Vladimir Kramnik will receive a lengthy section in any book devoted to history’s greatest chess players. He’s been a top grandmaster for close to twnety years. He defeated the seemingly invincible Gary Kasparov in a straight-up match. He has successfully defended his title twice, both times coming from behind.
So try to imagine the sting that comes from knowing the following position will forever be placed just below his name:
This is the penultimate position from the second game of Kramnik’s ongoing match against the top computer chess-playing program Deep Fritz. The dust has settled from a difficult middlegame, and Kramnik was doubtless wondering if his strong queen-side pawns and active pieces could be put to good use. He played the seemingly plausible 34. … Qe3.
No matter how big a patzer you imagine yourself to be, you might enjoy trying to determine, before continuing, why this is such a wretched move.
Did you notice that white can now play 35. Qh7 mate? If you did, you’re one up on Kramnik.
That’s right. For what might be the first time in the history of the game a World Chess Champion overlooked a mate in one. As a lowly Class A player, I find this vaguely inspiring. I mean, I make horrible, game-ending blunders on a regular basis. It’s nice to know the GM’s are capable of such things as well.
The present match is the latest in a long line of human vs. computer matches. Still the question lingers: Do computers play chess better than the top human players?
Up until 1997, the answer was an unambiguous no. Then IBM’s computer Deep Blue defeated Kasparov in a six-game match. This vicotry notwithstanding,most people were still inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the humans. Kasparov resigned a drawn position in game two, and he lost game six only because of an elementary blunder most amatuers would have avoided. Kasparov’s loss was chalked up to the fact that humans can crack under pressure. Computer’s can’t.
Kasparov has played two subsequent matches against computers, both drawn. And Kramnik himself drew an eight-game match against a computer in 2002. Looking at the games, however, tells a slightly different story.
In Kasparov’s most recent match, both players won one game and the other two were drawn. Looking at the two decisive games shows that Kasparov won a positional masterpiece. He was able to steer the game into a closed position in which long-term, subtle maneuvering to set up a breakthrough was essential. These are precisely the sorts of positions computers have difficulty playing. Kasparov nursed his advantage and crashed through convincingly. But the computer won as the result of a terrible blunder on Kasparov’s part. Prior to that blunder, Kasparov held a slightly better position
Likewise for Kramnik’s previous match. Kramnik won two games, the computer won two. Kramnik won by steady and convincing play. But one of the computer’s wins came when Kramnik blundered away a simple draw in a fashion almost as spectacular as that given above. The other win came when Kramnik played into a speculative, sacrificial attack. A sane human being would flee the building before having to defend against a Kramnik attack. But the computer took it with its usual stoicism, cranked out a series of brilliant and counter-intuitive defensive moves, and won the game. An impressive performance, but Kramnik had played right into the computer’s strong suit. You could still make a case that the humans were the better chess players.
Then came the 2005 match between British GM Michael Adams and the computer program Hydra. There were six games. Hydra won five of them. Adams had to struggle to draw the sixth.
Adams was a top grandmaster, and he got demolished. But even after this most people were inclined to give the humans the benefit of the doubt. Adams was plainly unprepared, and didn’t treat the match with sufficient seriousness.
Which brings us to the present. Kramnik was dominant in the first two games. He was apparently winning in game one, and held a small advantage through much of game two. He drew game three easily. Yet he is down a point.
So what’s the verdict? My view is this: Humans understand chess better, but computers play better.
There is such a thing as perfect chess. In any given position there is a unique best move, or a few moves that can be said to be equally good and better than any alternatives. Give five top grandmasters and five top computer programs that position, and the humans are more likely to find the correct move. Computers still have too many weaknesses born of their rigid evaluation functions and limited horizon.
But when it comes time to sit down and play, the computer’s lack of nerves and emotions makes it very difficult to beat. The computers typically play super-solid, ultra-conservative chess. They create no weaknesses, even entering into slightly inferior and passive positions. But they are ready to pounce on the slightest error. Yes, Kramnik only lost due to an incredible blunder. But avoiding blunders is simply part of the game.
Playing defensive but solid chess while waiting for your opponent to crack is a perfectly honorable approach to the game. The second world champion Emmanuel Lasker was famous for it, as were the more recent champions Tigran Petrosian and Anatoly Karpov. That the computer wins so often by this approach does not indicate that it is getting away with something. It indicates simply that it is better at playing chess than the top human players.
In this and any future matches, the computer has to be regarded as the favorite. But when it comes time to get at the truth of a position, human grandmasters have more to contirbute.