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Your Brains, Playing Chess....On the Internet

In as early as the sixth century A.D., a primitive version of the game we know as chess sprouted in India. Much different from the strategic battle we wage today, chess evolved as the Arabs conquered Persia and the game developed to more sophisticated levels. After the debut of tournament chess in the 1800s, the chess world centered around hard, grueling work over the board as humans began to solve the most intricate nuances of the game.

What are the implications when chess, a game grounded in logic and stock with computational necessity, meets the internet—a 21st century thinker that can think mathematically and, through algorithms, can learn a game like chess?

In the past twenty years, the game of chess—like poker and many other games with a computational aspect—has been taken over by the presence of computers and the world wide web. The information has had a critical effect on the game of chess in two ways: first, by introducing the internet as a mode in which players can meet and play, and secondly, by bringing computers into the picture with uncanny computational skill—an aspect that has attempted to conquest the game at its highest levels.

The Internet Chess Club (www.chessclub.com), or the ICC, is perhaps the most prominent operating chess community on the Internet. Thousands of players and grandmasters constantly meet and play online. One of the newest additions to the game of chess is called “bullet” chess, which is played exclusively on the Internet. Why, you may ask? Well, bullet chess extinguishes any notion of the deliberate, slow-paced game some reckon chess to be. In bullet chess, each player is allotted one minute to finish the game; if his time expires, he loses the game. Bullet chess has become absolutely addictive on sites like the ICC. Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, the highest-rated player in the United States, recently wrote a very popular book on the game of bullet chess: http://www.amazon.com/Bullet-Chess-One-Minute-Mate/dp/1888690674.

As Nakamura explores in his book, bullet chess allows for us to play hundreds, even thousands, of games in a very short amount of time. Win or lose one game, your emotions are very transient as one click of the mouse precipitates another opponent, who could very well hail from any corner of the world. To give you a relative point, I’ve accumulated over 9,000 bullet games in my career on the ICC.

What can be said for someone who’s played over 9,000 of these lightning-paced games just on one website? Well, Nakamura in his book emphasizes pattern recognition and quick reaction as two crucial aspects of the game. Chess in the information age has become just like the internet—quick, impulsive, and constant—and a new battalion of younger, intuitive, and lightning-fast players have swept the game off of its feet and have begun to terrify the older generations who remember the game best played over a meal at the coffee shop.

As an avid player of the game myself, I can speak anecdotally towards the changes I’ve felt as a chess player in the information age. Instead of paying for lessons with masters or purchasing chess literature for my own study, I’ve chosen a “practice makes perfect” approach to improving my skills in the game of chess. For me, I learn by pattern and situation recognition; I see thousands of positions in my games online and I’ve developed a feel of the game from there. I would definitely say that my approach is not unusual; in fact, it’s typical of any young chess player with the internet to hone his skills in that same way. Along the same vein, the internet has opened up a large window for paid instruction, as it is profoundly easier for me to teach a kid back in Colorado with the wonderful medium of an online chess server. As a student of the game, I feel very fortunate to have the Internet as a tool for my own improvement.

As previously mentioned, the emergence of chess computers has taken the chess world by storm in the past decade and a half. The first real splash made by chess computers was IBM’s Deep Blue’s defeat of reigning World Champion Garry Kasparov in 1999 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJarxpYyoFI). Previously, no chess computer could compete at the top levels of the game. After Deep Blue, the chess world realized the opportunities that lay ahead for the game of chess with computers that have extremely deep computational skills.

Huge chess databases have thus been arranged in the world of chess computers. Any grandmaster-level game in the history of tournament chess has been categorized and stored in these large databases that are analyzed by computers. What does this mean for us? Well, we can search to see if and when a given position has occurred EVER in the world before. When analyzing our own games in retrospect, chess computers give us a literal evaluation of the position, which is manifest by a number, being positive (white winning) or negative (black winning) or tied (around zero). For example, +3.06 would indicate a heavy edge to the White player.

What does all of this mean for our dependence on computers in the new chess age? Well, many players have given up a sense of their creativity; instead of consulting their own knowledge to analyze a position, a click of the button brings a very trustworthy computer evaluation. The dependence on computers to think for us is very dangerous, and it loses a certain authenticity in the game that had heretofore never been threatened. Also, it’s important to note that these computers aren’t invincible. They still lack an understanding of the game, as they’ve only been programmed in an input/output manner without any intentionality. In other words, computers may overlook certain themes in a position that cannot be explicitly explored in their narrow scope of understanding. To ameliorate this artificial intelligence is a great undertaking for the upcoming engineers of the game of chess.

What if the game of chess could be eventually “solved,” like checkers? That is one of the biggest fears of chess aficionados that are pained to see computers taking over the game. As it stands now, chess is a dynamic game that captivates its followers timelessly. As a lover of the game myself, I feel blessed to have such great resources on my hands, but the fear of a sterile, strictly computational game is real for the future.  

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