How computers got so good at chess

Chess enthusiasts watch world chess champion Garry Kasparov on a television screen as he holds his head in his hands at the start of the sixth and final game May 11 against IBM’s Deep Blue Computer at New York. Kasparov lost this match in just 19 moves

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The checkmate heard around the world happened twenty years ago last month, when reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov lost a game of chess against a computer, Deep Blue from IBM. Although Kasparov would win the six-game in Philadelphia four games to two, the point had been made. A computer had defeated the best chess player in the world. Fifteen months later, “Deeper Blue” – the smarter, smoother, better offspring of Deep Blue – caused Kasparov to quit mid-game out of frustration and desperation. “I am a human being,” Kasparov said at the time, “When I see something that is far beyond my understanding, I get scared.”

“I lost my fighting spirit.”

As the world looks back on Deep Blue matches two decades in hindsight and considers their future implications, it’s clear that gaming PCs have become even more formidable. Last week, Google’s AlphaGo outplayed world champion Lee Se-dol in three consecutive matches of Go, a game previously considered difficult for a machine to master, before the human retaliated with a fourth win. But because chess has such a hold on the human imagination, it’s the game that computer programmers have attacked from the start, and what they learned while programming machines to play chess paved the way for the AI ​​that plays go and other games. So let’s take a step back and look at how we got here in the first place. How and when did computers get so good at chess?

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The dawn of the game dates back around 1,400 years in ancient India and Persia. Evolving from a game called “chatranj” or “shatranj” (which sometimes translates to “a four-division army” in Sanskrit), it was played in the high court and used to “test the wisdom of men”. War and trade took the game globally, to Europe, the Far East, and the Byzantine Empire. With the game’s arrival in the West (despite initial reluctance from the Church due to its game-playing potential), the queen was added. By the 15th century, chess had crystallized into its modern form.

Chess has always been considered an intellectual game, so much so that people have long imagined that the innate power of machines would one day overthrow the power of the human mind. In 1770, thanks to the magic of the Hungarian inventor, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, some people thought it had already happened.

The Turkish Mechanic was meant to be a simple sleight of hand. Standing in front of the court of the Holy Roman Empress of Austria-Hungary Maria Theresa, Kempelen unveiled a life-size carved wooden statue of a wizard wearing a fur-lined robe and turban, seated behind a 4 x 2.5 x 3 foot box. On the box lay a chess set. Noting that his wooden friend “Turk” was an automaton, Kempelen opened the cabinet to reveal that its inner workings were nothing more than a complex clockwork mechanism. Next, Kempelen brought a volunteer, Count Cobenzl, to challenge his robotic friend to a game of chess. Kempelen turned a few keys and, after a brief silence, the automaton came to life. The court cried out in astonishment when the Turk moved his first piece. The game ended in a hurry as the Mechanical Turk soundly beat the Count in what was the first time a machine beat a man in chess.

Except it wasn’t.

The Mechanical Turk became a global sensation, going on tour and taking on several famous challengers. The Turk defeated Catherine the Great in Russia, beat Ben Franklin in Paris and triumphed over an awestruck Charles Babbage. The Turk’s most famous match was in 1809 against Napoleon Bonaparte, who tried to outsmart the machine by performing deliberately illegal moves. Frustrated, the Turk took his wooden arm and knocked all the chess pieces to the floor, apparently delighting Napoleon. Rarely defeated (although the Frenchman Philidor, recognized as the best player in the world, won his match against the Turk), the machine disconcerts even the most learned of its operation. Was it magnetic? Controlled by wires? Could it really be magic? In 1854, eight decades after the Turk was introduced to the world, it burned down in a fire in Philadelphia. Soon after, the Clockwork Turk was revealed to be a hoax. The truth was that the Turk had a hidden operator, one that was hidden by clever doors in the box’s undercarriage. Only suitable for a short person, the person had to be not only short, but very good at chess. Needless to say, the Mechanical Turk was not magical. Quite simply, it was nothing more than a human hiding in a machine.

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Dr. Prinz de Ferranti poses a chess problem from The New Statesman to the University of Manchester computer. The computer checked in two shots but took 15 minutes to do so.

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The Mechanical Turk inspired imitators, but also immense interest in chess-playing machines, including from a man who had actually played the Turk: Charles Babbage. In 1833, after developing his “difference engine”, Babbage designed what is widely considered to be the first computer, the “analytical engine”. Although he was never able to build a fully working prototype, Babbage speculated that his machine would be capable of playing chess, although he acknowledged that this would require “the machine to be capable of represent the myriad of combinations related to the (game).” Since there are seemingly infinite possible moves in a game of chess, with exponentially increasing complexity, Babbage instead described in detail how his analytical engine could play a much simpler game, tick-tock- toe, and leave chess for another century.

In 1950, a Bell Telephone Laboratories researcher in New Jersey named Claude Shannon wrote the first paper on how to program a computer to play chess. Published in Philosophical Magazine, it exposes the theory, the strategy and the procedure of building a program able to calculate and take into account the 10120 game variations. While Shannon himself never built the program, Alan Turing did.

“Once or twice it played so well it shook me.”

Turing created an algorithm that he himself calculated manually with pencil and paper in a game against a friend (taking 30 minutes per move). Later, Turing attempted to program his algorithm into the Ferranti Mark I, the world’s first commercial computer, but never completed the task. Turing’s colleague Dietrich Prinz accomplished it for him in 1951, but Ferranti Mark I didn’t have enough processing power to play a full game of chess – he could only calculate the best move if the game chess was less than checkmate moves. In other words, Turing’s brain had far more processing power than a 1951 computer. Six years later, the IBM 704 became the first computer to play a full game of chess, taking eight minutes between each stroke. Although the computer scientist Alex Bernstein who programmed it might have beaten IBM, he said, “Once or twice it played so well it shook me.”

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At IBM’s world headquarters, American computer programmer Alex Bernstein (standing, wearing glasses) examines a computer printout as his colleague contemplates a move in a game of chess against the IBM 704.

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The IBM 704 is the turning point in this story. Once it was proven that computers could play chess against humans, it was because it was all about when, not if, they could beat us. The race to make the fastest and most capable chess computer was on.

In 1965, in the midst of the Cold War, a chess program built by Alan Kotok and John McCarthy went to the USSR to undertake a Soviet-designed program, a precursor to KAISSA that would go on to become the first World Championship winner computer chess. In a match played over nine months, the Soviets beat the Americans three games to one. MIT’s Greenblatt chess program became the first computer to compete “respectably” against humans in tournaments in 1967. By the mid-1970s, the first commercially available chess program had been released for the personal computer , MicroChess. It was followed by Chess Challenger, the first electronic chess computer. Soon, chess computers and home computer programs filled the market, including the best-selling chess franchise in history, The Chessmaster 2000, which was introduced in 1986.

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Which brings us back to Kasparov and Deep Blue. As a world champion and renowned chess personality, Kasparov himself had taken up the game of computer chess, putting his name to a number of Saitek chess computers, expensive devices that claimed that they could teach you how to play the game. (This includes Kasparov’s RISC 2500 from 1993, an ad of which can be found in the pages of Popular Mechanics). But nothing had prepared Kasparov to play on a computer as advanced, as sophisticated as Deep Blue and Deeper Blue. “I lost my fighting spirit,” Kasparov told reporters that day of his battle with artificial intelligence.

Twenty years after Deep Blue, computers have largely eclipsed the human capacity. While computers haven’t mathematically solved the game (that’s an equation that may never be solved), humans don’t stand a chance against the best machines. Gaming computers moved on to other games, like Go, Danger!, ladies and texas-holdem. Soon, the machines will probably also smoke the best poker champions. That’s what we built them for.

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