Zero to sixty in 4.7 GHz

3/5/2004 – Do you always want to have "the baddest car in the valley" when it comes to your chess machine? What do NASCAR, computer chess, and combat robotics have in common? The answer depends on whom you ask. If you ask columnist Steve Lopez, you'll get a rant like this week's ChessBase Workshop.

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The following article reflects the opinions of the author only and not that of ChessBase GmbH or any of its employees; the author takes sole responsibility for the content.

An earlier version of this article appeared on The Chess Kamikaze Homepage in Spring 2003. It's been slightly re-edited for language and content before being presented here.


I was watching the movie American Graffiti awhile back; I'm always struck by the "John Milner" subplot. You remember John; he's the hotrodder who has the baddest car in the valley -- until Bob Falfa comes to town. Although John wins the big race by default, he learns a valuable lesson: there's always a "faster gun".

There are some computer owners who are experiencing (though not necessarily learning) the same lesson these days. There are a lot of Interrant chess servers now which have rooms where computer users can pit their computer chess program(s) against the programs of others. And, believe it or not, there are more than a few people who are spending great heaping gobs of money to prove that their computer can kick your computer's silicon butt.

I did technical support for a chess software company and noticed a disturbing trend: the majority of my questions were coming from people who say they are playing no chess themselves, but are instead interested in ways to "soup up" their computers so that it'll beat everyone else's computer online. A couple of these folks have even confessed that they don't even know how to play chess -- they're just interested in the "competition" of their hardware against everyone else's hardware. A few aren't even sure how to use Windows -- some have bought their first-ever computer just to get in on the "fun".

This is a major change from a short year ago [i.e. 2002, as this was written -- SL], when nearly 100% of the questions came from users who want to use chess software to improve their own game. Just within the last month, I've actually gone two weeks straight without a single call about that use of the software -- every call has been on how to optimize the software for best performance on their system, so that they can sally forth and smoke everyone else's computer over the virtual chessboard.

Some folks even get nasty about it. When asked about optimization, I typically refer them to an article I posted online on how to optimize the hardware and software for best chessplaying performance. For a few folks, that's not good enough -- they insist that there must be some "secret" hack or tweak that will give them (and only them) an edge. And when I tell them the bare fact -- that there is no such "secret tweak" -- they get angry and accuse me of keeping that info to myself: "You're probably playing on the server and you want to keep that as your own edge -- well, **** you then!!! [*click*]" Weird -- very weird.

As I stated earlier, some people are actually going well in pocket to try to be the "top dog" computer on a chess server. I've talked to two people recently who spent over $4,500 each for dual-processor machines. "And I can't understand why I'm still getting beat!" Well, for one thing, there are people out there who have machines with more than two processors. And you never know what will happen in a game anyway -- whether it's two humans playing chess or two computers doing the same -- there's no pre-game guarantee for either player that he will win; anything can happen.

What strikes me as really funny is that most of these people are using identical software, and they know it (the big issue seems to be hardware: "Which processor is best?"). Their Fritz8 is playing against other Fritz8s, but for some reason it matters very much to them, in some deep and meaningful way, that their computer be the #1 ranked machine on the servers.

I'll confess that I don't get it -- not at all. If they're happy pursuing this, good on 'em, but I can think of things I'd much rather do with four or five large than spend it on computer hardware just so that I can brag that my chess server computer account's nickname has the highest ever four-digit number after it, and that my processor can beat your processor.

There are times when you can practically feel the testosterone oozing out of the phone when these guys discuss their big dreams and ambitions for their hardware/sofware combos. And therein lies the key to understanding the phenominon -- it's what a lot of people call the "gearhead" mentality. I was recently discussing this computer chess phenominon with a friend and I said, "I guess it's the NASCAR thing applied to computer chess".

She replied, "Or Robot Wars". Heh -- do my friends know me or what? (I'd have been even more tickled if she's said Battlebots instead, since I tend to slag off RW, but I greatly appreciated it regardless).

The idea of computer vs. computer competitions isn't new. Years ago, a computer game called Corewar used to be really popular. You wrote a small program that was dumped into a simulation of a computer core, and it battled head to head against a competitor's program. The object was to write a program that would wipe out all competitor's programs. They used to have major intercollegiate Corewar tournaments about a decade ago; the game is still played today but it's nowhere near as popular as it used to be. I'm presently heavily involved with a different game called RoboForge in which you construct and program a self-running fighting robot, then pit it against other builders' robotic creations.

As I see it though, there's a significant difference between, say, buying a piece of chess software plus the baddest computer hardware you can find/afford to be a major competitor on chess servers and building a really awesome fighting robot or writing a tough Corewar program. In the latter two cases, you're actually doing something: you're creating something new out of nothing and (in theory at least) Darwinian principles should hold sway: your creation will "live" or "die" depending on how well you've thought things through and done your work.

But when you buy a chess program that someone else wrote and run it on the new RocketBoy 5000 multiprocessor system which you bought "off the shelf" somewhere, you're not doing a thing except throwing money at the "problem". It'd be a different story if you wrote the chess program yourself and/or assembled your own hardware (the way Grandpa Feng did back in the day). But in the scenario that many folks seem to be following, it seems to be more a contest of wallets than wills.

So I don't see why some of these folks get so emotionally wrapped up in the thing and so danged angry when "their" program (which they didn't write -- just paid $46 for) doesn't win 100% of its games. Why are they so angry? It's just a case of their commercial program losing against the same identical commercial program, albeit maybe on better/faster hardware. These guys just need to learn the "John Milner" lesson -- there's always a faster gun.

I'll admit it -- I'm baffled, mystified, and stumped by their level of emotional involvement. But if this is the "future" of chess (and the volume of phone calls and e-mails seems to point to that, from the early indications anyway), I want no part of it, thanks just the same.

Now if people start attaching wheels, motors, picks, huge hammers, and power saws to their Hewlett Packards and Compaqs to turn them loose on each other in a 36' by 36' Lexan-enclosed box, you can count me in, at least as a spectator. That would be awesome!

Until next week, have fun!



© 2004, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.


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