A tale of two universities and two engines

by Jonathan Speelman
3/20/2022 – Jon Speelman worked as commentator at this year’s edition of the long-standing Varsity Match between Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Looking at the games alongside computer-chess expert Matthew Sadler prompted him to reflect on the value of using engines for chess improvement and preparation. | Pictured: The Oxford team - Victor Vasiesiu, Tom O'Gorman, Daniel Karim Abbas, Daniel Sutton, 0Dominic Miller, Filip Mihov, AkShaya Kalaiyalahan, Max French. | Photo: John Saunders

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Wondrous, unsettling certainty

[Note that Jon Speelman also looks at the content of the article in video format, here embedded at the end of the article.]

Last Saturday, March 12th, I was at the RAC’s clubhouse (Royal Auromobile Club) in London’s Pall Mall for the annual Varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

First played in 1873, this is the world’s oldest chess contest and was for years reported on in the pages of the famous Russian chess magazine “64”. When I played for Oxford from 1975-7, Cambridge were in the ascendant and we lost all three matches: personally, I lost to Michael Stean and drew twice with Jonathan Mestel. These things swing over time, and at the moment it’s very close. Cambridge started as the Elo favourites, but after an endgame save in the last game to finish, Oxford ran out the winners by the narrowest possible margin of 4½-3½, with the overall score now 60-58 to Cambridge with 22 draws.

Varsity Chess Match, Oxford vs Cambridge

The 1921 Oxford team | Find more info at BritBase, John Saunders’ excellent games archive

The match has been at the RAC now for nearly half a century, with a dinner afterwards, and in recent years internet coverage and commentary on site. This year’s commentator was Mathew Sadler and for some of the afternoon I acted as sous-commentator, chatting with Matthew about the games.

Matthew SadlerAt one stage I mentioned that I normally use Houdini as my analysis engine, but Matthew [pictured], who of course is immensely knowledgable about computer chess and has written extensively on Alpha Zero, told me that the latest version of Stockfish is much stronger. I therefore decided to switch to it as my default analysis engine in ChessBase, but I’m now wondering (and of course this can be changed with the click of a mouse) whether I was right.

The question of course is how to use the analysis and assessments produced. Most computer engines (Alpha Zero and its daughter Leela are different) are giant bean counters which produce a “maximin”, maximizing the minimum score they get against the opponent's supposedly best play. Depending on the accuracy of the analysis and the size of the beans, the scores will vary, and while Houdini with its rating, I dunno, of 2700 or 2800 tends to bumble around with assessments quite close to zero, Stockfish thunders its pronouncements giving assessments like +/- 2.5 in positions which look to my human eye to be fairly but not entirely clear; and going up/down to +/- 6 or more when even my human eye can see that it “ought” to be winning.

The certainty is wondrous but rather unsettling. When I was a kid, I no doubt made the mistake of trying to play the best moves. Nowadays, of course, I know better, and while I will stop and indeed try to work out the best solution in an obviously utterly critical position, most of the time I poddle along choosing decent moves without worrying too much about whether there are better ones. To do this, I’ve created a story for myself that I can quickly select goodish moves in reasonable positions (of course it’s much harder if you’re under heavy pressure). But gazing into the “face of God”, I have to be careful not to be blinded and to undermine this essential fiction.

So I’m still thinking about what to do. Perhaps with enough time available I should use both, analysing both with St Houdini and the deity Stockfish. Certainly when I’m streaming I try much of the time to use my own carbon-based resources and sometimes dip into a fairly hobbled version of Stockfish which isn’t too scary. But occasionally, when I want to know “the truth” I turn to My Lord Sesse (the Norwegian-based fusion of Stockfish and ridiculously powerful hardware).

One point I should make in general is not to take too much notice of computer assessments, even if they are right. They are extremely relevant to the world’s top players when they are doing opening preparation, but for the rest of us they are just a tool. In particular, I’ve noticed that when people check their games after playing online, there are some engines which dish out ??s like confetti. Of course people do play some terrible moves, especially at blitz, but ?? should mean a move that loses a piece or maybe even a rook — or at a higher level makes a complete mess of the position. It shouldn’t mean that the assessment has dropped drastically without in human terms affecting the result.

One reason I go to the Varsity match is to help choose the Best Game and Brilliancy Prize — often with Ray Keene, in this case with Matthew. Both receive works by the artist Barry Martin and, in this case, since the Brilliancy Prize was shared, both players got prints.

Varsity Chess Match, Oxford vs Cambridge

Cambridge team: back, left to right: Miroslav Macko, Matthew Wadsworth, Imogen Camp, Harry Grieve. Front, left to right: Jan Petr, Declan Shafi (captain), Ognjen Stefanovic, Koby Kalavannan. | Photo: John Saunders

For the best game, we decided on the board 1 win by Oxford, and I’ve annotated it, out of interest, using both engines. I’ve given them a fairly short time to make an assessment, so they might have changed their “minds” had they worked for a longer period of time — but this experiment nonetheless gives an indication of the huge difference between them.


Select an entry from the list to switch between games

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Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.


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