Komodo Defies Odds vs Mikhalevski

Komodo Defies Odds vs Mikhalevski

Chess engines may not really need warmups, but the strongest chess engine of all time, Komodo (currently rated 3368) found time in its busy schedule for just that. Komodo successfully defeated GM Victor Mikhalevski 5-1 in an odds match January 2-4 — just two days prior to its match against the U.S. number one, GM Hikaru Nakamura.

The challenger, Mikhalevski, plays for Israel, and is known for a sharp style of play. Readers may be familiar with Mikhalevski as an author in the popular Grandmaster Repertoire series for which he wrote the recent tome on the Open Spanish.

Mikhalevski conceded a cavalier approach to the match, acknowledging that, in terms of preparation, he had done "almost none."

Humanity's affable representative, GM Victor Mikhalevski. (Photo courtesy of chesspatzerblog.)

The six-game Komodo vs. Mikhalevski match consisted of three different types of odds:

  1. One Pawn and Two Moves — The f7 pawn is removed.
  2. Exchange and Move — The a1 rook and the b8 knight are removed; the a8 rook starts on b8.
  3. Two Pawns — One game with b2 and c2 pawns removed; one game with c2 and d2 pawns removed.

The time control for all games was 45 minutes with a 15-second increment.

These odds matches are the brainchild of Komodo co-programmer GM Larry Kaufman. Kaufman may be inspired by the popularity of odds as a learning tool in Shogi (Japanese chess) where he is one of the strongest Western players in the world.

Kaufman engaging in some over-the-board research. (Photo © 2009 Terese Hatch.)

The opening game was quite auspicious for Mikhalevski. The initial odds were one pawn and two moves. After the match, Mikhalevski reported that these were the odds that he felt most comfortable with.

Despite some scary activity from Komodo in the endgame, Mikhalevski was never worse, and he even achieved a moral victory in reaching the R + B vs. R endgame. Against a human, one might hope to induce an error, but of course, there was no point in playing the game out against Komodo.

Mikhalevski cited this as the best game of the match saying, "I managed to keep everything under control for most of the game, and even when it got a little sharp I stayed calm and played a series of good moves."

Limited variations given by Komodo.

Game two was the most spectator-friendly as Komodo was in a sacrificial "mood." The game started reasonably well for Mikhalevski as he retained his advantage through the first 20 moves. However, he then underestimated the very nice bishop sacrifice from Komodo on move 21.

After this, Mikhalevski could not seem to regain his excellent form from the first game, and Komodo won each of the next three games to reach a score 4.5-0.5.

Game four was generally well-played by Mikhalevski. After some complications, he was a pawn ahead, and a repetition seemed likely if Mikhalevski simply played waiting moves.

However, he pushed onwards with 32.b4; possibly this was the best move in the position, but it took the draw off the table. A few moves later, Mikhalevski erred, and Komodo took full advantage.

The final game was likely the closest Mikhalevski was to a win. Given two pawn odds, Mikhalevski quickly and happily relinquished one extra pawn to reach a knight endgame.

The endgame was possibly winning, but of course, it is difficult to defeat an opponent who makes zero tactical errors. After a prolonged battle, Komodo eliminated the final pawn and secured the draw.

Despite the lopsided final score, Mikhalevski's score is probably a statistically good one. Mikhalevski's current FIDE rating is 2528, meaning that he is ceding Komodo more than 800 (!) Elo points. Even at odds, two draws is probably a good result.

After the match, Mikhalevski said that he was impressed by Komodo's "super-human play." Komodo made "virtually no computer moves," said Mikhalevski. Instead, the engine played more or less as a top grandmaster would.

Varanus Komodoensis — It's not clear if the animal or the machine is the more fearsome.

According to Kaufman, "after this match, Komodo still remains unbeaten after 32 games with grandmasters at odds of exchange, exchange and move, pawn (f7) and move, pawn (f7) and two moves, and two pawns excluding f2. The only losses to GMs have been at the larger handicaps of pawn (f7) and THREE moves, and two pawns including f2. It is not so difficult for GMs to make draws at these handicaps, but incredibly difficult to win." 

Games from this and other man vs. machine matches are available in Kaufman's archives.

Anticipating Nakamura vs. Komodo, Mikhalevski said that "[Nakamura's] chances will depend on many factors, including his preparation, I think he should be satisfied with the result if he draws the match."

That match begins tomorrow, taking place on January 6 and 7. The games and commentary will be broadcast live on Chess.com/TV and Twitch.tv/chess. Two games will be played each day at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Pacific time.

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