Computers in chess... Good or Evil?

  • GM Gserper
  • | 12 feb. 2013
  • | 38729 x bekeken
  • | 106 reacties

Computers are an essential part of the modern world and it is impossible even to imagine our everyday life without them. As a matter of fact, you wouldn't be able to read this article if there were no computers and the miracle called "Internet". But let's talk about the computer's impact on our beloved little world of 64 squares.  Is it positive or negative?

Please do not rush to call me the Luddite who hates Progress. Let's just analyze the positive and negative sides of the computer's invasion.

It is a well-known fact that computer is an excellent tool to study chess. And I am not even talking about the unlimited amount of chess related material you can find on the Internet. Simply by using a chess engine you can significantly improve your chess.  Just ask Hikaru Nakamura who claims that he hasn't read a single chess book and credits all his achievements to the countless hours he spent with a computer. So, you play with a computer, analyze with a computer and at some point you start think like a computer... at least according to Nakamura. Hikaru likes when he gets compared to a chess engine and therefore in the following game we can witness the battle between the best human computer and one of the best silicon monsters of that time, Crafty. The game is remarkable because the majority of computers don't have the word 'resign' in their vocabulary and play till the bitter end. Playing with a lonely King against   4 or 5 pieces and pawns of your opponent is not the best strategy against one of the World's best players. We discussed this problem here:  ( )   Hikaru found a very elegant solution.  He ...well, I am not going to spoil the fun, judge for yourself!

Still, I wouldn't recommend the Nakamura's way of learning chess to everyone. If you don't have his enormous talent, I would advise the traditional approach of learning using chess books. I still believe that one comment of Capablanca or Fischer is more valuable than a dozen of games against a chess engine. Moreover, in my opinion, had Nakamura in his childhood combined his purely computer-based training with old fashioned chess books, then the number one player in today's rating list could have been different. I find it very symbolic and significant that the current number one Magnus Carlsen is not a 'human computer' in any way. He is a superstar, he is genius, but he is not a computer! When we analyze his games we can see reflection of old masters: the technique of Capablanca, calculation precision of Kasparov and the Fischer's desire to win.  But I digress here...  

I still think that a computer is invaluable teaching tool. For example, when I analyze my student's games and see that he mentally gave up at some point, I ask him what happened and he usually says that the position was completely lost and the game was over anyway.  Then I suggest him to play this position against a computer and see if he would be able to beat the beast at least once. Or when you analyze a very dry, technical position with a computer, it constantly surprises you with a maze of unexpected combinations. But there are certain limitations you should know about before you start working with a computer.

You can sum up all these limitation with one short statement: 'computers do not understand chess'! Yes, they can beat the World Champion and yet they don't really understand chess. It is all about brute force or by other words an amazing ability to calculate, calculate, calculate. It is for this reason Botvinnik called a chess playing computer a 'tireless idiot'. If you are confused, let me show you a simple example:

This is a basic position of a Bishop of a wrong color.  the position is a 'dead' draw.  How dead?  If you have a friend who doesn't know the rules of chess and just tell him how the Chess Kings, Bishops and pawns move , then explain him to move Black King back in force keeping it in the corner 'h8', he will be able to make a draw against the World Champion even if he doesn't know how the other pieces move! ( we discussed this position here: )
However, a chess engine would evaluate this position as completely won for White (assuming it doesn't have an endgame library or table bases).  Here we can see the phenomenon known as 'horizon effect'. A computer can analyze a certain number of moves ahead, but it is not enough to see that the position is  a draw. That's why a chess fortress is a completely foreign concept for any computer! Therefore, no computer will ever be able to solve the next relatively simple puzzle:
The final position is an excellent example of how helpless computers become in this kind of a situation! Any chess engine will indicate an easy win for Black, while most of human players won't have any difficulties to understand that it is a draw.
To be continued...


  • 2 jaar geleden


    Just downloaded Crafty and at 10% strength it always wins against me. Computers are evil - no question.

  • 4 jaar geleden


    We can think of chess computers as supercalculators. Instead of searching for the best moves that can be played, they search for the the bad moves that cannot be played and narrow it down. I think chess computers are indeed relevant and some can be very challenging even for club experts. The great thing about it is that it allows anyone to play chess at anytime no partners required. So, it's obviously a great tool and it includes chess in the world of computers and technologies which will help for the survival and adaptations of chess in our technological world.

  • 4 jaar geleden


     You forgot to mention for Carlsen that he might probably be also much influenced from computers. Just read this from here:,8599,1948809,00.html

    Q: "Do you use computers in your chess studies?"
    A: "I don't use a board when I am studying on my own. People come over to my house and say, "You must have a lot of chess sets." I say, "Well, we might have one somewhere, but I’m not sure." "

    Personally i feel a little sad about this comment, since the real Chess board would always be the real Chess board.Embarassed

  • 4 jaar geleden


    Hhhmmmmmm..  .. yes; quite true Frank 124; you tell'm old boy; set these well intentioned yet naive folk straight. Bravo! 

  • 4 jaar geleden


    I think the time is not too far away when compputers will take over the world and they will hunt us humans down and kill us all!

  • 4 jaar geleden


    The "good" about computers is: moving massive amounts of data very quickly.

    The "evil" about computers is: moving massive amounts of data very quickly.


    Computers work from the given position outward; and do not miss (turning over) a single stone; within a limited scope.

    Conversely, humans can uniquely envision a goal, end, or dream (in this case a fortress), and we can share our insight with each other (as the writer of this article, and associated commenters, have). Logic, mathematics, and calculating power (working outward) are feeble in this regard.


    Chess is an awesome game. The complexity within it's bounded arena is stunning, but it's bounds are simple; so a device working outward has a chance to compete with us. The world's boundary is a whole lot more that 64 squares. 

    Our power works in both places.

  • 4 jaar geleden



    "However, there comes a point where the program is complex enough and powerful enough that the results of the program are no longer predictable by the programmer." 

    Exactly. Robert Houdart said during an interview that when watching Houdini play, sometimes he didn't understand why the program was making some of the moves it did.  He was getting a bit worried it might be a bug or something, but the moves he didn't understand eventually lead to victory! 

    "Houdini sacrificed a pawn, two pawn, three pawns in a queen-less middle game, to end up winning the game in convincing fashion. During the game I wasn’t sure at all that what we were seeing was a brilliant game – and not some obscure bugs I’d left in the engine"

  • 4 jaar geleden


    @EnriqueDSR: your point is quite valid for simple programs.  However, there comes a point where the program is complex enough and powerful enough that the results of the program are no longer predictable by the programmer.  When the program passes the programmer(s!) in ability, I think it is no longer clear who you are playing.  Is it still reasonable to say you are playing the programmer, when the programmer cannot predict the actions of the program?  I would argue no.  Once a program reaches a certain complexity, it ceases to be merely a representation of the programmer's brain.  imo, you are in fact playing the computer.

  • 4 jaar geleden


    Well, when you play against a computer, who are you playing against?, the machine?, the software?...Nope!, you´re playing versus the programmer or programmer´s ideas, translated in a programming language code, and, since certain decisions must be made, there´s a preprogrammed response acording to the programmer´s idea, who´s usually adviced by chess GM´s to stablish a certain criteria for specific situations... The difference is the growing efficiency of both, hardware and software. It is nothing but a simulation of intelligence!

  • 4 jaar geleden


    @blanky: there is no point in arguing, I don't think either of us is going to be convinced.  I'll just say that in the early 80s, Bill Gates famously said that 640k of memory ought to be enough for anybody.  Before and since, people have repeatedly made the mistake of predicting limits on where computers are headed, and they keep being proven wrong.  If you want to try to buck the trend and be the guy that is finally right about the limits of computers, go for it.  I'm going to take the other side.

  • 4 jaar geleden


    Piggybacking on what chrisfalter said, Nakamura's stepfather is Master Weeramantry, a very strong player and highly regarded chess coach, more specifically a coach for youth and beginning players.  Needless to say this probably helped a bit.  I read one of Weeramantry's books and found it very informative and instructive but I imagine having him sit in front of me would be even better than a book lesson.   

    And this isn't to disparage Naka, one of my favorite players, because he (along with the others of the younger breed) has never pushed this disingenuous legend of 'never reading a chess book', it's always other writers keeping it alive. 

  • 4 jaar geleden



    never have I ever heard of such a weak argument;

    "All we need to do is figure out how it (the human mind) works".

    1) Good luck.

    2) If we did; then the debate would be moot, because we would be comparing computers to computers (or brains to brains).

    The point now is that human intuition and insight have ENORMOUS advantages, both on and off the chessboard, over computers. 

    Can powerful machines* move massive amounts of data (computers*) or dirt (bulldozers*) very quickly? Yes. 

    Are they augmenting tools? Yes.

    Can they provide subtle insight? No.

  • 4 jaar geleden


    When Nakamura was developing as a player, he had a very good coach for many years. No doubt his coach taught him about things like good v. bad bishops, weak square complexes, material sacrifices for piece coordination, etc.

    Since I do not have a coach, I am learning those ideas from reading books. Reading a good chess book (and really studying the examples closely) is like having a few sessions with a good coach.

  • 4 jaar geleden


    I wouldn't be too sure about that, but the 6 knights on the board is crazy!!

  • 4 jaar geleden



    I'm not sure what "qualia" has to do with computers solving chess positions.  I simply said that anticipating fortresses is not difficult and could be solved by current technology... in fact I was more right than I realized, as it was demonstrated that current top engines already solve this position!  So it seems there is no room left for debate on the accuracy of this prediction.

    However, if you would like me to be bolder, I'll be happy to say that even your "qualia" will be completely achieved by computers in time.  The fact that we don't yet know how to do it doesn't mean it can't be done.  What makes me so confident?  I'm confident because we already possess a working example of a machine capable of doing this calculation.  All we have to do is figure out how it works.  Once we better understand the brain, building hardware to mirror and even exceed it's capacity should not be difficult.

  • 4 jaar geleden


    A few points on the above article:

    "The game is remarkable because the majority of computers don't have the word 'resign' in their vocabulary and play till the bitter end."

    Computers can be set to resign when a certain score threshold is reached.  It's true that the GUI (Graphical User Interface) is often where this is set, not the engine, but it could just as well be encoded into the engine (putting certain configurations such as hash size and resignation threshold makes it more convenient and standardized to configure values via the GUI).  I think that the "computer opponent" should be considered all it's component programs, such as Engine + GUI (also, opening books and endgame tablebases, if one wished to include that too)

    Crafty is not even close to the strongest engine, I don't know what version was used in 2007, or how it was ranked then, but today it is ranked in the top 50 or lower in the engine ratings lists, depending on the source one considers.

    "Here we can see the phenomenon known as 'horizon effect'. A computer can analyze a certain number of moves ahead, but it is not enough to see that the position is  a draw. That's why a chess fortress is a completely foreign concept for any computer! Therefore, no computer will ever be able to solve the next relatively simple puzzle:"

    Critter 1.6 easily solves this "unsolvable puzzle" quickly!  Many of today's other strong engines also have endgame knowledge built in for fortresses and such.  They also understand wrong color bishops, so the examples given are a bit lacking.  Computers do have weakness in certain positions, but there are better examples.  Sure, there are certain OTHER positions that we could cherry-pick showing how computers can't do it all, but neither can humans!  

    I'm not anti-human chess player or pro-computer (but certainly anti-cheating!!) but facts are well as the fact that computer chess is getting stronger at a faster rate than humans.  

    Finally, when I was young, I often had a hard time finding opponents to play against.  If I would have had access to anything close to today's computers to spar with, I'm sure I would be a better player today.   Oh, I did try to do what Fischer did, and play myself, but that's not much fun at all, especially since I knew what my opponent was planning!  Books are fine, but I believe most players get more experience by playing actual games. As someone who grew up without today's options, my opinion is that today's chess players are very fortunate to have a player at their fingertips at any time, be it on the internet, computer, or on their smartphone.  

  • 4 jaar geleden



    "Computer's are slowly removing creativity from chess... ergo evil."


    I concur most strongly........ohhh I think I pulled a muscle....

  • 4 jaar geleden


    yes, indeed computers are very impressive tools for improving chess but it's like smth. artificial!

  • 4 jaar geleden


    Wıth more work on crıtıcal analysıs a flawless computer programme could stıll be developed. Thıs would stand the test of all tıme and chess players. In a game of chess ıt ıs move for move from start to fınısh.

  • 4 jaar geleden


    I agree with you 1...Ka4 is forced

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