Thursday, December 03, 2020

Chess is Back

Back in 2005, I wrote a post titled Chess and Poker. Not really comparing the two but noting that Chess had lost its mojo while poker had high-stakes prime time tournaments. The inspiration was an NYT Op-Ed that started "CHESS in America is having a crisis". I suggested that computers getting better than humans may have reduced interest in the game. 

Now chess is booming again, due to all of us being stuck at home and the Netflix limited series The Queen's Gambit (highly recommended). 

The fictional show takes place in the 1960's when interest in chess in the US started to pick up due to Bobby Fischer's exploits and well before computers played a decent game. Fischer isn't mentioned in the Netflix series, the main character Beth Harmon sort of plays his role. The games themselves, created by Gary Kasparov and others, are even a joy to watch. Check out this analysis of the final game (spoiler warning). 

The New York Times started a chess column in 1962 and ran its last column in 2014, though that might be saying more about the state of newspapers than the state of chess.

What about the computers? They have just gotten so good and with AlphaZero mastering the game with just machine learning on top of the rules of chess, it's not even fun to watch computer versus computer anymore. Now we're back to watching humans and getting back into the games ourselves.

Computers have opened the door to cheating. Complexity theorist Ken Regan has a side gig reviewing games to determine if a player punching above their weight secretly used a computer algorithm. 

Microsoft just announced chess programs that play as a human at various levels of strength. I suppose someone could use a program like this to cheat in a way that even Ken couldn't detect. But mostly it would be like Googling in pub trivia--just takes the fun out of the game.


  1. I assume the main point of Microsoft's program is that you can finally play against computers and have fun doing it! Playing against somebody of your own strength is great for learning and enjoying chess. And of course, there is not always a human opponent available (certainly not for four hour games).

  2. Problem chess (see the Wikipedia entry "Chess problem") is also highly influenced by computers. First, the positions can be checked for soundness, so "cooked" problems no longer appear. Second, using databases some sort of automatic composing is fashionable (with few pieces) by fishing out promising problems. Third, composing is supported and sped up by a computer analyzing the positions in the various stages of development, though composing is still not fully automated but needs human input. Regarding solving, this was already possible for a computer to some degree in the 60s. Still human solving did not vanish, there are even solving tourneys and a World Championship where human solvers compete on tricky chess problems. Also, to really enjoy the content of a chess problem (hear the music play) one has to go the way of solving it by pure thinking and not just look at the solution produced in lightning speed by a computer. The field is still very active albeit the decline of popular chess columns in newspapers and magazines (nowadays Sudoku seems to be more common) has put it somewhat out of sight of the public.

  3. Just this week we also saw the first tournament in "Quantum Chess", which is being organized as part of the Q2B conference. The 8 players come from various quantum computing companies, and you can follow it live on twitch.
    The first round had lots of drama and confusion, and was a lot of fun. The semi-finals and final are on December 8 and 9. See here for the bracket:
    [disclaimer: I work at QC Ware, which organizes Q2B)