We taught computers to play chess – then they left us behind

Oliver Roeder is a journalist, author and games player. He is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight, where he covered the World Chess Championship and other gaming activities. The following is an adaptation of his new book, “Seven Games: A Human History”, published by W. W. Norton. It’s in stores today.

I still remember the first board I ever played chess on. It was an irregular and heavy slab of walnut, perhaps 14 inches on one side, with green squares of felt carefully glued by hand. It was a homemade Christmas present from my mother’s siblings to their father, my grandfather Jack. The felt had curled up on the corners after decades of fighting on a small farm in eastern Iowa. The pieces, which my grandparents bought on their honeymoon to Mexico in 1949, were slim, made of ebony and ivory. By the time I arrived, one of the knights had lost his head. The other knights, I thought, had a fearful look in their eyes. I remember the sharp points on the edges of the queen’s crowns and the neat crenellated battlements of the towers. I remember the clatter of the solid pieces on wood.

As a child I spent every summer on that farm, jumping on hay bales and swimming and playing chess after game in the late afternoon light. Grandpa Jack was a strong player, who used a conservative and positional style. And strictly speaking, he never let children win. That’s why every chess player in my family has a fond memory of their first win. When I finally beat Grandpa Jack, when I was nine, I remember running into the kitchen to tell Grandma Shirley, who hugged me and, to borrow her word, had been tickled.

In the beginning, I saw the game as a machine, not unlike the Mechanical Turk, that impressive 18th-century hoax of a chess machine, whose parts move and work together according to complex yet intuitive principles. I took chess apart like a kid taking apart a motorbike – curious and eager, but mostly unhappy and messy. Every now and then the reassembled machine ran smoothly and I won. More often it sputtered and I lost. I was, to use my favorite chess insult, a lumberjack, curious about how the pieces worked. Experimenting was enough for me.

As I grew older, I became fascinated with chess theory and studied diagrams of the intricate machine that had been taken apart by countless tinkerers over hundreds of years. I fell asleep reading the heavy reference book Modern Chess Openings, comforted and delighted by the fine-grained taxonomy and analysis of just the first few possible moves in a game, and the names they’d been given – the Halloween Gambit, the Maróczy Bind, the accelerated dragon, the hedgehog defense.

Today I enjoy chess aesthetically. My competitive career never amounted to much; my Greenwood Elementary Championship in fourth grade remains the only highlight. I lacked skill, and just as importantly, I lacked the obsession to internalize – update all those theory books. But even if I’ve never stretched a canvas, I can still appreciate Rothko and de Kooning – appreciate the beauty in the picture. And one can appreciate beauty in a game of chess; it’s art. Prolonged tactical combinations, complex and previously unseen, can unfold, like music, as if prescribed. Essences of knotty, complex positions, like painting, can be distilled and altered and presented in pure form.

My progression reflects how we taught our computers to play chess. The earliest programs, nonsense code that ran on clunky mainframes, were wood pushers, who were technically capable of playing chess, but not very well. Running on leaner supercomputers or faster modern desktops, their successors mastered the theory—openings and endgames, as well as the advanced tactics of the midgame—and now played better than any man. And their successors, the latest evolution, wicked chess creatures that emerged from the secret labs of billion-dollar corporations, play a hyper-advanced alien chess game, exotic and beautiful, something no human can fully understand, much less replicate, but so full of awesome style.

I invite you to visit tcec-chess.com, home of an online arena called the Top Chess Engine Championship. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, elite computer chess programs — with names like Ethereal, Fire, Fizbo, Komodo, Laser, Winter, and Xiphos — play against each other there and you can watch them live. The engines each run on four high-end Intel Xeon processors with eighty-eight cores, which analyze tens of millions of positions per second. You can see how they view lines tens of moves into the future and evaluate positions to the hundredth of a pawn. They consistently produce some of the best chess pieces ever played. You can even watch in real time, if you’re so inclined, an unabashed human commentary talking about the programs’ games:

“It’s a drawing.”

“it blundered away a good position.”

“pathetic game.”

But the machines don’t care, and they never stop playing.

One envisions a not-too-distant future, after temperatures and oceans have risen and the world’s coastal cities have been flooded and deflated, after human populations have migrated inland, crops have died during droughts and species have become extinct, after famines and economic collapse, where on a long-abandoned server, as long as power lasts, the highest expression of our human culture, our last art, is created in chess games played in silence without anyone watching.

Reprinted from “Seven Games: A Human History‘ by Oliver Roeder. Copyright © 2022 by Oliver Roeder. With permission from the publisher, WW Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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