Do Computers Checkmate Chess? by check_off

Computers helped drive me away from chess. I don’t mean to imply that I was traumatized by Garry Kasparov’s loss to IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997. No, my downfall had come a decade earlier, and not to a high-powered chess machine, but to a slow, memory deficient Mac Plus. Losing to a Mac hurt my pride, and put me off the game for some time. But these many years later the bug has bit again. I play, and ironically the impact of computers is one of the things that keeps me curious about chess.

As for poker, backgammon, Scrabble and Go, the Internet provides a superb platform for chess. The Web functions, among other things, as a museum of major chess moments, a sort of Youtube of key moves. Do I want to revisit what’s known as “The Immortal Game,” played in 1851, and celebrated for its romantic flair, with Adolf Anderssen sacrificing piece after piece in his glamorous, hell-bent assault on Lionel Kieseritzky’s king? If I do, it’s available in on-line databases, with commentary and commendable chess engines to walk me through the moves.

It makes a sort of sense that computers have become fine hosts for chess. There’s a peculiar similarity between chess playing and programming, at least so it seems to this ex-programmer (of Macintoshes, no less). Chess is like coding but with evil intent. A chess game can be thought of as a contest between two software engineers out to infiltrate, bug, and ultimately crash each other’s code. Checkmate is a cool hack.

But there is also a way in which computation and chess are utterly dissimilar, and that computers can threaten the very soul of the game — its lore, literature and sense of history. By literature I mean not only masterpieces by great writers of fiction — Vladimir Nabokov and Paul Zweig to name but two of the more celebrated — but also writings by players themselves as they propose and propagandize for new paradigms of play.

Consider, for example, Aron Nimzowitsch’s claims apropos a game he won in 1923. He called it the “immortal zugzwang game,” more to contemporary tastes, he boasted, than Anderssen’s nineteenth century classic. Zugzwang is the situation that arises in chess when every move only brings you closer to disaster. It’s a sort of bedevilment; in zugzwang you are your own worst enemy. Nimzowitsch was an architect of zugzwang. For him, the age of romantic chess, of bloody frontal assaults, was over.

This distaste for gore — on the board and otherwise — might well have stemmed from Nimzowitsch’s having barely escaped the carnage of World War I. In any case, he strenuously maintained that in chess, something more subtle and sophisticated was being born, which he dubbed hypermodernism. A hypermodernist would not exclude sacrifices from his repertoire. However, he would employ them not to storm the gates, but to lure, coax and box his opponent into the self-destructive bind of zugzwang. Nimzowitsch wrote that hypermodernism, made “crude act[s] of aggression” passé. “The crude,” he concluded with aplomb, would thereby, at least in chess, be rendered “obsolete.”

You need little familiarity with chess or sympathy with the hypermodernist angle to appreciate Nimzowitsch’s sardonic edge. One thing I liked, and still like about chess, one thing that has drawn me and others like me to it, is that it has elicited and merited such polemical fervor. But you are not going to get that from Deep Blue, Rybka, Fritz, Chessbase, or any other piece of superhumanly good chess software. You’re not going to get a worldview, a new twist on chess history, which has always mirrored human history — that’s why it’s so easy to think of chess as an art. What you’ll get from the software is the right move, minus exactly the ingredient it takes to ferment lore.

The incontestable superiority of computer over human doesn’t mean chess is over — far from, not with the Internet being a gracious host and chess springing up in unpredictable corners of the culture. But it might mean that chess history as we’ve known and enjoyed it is over, that machine logic will clear the field of anything to argue about.

Think about it. I have a move to make, on-line, as it happens.



Filed under chess

14 responses to “Do Computers Checkmate Chess? by check_off

  1. E. T. Jones

    I used to play solitaire against the computer, but now it’s suicide, which I find far more meditative.

    For those who are unfamiliar with the rules of suicide, they are as follows: the board is set up as an ordinary board, but the player that loses all his pieces first is the winner. What makes it tricky is that if you can take the other player’s piece, you must do so. If you attempt another move, the computer will deem it illegal. I find the computer quickly puts me in a situation where I am compelled to capture one piece after another. Is this Zugzwang, and if it is, how does it differ from ordinary Zugzwang?

    Unlike ordinary chess, in suicide, you cannot make a good move, or rather, you cannot not make a bad move. You are forced to capture your opponent’s pieces. Imagine, if in ordinary chess, you were forced to make certain kinds of moves. Imagine how that would reduce the permutations of the game; remove, in fact, all foresight. A sacrifice, after all, is only revealed as such down the line. At the moment of it’s execution, it might be seen as a bad move.

    My friends scoff at my attempts to play suicide with them. They think it rather childish. Perhaps suicide is a game that can only be played against a computer.

  2. hblume

    E. T. Jones


    > I find the computer quickly puts me in a situation where I am compelled to capture one piece after another. Is this Zugzwang, and if it is, how does it differ from ordinary Zugzwang?

    good question. maybe the game shd be called “zugzwang”, though, somehow, it’s not the same. (what wd nimzowitsch say? where is he when you need him?)

    but my real question is: why do you prefer this game to chess itself? because, in its way, its simpler?

    it occurs to me there are literally dozens of chess variants that vary or focus on one or another aspects of the game.

    that’s legitimate.

    i must say personally i’m more keen on the variants that have had historic staying power — the game we call chess (more formally known as international chess) and chinese chess (xiangqi).

    i hope to post about xiangqi soon.

  3. Amy Todd

    I don’t know why Mr. Jones plays, but as an addiction, I find suicide (aka losing and giveaway) worse than tetris and as an intellectual exercise, like contemplating the edge of the universe, or at least a very steep precipice.

    I have never played suicide with a real person either. It never even occurred to me, but now that I think of it, since Susan Polgar cannot employ her “chunking” genius ( on a chess board that has been randomized, would she be similarly challenged by suicide?

    It’s not exactly backwards chess, but midgame, the board probably would not make sense to her. For example, according to some rules, castling is not allowed. I have played many games only for the purposes of seeing if I can castle, but either opening up my bishop or moving my knight out gets me in immediate trouble, and I am into a series of forced captures, and unable to castle. Thus you will never have tidy configurations such as those arising from castling on a suicide board.

    Suicide may seem gimmicky, but there is quite an interest out there, even among ranked chess players, with suicide tournaments, suicide rankings, suicide blitz and simultaneous blindfolded suicide demos (no, I made that last part up).

    But suicide is a slippery slope. I do not recommend it.

  4. hblume


    suicide appears to be a game that people can & do play in person. tetris, however — i admit yr mention is the first i’ve heard of it — seems to be purely and simply a computer game.

    so maybe there’s a distinction to be made between games that are born online and games with long histories of their own — in the case of chess, nearly fifteen hundred years — that do just fine with the Internet but would do just fine without it.

    let me put it this way: you can’t play the sims or second life off-line, can you?

  5. Amy Todd

    That’s a good distinction.

    You can play pong and/or ping pong; but tetris is tertris.

    You really ought to try it – it’s a classic. I think my cell phone has tetris but I don’t dare look.

    You can certainly play second life off-line; it’s called real life. I don’t recommend it.

  6. hblume


    > You can certainly play second life off-line; it’s called real life. I don’t recommend it.

    very cute. but maybe chess is all our intellects are cut out for.

    global warming & environmental catastrophe?
    war in the middle east?
    nuclear proliferation?

    way too deep.

    however there’s a lot of wisdom about the response to:

    1) e4. . .

  7. Michael

    I think that one thing that is frustrating about computers is that they cannot be beaten tactically. That is, you can’t play a complicated move with unclear consequences which might psychologically rattle a human opponent. These are the kind of ploys that make the game exciting for most people. Instead, if computers can be beat at all by humans (and at this point the highest-level ones can’t be beaten for all practical purposes), it is on the basis on positional considerations. This is certainly an important and interesting aspect of chess, but by forcing humans to play totally positionally it takes a lot of the interest out the game.

    On the other hand, computers are wonderful for analyzing positions…Or so I hear. (I rarely do this myself.)

  8. hblume


    > I think that one thing that is frustrating about computers is that they cannot be beaten tactically.

    Because they always calculate correctly?

    > . . . computers are wonderful for analyzing positions…

    But can they deliver any sort of overall evaluation of your game? Can they say, for example, that you tend to attack before you are ready, or that you shy away from exchanges?

    (I’m being a bit cute here, but wouldn’t it be good if they could refer you to a relevant position in a game by Capablanca, say, or Bobby Fischer?)

    Also, I wonder if a computer analysis might be correct but a bit beyond human comprehension.

    In an collection of essays called “Philosophy Looks at Chess” (2008), there’s a piece by John Hartmnann called “Garry Kasparov is a Cyborg, or What ChessBase Teaches Us About Technology.”

    In my opinion the best piece in the book, argues that Kasparov, at least, was eager to assimilate what computers could teach him about chess. According to Hartmnann, after his loss to Deep Blue, Kasparov’s game didn’t suffer, Kasparov didn’t become morose. On the contrary, he began to train with chess software and his game improved.

    I can’t but help wondering — and admit I’m in no position to judge — if, though Kasparov’s game might have improved, it became less interesting, less improvisational, a little less human.

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  10. When you talk about Xianqi as promise? Waiting but no post.

  11. hblume



    i’m heading back to chinatown this sunday for xiangqi. will post after that. but tell me, do you play?


  12. Not very well. I am interesting in Chinese culture for my son to learn in America.

  13. Amy

    You could contact your local Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. The one in Boston on Tyler Street hosts Xianqi on Sundays (9-5ish).

    Across the street is the Kwong Kow Chinese School, with lots of language and culture classes for kids. I met the principle, Yanyu Zhou, who was very passionate and smart. She was quite open to having non-Chinese kids participate (phone: 617-426-6716).

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