Earth, Wind, And Fire-Breathing Chess Engines

Earth, Wind, And Fire-Breathing Chess Engines

| 21 | Chess Event Coverage

I slew a dragon. 

Well, I split a four-game, material-odds match with one -- does that still count? And by dragon, I mean Komodo, the world's strongest chess engine. That's not a made-up title either; Komodo 9.3x just demolished Stockfish in the 100-game TCEC Season 8 Superfinal

From November 11-12, I was humanity's hope against the best chess player in the world. I had commentated on Komodo's win over GM Aleksandr Lenderman, so I knew I was in for a rough ride. Since all games were played over and I had no visible opponent, I tried to imagine I was competing against the ever-so-slightly more friendly Mean Machine.


Like playing chess against Komodo, we mere mortals stand no chance as opponents of Jason Statham's character in the British comedy Mean Machine.

I rarely find myself seated at the chessboard these days, which made the task of being adequate competition for a world-class engine that much more difficult. I did prepare, albeit to a lesser extent than I imagine most would have. I've always hated memorizing openings 25 moves deep, and this was no exception. With material odds, I figured I'd play it relatively safe and see what happened. 

My two starting positions were as follows: White with an exchange up and my rook on b1 while Komodo's rook on a8 was removed, and White with pawns on e4 and d4 and Black missing the f7 pawn. In all games, I had 45 minutes+25 seconds increment per move, while Komodo had 45 minutes with 15 second increment. I was given greater increment because I was providing commentary while playing, thus ensuring I would be making slower moves.

At these odds, I figured I would be a big favorite in the pawn-up position but a slight underdog with the extra exchange. Needless to say, I was expecting victory.

In the first game I was too solid. I was concerned that Komodo would lash out if I overextended, and I missed my best chance by not playing 18. Qxa7.

I was exhausted following the game, as I had exerted all of my energy trying to win the first round. After a brief nap and an early dinner, I was ready for round two.

Whereas I had been a bit timid in the first round, I went into the second fully intent on entering a heated battle. I stuck to my gameplan perfectly, my preparation showing up on the board. I got restless and (correctly!) sacrificed a rook for three pawns, but I could not find the correct continuation and the game concluded as a draw by repetition.

Disappointed by my rusty calculating abilities, I ate a late dinner, watched some basketball, and called it a night. But my sleep was restless, my mind wandering to miscellaneous thoughts of rook sacrifices and pawn storms. What would it take to defeat Komodo?

In the morning, I pumped myself up to play once more with the exchange odds. And everything was going perfectly until disaster struck. No, I didn't even get a chance to blunder. Instead, I mouseslipped!

Ugh. What more is there to say? I played a nearly perfect opening, had an unbelievable position, and then allowed it all to be for naught with a literal slip of the wrist. I very much appreciated Grandmaster Larry Kaufman's generous offer to take back the blunder, but I could not do that. After all, he was inputting all of Komodo's moves correctly, so I should be held to the same standard.

Despite the mouseslip, I was upbeat. For starters, 1.5 points were more than Lenderman scored in six games (to be fair to Aleks, he had worse odds). But more important, I was always the one pressing for a win. I never had worse position, even after all of my miscalculations and blunders and mouseslips. I went into the fourth round ready to emerge victorious!

...And then I fell flat. I never even gave myself a real shot to win. I made imprecise moves. I played slowly. I gave Komodo too much respect. I just never got ahead.

And that was that. Four draws. I still can't believe it. I hate draws. But hey, if I have to draw a game, might as well be with an engine rated over 3350. 

Now that I have had some time to reflect on my match, I think the biggest lesson I learned is that I need to remain a bit more objective about the position on the board. I always tell students that they must think about the game one move at a time, otherwise they are not playing chess.

Admittedly, I found the psychology of the match difficult. It is hard knowing from the very first move that with precise play you must be winning. Of course, I'm far from perfect, so mistakes were bound to occur. But playing scared is no way to excel in chess. I managed to play without fear in the second and third games, but rounds one and four were defensive efforts without a significant push for victory.

A valuable lesson indeed, something to keep in mind going forward. But for now...That's all folks!

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