maybe a stage will come when the computer brain actually cannot cope and blows a fuse, or better still, the whole damn thing explodes from the strain.