Chess Engines

Simon Hradecky


but they need to use their own brains!!


Chess Engines:  the death of correspondence chess?


Whenever you join discussions about correspondence chess, you will find arguments
right away that chess engines have become so good these days that humans cannot
win anymore against them. This argument also seems to be supported by the outcome
of the recent competition in which Grandmaster Arno Nickel (with the help of computers) played correspondence games against six different chess engines and lost overall.
That even leads to conclusions that the chess engines are the death of correspondence
chess and should be banned. However, I am convinced otherwise, and my own
experience seems to support my conviction fully.




Human brains are fantastic inventions of nature. Flexible, innovative, creative, adaptive,
always on the lookout for something new, yet learning and adding knowledge at the same time. We want to explore things. However, as fascinating as the brain is, it has disadvantages:
it is not reliable and predictable. We overlook things, we forget things, we are impatient,
we sometimes loose temper, we get caught in mindsets and so on.



Computers are fantastic inventions of mankind. Reliable, patient, predictable, sticking to
given procedures and knowledge. Computers, as fascinating as they are, have disadvantages: they do not learn (unless being reprogrammed by humans), they do not explore new things, they cannot deviate from their given procedures and knowledge.



Looking at these properties of the human and artificial brain, are they not completely
opposed to each other? Of course, they are. It looks like computers are the perfect
complement to human brains if we pair human intelligence, innovation and ideas
with the accuracy and reliability of machines, would we not perform significantly
better than either human beings or computers alone?


Did I just say, that chess engines are reliable, do not get caught in mindsets and do
not make mistakes? Well, somehow I did, but that statement needs to be put into
perspective: accuracy and reliability comes at a high price, namely performance.
To compute a position at full accuracy, chess engines need to check all possible moves,
all their countermoves and so on so their ability to look ahead and see developments
is vastly limited. To compensate for that, chess engines use different criteria to select
the possible moves, which they analyse further, while they just do not follow up the
ther ones. Only that trick allows them to look as far ahead as they do today and to
develop their current strength.


To give you an example: in a middle game, where each position allows for typically 30 different continuing moves, the engines would need to look at 531.440. positions for a reflection depth of 12 half moves (ply 12) and we know, that chess engines are not anywhere competitive at that level! -, which at average Fritz speed of 1.200.000 positions per second takes 442.860.000.000 seconds or more than 14000 years to compute. When the chess engines now limit the number of moves, they look on, to 4 in average, they need to look at 16.777.216 positions only and need a reflection time of about 14 seconds. At the same time the engines, however, may overlook the stronger, perhaps winning move amongst the remaining 26. As a result, chess engines, too, get caught in "mindsets" and make mistakes, just like humans.


A classic example of a chess engines mistake occured in the eighth World Championship game between Vladimir Kramnik and Peter Leko in Brissago/Switzerland 2004,


when chess engines computed the queen sacrifice by Kramnik, move 24.Qxe2, as
winning for Kramnik and continued to show winning advantage for more than 15 minutes
into evaluating the position after Lekos entirely winning 25Qd3!!, before the engines
started to doubt and reduce the score.  Kramnik confirmed later in the press conference that
this queen sacrifice was prepared and checked using chess engines during his preparation.



Another argument, often brought up in discussions about chess engines and their
impact especially on correspondence chess, is that the introduction of chess engines
brought the weaker players closer to the stronger players, closing the gap between low
rated and high rated players.  At the same time, arguments were raised that some of
the top players, including an ICCF World Champion, could achieve their good
performance only by use of a whole computer farm, continuously running one or
more chess engines for each game in progress. Conclusions were drawn that good
success only depends on money. So let us look a bit closer at that line of arguments.


Above I already raised the question, whether or not pairing human intelligence,
innovation and ideas with the accuracy and reliability of computers would be
stronger than either human beings or computers alone. In my opinion there is no
doubt that the answer to this question is a clear yes. The gap between strong
players using chess engines and the weak players using chess engines remains
because being produced by the different human skills in chess, and the stronger
player will still win against the weaker player. In other words, the chess engine
used by White is neutralized by the chess engine used by Black, and the decisive
difference between the players is again their own chess skills!


Now, does that not invalidate the money argument, too? Would a strong player
using one computer, shared for all games in progress, not be able to create the
decisive difference again to win against a weaker player, who uses one computer
per game and has it continuously analysing the game?


I think it is worth to go a bit more into that argument, again using the performance
of a chess engine. Let us again assume, the chess engine looks at four possible moves
for each position, and computes their countermoves. At ply 1 it is obvious: the engine
would look at 4 positions (=41). At ply 2 computing the 4 countermoves for each of the
4 initial moves it would look at 16 (=42) positions, and so on. At a ply of 17 we would be
looking at 417=17179869184 positions or 4 hours of reflection, at a ply of 19 that is
already 64 hours, and at a ply of 20 we would be looking at more than 10 days of
reflection time (which already is above average allowance of reflection time in ICCF tournaments). To increase reflection depth by one more additional level, the chess
engine already needs more than a month. Chess engines adaptive selections of how
 many moves get looked into more closely may reduce the average number of analysed
moves even further (sometimes as low as 2), nonetheless you will find the same time
constraints again though at some higher ply counts.


Now, how much benefit does the additional level of reflection depth add in reality?
I do not doubt for one split second that the additional reflection depth enables the
chess engine to select an even better move. However, is the benefit achieved in such
extreme reflection times indeed more than a human players experience and skills can
contribute to a game? No way!  As a classic example I recommend to try refuting
Max Zavanellis fascinating Sleeping Beauty game against Jaromir Canibal,
Reg Gillman Memorial 2000, with your favourite chess engine at whatever ply
level you are patient enough to bear. The game is fully annotated at:


Did chess engines change correspondence chess? Yes, they did, significantly so. If we
look at games of the times before chess engines, we frequently find bad mistakes in the
games, more often, of course, in the play of weaker players, many of the games being decided
by blunders. Today, we do not see such blunders anymore, even at low-level tournaments.


The requirements on players have changed, too. Besides their chess skills and knowledge players now need to know, how to use chess engines efficiently and complementary to their own skills. Players now need to know the strengths and limits of their chess engines.


Rather than theorize any further, I would like to demonstrate some of the key elements,
I observed in my own recent games within WC27SF10, namely Wladyslaw Krl Simon Hradecky, Jaroslaw Sawiniec Simon Hradecky and Simon Hradecky Joel Martn Clemente. You can view and replay the fully annotated games at:


It became clear to me early into the game that Wladyslaw Krl (playing White) trusted
 Fritz 8 as his analysis tool, though he played several moves that deviated from Fritz's suggestions. After a varied game we approached the endgame, and it became more and
more clear, that the game would end in a draw, me not being able to convert my advantage. However, I discovered that Fritz 8 did not evaluate a certain position correctly, and therefore steered the game towards that position, which materialized after my move  40Nd6! :
















At first sight every human player immediately recognizes, that the white rook must not take the black rook at d3. The black pawn at c4 retakes and becomes a very dangerous threat on the d-file, whereas the white c-pawn is no real threat to Black due to lack of support by both white king and rook (the rook being tied into position by the black d-pawn). However, Fritz favoured 41.Rxd3 very strongly, putting it far ahead of any other move and especially far ahead of the correct sequence to a draw, which would have been 41.Nxd6 R8xd6 42.Rf3!


Consequently, Wladyslaw Krl played 41.Rxd3?? and lost the game. Human skills
and trust into the own abilities would have saved the draw.


It also needs to be said, that some (but by far not all) other chess engines,
for example Chessmaster 9000, "saw" the correct way to a draw.


Earlier in the same game an interesting situation had arrived on the board, in which
all chess engines performed less than reasonable, as none looked through the position,
that had arrived after my move 12g6:
















The chess engines preferred 13.Bd2 at this point, completely overlooking the powerful
move 13.Rd1!, as the engines did not "see" the brilliant fireworks, that White could
launch after the moves 13Qc7 or 13Qb6 those moves actually reached a very high
score in favour of Black by the chess engines.


13Qc7 could have been followed by 14.f5! gxf5 15.Nxf7!!, blowing Black's defence
completely open and leading to a quick white win, 13Qxb6 could have been followed
by 14.f5! gxf5 15.Bxf5! Bd7 leading to winning advantage for White. Therefore Black would be forced to play 13c4 to remain in the game without allowing a decisive advantage to White.



In the game Sawiniec-Hradecky I was occupied with another game, where I had
spotted a problem and was devoting almost all of my  time to solve that problem,
when a crucial position arrived with 36.Nd4! :















It goes without any further mention that the chess engines did not suggest 36.Nd4,
but evaluated that move significantly worse than 36.Rd2 (white knight on b3).


My immediate instinct was to take the knight at d4, but then I realized I would be left
with opposite coloured bishops, which strongly favour drawish endgames, and therefore
also looked briefly at Be2 to keep the pair of bishops. At the same time I realized, I would win two pawns after taking the knight and have forceful play on both wings of  the board. Endgame theory told me, that this game would be won despite the opposite coloured bishops. A check with chess engines also favoured to take on d4. As I didn't want to devote more of my time to this game, that I thought was won anyway, I accepted these results and played 36Bxd4,
thus paving the way to a draw, which in the end, after move 68Kxf2, looked like this:















With the white king just shuttling between a1 and b2 there is no way for Black to force a win.


In this game I also played a joke that would have trapped every "postmaster" (a player,
who just forwards the best move suggested by his favourite chess engine):














Here I played 49Bd1+, offering to sacrifice my bishop. All chess engines, without
exception, immediately and continuously (at whatever ply count you want to try!),
voted to take that bishop with several pawn units difference over the next best move.
However, after 50.Kxd1?? a2 51.Bf6 Kg4 52.Kc2 Kf5 53.Kb2 h5! 54.f3 h4 55.Bd4 Kxg5 56.Kxa2 Black has a fully won game, as the black king can capture the pawn at f3 and the white
bishop, without the help of his king, isn't able to hold the three combined passed pawns.
It speaks for my opponent that he saw through the manoeuvre and continued
correctly with 50.Kb1. I believe, that he had fully understood and prepared the
endgame before playing his 36th move.


Another highly interesting game with regards to both chess engines as well as human psychology is the game Hradecky-Martn Clemente. After move 38.Bg3 the position was:















Chess Engines at this position were not clear between 38Nd6 and 38Qxd5, my instinct
was to not expect 38Qxd5, so I analysed 38Nd6 primarily. However, after a second look
and some more analysis I found, that 38Qxd5 looked pretty sound after recognizing,
that the subsequent exchange sacrifice by Black (38Qxd5 39.Ne7 Qxa5 40.Nxg8) would
lead to a draw rather than a win for White.


So I started a full analysis of that branch too, and the more I looked at it, the more it
looked like I could not win anymore after 38Qxd5. One late evening, I was just about
throwing the towel for the day, I looked at my scribblings and suddenly spotted, that
I had analysed between 3 and 10 variants for each of my subsequent moves, but only had
looked at one variant for my move 40, namely 40.Nxg8.
















 Position after 39Qxa5


I was so caught in the belief that the knight had to immediately take the rook (after the queen escaped the fork), that I did not at all look at any other of the possible moves.


When I now looked at other possibilities, I immediately discovered 40.Qd2!!,
attacking the black knight at d7, my knight at e7 locking the black king into the
cage behind the black pawns and thus producing a mate threat on the a-file. Eureka!
That is the winning move I transmitted only a few days later, after
Joel Martn Clemente played 38Qxd5 indeed.


I conclude from the response times of my opponent, that he was caught in the
very same mindset, expecting to have survived a bad position and achieved a
balanced play again, in which a draw was the most likely result. Earlier in the game
he had used several days per move, but on entering the combination leading to that
position his response times lowered to a few hours per move. Immediately after I played
40.Qd2 his response time rose to some 2-3 weeks per move.


Human psychology, in the form of mindsets, at its best indeed! However, interesting as it is,
that mindset was not limited to only humans, but all chess engines were also caught in the
same mindset. Not a single engine considered 40.Qd2 in analysing the preceding
moves - only after the move was executed, chess engines recognized its power.


Looking at just three games I was able to demonstrate five different positions already,
in which chess engines not only failed to compute the correct continuations, but actually lost.
All of those games were decided by human brainpower (well supported by computing power), psychology and ideas. Looking into the annotated games youll find more such positions, e.g. the miraculous move 25Bc8! in Hradecky-Martn Clemente or 25.Bxa6! in Krl-Hradecky.


So, isn't correspondence chess still highly interesting, enjoyable and actually enriched
by the chess engines, that tremendously help to avoid bad blunders and allow players
to concentrate more on the beauty of the game rather than avoiding mistakes?


For me, the answer is clear: human mind and computing power of chess engines
combined in a clever way produce stronger, more interesting, actually thrilling games
and enrich correspondence chess. Thus players are able to get more creative than
ever before, but - and thats the bottom line - they need to use their own brains!!



Simon Hradecky

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