Computer skeptic no more

ArnieChipmunk
ArnieChipmunk
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0 | Chess Event Coverage
Computer skeptic no moreWith the first decade drawing to a close, many sites look back on the past ten years and publish their lists of ‘greatest’ movies and books, most influential people, most important historical events and most significant technological developments. In chess, it’s not difficult to establish the most important change, which is of course the rise of the now-indispensible engine as a tool for chess analysis. What’s more interesting is the change in attitude that it has inspired.

During the last few days, with the eyes of the entire world on the Copenhagen Climate Summit while climate ‘skeptics’ demand equal time in the debate and attempt to confuse public opinion with misinformation and politically motivated arguments, I was often reminded of how I myself used to look at chess computers in the 90s. As aggravated as I am now about the lowly tactics of today's climate skeptics, I’m afraid back in the days I was a kind of computer-skeptic, too, in the sense that I found it very, very hard to believe chess engines could ever replace or imitate the best of human chess thinking. I simply couldn’t imagine a lifeless machine suggesting a subtle long-term positional exchange sacrifice.

Kramnik vs Deep FritzI also couldn’t believe a computer could ever understand what, say, Hedgehog positions were all about and secretly, I believed the strongest human grandmasters would always be able to outplay computers when all tactics had been drained out of the position. I sincerely thought nothing of importance could ever be learned from looking at computer chess except maybe a feel for hidden tactics. Of course, I was hopelessly wrong. The only positive thing I can say about it is that I was not alone. Even after the match Kramnik-Deep Fritz in 2006, which ended in a crushing defeat for the 14th World Champion, many people opined that Kramnik had lost due to ‘lack of concentration’ and other psychological reasons. Tellingly, though, no human vs. computer matches at the highest level have been played since.

What’s interesting is not that humans have gradually lost the battle against computers, but that nowadays there are almost no sceptics left when it comes to the supremacy of chess engines as a source of knowledge. Even the most traditionally-minded chess players, who at some point in their career solemnly promised they would never, ever, use a computer in their analysis, have now accepted this paradigm shift. Every respectable chess author, whether writing for New in Chess or the local club magazine, now checks his analyses with Rybka or Fritz - and anyone who doesn’t will be ridiculed and scorned by both reviewers and readers.

Gone are the days when people looked down on Kasparov's win in the 10th game of his 1995 World Championship match against Anand, merely because he perpared the famous rook sacrifice on a1 with the help of Fritz 4. In fact, nowadays the added value of human chess analysis mainly consists of making use of computer analysis and then commenting upon it, making sensible selections and separating pure ‘brute force’ tactics from more positional lines in a humanly meaningful way. This is a totally different way of working for anyone involved in chess analysis and it has had a profound impact on chess culture.

First of all, as in many fields of expertise, the development has triggered a kind of ‘democratizing’ of chess analysis. As many have noted, nowadays any chess amateur with a chess engine and a strong CPU can refute the analysis of world class grandmasters. In fact, at some chess tournaments the only people in the playing hall who are not aware of the correct evaluation of a complicated position are the players themselves - for lack of earphones through which the commentators are briefing Rybka's latest variations! According to some, this in turn has led to a decrease in respect for chess authorities. Perhaps this is true, although I personally think this has more to do with the large anonymous nature of internet itself than with the quality of one’s chess analysis. You don’t see someone from the audience of the Corus tournament come up to Carlsen and accuse him of being a ‘wimp’ for refusing to accept Morozevich’s incorrect piece sac, do you?

KasparovHowever, I think it was Kasparov himself who has said that this ‘democratization’ of chess is actually a good thing: the more people are involved in high-quality analysis, the more knowledge will be gained and the closer we will get to the Ultimate Truth. So much for all the bitter regrets and nostalgia for the lost age of chess innocence! It seems hard to disagree with Kasparov, but I would make one provision: chess enthusiasts should definitely realize that playing chess behind a board, against a real opponent, is completely different from looking at your monitor with an engine running in the background. This sounds trivial, but I’ve often been annoyed by kibitzers complaining about the lack of quality in time-scrambles, as if these players are absolutely required to see as much as their engine in the same amount of time and are totally worthless when they don’t!

With hindsight, I must admit it was pretty foolish to be so skeptical. The evidence was always there. Chess, essentially, is not just a game of humans but a set of mathematical rules that obey basic laws of physics. Actually, I think it won’t be too long before even the best chess players in the world don’t truly understand computer analysis anymore. We can already see signs of that in some games and variations: the ‘human explanation’ will then be just a speculative guess; chess intuition will be in the dark, looking for clues that perhaps simply aren’t there. It will just be nonsense to our human frame of reference, a bit like quantum physics.

We may not like it, but that’s just the way reality works. Reality simply cannot be combined with wishful-thinking. Perhaps climate 'skeptics' should embrace this philosophy, too: the idea that we’re polluting the planet and can’t just do whatever we want anymore may not be a comforting thought, and it may not lead to a pleasant course of action, but we’ll just have to learn to deal with it. Who knows, we may even start to like it.

Yesterday, I read an excellent definition of a skeptic: "a person who strongly prefers to accept as fact only that for which there is verifiable and reasoned evidence, and who is prepared to put aside that fact should the evidence suggest this be done." Of course, it's this last condition that's so hard to grasp for climate - and anti-evolution - skeptics, which is why some people prefer to call them 'denialists' (or 'lobbyists') instead. Being a skeptic is only useful if the evidence is on your side. If it isn’t - if chess computers win all the games, help us improve analysis and can even teach us interesting things about the game we didn't know - it’s time to change your mind and stop preaching to the choir.
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