The sixth game in the best-of-twelve World Chess Championship match between champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Sergey Karjakin petered out in a draw yesterday, leaving the score tied at 3-3. According to the rules, the winner of a game gets one point while a draw nets each player half a point and the first player to reach 6.5 points wins the match. During each game many observers use a computer program called Stockfish to evaluate the moves of the players, and compare them compared with that of the best move by the computer and such programs seem to have become essential training tools for top players. The program app is available for free from the iTunes store and I have downloaded it and tried it out.
Oliver Roeder, who has been reporting on the contest, spoke to Murray Campbell, one of the developers of the Deep Blue chess program at IBM that defeated then champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 and sealed the dominance of computers, about the effect that computers have had on the game and whether computers are draining the beauty out of chess, especially with these two players who have grown up in the computer era.
“Grandmasters that have grown up with most of their training in the computer era play a much more objective style of chess,” Campbell told me. “They’re less willing to dismiss a move because it’s ugly, or doesn’t appeal to their aesthetics.”
Well sure, but does that mean chess’s “aesthetics” have been sacrificed in the process? Has the elegance of a great combination of moves been traded for the the slavish devotion to a computer driven “evaluation”?
“Chess is an art, but it’s more of a sport,” Campbell said. “If you’re interested in winning, then you play the right move, even if it’s an ‘ugly’ move or a ‘computer’ move.” (Air quotes his.)
So is the computer to blame for all these draws over the past week?
“Super-deep preparation can create a draw-ish tendency,” Campbell said. “The white player will try to create a position where the opponent has chances to go wrong. And the black player, if they’ve prepared well enough, will have found the way to navigate through that mess and find the way to the draw. I can certainly think of some 20- or 30-move games that have probably been entirely calculated at home.”
In other words, the computer, Campbell said, accelerates the calculation and preparation that can lead to draws. Thanks, computer.
The role of aesthetics in chess is similar to that in mathematics and may be getting influenced in similar ways. Elegance and beauty is valued in chess play and mathematics and in the past practitioners in each may have been tempted to emphasize it more. Nowadays, the use of computers in generating mathematical proofs and analyzing chess moves has led to the adoption of strategies based on how well they work rather than how pleasing they are. This likely leads to more cautious play. More daring moves in chess that are high risk/high reward are likely to be rejected.