Saturday, January 19, 2008

Computers in Chess (The Crafty Years)

Sometime in the early 90s I became aware of Dr. Robert Hyatt’s open source Crafty program. Not being a programmer, my ability to modify and manipulate the engine was limited. But I saw the potential of chess engines being separate from the graphical interface. They could be modified like internal combustion engines and then dropped into a GUI as if it were a racing chassis. This may have been common in computer programming at that time, I do not know, (compartmentalizing programs so as to be updateable) however the ability to drop an engine into the chess program was and still is a cool idea. Undoubtedly it has contributed to the development of the number crunching magic that goes on inside these invisible contraptions.

There were many good early engines that ran in the winboard GUI. (Delfi, Gromit, Little Goliath, Yace) to name but a few. Remember good is a vary relative term as I have used it here. Like Crafty they all had multiple configuration settings and could be tweaked nicely to the hardware that you were running them on. Opening books that could easily be modified came into being along with book learning and positional learning. Nalimov 3-4 man end game table bases where mated to many of these engines. Winboard protocols were superseded by UCI and we came into the modern era of computer chess.

By the end of the century the 32bit CPU had picked up speed and I will be darned if I could beat the things any longer. If the truth be known, no one could. We all had chess masters setting on our desks.

This may be an obscure reference but I believe to be an accurate analogy. In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind remember how after the mother ship had landed and the humans were beginning to communicate with it using musical notes and harmonics. At a given point the communication got to fast and complex for the human operators. A bank of computers could be seen in the background and a voice says “ok, we are taking over this conversation now” and the computers where turned on. The exchange continued faster and more complex than it had been. Strange yet somehow familiar as nonhuman intelligence spoke to us in a human way. This I think is what we are experiencing when we match one computer engine against a another. A strangely beautiful and somewhat disturbing display of nonhuman intelligent.

Computers in Chess (The Beginning)

For me the beginning was in 1983 and the release of the Atari 800XL home computer. At the time I was working at Vincennes University and had had access to a main frame computer with teletype stile terminals. It had no chess programs and the Internet was just a baby. Connecting only a few universities and libraries. The Atari 800XL however had a monitor, floppy disk drive, and loadable programs that included. A word processor, a database and at least two available chess programs. (Sargon, Chessmaster)

At the time I was still playing in over the board chess tournaments and was the faculty sponsor of the universities chess club. As I began to play more correspondences chess I saw the potential of keeping these games organized in the meager database capabilities of these early chess programs. The chess engines themselves where not yet a factor in correspondents chess as they lacked the strength to be of any help in positional analyses.

I suppose, I did not foresee in those early days that programs using minimax algorithms (decision making equations in a zero sum games) would ever be strong enough to challenge the best human players. I believed the way to go was vast databases of games that would be searched for the winning move in any given position. In the early 80s CPU power and data storage were expanding exponentially.

Even on the Atari 800XLs 64K floppy disk many hundreds of games could be stored. I spent hours entering GM games mostly from the Chess Informant that I subscribed to. These key GM games in the lines that I played in correspondence chess were invaluable in getting my postal (as we called it back then) ELO above 2100 and keep it there for many years.

I smile now when I think of those days. My entire collection of games where no more than 900Kb in size. Today in modern engine vs. engine play I use opening books that are 200-300Mb and end game table bases that are 150Gb in size. It is still not enough, perhaps it never will be.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Death of Bobby Fischer

The chess world learned yesterday that we had lost Bobby Fischer. As an American I feel great shame in the way we treated him. As his complex mind slipped into madness there was no help for Bobby.

The greatest chess genius of his generation spent the last days here in the United States living in shabby hotels and wearing the clothes of a derelict. When he finally returned to us in 1992 for a rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia upon his return a warrant was issued by the US for his arrest. For the next 14 years his paranoia was fed by a very real attempt to capture and silence him. Perhaps if he had known he had but one year of life for every square on the chess board he would have played the game differently.

My view of Iceland has changed dramatically over the kindness that they showed Bobby. I would like to thank, on behalf of the international chess community; Iceland and its compassionate people for giving this man sanctuary and peace in the last days of his life.

May God forgive us for how we treated one of our native sons.