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From: Stuart Cracraft
Subject: Article
Date: Thu, 06 Feb 2003 19:32:05 -0800

Quite a few errors in this piece but it forecasts a symbiont fusion for the game.

More Chess Players Use Computers for Edge


16e5eef.jpgarry Kasparov, the world's leading chess player, is tied with a powerful computer program in a six-game match at the New York Athletic Club that will conclude tomorrow. But whoever wins this latest man-versus-machine showdown, chess players say computers have already scored a profound victory by changing the way humans play against one another.

It comes as little surprise that computers are now able to triumph regularly over the top human chess players. What few foresaw was how quickly people would become reliant on the machines for their own battles.

Players of every level are turning increasingly to computers to plan their moves and suggest their strategies, and some fear that human mastery of a game valued for centuries as a benchmark of intelligence is being irrevocably diluted.

"We don't work at chess anymore," Evgeny Bareev, the world's eighth-ranked player, told ChessBase Magazine. "We just look at the stupid computer, we follow the latest games and find small improvements. We have lost depth."

When Mr. Kasparov famously lost his species' hold on the chess crown to a refrigerator-size I.B.M. computer called Deep Blue in 1997, chess was still played very much as it had been for centuries. Since then, as advances in computing speed have enabled software on a standard PC to rival the supercomputers of an earlier era, a generation of human players has been seduced into dependence on silicon assistance.

A version of Deep Junior, the chess program that is playing Mr. Kasparov this week, can be bought for $50, as can rival programs with names like Fritz and Shredder. Players use the software to analyze the strength of any particular move and to simulate an opponent's many possible responses several moves out.

Chess players who once relied on thick tomes of annotated games and Post-its to mark their favorite strategies now use computer programs to search constantly updated online databases of two million or more of history's most significant games. It is standard practice for players to call up all the past games of opponents they will be facing in tournaments and direct the software to analyze the best possible attacks.

Moreover, as the Internet replaces chess clubs as the main forum for games, chess experts estimate that humans are surreptitiously being assisted by computers in at least half of the hundreds of thousands of games that are played online each day.

"A lot of people are just parroting what Fritz tells them to do," said Frederic Friedel, whose company, ChessBase, recently developed software for its Internet servers to try to prevent computer-assisted cheating among players who go there to find games. "On the other hand, knowledge always leads to creativity."

Players are becoming proficient in chess at much earlier ages as a result of easy access to information on the Internet, chess experts say. But critics of computer-assisted playing say they are also burning out sooner because the game has become so much more demanding.

The most serious players say they feel compelled to study the 1,000 or so master-level games played around the world each week that are immediately annotated and made available on the Internet. Yet absorbing so much information, some players say, detracts from an ability to concentrate intensely on developing a personal style or strategy.

"People don't experiment as much anymore," particularly in the opening phase of the game, said Maurice Ashley, a grandmaster from Brooklyn who is providing commentary for the Kasparov-Deep Junior match. "That's a loss."

Even Mr. Kasparov now pays a team of chess grandmasters to scour the Internet daily for the newest move played anywhere in the world. His brain trust spends long hours churning through computer simulations of thousands of moves, which Mr. Kasparov, considered by many to be the strongest player in the history of chess, memorizes before tournaments.

Some chess aficionados see the increase in the melding of human intelligence and computer technology as a natural development for a game long valued as an even playing field for the mind. Many players say the availability of online information democratizes the game. They also contend that computers have emboldened people to try more daring strategies that earn the endorsement of their software.

Principles once sacred, like the benefits of working in the center of the board, can be challenged in computer simulations far more easily than on the board or in the mind

"Because of computers, humans are playing more broadly, and there are astonishing numbers of new ideas," said John Watson, the author of several books on modern chess strategy. "Computers are opening the game up much more than they are closing it."

But others say chess is becoming more like checkers, with so much known or memorized that games now more often end in draws. They complain that players have become slaves to their software, so fascinated with the myriad possibilities it presents that they do not bother to work out their own new strategies.

"In the past, you weren't trying to clog your memory with all this other stuff," said Joel Benjamin, a grandmaster in New York who worked with I.B.M. on Deep Blue. "Now you know more, but you also forget more." Mr. Benjamin compared chess players' reliance on computers to the subtle addiction that comes with programming numbers into a phone or a Palm organizer. It is not uncommon, he said, to see a player's position suddenly fall apart during a game because the player has memorized a series of moves, but not internalized the logic behind them.

Technology historians say the effects of computer technology on chess echo a classic theme articulated by George Orwell in "The Road to Wigan Pier," an investigation of labor conditions in England at the turn of the century. "He said machines are moving in and polluting the spiritual landscape, not on purpose, but because they can't help it," said David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale. "This is the machine age, and no one uses a pump when you can turn on the tap. But don't think that won't cost us."

More to the point, some chess experts say, computers have taken some of the fun out of the game, designated the "touchstone of the intellect" by Goethe and seen by Benjamin Franklin as a metaphor for life.

While chess is still one of the few games where physical prowess and chance play no role (except in choosing who goes first), players can no longer rely solely on their singular intellects to succeed. They must also be much more adept at memorization and manipulating information.

"What's happening with chess is it's gradually losing its place as the par excellence intellectual activity," said Hans Berliner, a former world correspondence chess champion and professor emeritus of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. "You don't have to be really good anymore to get good results. Chess is winding down."

Mr. Berliner, whose work on computer chess helped lead to Deep Blue and its descendants, said smart people in search of a challenging board game might try a game called go, which is popular in Asia and played with black stones and white stones. The possible combinations are far greater than those in chess, which come to about 10 to the 40th power.

Because the nature of the game makes it much harder for a computer to calculate its way to success, no computer has come close to beating a human at go, and no human go player would dream of depending on a computer for advice — at least for the moment.

Not everyone is prepared to give up on chess, which has after all been around for about 1,500 years. The game is still going strong among the chess hustlers in Washington Square Park, depicted in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." The Internet has spawned untold numbers of games that would never otherwise have been played, allowing anybody, anywhere, of any rank to find an opponent, at any time.

Some players support a variation of the game proposed by Mr. Fischer, the former world champion, to prevent memorization from dominating the game: the pieces behind the pawns are randomly arranged at the beginning of each game.

Mr. Kasparov champions the idea of "advanced chess," in which humans compete by using sanctioned computer software during the game, and he has participated in one such game. The future of chess, Mr. Kasparov and others suggest, lies not in the competition between man and machine, but in their fusion.

On the Internet site of ChessBase, a leading publisher of chess programs, a Centaur Room is set aside for people who want to play as a team with their computers.

At an advanced chess tournament in 1999 that Mr. Friedel, the founder of ChessBase, helped stage, two of the world's highest-ranking players, Viswanathan Anand and Anatoly Karpov, played each other with fast desktop computers running the latest version of a chess analyzer program provided by the sponsor. Each player's computer screen was projected so that the audience could see him experiment with moves, though the opponent could not.

At one point, Anand an a series of simulations in which he sacrificed a piece to push a pawn across the board in order to get a queen and win. After using 10 precious minutes, the software program, Fritz, signaled that Anand had hit upon a winning play. He proceeded to execute the sequence and win the game.

"The audience," Mr. Friedel said, "was in rapture." 

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