The latest issue of The New Yorker magazine (December 12, 2005) features an article by Tom Mueller titled "Your Move: How Computer Chess Programs Are Changing the Game." As Mig points out, its information value for serious players is probably rather low. But for the general New Yorker readership, it does a good job of portraying the highest levels of computer chess (including the Hydra-Adams match) in an accurate, understandable, and interesting way. I think it's unfortunate, however, that those highest levels are all that gets portrayed in any public discussion of computer chess. The problem is that the general public can easily get the impression that chess is essentially "solved" (which it is not) or at least that there is not much point in pursuing it since computers are already so much better at it than we are. You might as well play poker, where people can at least still bluff their way to victory against the risk-averse silicon beasts. Moreover, by sticking to the story of the world's best computers we miss out on what to me seems the more interesting story of how readily available GM-strength chess computers have helped to popularize the game like never before.
The focus of Mueller's piece is the computer programmer and self-described average player Chrilly Donninger, who is best known as the man who developed Hydra (with the help of all-important Saudi funding, of course). He is an interesting character who reminds me of the other chess programmers I have met over the years. For one thing, he is much more interested in technology as a problem to be solved than he is in the people it might help. As Mueller tells us, in fact, "Doninger is no longer intrested in man-versus-machine matches" -- nor in any chess games played by those blunder-prone player of flesh and blood. Even the prospect of Kasparov vs. Hydra (the unlikely but exciting dream match-up for many chess fans) leaves him cold. He says: "I'm much more intersted in beating Shredder, Fritz, and the other programs... I learn more from those matches."
Personally, I find computer matches rather ludicrous. But maybe I just haven't been paying attention to them for a few years. Maybe computer vs. computer games are more interesting these days. I assume, however, that they are still more interesting for programmers than they are for chessplayers. We are looking for plans and ideas, counterplans and strategies. Computer chess doesn't really offer that.
It must be said, though, that Mueller has done an excellent job of portraying his subject. I especially enjoyed his clear discussion of the rise of brute force programming and of the issues GM-strength chess programs raise about the definition of intelligence. After reading the article, I feel more convinced than ever that, as philosopher Mark Greenberg is quoted as saying, "there's no reason in principle that a computer couldn't think, have beliefs and oher mental states, [and] be intelligent." We just have not quite reached that level of complexity yet. But we keep getting closer and closer and it is no longer a matter of "if" but "when."
Good articles on chess in major publications are always welcome for promoting the game. I simply wish I'd see more articles about the human side of the game than the "man versus machine" angle so dominant these days. Perhaps "man versus machine" is the new "Cold War" for which chess has become a metaphor. And there is some fun to these articles for the philosophically minded. It's just that I'm more interested in the smaller, local story. And if the story must be about computers, then I wish it would survey the larger world of chessplayers to see "how computers are changing the game."
The wide availability of GM-strength chess programs (some even freely downloadable from the internet) has made chess a more interesting and enjoyable activity for everyone. Chessplaying computer programs give anybody an instant opponent, coach and trainer, analysis partner, and chess-publishing assistant. Computers have raised the level of everyone's game at every level. And computers have transformed the game more generally. Today, anyone can go online and instantly play against someone else anywhere in the world. Or download recent games for analysis. Or gain access to articles about chess history or the latest theory. The list goes on. I'm rather more interested in how people are using computers than what the computers are off doing on their own. They are inevitably part of the game. I just wish the story were less how they are taking it over than how they are helping it grow.