Freestyle tournament: Finals this weekend

4/3/2006 – After tiebreak matches the eight qualifiers of the Second PAL/CSS Freestyle Chess Tournament are ready to battle it out for the $16,000 prize fund. At the faster time controls this time four pure engines made it to the final round. You can come and watch the action at 14:00h CEST on Saturday and Sunday, when the tournament director says: Gentlemen, start your engines.

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Second PAL/CSS Freestyle Final

By Arno Nickel

On April 8-9 the best eight Freestyle teams from the recent main event will play a round robin tournament in order to find the winners of the three money prizes: $8,000, $4,000 and $2,000. One of the most exciting questions will be whether the clear winner of the main tournament, Vigi Varkey, who used a Rybka engine run on a Pentium 3.2 GHz (without human intervention!), can repeat his surprising coup. Apart from the hardware monster Hydra, which is running on 64 parallel processors and plays under the handle "Zor_champ" out of Abu Dhabi, some other engine players and strong centaurs (man + machine) are waiting for their chance.

Eight candidates

The winner of the main tournament, Vigi Varkey, is a programmer from India who now lives in London and is completely unknown in the chess scene. He registered shortly before the start of the tournament and was probably quite surprised himself when his engine took first place with 7.5 points out of 8 games. But this was not the only shocking result. Nobody had really expected only two of about thirty titleholders to qualify for the final.

Six points were enough in order to share 2nd to 7th places and qualify directly. The third place was taken by Rybka programmer IM Vasik Rajlich, who played as centaur, i.e. he didn't just follow his own program. Place 4-6 were also taken by centaurs: IM Dennis Breder ("Klosterfrau") from the Godesberger chess club in Germany, further a Czech team named "Equidistance" and correspondence chess GM Arno Nickel ("Ciron") from Berlin, followed by two engine players on the places 7 and 8, named "King Crusher" (Stockholm) and "Relic" (USA), who won the tie-breaks.

Ten players with 5.5 points each had to enter the tie-breaks. The engine Relic,Rybka 1.1 won and qualified for the finals.

Looking back at the main tournament

In view of 11 grandmasters, 12 international masters, 4 FIDE masters, some correspondence chess titleholders and about 30 further players with an international Elo rating the organizers couldn't complain about lack of chess skills at this second Freestyle event. A murmur of excitement went through the virtual playing hall on playchess.com, when the names "Star Wars" (GM Hikaru Nakamura) und "Kasimdzhanov" (usbekian FIDE World Champion 2004) appeared in the tournament room list. The latter was only kibitzing, but the American prodigy actually gave it a try.

Speaking about the US players, once again they were the second strongest group with 24 participants behind the Germans (42), followed by Great Britain (8), Russia (6), Spain and Poland (each 5), Italy and Brasil (each 4). In total there were players from 35 countries among the 146 participants.

The thinking time was 45 minutes per side and 5 seconds additionally per move, making this a kind of rapid event. In practice this meant that with four consecutive rounds the players had to be online for 8 hours of pure chess stress. For the many centaurs (nearly 100) this was particularly strenuous, as they could not take a break between your moves. Many spent eight solid hours analysing with their PCs. In particular for players who played without a team partner this must have been an extreme experience.

Anyone who (like the author) expected that, due to the precision of computer assisted play there would be a high number of drawn games, was disappointed, in a positive since. The draw rate of 37 percent was quite low, and the ratio of white to black wins, 54% vs 46%, was also quite normal.

Only 24 players or Freestyle teams let their engines play the whole tournament without human intervention. Most played with Rybka, some used Fritz, Hiarcs, Junior, Shredder, Zappa, Gandalf and Pro Deo. Amazing was the number of 25 players who switched from centaur to pure engine play and vice versa during the tournament. The reason was usually that a centaur would decide to end the stress and let the engine play on its own, or an engine player would be unsatisfied with the performance of his program. Without being a prophet we may assume that most centaurs were working with Fritz and Shredder, simply because they were already used to analysing with these engines.

While in last year's Freestyle Tournament three grandmasters made their way up to the last four, things are quite different this time. Was it because of the change of thinking time from 60m+15s to 45m+5s, which was an advantage for pure engine players? In view of the excellent databases it isn't possible, normally speaking, to outplay an engine right from the opening. That means, also a grandmaster needs some time to decide on a good plan which is not too risky against computers. This is why the organizers are considering going back to 60 minutes per player and 15 seconds per move at the Third Freestyle Tournament. If we stick to the model of eight rounds, this could mean playing two rounds on Friday evening (European Time) and three games each on Saturday and Sunday. It is not sure that the outcome will be very different with these new (old) time controls, as time is not the only thing that matters. Powerful hardware, engine know-how, teamwork, systematic preparation and centaur training are further factors which can be decisive.

Final Standings of the qualifiers

 1 Vvarkey,Rybka 1.1 32-bit 7.5 / 8  
 2 Zor_champ 6.0 / 8 29.00
 3 Rajlich,Rybka 1.1 6.0 / 8 28.50
 4 Klosterfrau 6.0 / 8 27.50
 5 Equidistance 6.0 / 8 27.00
 6 Ciron 6.0 / 8 26.50
 7 King Crusher,Rybka 1.1 6.0 / 8 25.00
 8 Relic,Rybka 1.1 5.5 / 8 24.00

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