More on computers and humans

by admin on February 25, 2008

A couple days ago, Dribbling made an interesting comment on my post “Bronstein on computers and humans.” He comments that he recently watched GM Nakamura (“Smallville” on ICC) playing bullet chess against a computer. Nakamura would deliberately sacrifice material to achieve a blockaded position, and eventually draw under the 50-move rule even though he was a piece or two behind. In this way he gains rating points, because the computer is rated 3600 and Hikaru is rated “only” 3300. Dribbling says:

“I watched several games, but it all happened so fast I have no idea of how he did it. It seems to me that Smallville has found a flaw in the computer’s evaluation algorithm.”

In a way I’m not surprised. We always have to remember what Jesse Kraai says: A computer does not understand a single thing about chess. It gives the illusion of understanding, because its brute force calculation is so good, but that is only an illusion. It doesn’t say, “I need to put my knight here,” or “I need to use a pawn lever to open the position for my rooks.” Most of the time, these limitations don’t matter. But every now and then, they make the computer play almost comically bad chess.

Here’s my favorite example, from one of my own games against the computer. Unlike Hikaru, who apparently has figured out a system, I literally blundered into this position. Nevertheless, you can see his ideas at work.

In this position, I’m playing Black against Fritz 7. This was in 2004, before I bought Fritz 9. We’re playing at a time control of 40 moves in 10 minutes (no sudden death and no per-move time increment). I weakened its rating to 2400, in order to get a better game. (At this point I was still afraid of playing Fritz full strength.) I’ve just played a terrible blunder and lost two (!!) exchanges as a result.

Against a human opponent, I would have absolutely no hope. The human would say, “All I have to do is play b4, a4, b5, open one or two files, and penetrate to the seventh rank or the back rank with my rooks.” Black can’t do anything to stop this plan. In fact, White can even open a file on the kingside if he wants, by playing g3, Kg2 and h3. This might allow for a more direct attack on Black’s king.

Instead, the computer played with an utter lack of understanding. It delayed the push of its queenside pawns. It traded its bishop for the knight on e4, an utterly senseless move because the bishop might be useful for breaking down Black’s queenside. When it finally got around to pushing the queenside pawns, it played a4 first, which allowed me to play … a5 and set up a blockade (because I already had a knight at d5, the square the computer handed to me by its ill-advised bishop for knight exchange). And finally, the computer botched its last chance at opening a file on the kingside by playing h3 before g3. So by move 45, we reached the following utterly blocked position:

At this point, the 50-move death march begins. We play 49 of the most aimless moves in chess history, and then the computer plays 94. b3 and the count begins again. We play 48 more pointless moves, and then it plays 142. d5 (I had left the d5 square vacant for some reason) and we start over one more time. Finally, on move 192, it concedes a draw.

It’s a darned good thing we weren’t playing bullet chess, though, because I couldn’t physically make 192 moves in one minute!

Now you may say, “Well, that was Fritz 7 and not Fritz 10, and it wasn’t even Fritz 7 at full power.” True, but I think Fritz 10 playing bullet chess is almost certainly no better than Fritz 7 playing 40/10. And more to the point, even my copy of Fritz 9, at full strength, given all the time it wants, still doesn’t understand this position. Let’s look at the position on move 136:

Here, for the first time, I decided to allow the computer to trade queens if it wanted to, even though that would start another 50-move count. For some reason, Fritz 7 didn’t want to trade. Too drawish, I guess! When I give this to Fritz 9, it definitely prefers 137. Qxd5. In fact, it prefers it by so much that it gives White a +2.6 pawn advantage. Even after fifteen minutes of analysis, it still gives White a +2.6 pawn advantage! This in spite of the fact that any human player, in fifteen seconds, can see that White has no way to open lines for his rooks, and therefore no way to use his material advantage. I’m pretty sure that Fritz 10 wouldn’t do any better.

A problem with the evaluation function? No, more like a problem with the whole computer approach to chess. I do think that some smart programmer ought to be able to build in a blockade detecting algorithm that could identify a totally blockaded position and avoid it if it has a material advantage. It’s possible that this would foil Hikaru’s anti-computer strategy. But you would still have problems with almost-but-not-totally blockaded positions and the like. At what point do you want your blockade-sensing subroutine to kick in? The problem is that we’re talking about artificial ways to bypass the computer’s fundamental limitation, which is that it doesn’t know how to reason about a chess position. That’s why, even with the powerful computers we have today, a really smart and dedicated person like Hikaru can still find a way to exploit its weakness.

The only thing that amazes me is that any human can move fast enough to draw a game by the 50-move rule in bullet chess!

P.S. Thinking about it some more, I think that this position (either diagram 2 or 3) would be a really good test case for an almost-but-not-totally blockaded position. Because, in fact, White does have some ways to try to win. He could put one rook on c4, another on b1, and the queen on d2, with the intention of sacrificing an exchange on b4. Black would have to play 1. … Nd5, and then White could try 2. b3-b4, again with the idea of sacrificing an exchange (2. … ab 3. Rxb4). Unfortunately for White, I think that this idea is defeated by 3. … Ba5 pinning the rook and winning both exchanges back. This results in a Q + P endgame where I believe it is very hazardous for White to play for a win because as soon as he opens lines, he is vulnerable to back rank threats. (In fact, Black doesn’t even have to wait, but can start setting up those threats with … Qf7 and … Qh5, once the rooks are off the board.) Finally, if White tries to anticipate this idea with 2. Qc2, threatening b3-b4, Black will jump right back in with his knight: 2. … Nb4. Now the exchange sac on b4 doesn’t work because after 3. Rxb4 ab 4. Qd2, Ba5 maintains the blockade! So maybe, in fact, White has to bring his queen around to a3 instead, to support b3-b4 without allowing a pin. But perhaps, if Black sees White trying to do this, he can set up with … Nd3 and … Qd5 instead. Now b3-b4 isn’t possible because the rook hangs! It’s mind-boggling! Anyway, the point is that, whether it’s a draw or a win, the computer isn’t able to come even close to the truth of the position, because it is incapable of this kind of abstract reasoning.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy Hortillosa February 26, 2008 at 8:25 am

I have Fritz11 and will load the game to see if it will do any better. I agree with you that it won’t as argued abvoe. I noticed a similar flaw when employing the Grand Prix atttack against Fritz9 as white. It keeps on taking on c2 and capturing the rook on a1 whle ignoring the build up of a mating net starting with f5.

I used these engines mostly to check for blunders and finding defensive resources in positions where tactical solutions are possible.

In the above diagrams, there is obvious dearth of opportunities for tactical solutions. However, there is a strategic solution using either plan you mentioned. I prefer breaching the kingside because it will lead to mate and can be executed faster than opening the queenside. It is a matter of taste.

By the way, I am pretty sure the computer is using algorithm similar to the Hortillosa-Purdy system. I had the unfortunate experience of doing a master’s degree in Computer Science, Software Engineering so the guess above is fairly grounded. I am not so sure but if I were the program designer, I would consider my system a plausible solution.

Most of our mistakes in chess are the results of not consistently applying the system. I implore readers of this fine blog to read or revisit Purdy. I wish I had read his books when I started acquiring chess knowledge.



Carina February 26, 2008 at 4:50 pm

I’m a big fan of the Hikaru vs. TransWarp matches on ICC, and I must point out he doesn’t do it for rating gain, it’s part of his training. People on ICC are constantly arguing about why he’s doing it, and the thing that comes to mind first is that it’s about point, but they’re totally irrelevant. He says he likes the practice in locking down position. Apart from that, it makes human opponent seem like mercy herself when it comes to tactics. If you can play solid moves in 2 secs against a computer that will punish any imprecision, well, obviously you’re doing well. There are other reasons to play the computer like he does as well, and I’m sure one day we’ll all be doing it. 😀 It really annoys me when people don’t understand and say it’s stupid/about ICC points/he’s being paid to promote TransWarp/etc, just because it’s not good entertainment for them to watch.


Carina February 26, 2008 at 4:52 pm

Btw. Dana, are you on ICC? It’d be so great if we could have you and the other lectureres handles, I already know Vigorito is fluffy, but what about Paschall and Kraai, do they play? 😀 I’m Czharina there.


admin February 26, 2008 at 5:28 pm

Alas, I decided long ago, like around 1995, that I didn’t want to be on ICC. There were several reasons. From most important to least important:

Etiquette (or the lack thereof). In my last ICC game, my opponent typed “lag.” I had no idea what that meant or what I was supposed to do about it. After the game he cussed me out and left. I asked around and was told that I *could* have added time to his clock (which I didn’t know) but that it was entirely at my discretion. This was just one of many examples; for example the tiresome and endless chatter, of various degrees of profanity, which I know you can turn off, but who wants to go through life wearing (metaphorical) earplugs?

Two-dimensionality. I found myself making mistakes I would never make on a three-dimensional chessboard. (Although, after seeing my recent mistake on Sunday, you might wonder!!) My theory is that, having grown up in the generation before video games, my brain is just not wired as well for processing information on a computer screen. People who have grown up online are completely used to it. I think that this difference in fluency may even amount to as many as 100 rating points, and I hated to give myself a 100-point handicap just like that. Also, this is not even to mention mouse slips — something again that has no real analogue in 3d chess.

Cost — Once upon a time, ICC was free. When it went to a paying model, around 1995, I was sufficiently spoiled by the freedom ofthe Internet that I didn’t want to have to pay to play chess. But this was by far the least important issue — as shown by the fact that I don’t play online at free sites, like FICS, either.

So … I’m afraid that you will only be able to enjoy my online persona via ChessLecture, e-mail, or this blog! 😎


Carina February 26, 2008 at 6:05 pm

Aww, I’d like to see the terrible traxler or fighting fritz live, but I guess that like in chess you can’t always have it all. About the chat, I haven’t experienced anyone saying something else than ‘thank you’ after a game, and even then it’s rare (like 5 times since I joined in late December?). The chat at gm games and at the live commentaries to super tournaments can get ridiculous somethings, though. But if people cuss and cross lines about what to say, they’re muffled by admins. I don’t think it’s so bad. People shut up if you just threaten to call an admin, haha. Most of the time I think the chat is hilarious though, like the constant disuccsions about who this or that GM really is. People are so creative. “It’s Carlsen, it’s Heine, it’s Kramnik’s son, no it’s an astronaut – it’s Fischer..” It’s especially amusing if you know who the profile really is, and others know as well, but they’re just doing it to confuse you. I guess it’s a weird kind of humour, but I’ve had a lot of laughs on that account (no pun intended). 😀

About the board, I’ve always set mine to a 3D board and pieces, in an attempt to make it slightly more realistic. Looking too much at diagrams is really bad for my OTB chess, because I have a difficult time suddenly navigating around real wooden pieces. I guess it’s still 2d when it’s on a computer screen, but it does help a little that the board is made to look real and that the pieces glide insteal of teleport.

One of the things playing at ICC has helped me with, is actually speeding up my play. Tonight I had a match otb, and in the second half of the game I avoided time trouble by pretending it was a blitz game. “I know I can play a whole game in 5 mins, so why should it be so bad to play 10 moves in 20 mins?”. I played a bit more intuitivly and quickly after that, also more inaccurately I admit, but I think when I work more on developing my blitz-mind my tournament play will really benefit… In blitz, I’m 300-400 points weaker than otb, because I rely so heavily on calculation in my usual games. Blitz is very good for working on recognizing the blunders etc unconsciously, which saves time for your conscious mind at the board!


admin February 26, 2008 at 7:01 pm

I’m probably exaggerating the etiquette issue… I don’t think that the player actually used any bad words, but he was clearly mad at me and I had no idea what I had done wrong. And that was about the third time I had had an unpleasant experience; I just don’t remember any more what the other two were.

Yeah, I’ve thought of using the three-dimensional view, but I think it would just look like a bad two-dimensional view! A computer screen is a computer screen. Maybe if I were in a virtual reality environment with 3-d glasses it would be different.

I always did find it odd, how playing online changed my sense of time. Game/25 seems quite fast to me over the board, but online it seemed incredibly slow.


Andy Hortillosa February 26, 2008 at 7:38 pm

Like you, I am not on ICC because of the cost.


Carina February 27, 2008 at 1:10 am

About the cost, the reason I pay is not really so that I can play online chess, although that’s a nice benefit, but the main thing I want to pay for is to watch guys like Svidler, Carlsen, Morozevich, Anand, Kramnik, Nakamura, Radjabov, etc, etc play blitz against eachother. It’s announced when the top players have games, so when you just figure out who’s who, it’s AWESOME entertainment! I still remember the impression it made on me to see Carlsen rip apart people 7 games in a row when I had just joined. An entirely different game than the one I play, because they actually understand it! I’m all for paying for inspiration. The other thing I think is really cool about ICC and is worth paying for, are their live coverages. The Morelia-Linares tournament is being covered these days, and it’s really good (and fun) commentary!! I’d actually think it unfair if I didn’t pay approx what a chess book costs for this kind of stuff. 🙂


Andy Hortillosa February 27, 2008 at 8:03 am

I may have to rethink the benefit of ICC now. When I was a member for over two years, it had no coverage of international events.


dribbling February 27, 2008 at 11:12 am

Smallville plays the computer bullet 3.0. Say one minute for 50 moves behind the wall and a couple of minutes for the construction of the wall against a super strong opponent. The whole thing is miraculous, or so it seems to me.


Carina February 27, 2008 at 2:05 pm

If you do join, I’d be happy if you referred to me on the signup page, cus then I’d get a month of free membership! 😀 The next live commentary begins tomorrow btw, since the gms start playing in Linares then. It’s even gonna be normal hours for us europeans, beginning around 15:30. When they played in Texas a week ago, I had to stay up until 3 o clock in the night unless I wanted to miss out on the results of the games.


Andy Hortillosa February 27, 2008 at 7:29 pm

I will be happy to since you got me to rethink about it.


TIMHORTONSKNIGT March 24, 2008 at 8:47 am

im a great fan of hikaru nakamura at icc my icc handle is timhortonsknigt, nakamura answered in his blog why hes playing against transwarp, and i believe him, try to google hikaru nakamuras blog,i likewise made some collection of hikaru nakamura game in my blog but most free game replayer online would read only a pgn of less than 200 moves, the problem is most of nakamuras game go more than 300 sometimes 400 move, last night he mated transwarp using 5 bihop in a parallel formation in the6th rank of the board under 3 second of his clock, now tell me who could do it other than him at icc?see how fast he calculate, im gathering a collection of nakas game and software maker Nikolay Pilafov at chess told me to cut the pgn into half and had two pgn replayer of less than 200 each if nakamuras game go over 400 move and that is mostly 3 minute game, more on these guys , im goin around the net lookin on what is written about transwarp and hikaru nakamura


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