Chess-Championship Results Show Powerful Role of Computers; The digital revolution has pushed human abilities to new heights; Why 22-Year-Old Magnus Carlsen Is the New King of Chess

Chess-Championship Results Show Powerful Role of Computers

The digital revolution has pushed human abilities to new heights


Nov. 22, 2013 11:21 a.m. ET


Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, right, plays India’s Viswanathan Anand Friday in the world chess championship.Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

In the world chess championship match that ended Friday in India, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the cool, charismatic 22-year-old challenger and the highest-rated player in chess history, defeated local hero Viswanathan Anand, the 43-year-old champion. Mr. Carlsen’s winning score of three wins and seven draws will cement his place among the game’s all-time greats. But his success also illustrates a paradoxical development: Chess-playing computers, far from revealing the limits of human ability, have actually pushed it to new heights.The last chess match to get as much publicity as Mr. Carlsen’s triumph was the 1997 contest between then-champion Garry Kasparov and International Business Machines Corp.’s Deep Blue computer in New York City. Some observers saw that battle as a historic test for human intelligence. The outcome could be seen as an “early indication of how well our species might maintain its identity, let alone its superiority, in the years and centuries to come,” wrote Steven Levy in a Newsweek cover story titled “The Brain’s Last Stand.”

But after Mr. Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in dramatic fashion, a funny thing happened: nothing. Amateurs didn’t throw away their sets, and professionals didn’t switch careers. In fact, just about the only people who quit chess after the match were the IBM IBM -1.54% computer scientists, who moved on to other challenges. Chess went back to the way it was before—with one big difference.

Before the Deep Blue match, top players were using databases of games to prepare for tournaments. Computers could display games at high speed while the players searched for the patterns and weaknesses of their opponents. The programs could spot blunders, but they didn’t understand chess well enough to offer much more than that.

Once laptops could routinely dispatch grandmasters, however, it became possible to integrate their analysis fully into other aspects of the game. Commentators at major tournaments now consult computers to check their judgment. Online, fans get excited when their own “engines” discover moves the players miss. And elite grandmasters use computers to test their opening plans and generate new ideas.

This wouldn’t be very interesting if computers, with their ability to calculate millions of moves per second, were just correcting human blunders. But they are doing much more than that. When engines suggest surprising moves, or arrangements of pieces that look “ugly” to human sensibilities, they are often seeing more deeply into the game than their users. They are not perfect; sometimes long-term strategy still eludes them. But players have learned from computers that some kinds of chess positions are playable, or even advantageous, even though they might violate general principles. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas.

Computers have gone so far that the top human players are now those who most often play the moves that would be chosen by the best engines (which sport names like Houdini, HIARCS and Rybka). Magnus Carlsen’s biographers dub him the “hero of the computer era.” Indeed, a study published on earlier this year showed that in the tournament Mr. Carlsen won to qualify for the world championship match, he played more like a computer than any of his opponents.

The net effect of the gain in computer skill is thus, ironically, a gain in human skill. Humans—at least the best ones—are getting better at playing chess. And there are far more top players than ever before. Today there are about 1,500 grandmasters, more than twice as many as in 1997, and they come from over 80 countries. Twenty-two of them earned the title before reaching the age of 15.

When the first international rating list was published in 1971, the only player rated over 2,700 was Bobby Fischer. (In chess ratings, a 100-point advantage corresponds to an almost two-thirds chance of winning a match.) Fischer went on to beat Boris Spassky in their celebrated 1972 world championship match. In 1974 there were two players with 2,700 ratings: Fischer and his successor Anatoly Karpov. Even by 1997 there were just eight.

Nowadays an entire website is dedicated to tracking the 50 or so players who on any given day are rated 2,700 or higher. On the eve of the current match, Mr. Carlsen was No. 1 with a rating of 2,870, the highest of all time. (Garry Kasparov, who retired in 2006, is the second-highest-rated ever; he was No. 1 in the world for nearly 20 straight years.)

Many chess fans and experts believe that ratings are higher today because of “inflation”—a generally higher drift caused by statistical quirks. Fischer is only No. 13 on the all-time ranking list, but he dominated his opposition more than Messrs. Kasparov or Carlsen. During his own qualifying matches, Fischer destroyed two of the world’s top players by unheard of 6–0 scores. But the moves Fischer played may not have been any better than those of Messrs. Carlsen or Kasparov. Indeed, according to computer analysis, his moves were probably a bit worse. This doesn’t diminish his achievements in any way; perhaps if Fischer had continued to play after 1972, or had the help of today’s computers, his play would have become even stronger.

There is another reason today’s elite chess players are probably better than their predecessors: Hardly a week goes by now without a top-level tournament. There is a World Cup of 128 players, a Grand Prix series of six tournaments and a number of independent events in traditional chess meccas like London, Moscow and the Netherlands, and in new ones like Beijing and St. Louis. More top-level experience means that there are more opportunities to learn from one’s mistakes.

Chess is also more popular than ever before among children. The extravaganza known as the SuperNationals, which combines the kindergarten through high school championships of the U.S. into one quadrennial event held in Nashville, features over 5,300 competitors. The variety of chess apps for computers and mobile devices is tremendous, and schools increasingly include chess in the curriculum or as an enrichment program.

After Mr. Kasparov lost to Deep Blue, the Boston Herald’s front page screamed “You Lose, Man!” But the game of chess didn’t lose a thing. As in other fields, human chess skill has been complemented and augmented, not replaced, by machines. The result has been new levels of understanding and popularity for one of the oldest human pastimes. The championship reign of Magnus Carlsen will bring to fruition this new era in chess.

—Mr. Chabris is a chess master, a psychology professor at Union College and the co-author of “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.” Mr. Goodman is an international chess master, a chess teacher in New York City and the co-author of “Man Versus Machine: Kasparov Versus Deep Blue.”


Nov 22, 2013

Why 22-Year-Old Magnus Carlsen Is the New King of Chess

By Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Just over a week shy of his 23rd birthday, Magnus Carlsen today became one of the youngest players ever to ascend to the throne of the chess world by defeating long-reigning champion Vishy Anand in a match that was set to go 12 rounds but ended after just ten.

Unlike grandmasters from the days of old, the Norwegian-born Carslen claimed the crown with a cautious style and a keen ability to convert small advantages into victories. That’s according to Frank Brady, a St. John’s University journalism professor who authored two biographical books on Bobby Fischer, the U.S. chess great who in 1972 generated a boom in scholastic chess after he became the first American to officially become world chess champion.

“Carlsen is a positional player,” said Brady, former president of the Marshall Chess Club in New York City, where a young Fischer learned to master the game. “He manages to get a very slight advantage often and then he holds that advantage and keeps parlaying it and building on it until such time as it overwhelms the opponent or makes the opponent blunder.”

Indeed, in a press conference after the conclusion of the match, which took place in Chennai, India — India’s “chess mecca” and the city where Anand grew up — Anand acknowledged making several such blunders in several championship games he ultimately lost to Carlsen, who defeated Anand by becoming the first to reach 6.5 points out of a possible 12 points. Each victory counted as a point and each draw counted as a half point. Carlsen drew seven games with Anand and won three.

While Carlsen modestly said he would like to think he caused Anand to make the blunders, Anand gave Carlsen ”full credit” for doing just that.

By winning the match, Carlsen won an estimated $1.6 million of a $2.6 million prize fund, with the remainder going to Anand.

In some ways, Carlsen’s victory came as little surprise.

“He was already the highest rated player on the planet when we brought him in,” said Michael Propper, co-director of Chess NYC, recalling when the school-based chess organization hosted Carlsen at a summer chess camp in in New York City in 2012.

“We felt that there was no true world champion until Anand faced [Carlsen],” Propper said. “He just completed his final task to being the very best that there is – undisputed champion of the world.”

Beyond the fact that the chess world has a new champion, many chess enthusiasts – including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov – believe Carlsen represents a new generation that will usher in a new era of chess.

Some point to Carlsen’s looks, which landed him a career as a fashion model, as helping to give the game more mass appeal, while others note that much of what takes place in the chess world can be observed in cyberspace.

Indeed, one round of the championship match generated as many as 80 million unique user hits, according to FIDE, the French acronym for the World Chess Federation.

Jean Hoffman, newly-appointed executive director of the United States Chess Federation, says the fact that the match captivated millions online and involved a young chess phenom will create new opportunities to elevate chess in America’s schools.

“Having a world champion like Magnus Carlsen who’s dynamic and captivating in sort of a new way for chess can only help us promote it and popularize it and hopefully make it part of our educational culture as well,” Hoffman said.

Brady, the Bobby Fischer historian, had a different perspective.

“Carlsen does not have the personality, does not have the same news value, if you will, that Fischer had,” Brady said. “People thought of Fischer as this giant slayer from Brooklyn, this uneducated kid who managed to beat the Soviet hegemony all on his own.”

As for whether Carlsen’s championship win will generate more interest in chess the way Fischer’s did when he defeated Russian Boris Spassky during the Cold War back in 1972, Brady said, “I hope it happens but I doubt it.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: