What is Switch-Side Chain-Chess?

by Azlan Iqbal
7/13/2017 – There are many chess variants. A recent one was invented by an AI expert at the Tenaga National University of Malaysia, by Dr Azlan Iqbal. He subsequently received a research grant to develop a mobile app, in order to study "cleverer algorithms" and get the computer to play as well as humans. Working on a shoestring budget Azlan managed to develop two apps, one for Android and one for iOS. You can try your hand – it's free of charge.

Switch-Side Chain-Chess for Android and iOS

By Azlan Iqbal, Ph.D.

A while back, I wrote about a new chess variant I invented called, ‘Switch-Side Chain-Chess’ (SSCC). It was developed under a research grant that was intended to describe a game that had increased human-perceptual complexity while still maintaining the same theoretical game tree size as the standard version of chess. This was useful in shifting the focus from studying ‘higher complexity’ in AI (think the paradigm shift from chess to Go, which has recently been conquered by computers as well) to studying ‘cleverer algorithms’ in order to play the game as well as humans.


A subsequent research grant focused on commercialization allowed the development of a mobile app for SSCC. Even though the budget was already quite small (about 30% of the amount requested was also slashed, which is not uncommon) we managed to develop not only one but two apps for the game, that is one for Android and one for iOS, because the base code was more or less portable between the two operating systems. The game-playing ability is therefore still quite rudimentary even though it does kind of implement the novel chain detection algorithm developed primarily by Paul Bonham, whom Frederic Friedel put me in touch with after our articles on chess variants appeared ChessBase. He was intrigued by the problem and quite interested in tackling it programmatically, especially since the algorithm developed by my research assistant (at the time) in the prototype Windows version of SSCC was known to not work for certain types of chains.

Paul and I even co-authored a paper on the new chain-detection algorithm that should work ‘infallibly’ but not provably so, unfortunately (more details in the paper). The truth is, the programmers whom we could afford to hire given the shoestring budget could not quite understand the new algorithm well enough in the time we gave them and had to improvise aspects of chain detection on their own. They did not realize how complicated chains on the board could get. Even detecting the presence of a single chain is not algorithmically guaranteed, to say nothing of detecting and highlighting them all, for example. So among a handful of other aspects of the game there are still some bugs. Regardless, a full SSCC game can indeed be played on these apps, for the most part.

Switch-Side Chain-Chess app for Android

Switch-Side Chain-Chess app for iOS

We hope to improve these mobile apps in the future (given the possibility of further research funding or game industry interest) and by incorporating newer and better AI with regard to playing ability. This refers not only to the chain-detection component but more importantly, in the AI being able to decide whether or not to switch sides in a given position, which can be very tricky even for humans. This is a problem that even deep learning will likely be unable to solve easily because simply inverting the minimax algorithm will not work at high levels of play. There are also many subtleties and ‘tricks’ in deciding whether or not to switch sides that are difficult to describe heuristically, if possible at all. Even basic SSCC game-playing theory is still in its infancy unlike chess which has thousands of established books programmers can refer to. Paul Bonham has also brought my attention to some very unique and challenging SSCC problems which might one day have a class or two of its own (perhaps we will co-author a ChessBase article on those in the future).

This is not to say a computer cannot play the game well but it will require specialized AI in order to do so (the development of which is why the game was proposed to begin with). Most chess players, once they learn how to play, however, should be able to beat the mobile apps as the present AI, as mentioned earlier, is relatively weak. In any case, do give it a try. If you end up liking the game, I suspect you will ultimately enjoy playing it more against other humans, though.

Previous ChessBase articles on the subject by Prof. Azlan Iqbal

  • Pál Benkö: Can computers compose artistic problems?
    6/14/2016 – Some time ago Dr Azlan Iqbal presented a program, Chesthetica, that was composing chess problems. We published ten examples of three-movers by the machine. Now a leading expert in the subject, Pal Benko, who is one of the finest problem composers in the world, tells us what he thinks about the quality of the computer compositions – and also what are the criteria that make a chess problem valuable.

  • Azlan Iqbal: Studies and a Decade in Development
    5/31/2016 – Chesthetica, a computationally creative chess problem composer, has added studies to its repertoire. Dr. Azlan Iqbal shows us examples and looks back upon a decade of its development. He also describes the challenges he faced in trying to introduce the technology in the field of protein folding which might have yielded cures to diabetes, cancer and other deadly diseases. From chess to computers to medicine.

  • Azlan Iqbal: Recomposition contest II result
    4/30/2016 – Over Christmas we had an interesting problem: say you have found some moves somewhere, in coordinate notation without piece names – is it possible to reconstruct the original supposedly meaningful position to which they apply? Later the author, who has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, presented a second puzzle, and the winner gets a valuable prize.

  • Women and beautiful chess – a response to critics
    3/27/2016 – "I write for ChessBase because, as a kind of ‘community service’, we academics are expected to convey our research to the public in more palatable and widespread forms than just technical papers," writes Dr Azlan Iqbal. Unfortunately some readers interpreted his last article to be misogynistic, having “gratuitous sexist content”. The author replies to his critics and describes the application of the scientific method to an area as nebulous as aesthetics in chess.

  • Do women play more beautiful chess?
    2/26/2016 – Azlan Iqbal, senior lecturer at the Universiti Tenaga Nasional in Malaysia, has been working for years in the field of Artificial Intelligence, trying to program machines to evaluate aesthetics. After making the Chesthetica software that is able to create an unlimited number of problem-like chess constructs he has turned his attention to gender-based playing style. Here are first results.

  • Azlan Iqbal: Recomposition contest result
    2/24/2016 – Over Christmas we showed you an interesting problem: say you have found some moves somewhere, in coordinate notation without piece names – is it possible to reconstruct the original supposedly meaningful position to which they apply? The author, who has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, tried to do it, but with modest success. A reader presented a more plausible solution and won a valuable prize

  • ChessBase Chrismas Puzzles 2015 (5)
    12/29/2015 – Here's an interesting problem: say you have found some moves somewhere, in coordinate notation without piece names – e.g. 1.h7g5 d8g5 2.b5d5 d1c2 etc. Can one reconstruct the original supposedly meaningful position to which they apply? Azlan Iqbal, who has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, retraces his thought processes when he tried, in this unique exercise in forensic chess. Help him and you can win a special prize.

  • Chesthetica Composes Longer Mates!
    9/7/2015 – This program, written by Prof. Azlan Iqbal, is an ever-improving attempt to create an artificial intelligence that composes chess constructs, a type of chess problem, from scratch, using a new AI technology and a model of human aesthetic perception. As expected, there has been some criticism that the results are not up to the standard of top problem composition. Is this justified?

  • Celebrating 300 machine generated problems
    5/31/2015 – As we reported before, Chesthetica, a program by Azlan Iqbal, is autonomously generating mate in three problems by the hundreds, and the author is posting his selections in a very pleasing format on YouTube. The technology behind the program’s creativity is a new AI approach and Dr. Iqbal is looking for a substantial research grant for applications in other fields.

  • Computer generated chess problems for everyone
    2/6/2015 – Now they are composing problems that fulfil basic aesthetic criteria! Chesthetica, a program written by Azlan Iqbal, is churning out mate in three constructs by the hundreds, and the author is posting them in a very pleasing format on Youtube. How long will Chesthetica theoretically be able to generate new three-movers? Quite possibly for tens of thousands of years.

  • A machine that composes chess problems
    11/7/2014 – Chess problems are an art – positions and solutions, pleasing to the mind and satisfying high aesthetic standards. Only humans can compose real chess problems; computers will never understand true beauty. Really? Dr Azlan Iqbal, an expert on automatic aesthetic evaluation, imbued his software with enough creativity to generate problems indefinitely. The results are quite startling.

  • 7/26/2014 – Best ‘Chess Constructs’ by ChessBase readers
    Chess constructs are basically an intermediate form of composition or chess problem, lying somewhere between brilliancies from chess history – and artistic chess problems, between real game sequences and traditional award-winning compositions. A month ago Dr Azlan Iqbal explained the concept asked our readers to submit compositions of their own. Here are the winners.

  • Azlan Iqbal: Introducing ‘Chess Constructs’

    6/29/2014 – People love brilliancies from chess history – and artistic chess problems. But there is a big gap between the two. Positions from games demonstrate the natural beauty of actual play, while chess problems are highly technical, with little practical relevance. The author of this interesting article suggest an intermediate form, one you can try your hand at – and win a prize in the process.

  • Can computers be made to appreciate beauty?
    9/2/2009 – Or at least to identify and retrieve positions that human beings consider beautiful? While computers may be able to play at top GM level, they are not able to tell a beautiful combination from a bland one. This has left a research gap which Dr Mohammed Azlan Mohamed Iqbal, working at Universiti Tenaga Nasional, Malaysia, has tried to close. Here's his delightfully interesting PhD thesis.

  • A computer program to identify beauty in problems and studies
    12/15/2012 – Computers today can play chess at the grandmaster level, but cannot tell a beautiful combination from a bland one. In this research, which has been on-going for seven years, the authors of this remarkable article show that a computer can indeed be programmed to recognize and evaluate beauty or aesthetics, at least in three-move mate problems and more recently endgame studies. Fascinating.

  • A new, challenging chess variant
    2/2/2014 – Ever since desktop computers can play at its highest levels and beat practically all humans, the interest of the Artificial Intelligence community in this game has been sagging. That concerns Dr Azlan Iqbal, a senior lecturer with a PhD in AI, who has created a variant of the game that is designed to rekindle the interest of computer scientists – and be enjoyable to humans as well: Switch-Side Chain-Chess.

  • Chesthetica Composes Custom Mates
    4/7/2017 – He has written extensively about Chesthetica, an automatic and computationally creative composer of chess problems, in the past, and now would like to update interested readers and artificial intelligence (AI) researchers about a new feature he has implemented into the program. Dr Azlan Iqbal, who has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, thinks that his program could abide by all the requirements of a good, traditional chess problem, given a year’s additional work customizing the code.

Dr. Azlan Iqbal has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from the University of Malaya and is a senior lecturer at Universiti Tenaga Nasional, Malaysia, where he has worked since 2002. His research interests include computational aesthetics and computational creativity in games. He is a regular contributor at ChessBase News.
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TMMM TMMM 7/13/2017 09:50
Someone at ChessBase, *please* stop joking around and withdraw his account for posting news articles. We already have sites like The Onion for fake news.
benedictralph benedictralph 7/14/2017 12:28
@TMMM: The mobile apps are real. Stop being an idiotic troll.
RayLopez RayLopez 7/14/2017 04:16
If Go has been beat by a machine, as the professor says, I don't think this game will become the Drosophila of AI. Perhaps it's time to simply see if a machine can convincingly beat the Turing Test?
azlan azlan 7/15/2017 05:23

The Turing Test and other newer tests like it are geared toward a kind of "general intelligence". In AI, we've realized that in order to excel at a task, a machine should be specialized. So in board game AI like the above, the intention is really to promote the development of newer or more creative algorithms that hopefully have applications in other areas as well. Think of it like yet another piece to the general intelligence puzzle or a highly specialized piece to solving a particular kind of problem in one or more domains.