‘Chess life without a computer is no longer conceivable’


NOS Sport

Computers were the aliens among chess grandmasters. Welcomed by one, loathed by the other. This is how Garry Kasparov described the mood that prevailed in the chess world when the computer began to interfere in chess in the late eighties.

The modern grandmasters, including those starting the Tata Steel chess tournament in Wijk aan Zee on Saturday afternoon, can no longer do without the technology more than three decades later. The chess computer, yes engine, evolved over the years from a terrifying enemy to a helpful friend. Sometimes a little too helpful.

Deep blue

Kasparov feels “something new, something unsettling” when he sits down in front of Deep Blue, a chess program developed by IBM in 1997. “Like being in a self-driving car for the first time,” the Russian writes in his 2017 book Deep thinkingon the influence of artificial intelligence on chess.

The chess world is in shock as Deep Blue defeats the great Kasparov. The chess computer had been around for a while, but the first versions were weak. Never was a machine stronger than man until Deep Blue. The computer would not be leaving the sport anytime soon, that much was clear to connoisseurs.

“A lot of people resisted the influence of the computer at the time. There was a certain hostility,” says Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam, editor-in-chief of the chess magazine New In Chess. “It also had to do with broken egos. At a certain point you got computers that only won.”

The future was approaching very quickly. The transition from the previous decades was great. As grandmasters, armed with fist-sized encyclopedias, checkers and folders filled with paper, threw themselves into their games.


1997: Kasparov sees Deep Blue, seen behind the arm of an IBM researcher, take a step

A grandmaster rummaged through the books, looking for an original move that could surprise the opponent. No one had ever heard of the Internet or a mouse click.

It would be some time before a computer would beat a grandmaster, but when it came to it in the late nineties, it took some getting used to, to say the least. Also for Kasparov. Nevertheless, the Russian was one of the first majors to embrace the digital newcomer.

“At first Kasparov thought: this will be my companion. And afterwards it became a creative source,” says Ten Geuzendam. An almost omniscient friend, a practical training aid that looks at the best moves with lightning speed and far ahead.

Life without a laptop?

“Today, a chess life without a computer is unthinkable”, explains Eline Roebers. In Wijk aan Zee, the 17-year-old Dutchman plays chess in the Challengers tournament, the B group, a level below the schedule, where big names such as Magnus Carlsen participate.

“I still use books. But also a lot of the computer,” Roebers says of her preparation. “Chess engines are useful for preparing a game.” For example, when analyzing an opening. Or browse an original series of moves. “In a certain position, you can let the engine calculate and you can find out that a certain move is not good.”


Elaine Roebers

During the fourteen-round Tata tournament, the grandmasters dive into the chess engines after a round, in the comfort of their hotel room, to see where their games went right or wrong. Roebers: “The engine can see if there is a gap in the variant you have calculated behind the board.”

The computer says: fine

Ten Geuzendam sees an important change since the advent of the computer: a flattening of playing styles. “In the past, the players had more of their own style. Real defenders or attackers, creative and solid players.”

“But because they work with such an engine, many grandmasters often look at the same things. You are no longer so dependent on style, because you feel covered by the computer. In the past, you thought: this is too dangerous. Now you know, it’s okay.” Because the computer says: fine.

The computer as an adversary that hardly exists anymore. They are now unmatched. “I actually never play chess against the computer, because Stockfish, the best computer, is better than Carlsen. So it doesn’t make much sense,” says Roebers. Use engine rather like a friend.

Erwin L’Ami, crowned Dutch champion at the end of December and active in Wijk aan Zee at the same level as Roebers, said two years ago: “The use of modern engines in the right way, by asking the machine the right questions, can be very valuable. You have a sparring partner with one assessments from 3700 on the fingers.”


Nevertheless, the sparring partner sometimes switches to one partner-in-crime. Due to the advent of chess websites, anyone in the world, even in the anonymity of their own bedroom, can play online chess at any time of the day. Chess got a boost, but also a dark side, namely cheating.

Another tab where a engine running during an online game opens in no time. That would be one way American Hans Niemann cheated online. Niemann-Carlsenrel turned the chess world upside down at the end of 2022, after which the management of the Tata Chess Tournament this week decided to take extra measures regarding the physical chessboard.

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    Magnus Carlsen at the Tata Steel chess tournament in 2022
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    Anish Giri at the 2022 Tata Steel Chess Tournament
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    Jorden van Forest at the Tata Steel Chess Tournament in 2022

Cheating is an almost inevitable byproduct of our time, believes Ten Geuzendam, who emphasizes that cheaters have been active since the first chess websites on the Internet. “That it crept in is unfortunate.”

‘Contact with computers was a logical step’

Ten Geuzendam is still surprised by the “natural evolution” of the sport. “In chess you had a romantic era, a classical era and a modern era, which sometimes coincided with developments in art and literature. The logical step was to come into contact with computers.”

Ten Geuzendam: “When the computer came, the big fear was: now the chapter is closed. But now it seems that chess is also adapting to it.”

With the arrival of artificial intelligence – and the arrival of the latest super engine AlphaZero – the sport of chess already has one foot in the next era. What it gives, even the strongest can engine not predict yet.

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