CHESS Magazine: Humans and Chess Software

by CHESS Magazine
9/5/2018 – Israeli psychologist AMATZIA AVNI, a FIDE Master in composition, describes the complex love-hate relationship between humans and their chess software. "They assist us in analysis and spare us effort in detecting our errors," he writes. "On the other hand, who likes smart alecs? Comparing ourselves with Fritz, we are bound to become demoralised." In just three examples he covers the whole range of human emotions toward chess software: anger, frustration, disgust, disappointment, joy, elation and gratitude.

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The emotional side of the story

By Amatzia Avni

In Chess Tips for the Improving Player (Quality Chess, 2008), I presented an imaginary dialogue:

“I’m in love,” he confessed.

“I’m very happy to hear that,” I said. “Who is she?”

He blushed. Then he shared his secret with me: “It’s Mrs. Fritz” (from Diaries of a Young Chessplayer — yet to be written).

I went on to discuss the complex love-hate relationship between humans and their chess software. They (it?) assist us in analysis and spare us effort in detecting our errors. On the other hand, who likes smart alecks? Comparing ourselves with Fritz, we are bound to become demoralised.

A decade has passed; has anything changed? Presumably young chess addicts treat this computer-thing in a rational way. They usually refer to it positively, regarding it as an ideal training partner and a great teaching tool. They were born into the age of the computer, so frequently one hears a player saying serenely, “My rival just caught me in home preparation; he unleashed a computer move and there was nothing I could do about it.” I gather that older players, who recall other times, are not so tranquil about such matters.

Chess literature has a lot to say about how to use the advantages of chess software: exploiting wisely its various functions, identifying the sort of positions in which one should not rely on the software’s verdict, effective methods of maximising learning with it, and more. Less has been written about the attitude or emotional response of humans towards the silicon chess monsters. Let me share some good and bad moments regarding the relationship between humans and chess software. I assume many readers have had similar experiences.

In 1978, as a young composer, I published the following study in the British Chess Magazine.

[Event "British Chess Magazine"] [Site "?"] [Date "1978.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Avni, Amatzia"] [Black "White to play and win"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/5P2/8/3p4/3Kn3/8/5Pr1/2R2Nbk w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "11"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. f8=Q Rxf2 2. Qh6+ $1 (2. Ng3+ Nxg3 3. Qxf2 Nf1 4. Rxf1 {is stalemate.}) ({ The Nalimov six-piece tablebases tell us that} 2. Qc8 {is an alternate win, as} Rf8+ 3. Kxd5 Rxc8 4. Rxc8 {is mate in 85!}) 2... Rh2+ 3. Qe3 $1 {[#] Now Black can choose between} Rh3 ({and} 3... Bxe3+ 4. Nxe3# {due to the selfblock}) 4. Ng3+ Rxg3 5. Rxg1+ Rxg1 6. Qh3# {with the self-block this time occurring on g1. } 1/2-1/2

Despite the passage of time, I still love this brainchild. However, once the Nalimov six-piece tablebases were out, it transpired that 2.Qc8 is an alternative win (see above).

What was I to do? At the time when the study was composed, rook and knight versus knight and bishop was supposed to end in a draw. Excuse me for missing mate in 85 moves, and, of course, you can’t argue with the tablebase. Almost no human will know how to proceed from this position, nor will he understand why a certain move is better and quicker than the other, but, hey, the holy tablebase made its verdict, so who are we to object?

If you detect a tone of resentment in the last paragraph, you would be right. The computer interfered in my own business without being invited, and I didn’t like it one bit. I admit that I reacted in a rather childish way: looked right and left, realised that no one else had spotted the flaw, and kept my mouth shut. It was only some months ago that I finally accepted that I would have to take steps to rescue my creation. Luckily it was not so hard: by transferring the rook on c1 to e1, the solution stays intact and the study regains its soundness.

In 2017 I worked on a study with a fellow composer. I wanted to add an introductory move and had to check if this didn’t ruin the correctness of the work. The critical variation reaches by force the following position:

[Event "Collaboration"] [Site "?"] [Date "2017.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Avni, Amatzia"] [Black "White to play"] [Result "*"] [Annotator "Amatzia Avni"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "Q7/3p1k2/2Np3P/3q1Pb1/8/K2P4/2p5/8 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "14"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. Nd8+ Ke7 2. Qxd5 c1=Q+ 3. Ka4 Kxd8 4. h7 Qa1+ 5. Kb5 Qb2+ 6. Ka4 Bf6 7. Qxd6 {[#] During all of this sequence, Fritz 16 and Stockfish suggested only a slight advantage for Black. This was good news, as I needed the variation to end in a draw in order to keep the study correct. Then I decided to look at the board instead of the computer’s evaluation.} {Doesn’t} Qd4+ {reach an essily winning endgame for Black?} *

During all of this sequence, Fritz 16 and Stockfish suggested only a slight advantage for Black. This was good news, as I needed the variation to end in a draw in order to keep the study correct. Then I decided to look at the board instead of the computer's evaluation. Doesn't 7...Qd4+ reach an easily winning endgame for Black?

I played this move on the screen and within seconds the evaluation had changed to –64, which a minute later transformed to a forced mate in 24. If you have a strong and fast computer and let it work long enough, you may get somewhat different results. But the point remains.

Experts might say something intelligent about the program’s horizon, but I didn’t care: “Stupid, stupid machine!” was my immediate hostile reaction. “You made me lose time while encouraging false hopes!”

At this point let us discuss these emotional reactions, lest people think that the author has lost his mind. Most inanimate objects do what they are supposed to do, with no symbolic meaning: a chair is a chair, a lamp is a lamp, etc. However, some objects have a hidden meaning. Take, for instance, a car. It is supposed to be just some metal and electronics, designed to carry us quickly from point A to point B. But as we all know, a car is much more than that. It is, or it might be, a symbol of power, control, independence, freedom or status. Moreover, driving might conceal violent motives and even sexual urges. Likewise, a smartphone is not just a smartphone. Try to take it from teenagers during a lesson, and you will encounter tears and violent outbursts.

On YouTube you can watch people literally breaking their computers. If you listen carefully, you might also hear yourself mumbling at times towards your PC, “Well, are you going to start? I’m waiting!”, or just cursing the ruddy thing for running slowly. You see; we treat some inanimate objects as if they were living creatures.

A lot of chess lovers behave towards Fritz and co. as if they were human. Therefore we are quite emotional when they disappoint us. Of course, there are also happier, much more joyful moments with chess software.

[Event "Springaren"] [Site "?"] [Date "2017.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Avni , Amatzia"] [Black "White to play and win"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/1pb2P1N/q4p2/2p4R/2r5/3RK1B1/3P3P/7k w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "11"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. Ng5 ({Why doesn’t White just promote to a queen?} 1. f8=Q Qe6+ 2. Kf2 Qe4 {leads to a draw, despite White’s huge material advantage:} 3. Rh4 ({If White deviates with} 3. Nxf6 {then, believe it or not, he is mated in 11 moves by} Qg2+ 4. Ke3 Bf4+ 5. Bxf4 Qg1+ 6. Ke2 Rxf4) 3... Qxd3 4. Rxc4 Qxd2+ { forces perpetual check. All this can be understood in retrospect, but to spot it in advance you have to be a genius – or a piece of software.}) 1... Bf4+ ( {Likewise the defence} 1... Qa8 {is defeated by} 2. Nf3 {of all moves. Great. Aren’t we blessed to have such clever friends?}) 2. Bxf4 fxg5 3. f8=Q gxf4+ 4. Kf2 Qg6 {[#]Forking the two white rooks, and threatening 5...Qg2 6.Ke1 Rc1#. } 5. Qg8 $3 Qxg8 6. Rg3 $1 1-0

Have a look at the position after White’s fourth move. From this point on it is a human effort; a nice punch, easy to grasp and to appreciate. Now go back to the initial position and follow the first moves of the solution. These are something completely different. Why doesn’t White just promote to a queen? And why should Black, on encountering 1 Ng5, respond with the bizarre 1...Bf4+? Well, this is where we are happy to have silicon assistance. You can find the answers to these questions in the replay board above.

Remarkably, in just three examples we have covered a whole range of human emotions toward chess software: anger, frustration, disgust, disappointment, joy, elation and gratitude. Baffling...

The above article is reproduced from Chess Magazine September/2018, with kind permission.


About the author

Amatzia Avni is an Israeli psychologist, a FIDE Master in both over-the-board play and composition. He is the author of numerous books, among them The Grandmaster’s Mind (Gambit 2004, Russian Chess House 2016), and The Amazing Chess Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Mongoose Press, 2011).

Amatzia Avni in Chess Magazine

CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by IM Richard Palliser and Matt Read. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organises the London Chess Classic. CHESS is mailed to subscribers in over 50 countries.

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CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by IM Richard Palliser and Matt Read.
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Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 9/6/2018 11:57
Master Avni,
Composing endgame studies is hard work and I appreciate your article. But I do have some problems with the way you seem to use engines when composing.
About the first position you write: 'rook and knight versus knight and bishop was supposed to end in a draw' On what basis? The thing was: nobody really knew. I wonder the endgame really was investigated before 1978. Was there some lazy attitude like, 'as no one has proven a win, we consider it a draw'? So by accepting an unclear outcome, you accepted the study could be cooked in the future. You could have found the amendment earlier if you hadn't accepted this.
About the second position: In the pre-engine age you without a doubt could have come yourself to the conclusion that black has a winning endgame. You even did, by posing the question. It doesn't seem too difficult to me; the black king can easily defend the entrance squares on the kingside and white is bound to get into Zugzwang. What did you need an engine for?
I once composed an endgame study myself (check Van der Heyden's database, hope he corrected the solution in the latest version); it was published when some developers of engines still wore diapers. I know the drill, at least a bit.You have a nice idea, you make it work, and then you start working backwards. How did the pieces get to the position they have? Working out the idea took me a few hours, but the other part took me a few months. I can tell you, I encountered the same emotions you did. But I felt quite proud when at last I came to a position that fitted my requirements: economy and a more or less natural way to come to the thematic variation.
Now about the last position. You saw the nice idea 5 Qg8, 'easy to grasp and appreciate'. I guess you also started working backwards, but probably now checking everything with an engine. If it had just been 'checking', I wouldn't have reacted. But what I get from your article, is that the engine also found the main ideas and variations. In that case, I can't help wondering whether chessic 'joy, elation and gratitude' haven't been devaluated by your engine use.
Maybe your emotions should have been the other way around: feeling gratitude the computer cooked the first study so you got the opportunity to amend it, and feeling disgust that the engine found all those moves you would have liked to find yourself.
macauley macauley 9/5/2018 01:14
@njg149Chess - It was a test. You passed. ;)
KevinC KevinC 9/5/2018 12:26
Despite the cook, that problem was pretty awesome.
wb_munchausen wb_munchausen 9/5/2018 12:06
LOL, I thought it was just a mirrored photo, as often happens, but no, the white king and queen are in the right places, the black king and queen are wrong, and the board is placed incorrectly.
njg149Chess njg149Chess 9/5/2018 11:46
Any particular reason the chessboard in the picture is set up wrong? Was this a test?!
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