'Hydra is the Kasparov of computers'

6/30/2005 – A lot has been said about the Man vs Machine match between Michael Adams and the Hydra super-computer. With the 0.5:5.5 drubbing Britain's top GM got, most of the comments were quite negative. But what does the human player himself think about the match and the result. We spoke to Adams, who gave us the following in-depth interview.

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What Kasparov did for Human Chess
Hydra has done for Computers"

An exclusive interview with Michael Adams

By Aryan Arghandewal

Outwardly he could be best described as your average Englishman. That is, someone who is well mannered, super-polite, someone who utilises every opportunity to downplay his own achievements. When he speaks you can barely hear his voice, but that doesn’t matter because like all men of this calibre he has acquired what is known in political circles as ‘Presence’. He doesn’t need to speak much. There is something imperceptibly powerful in his Presence. He chooses his words carefully, as if choosing his candidate moves on the chess board. His fighting skills are second to none. Only a few weeks ago he was leading Peter Leko by a score of 3-0 in their rapid match in Hungary. Peter miraculously survived the onslaught and eventually equalised the match. He is the 11 times British Player of the Year, Grand Master at 17, #3 FIDE world ranking in 2002 He is currently ranked number 1 in Britain and number 7 worldwide, with an Elo rating of 2741…This is Michael Adams.

Question: The Hydra team human operator shared a revelation with me: apparently during game one he suffered multiple panic-attacks from the sheer pressure of sitting opposite world No 7 Super Grandmaster. Did you feel any pressure playing against an unemotional object capable of analysing 200 million positions per second?

Adams: Well, before the match I expected Hydra to be much stronger than any other computer we have seen so far, but frankly its playing strength surpassed all expectations. But I don’t think I am alone in this miscalculation. Experts I spoke to were far more sceptical about Hydra’s playing strength than I was personally. Hydra proved to be far more powerful than anyone expected. There were only a couple of games in the match where I was really in the game at all.

Did you get the opportunity to play a few games against Hydra before the match?

Well, it was sort of an effort, but I had a feeling that there could’ve been more information on Hydra made available to us. Perhaps it was a bit of a problem for me that I had a very busy schedule this year to focus specifically on the Hydra project. From the Hydra side there were only 20 published games available to us – a very small number – against 2000 games of mine – [smiles] a bit of an imbalance. But Hydra plays very well indeed, very often it plays human-style chess, which is strange. I understand it has a completely different way of selecting its moves. It is obviously difficult for the human player if you are losing a lot of games and the match is going on and you are getting a bit tired. It is a difficult situation to deal with.

Do you think therefore that it is a fair competition, where a human plays against an entirely unemotional object under these circumstances?

Up until now these rules have been quite fair in the Man versus Machine matches, where both sides could mount a challenge. Probably now they would have to change the rules a little bit, to enable the human player to score a few points more than I did against Hydra.

What sort of changes would you introduce?

Well, I don’t know, it’s difficult to suggest anything. I mean when you think about it, these rules have been quite fair, and introducing any changes would mean that you’d be tilting the scales to bring the match closer. I don’t know if that would make the competition more attractive to the public.

Given the controversy surrounding the 1997 Kasparov-Deep Blue match, were there any checks put in place to ensure there is no human intervention in the Hydra evaluation or move-selection process during the match?

I wasn’t really concerned about that possibility. In any case it would be impossible for me to tell, because Hydra plays a very different game to any other computer that I ever saw. Even in these six games it actually played differently to anything I saw in its own previous games, so it’s not easy to judge. But no, I don’t have any suspicions about human intervention. That’s not something that concerned me.

In a post-retirement interview Garry Kasparov says: “I don’t feel that computers are better than the top humans today…machines that are demonstrably better than Deep Blue are not yet superior to human players”. Do you share his view?

You would have to ask him again after this match, whether his opinion has changed, because not too much was known about Hydra really until very recently, when it played games against Topalov, Ponomariov and Karjakin in the Man against Computer event. Okay, people understood that Hydra was strong, but since then they have managed to improve its performance and opening preparation dramatically. But to be fair they have not been working long on Hydra project, due to fund-raising issues, so perhaps it’s not such a big surprise that there was not too much information available before the match.

Do you think Adams versus Hydra 2005 is a conclusive proof of where we stand in the Man versus Machine race?

Well, I don’t think you can get a conclusive proof after one match. My own impression of Hydra was that it played well, but I am sure we will see more of Hydra’s games against other top players.

Obviously everyone expects a computer to excel at tactics. How would you describe Hydra’s strategic play? Would you say it is capable of mounting gradual positional pressure?

Hydra basically likes to play very aggressively, go forward. This is the obvious style for a computer, but I think other computers have not really adopted this in such a clear-cut way as Hydra has. That’s one problem. I mean the general problem is when you have these powerful processors they don’t make really big mistakes in a way that if you play a program on a laptop and you close the position it might lose the thread completely. It will start making useless moves on the board. Even with the big computers like Deep Blue and Hydra it can happen, as in game two, but they don’t make really big mistakes. I was never really able to achieve a kind of perfect position where the play was purely strategic. Hydra is good at keeping certain balances in the position.

And disturbing the equilibrium if necessary…

Yes, and also they were very clever in their opening choice. I mean that made a big difference. The opening preparation of Hydra was completely different to any other computer. You know in game one they came up with this powerful novelty.

Were you surprised by 14.Rb1? I mean it has been played before…

Yeah but with a completely different idea to play b5 and… well, it was just very powerful. It was obvious that it was prepared before the game, and the creators of the program have said that it created the type of position which is not possible for a human being to defend. This is a little bit of exaggeration, but in general it really is very difficult to defend the resulting position. Also in the third game they came up with a very sound choice of variation.

It is thought that the quality of your games is much higher than those Kasparov played against Deep Blue…

Okay, my strategy possibly was not exactly correct in the match. In general I tried to play some nice strings and perhaps this enabled the computer also to show some of its own strings. In some of the Deep Blue games Kasparov just tried to spoil computer’s play, but of course the drawback to this strategy was that it also harmed his own play. It is two different strategies. The problem is, I think, if top players in the world try just to spoil the computer’s play the outcome will only be worse. The quality of the games overall will be lower. So perhaps, it is not wise to blame the computer for irrational play it is the human who chooses and directs it how to play the game.

Did you consider adopting a special anti-computer strategy as Kasparov did at the time?

Realistically the problem was I’ve been very busy this year and really started preparation for this match only after my match against Peter Leko. I really didn’t have sufficient time to make such grand changes to my strategy. I don’t think my strategy was so bad. There were some very good possibilities available to me, had I been able to get the variations I was looking for. But you know that just didn’t happen.

In game six, for instance, you had a clear edge…

Yeah, I had a very good position. I don’t think the choice of the Kan variation is particularly clever for computers. I am not sure I had a clear edge, but I certainly had a nice position. And I wasn’t quite able to find a way to make the most of it. Perhaps it would’ve been better to get this type of position earlier in the match. In the second game I also had a good position, but it was only these two games where I really had a chance to fight. Okay, I had white in both games, but in a way the black games were quite interesting because it was virtually impossible for me to even get on the board. It is incredibly hard against Hydra. It will be the real test in future matches whether human players will be able to put up some resistance with the black pieces. With white it is possible to do things against Hydra – I think that is clear from the match overall. But with black it was just not possible for me. So it’ll be interesting to see how that’ll go in future.

Would you consider a rematch against Hydra?

I don’t think a rematch will happen…

Why not?

I don’t think they have much more to prove [smiles]. But if they wanted to have rematch I would not be afraid…

Would you like to have a rematch?

I would probably consider it.

As a macro-strategy would you consider switching from e4 to d4 in a rematch against Hydra?

I don’t think my match strategy was bad against Hydra. You might think that using different strategies will work well, but it’s not so straightforward. I don’t think e4 is a bad move against computers, if you are flexible enough.

How extensive was your preparation for the match?

It was a question of time really. I worked about a week with Yasser [Seirawan], and that was quite intense. But by that time we were coming quite close to the match…

So you didn’t really have much time to prepare for the match at all?

Well, we actually signed the contract one month before the match, which is not really enough for preparation. Maybe you could say I would’ve been better off with better preparation, but I don’t think it would’ve made a great deal of difference. Perhaps I would’ve lost 1:5 instead of 0.5:5.5, but I doubt if it changed anything radically.

What elements of chess do you consider to be of higher value: the creative-artistic element or the sporting element i.e. to win or lose?

Well, I mean in general I am quite result-oriented. In this match I generally tried to score some points against Hydra.

Do you think Adams versus Hydra 2005 is going to be remembered as THE turning point in the race against machines?

I think it proves that Hydra is a much stronger ‘player’ than any other computer in the world. We may not be able to measure its strength in Elo, but it is huge. I also suspect Hydra is stronger than any other human opponent. Okay, it has to be proved in the future, but this is my impression at the moment and I suspect it is accurate. I mean from my point of view I don’t think I played terribly. I did my best and it just wasn’t good enough.

Your predictions for the 2005 World Championship: I am sure you know that fans expect you to bring the title to Britain!

[Broad smile] I don’t think anybody would exactly expect me to bring the title, certainly not on the basis of my recent results.

Your chances are as good as anyone’s….

Well, you have eight very strong players there, anything could happen. I’d say Anand, Topalov and Leko would be slightly favourites over the rest of the field. These three guys would be joint-favourites. And the other players are somewhere behind, at quite a similar level. But of course when you have tournaments at this level in any game any player can beat any other player, so you never know what could happen.

In Tripoli you marched into the finals, and it was a major upset when you lost in tiebreak.

I played well in Tripoli but many other players are going to play in Argentine, players who didn’t play in Tripoli.

Topalov played in Tripoli, so did Qasemjanov.

Topalov played okay. Kasimdzhanov is a good player. I know him for a little while; we used to play in the same club and I know he’s a very talented player. Maybe because he has a few Elo points less people think it is an incredible significant fact, but he is a very strong player. Although he didn’t do well in Linares I am sure he’ll have a good result in Argentina. I don’t make him favourite to win the Championship, but I think he’ll show a very good performance.

What will you do to prepare for the event?

Well, I’ll have a bit of a break to have a proper preparation, and then I’ll go out there and see. I don’t have big expectations to be honest. I’ve already had two big tournaments this year, Linares and Sofia, which have a similar format to the tournament in Argentina. If I have a decent performance I would be happy. I am not thinking about big chances to win the championship. We’ll see what happens.

Finally Michael, who would you name as The Greatest chess talent of all-time?

Garry Kasparov is the strongest player of all time and possibly will be in the future, who knows. He took human chess to quite an incredible level. What he did for human chess, Hydra has done for computer chess. For the moment at least.

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