Have engines led us to lose respect for elite GMs?

by Sagar Shah
9/25/2019 – Alexander Grischuk and Ding Liren sat opposite each other in the fifth round of the World Cup 2019. The game was followed with great excitement by chess players all across the world. In their first game, after 13 moves, Grischuk made a move that led the engines to give an evaluation of nearly -3 points. Online kibitzers went wild, criticizing the players. IM SAGAR SHAH reflects on whether this is an unfortunate trend. | Photo: FIDE

Power Play 24: A repertoire for black against the Catalan Power Play 24: A repertoire for black against the Catalan

On this DVD Grandmaster Daniel King offers you a repertoire for Black against the Catalan, based around maintaining the rock of a pawn on d5. Keeping central control ultimately gives Black good chances to launch an attack against the enemy king.


Examining Grischuk vs Ding

The fifth round of the World Cup 2019 saw an explosive match-up. Alexander Grischuk was pitted against Ding Liren. While Ding Liren's rating (2811) shows that he is the stronger player as compared to Grischuk (2759), the Russian GM is known to do well in knock out events and in general is an extremely deep player. Everyone who knows Grischuk well, knows that he comes regularly under time pressure because he likes to think about his moves and options in great depth. Ding Liren on the other hand is a pragmatic player who manages his time well.

Something very interesting happened in the first game of the match. 13 moves had been played in a well known line of the Catalan and this is the position that was reached:


After Ding Liren played 13...c8, Grischuk thought for a long time in this position. He was clearly worried about Black's move ...h4. Hence, a move like ♘c3 or b3 was not what he wanted to go for. At the same time a move like h3 would be met with ...h4 with immense complications. The move that Grischuk chose was... 


14.f3 attacking the c6 pawn. 

The kibitzers who were watching the games online immediately started to comment on social media about what a big blunder Grischuk had made. On social media as well as in live commentary one could see the viewers and the kibitzers saying things like these top players aren't as good as their ratings suggest, they always keep making blunders and so on.

Engine evaluation after 14...♝d5

A look at the engines show that after the move 14...♝d5 Black is completely winning! An evaluation of -2.91 at the depth of 41! This is akin to being a piece up!


Yet, after nearly seven minutes of thought Ding Liren didn't go for 14...♝d5 but instead played the surprising move 14...b6 giving up an exchange and hoping for the light squared bishop to compensate for the missing exchange.

"Let's Check" says the position is around equal

How did a strong player like Ding Liren make a miss like this one? | Photo: FIDE

Mistakes can be classified in two categories — there are simple blunders and there are variations so deep that even the top players are unable to calculate them. This one clearly falls in the second category. Let me explain as to what I mean by this.


Let's say Ding Liren plays the move 14...♝d5:


Grischuk has no option but to snap it off. If he moves the queen, ...h4 comes with extra power and White is in huge trouble. So, after 15...cxd5 16.♕xd5 Black has a powerful continuation.


16...♛f5! Ding Liren of course saw this in his calculations. Now it is extremely important for White to play actively with 17.f3. In case he doesn't do so, Black simply continues with ...h4 and his attack continues.


If the knight moves back, then White can check on c6, simply develop his pieces and gets a completely acceptable position. Here Black has a strong move.


17...♛c2! This continues to the attack on h2 and also threatens the c1 bishop which is undefended. Let's assume that White now plays 18.♘bd2, then after ♛d1+ the position is lost because ♔g2 is met with ♛e2 and instead of g2, ♘f1 is no longer possible as the queen on d5 is hanging. Hence, White must first play...


18.♕c6+ Giving this check ensures that later the knight can move from d2 to f1.


Once again we reach an important position where Black has an important decision to make. What would you play?

Power Play 14 - Test Your Tactics

On this DVD Grandmaster Daniel King:
● demonstrates typical tactical patterns
● shows how strong players use their tactical awareness
● puts your tactical abilities to the test — but this is a test with a difference. Although the emphasis is on tactics, there are also positions that require a strategic solution. You don’t know what’s coming next...


Black has to play 20...♞xh2! Note that beginning with 20...♜h6 is bad because of ♕e4 ♞xh2 ♛h4+ followed by taking on h2. Hence, first ...♞xh2 is accurate.


White takes on h2 with his king and now capturing the knight on f1 leads to a forced draw after e6! There is a mate threatened on d7 and in case the pawn is taken then the knight jumps to e5. Black would do well to give a perpetual to the white king. But instead of taking on f1. Black has a strong move in the above position. Can you find it?

Grischuk thought really hard to understand the intricacies of the position | Photo: FIDE


The final key move 21...♜h6 is what solidifies Black's advantage. Next up is ♛xf1 and Black is winning! White's final attempt is ♘d6 when after 22.♛e2+ ♔g1 23.♝xd6 exd6 24.♜xd6


The final position is winning for Black.

So many pitfalls, so many complicated variations and so many ideas had to be seen if Black had to go for this winning line. Of course, for the viewers armed with an engine, this is really not a problem. But for the players who have to figure out everything on the board, without even knowing what the evaluation of the position is, this is extremely difficult.

IM Sagar Shah explains the possibilities | Video: Sagar Shah

Interview with Grischuk and Ding Liren after the game | Video: FIDE


India's top GM Surya Sekhar Ganguly understood the depth of the position and tweeted about the same.

Perhaps after all the analysis, we as viewers and kibitzers would not be as brutal to say that Grischuk made an easy blunder with 14.♕f3 or that Ding Liren missed a simple win after 14...♝d5.

Harikrishna's breakfast challenge

I would like to recount one incident from my experience here. I was playing at the Qatar Masters Open 2015. It was the second round and Harikrishna was pitted with the black pieces against Nino Batsiashvili. The Georgian top women's player had already pulled off a big upset in round one by drawing against Magnus Carlsen. Harikrishna, being her second round opponent, decided to play risky chess to create winning chances. They reached this position:


The opening had not gone so well for Hari. He had played 11...f4 and was waiting for his opponent's move


Batsiashvili went wrong with the move 12.f5. Hari simply took on f5 and after 13.xf5 continued with 13...d7!


The queen on d7 attacks the knight. Playing g4 would mean that the knight on f4 is strong and also moves like 0-0-0 and h5 become possible. By now Harikrishna was out of the woods, and he went on to win the game.


After analysing the game, I met Harikrishna the next day at breakfast. I told him: "Weren't you lucky yesterday? After 12.♗e4! (instead of ♗f5) you would have been in deep trouble, right?" I had checked the move with the computer and hence was confident about the same. Hari replied: "What if I just played 0-0?"


I was puzzled. The computer did not show this move in the first three options for Black and hence I had not analysed it. It surely looked like an interesting move. Black threatens f5 and White has to now play very energetically.


Later I checked the position once again carefully and realized that White has to give up the g2 pawn with 13.♘f5 and after 13...♝xf5 14.♗xf5 ♞xg2+ 15.♔f1 ♞f4, White goes 16.♘e2 and has a clear advantage:


I couldn't find this when Harikrishna asked me at the breakfast table!

Here's the full game:


The nasty Nimzowisch Defence

Its primary focus is a version of the Pirc Defence after 1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Nf6 4.Nc3 g6 where Black has avoided the sharpest variations, at the small cost of some flexibility, since his knight is already committed to c6.Christian Bauer will also reco

From this experience I learnt one important thing. Yes, these top players go wrong many times. But it is never really a very simple oversight by them. Most of the times they have looked deep and missed something which is not very obvious. We as viewers should always try to look deeper because when these top players sit on the board and play chess, they are giving it their all.


Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India, the biggest chess news portal in the country. His YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, and to date close to a billion views. ChessBase India is the sole distributor of ChessBase products in India and seven adjoining countries, where the software is available at a 60% discount. compared to International prices.


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KIva78 KIva78 9/27/2019 10:47
Chess, of course, is ideal for computers because it has strict rules within a delimited zone. Human perception is simply not developed to deal with the sheer volume of calculations required by chess. It's ignorant to judge such strong players on the basis of an instant program assessment, but people love to be sanctimonious.
I think the sheer ubiquity of chess now - blitz, rapid, classical, online - has led to a kind of demystification of the game; in addition, post-game interviews are routine now (and sponsors probably have them in the players' contracts) - players are so much more accessible online now, instantly and always (or "always already" as Heidegger referred to what he called the "standing reserve" of modern technology). Even Carlsen does banter blitz sessions and he doesn't seem concerned about chess disintegrating in the vortex of various forms of speed chess.
Is there a solution? Probably not. All things have a life cycle, perhaps chess is approaching the end of it - which is rather strange, because as technology makes it possible for chess to be so popular online it is also contributing to its ultimate dissolution. - Anyway, thanks for the article.
Fish4Life Fish4Life 9/26/2019 06:48
Fantastic Article! I'm glad someone took the time to respond to theses trolls!
Lovuschka Lovuschka 9/26/2019 03:05
With the extremely high level that the top chess has reached today, I'd say that the combination could have been found by Ding if it wasn't for the final point 20.-Nxh2! 21.Kxh2 Rh6!!. If Ding calculated the line, and even found the sacrifice on h2, he surely looked at 21.-Qxf1 only, either finding the perpetual check afterwards or evaluating that White has enough threats against the king to make this a draw. The additional issue is that 20.-Rh6 21.Qe4 Nxh2 22.Qh4+ does not work, so after looking at that move once you don't check it in the next move again, even if you see the idea. So this is also an interesting psychological lesson, as it is much harder to capture first and then play the silent move instead of recapturing, than to play the silent move first and then exchange pieces. And only the harder to see option works here.
Jarman Jarman 9/26/2019 08:15
Excellent article. It reminded me of what Larsen once said about the so-called advanced chess (i.e. playing against humans with computer assistance): "It’s simply inadmissible! It’s a road to nowhere. Chess loses its mysticism. Nobody will consider chess as an art." And this is precisely why the old-time GMs had an aura (and still retain it) even if they never became World Champions - e.g. Miles, Ljubojević, Portisch and of course Larsen himself.
Pequod Pequod 9/26/2019 04:30
Very good piece indeed. And an excellent example to illustrate your point
Daniel Miller Daniel Miller 9/26/2019 02:41
I think it is ridiculous that people who have no understanding of why a computer evaluates a move as it does and no understanding of why a 2800 player plays a move are making judgments on both. What is more annoying is when a 2400 level commentator is acting incredulous at a move played by a 2800 player and amazed that they are missing things. I think such comments make a mockery of the whole thing, as Magnus Carlsen once told one such commentator.
ctchess ctchess 9/26/2019 01:43
Who cares what online patzers say when following their engine? I'm a lifetime 2000 player and I don't, I doubt stronger players do, and surely Grischuk and Ding don't.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 9/26/2019 01:35
One should keep in mind:
1. spectators making such comments are both superficial and typically rated <1400, and hence attention should not be paid to them (ie don't feed the trolls)
2. this article is preaching to the choir, because such superficial spectators will not read a serious piece like this one.
3. the described behavior is exhibited and exacerbated by commentary teams that use engines. eg, I have seen many interviews such as:
Commentator: "So you were in real trouble in this position; how did you feel at that point?"
Player: "No, actually I thought I was better."
Commentator: "But the engine said..."
Commentator: "So you got really lucky because after 24... Rd8 white had 25. Bb5"
Player: "No, I have 25... Qb8 and then (gives 10-move variation)"
Commentator: Silence (as the player's move was not seen by the commentator and not one of the top choices of the engine).
How much "understanding" of the position is there with the engine if one cannot find the right idea after 1 unanticipated move? Clearly the players have a better understanding of many aspects than the backseat driver.

It reminds me of when a journalist asked Magnus Carlsen, "But the computer said you were -2. How do you respond to that?" Carlsen: "I don't care."

Also there is a solution for live chats during events, which are spoiled by the plethora of asinine comments: an algorithm can just screen them out.

The reduction in GM prestige is a serious problem. It would be mitigated by chess960 because amateur players understanding of it is far below chess, and so for the opening to early middlegame at least, there would be far fewer players thinking that they understand the positions so well, even with the help of an engine.
Peter B Peter B 9/26/2019 01:34
I call them kifritzers.
Peter B Peter B 9/26/2019 01:33
@Lilloso I think the point is that people are calling moves words like "blunders", when they are not blunders. Computer analysis is being used blindly.

To be even more specific: if a move changes the computer evaluation from (say) +0.5 to -3.5, it is not necessarily a blunder. A blunder is when they miss something obvious (or obvious for a GM). The change in computer evaluation is not a good measure of whether a move is a "blunder".
MJFitch MJFitch 9/26/2019 01:16
This may sound harsh, But, your question is STUPID...Anyone who loses respect for a elite GM because of computer analysis, should give up chess & find another hobby...I want to watch a tournament WITHOUT computer analysis. I'M NOT A COMPUTER ...It pisses me off when watching and commenting in chat, to have that eval. bar on the side of the board going up and down and every TROLL making silly comments etc. etc..
Bobbyfozz Bobbyfozz 9/26/2019 01:02
Critics are often a dime a dozen. They should have to post their mug (face) in front of the comments so that when they make a mistake, everyone can jump all over them! They might be a little bit more reticent about chewing others up if they aren't allowed to give excuses of why they messed up. Recall that old aphorism, "to err is human, to forgive is divine." Relax!
chessgod0 chessgod0 9/26/2019 12:33
An excellent article---genuinely thought provoking. Thank you, Mr Shah.
Lilloso Lilloso 9/25/2019 10:41
A strange title for the article. Everybody knows that engine are superior to humans. But that doesn't mean that we do lack respect for these marvellous players.
Karbuncle Karbuncle 9/25/2019 10:13
Then there's the one where Jeffrey Xiong missed Ng3 when attacking as black. He played rook e8 instead and went on to lose. Even the GM commentators were critical of this mistake. I do find it interesting that engines can instantly see tactics that top human players simply cannot discern. Goes to show how far engines have left humans in the dust in open or semi-open positions.
KevinC KevinC 9/25/2019 08:43
I do not know if I would say "lose respect", but computers have definitely shown that even the best players are human. Computers, and weak humans, also do not take into account practical decisions, like playing the simple pawn-up winning endgame over the crazy sac that you sense wins, and wins easily per the computer, but requires a large number of hard-to-find only moves. One is the sure win, but longer, and one is winning, but you can mess it up. Most GMs will take the former over the latter any day.

I would also point out that most positions that jump +/-3, there are no doubts about the validity of the line as there might be in the Grischuk-Ding example above.
michael bacon michael bacon 9/25/2019 08:43
The answer to your question is, "Yes."
To elaborate, sometime in the last decade at the House of Pain, aka the Atlanta Chess & Game Center, USCF National Master Chris Chambers said, "Before computers Grandmasters were thought of as "Gods". 'Back in the day' before the number of GM's increased exponentially, a GM was held in high esteem. There are now GM's so weak that Magnus Carlsen could face a dozen, or more, of the lower rated GM's in a simul and score well, if not demolish them. See Carlsen vs Gawain Jones from the 8th round at Wijk aan Zee 2018 if you doubt what I write. Today's GM's are credited with a "Theoretical Novelty" when everyone knows some computer Chess program found the move. What are today's GM's without computer Chess programs?
Ryonen Ryonen 9/25/2019 07:53
This is an intelligent article. It is so heartbreaking that online every fool armed with a computer feels entitled to be rude about players who have worked thousands of hours on top of their considerable talent to reach the level they have. Chess is such an easy game to learn! An hour to learn the moves, a few minutes to buy the program, and suddenly we are all better than the world champion. Fortunately, chess teaches that it is not so simple. I would be delighted to read more articles like this.
Jack Nayer Jack Nayer 9/25/2019 07:51
People use their computers to yell about things they don't understand and companies never stop urging them to buy the newest versions, who's to blame?
rokko rokko 9/25/2019 07:32
I fully agree with your opinion. Only when you see the long list of ONLY moves that allow Black to win (up to Nxh2 and Rh6) one understands why Grischuk allowed -Bd5 and why Ding did not play it. The spectators who only look at computer evaluations (or worse only at results) do not get the depth of those games (like some of the spectacular Xiong-Giri draws).
Marselos Marselos 9/25/2019 07:06
Respect regards the men and their laws , admiration regards the talent.
The main problem is the inability of those who have to cheat online, and nobody seems really worried.
I don' t tell " Poor Carlsen, what can he do?"
I have to say:
Today chess is above all a videogame, but it is a game for cheaters, let's face it.
Good night.
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 9/25/2019 06:58
Excellent comment Shagar. The criticisers should ask themselves: would have I found these moves if I myself had been over the board? Most of them, playing without the assistance of an engine, would be eaten alive by Ding or Grishuk (among other elite players) at practically each game they would play with them.

Still interesting to see the variations - but so easy after the fact to think that you would have found it. Which is different than before when you see the response.
juliok juliok 9/25/2019 06:31
Also interesting were Komodo's evaluations at depths around 20. It thinks ...Bd5 is better for Black, but not clearly winning; and it thinks ...Rb6 is just very bad.