Monday, July 16, 2007

The March of the Machine

Ever since I got my copy of Fritz, I have renamed computer chess programmes collectively as The Destroyers of Dreams. That Bxb5+ sacrifice which took you ten minutes to spot, another ten minutes for your half-shaking hand to play, and soon a crunching victory was yours!- you come home grinning, but twenty seconds later the computer flashes up the forced draw your opponent failed to find, you too in the post-mortem after. Or you arrive home thinking, I positionally outplayed him, it went from equal to plus-equal to +/- and then I mastered that endgame; such a nice, smooth game. But the evaluation graph shows mountains and valleys, up and down like a hyperactive yo-yo - for in the midst of your vague shuffling, each of you missed dramatic pawn breaks all over the board. Your smooth game has been turned into the battle of two blind toddlers, each armed with drooping swords, dripping with rust.

Personal vanity aside, chess computers are busy destroying broader chess dreams too. The most conspicuous is the idea humans are good at it. That with our intuition, imagination, fighting spirit, understanding, we transcend brute force and formulas and at our best, make an art out of a game. Of course - we can make excuses for each of mankind's losses to the computers - Kasparov was distracted by the possibility IBM were cheating, Kramnik's mate-in-one blunder was a total freak, and how it all might have been different, and so on. But the fact is, we have to make these excuses every time, not just as a one off.

The latest not-just-a-one-off, which finished last week, was nonetheless an interesting encounter. As previewed, the computer Rybka would take on Grandmaster Jaan Ehlvest with considerable odds. An opening book only going to move 3. No tablebases. Black in each game. Half the starting clock time, a third the increment. Quite good odds for the human, you might think?

Not really, as it turned out. Ehlvest drew three and lost three. You can find the often-interesting games, a brief report and comments here on the Rybka Forum, whilst hopefully Ehlvest will update his blog with more comments than currently there. Finally, there was a particularly interesting interview at chessvibes with Rybka's creator Vasik Rajlich and Larry Kaufman, who organised the match. Here's one choice quote from many:
any match between a human and Rybka where Rybka doesn’t give a material handicap must be played with a tiny Rybka book just to keep things reasonably competitive. Even this doesn’t seem to be enough, so probably, we will look in the direction of material handicaps now.
Perhaps rather than destroy dreams, a different dream is emerging: that the Romantic, amateur, café-based era of chess will be reborn - but instead of a human defeating ten opponents at once, each at pawn-odds, and with a game of whist on the side, a little laptop performs this miracle instead, and the line of patzers-victims consists solely of super-Grandmasters.

Or is that a new chess nightmare?




PS, for our UK readers. If you prefer chess on TV to chess with computers, there is a programme called "Make Me a Genius", part of the My Brilliant Brain series, on Channel 5 tonight from 9pm to 10pm. It's all about Susan Polgar, and The Radio Times says: "This episode focuses on 38-year-old Susan Polgar, the first female chess grandmaster, whose incredible story suggests that genius does not always have to be innate, but can be taught. How has Susan trained her brain to such a formidable degree?" The rather odd thing here is that Susan Polgar is not a genius, so her story actually suggests the exact opposite conclusion: no matter how much training someone has, you need genius to be a genius. Thanks to Angus for the tip-off.

16 comments:

ejh said...

I do think that the computer advances have had a very negative impact on the public understanding of chess, which they may well now think of as having been solved, or just for computers.

ejh said...

Oh, for the footnote: yes, I'd have thought the whole point about genius is that it's innate, no? Of course the qualities that one thereby possesses have to be identified and trained and disciplined, or else Mozart doesn't become Mozart: but it's a simple matter of definition, surely.

Tom Chivers said...

I think Polgar Senior was trying to prove, more or less, that genius doesn't exist. In other words, you take anyone not obviously a genius, train them hard enough, and their achievements correspond to those of genius. He came close with Judit but ultimately, I think, failed to prove his point.

I think he was blank slate psychologist, or some such. And it sounds like this TV programme puts the psycho before the logic too.

Anonymous said...

In a previous programme a couple of months ago Susan Polgar was pitted against a variety of other high achievers (high IQ types, scientists, artists etc.) in a variety of tests. She did poorly in almost all the tests. If she has an innate gift it seems to be very specific for chess. I'm inclined to believe, in her case at least, that her "gift" is in fact a learned "skill".

Paul R

Jonathan B said...

What happened to the other one (Polgar sister I mean)?

"Bloody iron monsters" - was it Michael Stean who conined that term for chess playing computers?


J

PS: I think Justin is right - re public view of chess.

Tom Chivers said...

I believe she lives in Canada where she's married and works now in some kind of design, or visual art craft stuff. Something like that. Sofia, was it?

DG said...

I have frequently had the experience of feeling really good about one or more moves that I played in a game and then finding out from Fritz that it was actually a gross blunder. I'm not sure whether this says more about Fritz or about me as a player?!

Tom Chivers said...

Depends on the move?

Maybe...

ejh said...

Incidentally, inputting some games yesterday I had the opposite experience - it reckoned some moves I thought were blunders actually weren't.

Chris Morgan said...

I watched the programme on Susan Polgar last night and thought it was very good. It turns out from tests that she uses the same part of the brain that recognises faces to memorise chess patterns. All this talk of computers beating humans, and hard-wiring the brain for pattern recognition makes me wonder if there is any creativity left though.

Jonathan B said...

I watched the programme too. I thought the subject was interesting but the programme itself was dishonest (not the least in its use of fake footage purporting to be archive material of a young Polgar).

I shall be returning to this subject very soon!

Wahrheit said...

One more thing--

"This episode focuses on 38-year-old Susan Polgar, the first female chess grandmaster.."

wasn't Nona Gaprindashvili the first, back when Zsuza was just a gleam in old Lazlo's eye?

Tom Chivers said...

Yes, I think you're right. There might be a post in this in fact - I think she was described as such before some speech she gave too.

ejh said...

Well, she did and she didn't.

ejh said...

According to this Susan Polgar was the first to earn the title the same way that men do.

Chris Morgan said...

I didn't the footage in the Polgar programme was purporting to be actual footage of the young Susan Polgar, although it did come across like that.