A new way to waste my time!

Recently I decided to order a computer chess program to play on my Mac.

Bad idea.

Tournament set.

I wanted some distraction to have going on in the background when I was writing. I need brain breaks every so often, and Facebook has gotten boring. I used to work on PCs and there’s a wealth of chess software for them. We Mac owners have fewer options. One of the few was Chessmaster, ceased making Mac-compatible versions a few years back—ironically, just as the Mac began its new rise in popularity. Go figger.

But Chessmaster 9000 is still available for Mac. It’s a few years old, but still strong enough to beat anyone except the very, very top grandmasters. Of course, it can also be set to play at any level. In fact, it’s a great teaching tool for children. I ordered it.

Like I said, bad idea. Really bad bad bad.

Computer chess programs have become amazingly sophisticated. They can now play at all sorts of levels, and the real joy of Chessmaster for me is how it offers a gallery of virtual opponents with their own playing styles and quirky characteristics.It’s like an assemblage of club players of all levels of skill, with favorite openings, gambits and defenses. Most other chess software allows some tweaking of the “engine”—the thing that does the thinking—but nothing like this. Chessmaster is the most versatile in that department, and using it is uncannily like playing the nervous guy who moves fast, or the shy woman who’s excessively defensive, or the showboat who can’t resist a sacrifice. (Chess dictionary: that’s giving up a superior piece for a lesser one to gain some other advantage, such as a better position or a quicker road to checkmate.)

It also simulates grandmaster personalities, playing in the style of champions past and present. Thus if you choose “Tal,” it executes wild sacrifices. If you select Nimzowitsch, it plays hypermodern. If you click on “Fischer,” it starts the game late, complains about the board you chose, and calls you anti-Semitic names if you win.

The other main advantage to Chessmaster is the graphics. While chess programs aren’t as graphic-reliant as the latest version of Grand Theft Auto, it’s true that rendering a chessboard on a computer screen is a little tricky. For years there were just basic flat graphics, and rather ugly at that.

But then they started adding 3D boards. Now it really feels like chess.

Decorative set.

The customization this program allows is mind-boggling, bordering on silly. There are all sorts of chess sets, boards, and backgrounds available for your virtual world. Most programs only have a few options for the look and feel of the pieces and board. Chessmaster may actually have too many. The board can be viewed from just about any angle. The types of pieces and boards range from the elegant to the ridiculous. There are actually only a small number of piece and board combos that are really playable. The rest are just novelties, intended, as someone in the software industry once told me, to sell the product, make the box pop on store shelves. I have to admit though, the one that resembles a newspaper chess diagram is ingenious.

Newspaper style.

There are free downloadable programs for the Mac that are extremely strong, such as Sigma Chess. But the display is small and hard to stare at for hours. The Macintosh OS itself comes loaded with an app that is very hard to beat and features big 3D pieces. But it’s not very flexible, doesn’t analyze your games for you, or tutor you or give you the functionality of good instruction software. Chessmaster features a library of games verbally annotated (he talks as the pieces move on the screen) by Josh Waitzkin, the subject of the book and movie Searching For Bobby Fischer. (A good film, by the way, and no, you don’t have to be a chess nut or even understand chess to enjoy it.) Some of the games are edge-of-your-seat thrilling.

So now I have the program open as I’m writing Entertaining Welsey Shaw, and I play against my club opponents while writing. Today I whipped Roxy’s butt. Yesterday she whipped mine.

So what’s the blog connection? Well, I feature a chess-playing scene in the Starbucks, where two  guys battle each other while half the place watches. Such chess scenes used to be common in coffee houses and cafes, but thanks to other diversions like Twitter and Facebook, are much less so today, at least in the U.S. These folks usualy tote around roll-up boards made of vinyl, sort of like those oilclothes we had to have in art classes. The pieces are usually made of very hard plastic, so that they don’t crack when they hit the floor, which in the haste of blitzkrieg coffeehouse competition happens a lot. And chess has featured in almost all other fiction I’ve written to some extent. I find it a fascinating and dramatic way to depict social interaction, just like Ingmar Bergman did.

I’ve been fascinated by computer chess ever since I got my first Boris. (Hoo-boy, does that date me.)  Scientists originally wanted to study artificial intelligence, and they thought they’d glean a lot about how the human brain works if they could build a good chess computer. But AI and computer chess long ago parted company when it was discovered that what’s called the “brute force” method—simply using faster and faster processors to crunch the numbers—worked better than anything having to do with simulating the various complex facets of human intelligence. There is some AI going on—many programs actually learn from their mistakes and change their strategies based on how they win and lose—but for the most part chess computing has taught us little about what we call, for want of a better term, “intelligence.”

Lots (too much?) of novelty.

It wasn’t always thought to be this way. In his 1974 book The World of Chess, Anthony Saidy opined: The notion of a machine ruling the chess world…has, in the opinion of most experts, a very long way to go before it even comes close to approaching reality…In the ultimate showdown of machine vs. man, we place our money unflinchingly and without hesitation on man…If the day ever comes when a machine turns upon its maker, when the Botvinnik computer beats Botvinnik at chess, it may prove to be a sad one for the human race. For the present, we may fond consolation in the thought that no computer yet invented can even remotely compare in complexity and creativity with the mind and nervous system, the heart and, if we may revive the ancient word, the soul of man. Lofty sentiments. Too bad they proved dead wrong. The strongest players in the world have been bested by silicon, although strictly speaking the competitions aren’t always fair. (For one thing, human players study the past games of their opponents; the “thinking” of computer programs are kept secret by their creators). Does that mean computers are “smarter”? No, just that our conception of “intelligence” has changed. Or, while we need at least a certain type of intelligence to solve chess problems, algorithms can be devised that accomplish the same thing without “intelligence,” whatever that is. I imagine it’s similar to savants who can do advanced math but don’t know how to put their socks on.

For a game that’s supposed to be all about logic, though, it’s interesting to plug the same position into different chess engines and get very different views on the best move or the lead one side has over another. Chess engines express the advantage of one side over another in terms of points and fractions of a point, one point equalling the value of a pawn. So if White has a score in a particular position of +1.00, it means the engine feels White has the advantage over Black of one pawn. If both sides have the same number of pieces, however, the advantage is in some other element of the game—positional, usually. In other words, two sides can have the same pieces on the board, which theoretically would be 0.00, but White has a better position—more space, maybe, or the better opportunity for an attack, so the engine gives the position a +1.00. However, plug the same position into another engine and it may disagree. It may say -0.50, meaning it likes Black’s chances better, by the advantage of roughly half a pawn’s power. Another engine may give White the edge, but only a very slight, almost imperceptible edge, say +0.12. Sometimes the differences are larger, and a move that might be considered very good by one engine will raise the “blunder alert” feature on another. How can they disagree so? Isn’t Chess knowledge objective? In every situation, theoretically, there should be one best move. That’s the theory. Practice is different. In fact, older books will rave about a certain line of attack that newer books (and better chess software) has discovered will lead to disaster. Chess is infinitely deep, at least so far. Despite the belief of a famous early 20th century champion, José Raúl Capablanca, that chess would soon reach a “draw death,” because everything that could be understood about the game would soon be understood, we’re still finding new things.

Remember that famous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where an astronaut is playing chess with HAL the computer. I love the moment when the computer tells him he “missed it,” and then goes on to recite a  list of moves that end in mate. The astronaut then says he “sees it now” in a tone of voice that indicates he wouldn’t see it if he stared for three weeks.

HAL

“What the heck is HAL talking about??”

What most people don’t know is this is a real game, one played about a hundred years ago by a pair of obscure wood-pushers named Roesch and Schlage. Interestingly, the analysis HAL gives is wrong! The game was not lost. Was this a mistake on Stanley Kubrick’s part? Hard to believe, because he was a stickler for correctness in his films and a very avid chess-player himself. This has led film buffs to conclude that the mistake is an early clue  HAL is going mad. To me what’s more interesting about this scene is that it’s set in 2001 and chess computers, and computers in general, are still enormous, room-filling affairs. Little could anyone imagine in 1967 that before the beginning of the next millennium chess software would live in small laptops people could tote around like books. (These apps don’t, to the best of my experience, go mad and try to murder people, either.)

In a way I feel guilty about being so enamored with computer chess software. I should get my ass to a chess club. The nation’s oldest is nearby in San Francisco, and I’ve never been to it. While chess clubs all over are struggling to survive (New York now boasts just one major club, the Marshall), more people than ever are playing chess—they’re just playing it online, or against computers. (Chessmaster has a “play online” feature, but I’ve never tried it.) Part of Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about how we’re no longer going out and meeting people, how even in public spaces we sit, with our heads down in our machines, alone in a crowd. I’m as guilty as the tweeters I’m disdainful of. I haven’t set foot in a chess club in over a decade, and never belonged to one for very long. Used to be it was because there wasn’t one convenient to where I was living, but with the Mechanics Institute, that’s no longer true. I should get my game into the real world. I might even make a friend or two. (And in case you’re unaware, chess is no longer a game for geeks with pocket protectors. Young [and dare I say often very sexy] women are a major presence in the sport now.)

So let’s feel good about the future of chess, and end this post by watching the climactic scene from the movie Searching For Bobby Fischer while I search online for a chess Twelve-Step program.

†Russian chess whiz and computer programmer.

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