A simul, AlphaZero and more

by Carl Portman
6/16/2019 – AlphaZero changed the chess world and the way chess players think. But how does the program think and what makes its chess so special? In their book "Game Changer" Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan give answers and present a lot of games by AlphaZero. Carl Portman liked the book so much that he invited Sadler and Regan for a simul and a lecture about AlphaZero. Which was instructive and fun. | Carl Portman

Komodo Chess 13 Komodo Chess 13

Komodo 13 thinks like no other chess program. Inspired by AlphaZero, Komodo developers GM Larry Kaufman and Mark Lefler have reinvented their engine from scratch over the last two years. The result speaks for itself: The new Komodo 13 MCTS ("Monte Carlo Tree Search") searches for candidate moves in an incredibly innovative way and finds solutions most engines never see!


Game changer: "The rise of the machines"

A lecture and simul by GM Matthew Sadler and WIM Natasha Regan

When 'that' book on AlphaZero was released, the chess world was agog. It described a computer program that was fed only the rules of chess and learned how to play by itself, starting at absolute beginner and ending up as the strongest program on the planet. It became a beast. It was an auto-didact playing 44 million games against itself in nine hours – some 1000 games a second. Literally then, it time travelled from the beginning of chess right through to the modern day. It then played Stockfish and smashed it. Yes, there were some questions about what conditions the games were played under but there seems to be no doubt that AlphaZero became just that…the Alpha. The boss. The big Cheese. The governor.


I am struggling to recall exactly how it came about but after thinking 'I want some of that vibe' I had agreed in no time with the authors Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan for them to visit us in the English town of Banbury and give a lecture and simul about the book. We agreed an additional joint simultaneous exhibition too. It was all set for June 11th at the lovely village setting of the Wroxton House Hotel.

On the night, they played 14 boards, two of which happened to have FM's on the black side of them in the form of James Jackson and Marcus Harvey. It was very magnanimous of Matthew to allow them to be included in the field which ranged from the ECF 114 up to ECF 175. All were good solid players so it was never going to be easy for Matthew and Natasha after a day of travel, other commitments for their book and our lecture so I was obviously hoping that someone might prevail. Did they? We'll see presently.

Sadler Portman and Regan – and a very good night out in Banbury

Having set the room up during the day with the help of the 'can do' staff at the hotel the scene was set for battle. Each participant would benefit from some nice freebies. Thanks to Tao and team the London Chess Centre for ensuring that everyone had a free copy of their monthly chess magazine and the one youngster had a free tee-shirt. Also, many thanks to Steffen Giehring and the ChessBase team for giving every player a complimentary three-month Premium subscription to Playchess.com and the opportunity to win the latest Opening Encyclopaedia DVD which the lucky recipient will no doubt be using to beat me at some point! Without the support of such generous people, my events would not be quite so special. They want to encourage chess events just as much as I do.

    The big (and rare) prize!

Matthew and Natasha also provided the special prize for the night. It was a prize that Matthew revealed only his mum had one of. It was a GAME CHANGER mug. Now that is worth winning. Why wasn't I playing, I asked myself? Still – there's an incentive for someone to try to win.

The players would arrive and take refreshment in the bar area or the little anti-room that I had put some chess sets in. Meanwhile I would help settle our VIP guests into the playing room and whilst Matthew set up his laptop Natasha kindly agreed to a blitz game.

We played a sharp (perhaps even crazy) game where I managed to swindle a draw in the end. They both knew I was not playing, so Matthew kindly gave me a blitz game as well. I enjoyed it, lasting into the endgame but he knows where the pieces go does this grandmaster so he put me to the sword with some nice manoeuvres switching this way and that on the battlefield. At least I played them both on the night – how kind of them.

Part One – The lecture

I had advertised this as Game Changer – The rise of the machines. Both guests would talk about the book and Matthew would take us through an AlphaZero game against Stockfish that did not appear in the book. That was a special treat.

Natasha holds the audience captive with an insight into the AlphaZero phenomenon

The feedback I received from participants after the event was that they enjoyed the lecture so much they could have had a whole evening of it. Something I will bear in mind when organising future events. The guests (Matthew and Natasha) also kindly commented that they enjoyed the whole event. Phew!

Natasha batted first, and informed the eager audience how the Game Changer book came about, how AlphaZero operates, and why it came to exist at all. Enter stage left strong chess player and now CEO of DeepMind, Demis Hassabis. Natasha said that at first AlphaZero's genesis was as a 'Go' player (called AlphaGo) which had learned the game and beaten the world's top Go players. This was the brainchild of DeepMind and Hassabis, himself a former star chess talent.

She tested us on the identity of certain individuals who appeared on her screen – including her two lovely daughters with none other than Judit Polgar who played attacking chess in AlphaZero's style. No, hold on, Judit was here first so let us declare that it plays in Judit's style.

Natasha took us through the complicated waters of how the machine computes – but then she has a degree in mathematics so this was water off a duck's back for her. If in any way she was the 'warm up' for Matthew she did not disappoint. She is calm, articulate and very knowledgeable. She is open, warm and friendly which makes the whole experience so much more fun. I am a new fan.

What can I tell you about the game that Matthew took us through? Well, I am unable to articulate this in the same way that he could, with such sharp insight, knowledge and uncompromising passion but in essence there were themes to AlphaZero's game. It does play 'like a human' at times. It's happy to give up material and yes, it likes to push rook pawns but one of the most illuminating points of the evening for me anyway was this. At some point the engine played a2-a4-a5 sacrificing the a-pawn seemingly for little or no gain.

Yet the removal of the said pawn meant that the rook had been developed without it actually moving, and it commanded the a-file. Brilliant. I never ever thought about that, how to develop a piece without actually moving it at all, but by moving one of its neighbours. Think about it. That's so cool.

AlphaZero also often uses up one whole tempo just to move its king out of the way to stop any silliness with checks later on in the game. As white for example when castled and the f-pawn has moved, AlphaZero played the king to h1 before engaging in further manoeuvres on the battlefield.

Another point struck me. Whilst the program could always spend tempi winning a pawn, what might the cost of doing that actually be? Tempi? Diversion from another more important task? We should ask ourselves this in our games. When I was a kid it was inculcated that I should never relinquish a free pawn without a very good reason. That's sound advice but we live in 2019 and today it seems that it is normal to ignore the material imbalance in order to create space, agility and tempi – which is also a good strategy.

AlphaZero also preferred d-pawn openings or 1.Nf3 to 1.e4 and seemed to conclude after all those millions of games that the Berlin Defence was 'the right approach'. Don't yawn, it's true. I could see that both speakers were not just authors of a book they loved the subject matter. They absorbed themselves in the complexity and newness of AlphaZero.

Let the fun begin – Matthew outlines warms up the merry throng with his wit and wisdom

Matthew divulged how he analyses openings for himself using the engines but he also never just takes what they say as sacrosanct. The highlight of the talk for me, and probably for many others was the mind-boggling line he took us through whilst looking at the game at his home. Okay, AlphaZero evaluates and gives several best lines but when an engine does this – be it Fritz, Komodo, Stockfish or others do we just take it as read or actually try to find something ourselves? Well, it certainly helps if you are as strong as Matthew, but what harm can there be in exploring further paths for ourselves, regardless of our strength?

He challenged the audience to find certain moves throughout the game and proffered his thoughts about why both AlphaZero and Stockfish might be playing certain moves, or playing in a certain style. Tactics and strategy are after all the essence of any battle.  

It was totally absorbing and we received an insight – albeit briefly - into the mind of a very strong Grandmaster. Not just any grandmaster mind you, but one of our own!


There was a brief interlude where people could get their autographs and photographs with the dynamic duo who also signed their other book 'Chess for Life' as well. I urge the reader to buy both and they will be sufficiently motivated to improve. Participants at this point could engage in a massive sugar hit by ingesting sweet and colourful cupcakes (or Bakewell tarts which were a favourite) before returning to their boards for the ensuing battle.

Part two – the simultaneous

My wife Susan kindly sponsored the event so I took the unusual step of asking her to make the 'symbolic' first move on board one. I was astonished to see her choose 1.Nf3 yet she is not a chess player and I had given her no advice. Matthew was clearly happy with this and decided to accept the move against FM (soon to be IM) Matthew Jackson, so power to Susie's elbow there.

Sponsor Susan Portman is about to play 1.Nf3 – which Matthew accepted as the first move!

The format was that both Natasha and Matthew would play all boards simultaneously with the exception that Matthew alone would play the two FIDE Master boards. It would be tricky doing a tandem simul, one player reaching into the mind of the other. At first a player would have to work out what the other had actually played and only then consider their own move but it's all in a day's work for these two who clearly have a symbiotic approach to everything they undertake.

They danced easily to the rhythm of each other's beat and their opponents moves. There was Natasha, upright and angular, very concentrated, flashing the occasional smile as she ghosted past the boards. Occasionally she would imbibe that precious commodity we all know as tea for some much-needed sustenance before re-entering the arena. She would stand close to the board as if sucking all the energy from it. If it were me, I would be nervous about following Matthew's moves or indeed playing something inferior for him to find as I left. However, it all worked out very well as Natasha is a strong player and I can see why they can both pull this kind of exhibition off.

The other 14 players played through the gamut of facial expressions, heads in hands, smiles, grimaces and surprise. Playing people so strong is both an honour but also a little demoralising. A bit like death, one knows the end is coming but at the outset cannot deduce how. Hope can quickly give way to despair, ecstasy to agony and dreams to reality. Nevertheless, we chess players are all driven to be the other half of the battle.   

The man in the mirror – A reflection of a Grandmaster at work

If Natasha was linear then Matthew was curvy – there was more of the VW Beetle about him. At times standing well back from the board, seldom if ever looking at his opponents, just burning laser like holes with his piercing eyes fixed on the board. Occasionally he would grasp the table and arch over the board, a relentless tsunami of concentration. There was no tea for Mr. Sadler. His weapon of choice was Coke (the drink that is!) and he would gulp some down occasionally before continuing his rounds – placing his pieces carefully on their new squares on their inexorable march to victory. He was always aware of where Natasha was in their arena and was careful not to 'catch her up' or rush her, only stepping back in the fray at just the right moment. Very gentlemanly. When a game finished, he was happy do discuss any of the finer points with the opponent, as was Natasha.  

Chess, beer and the AlphaZero book = bliss.

It should come as no surprise to any reader to learn that the masters won. Indeed, they won overwhelmingly by 12½-1½. The final game saw Matthew one to one against Marcus and it was 11:30pm when they decided that rather than go on through the night, they should declare a draw as the position was about level with maybe a tiny plus for Matthew. They shook hands and the curtain officially came down on the event.

But what about that mug you ask? Well there was one winner. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mark Hannon. He is the proud owner of a very rare game changer drinking vessel. His game finished nicely with a bishop fork – as shown in the picture below. I should mention that he was also kind enough to bring some books and magazines which he donated to my chess in prisons work so his good deed was rewarded with his nice win. What goes around comes around they say.

Mark Hannon enjoys his moment of glory as Sadler/Regan resigns with a smile

Whilst Matthew was on his knees (literally) at one-point Natasha was engaging in a complicated pawn and knight endgame with the ever-improving Tony Burcham. She ultimately prevailed, but he had given a fine account of himself on the night (not the knight!) Matthew had to resort to some 'magic' in order to overcome the only junior in the room. Jude Shearsby was very happy to play despite there being school next day. He clearly loves his chess so much he would play through the night. He is one to watch, having also played a very good game. All this and he is only just nine years of age and was first equal in the London Junior Chess Championships in 2018.

Abracadabra – now for my magic move.

Personally, I thought that his choice of shirt was rather bold – and just the sort of thing for a simul to keep the Masters eye off the board!

Sadler gets legless as the night wears on whilst Regan waits cobra-like to strike

The big picture – Matthew and Natasha in action. How can 14 people be outnumbered by only two?


Thank you to all the players. They were Gilbert Cescs, Andrew Dearnley (after a 6+ hour round trip!), Arthur Hibbitt, Ben Graff, Richard Beckett, Rey Lear, Mark Hannon, Steve Rumsby, FM James Jackson, Danut Joian, Kevin Bowman, Jude Shearsby, Tony Burcham and FM Marcus Harvey.  Thanks also to Caissa Consulting Ltd (Susan Portman) for sponsoring the room, to ChessBase and Chess of London for generous support with 'freebies' and the staff at the Wroxton House Hotel for their brilliant support. Special thanks to Tina and Melissa for helping set up the room. Finally, special thanks to Matthew and Natasha for giving of their time and being so shiny and brilliant.


The future is here - AlphaZero learns chess

Carl is retired from the Civil Service and is now a co-director of his own consultancy with his wife. He loves natural history – particularly arachnology and he has written two books on his rainforest experiences. However, his first love is chess. Whilst he describes himself very much the amateur player, he has played chess at school, club, county and indeed International level. His proudest moments came representing the UK in France, Hungary and America in the NATO Chess Championships, being Captain at the last two. He is author of the book ‘Chess Behind Bars’ and he works with chess in prisons for the English Chess Federation and is also a chess editor, columnist, coach, organiser and player. His achieved his dream when playing his childhood hero Anatoly Karpov in a simultaneous exhibition in Chartres, France in 2019. He lost – but was the last to finish in a good fight. His life motto is ‘Don’t complain about the dark, light a few candles’.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register