Archive for June, 2010

Being a strategist, I have a fascination with chess, or at least the ideas of chess. It conjures images of fierce competition, intellectual rigor, intense strategic thinking and steely eyed focus.  It can also be surprisingly dramatic and controversial, with colorful characters.  I really want to be able to play well.  I can beat my six year old son fairly handily, his brain is not yet fully developed, so this should give you some insight into my skill level. I have several iPhone apps that are fun and instructive and provide a useful distraction and brain exercise to combat the monotony of tarmacs and airports.  I like to see me and my iPhone as my personal rendition of the legendary competition between undisputed World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue Chess computer, except in my melodrama the opponents both have less capacity and the skill gap is greater and skewed to the machine. My level of pure frustration with chess is very much on par with what my friends who play golf describe as their emotional relationship to that sport.  One good move or a flash of insight keeps me coming back to the chessboard like a good approach shot does them to the fairway.

Garry Kasparov is considered by many (especially in the post Fischer era) to be the greatest chess player in the world.  He wrote an interesting book called ”How Life Imitates Chess”, which in the end is very much a book about… decision making.

Some of my own progress as a chess novice has been stunted by analysis paralysis.  Determining options can be daunting, choosing which to pursue can be even more so.   After only three moves the number of possible positions on the board can be well over 60,000.  So how do we decide?  If this were a purely analytical process based on logic and analysis, it seems that when Garry Kasparov faced IBM’s Deep Blue computer in 1996 and 1997 that the ability of the computer to win these matches should have been a foregone conclusion as it is when I compete against my iPhone.  Yet Kasparov won the 1996 match 4-2, he lost the 1997 rematch narrowly 2-1/2 – 3-1/2.  He offered to play a third match during an appearance on Larry King Live with a number of conditions, including a willingness to concede Deep Blue as world champion if it won the match.  IBM chose not to take him up on the offer despite the computer’s ability to calculate 200,000,000 positions on the board per second!

There are four basic chess values that Deep Blue must consider before deciding on a move. They are material, position, King safety and tempo.

Material is easy. The rule of thumb is that if a pawn is considered to be worth a value of 1, pieces (knights and bishops) are worth 3 each, a rook is worth 5, and the Queen 9. The King, of course, is beyond value, since his loss means the end of the game. This varies slightly in certain situations — retaining the Bishop pair in the end game generally increases their value beyond 6, for example – but the laws of material are fairly constant.

Position is more complex. In the old days, it was thought that control of the center was all that mattered. Nearly all grandmaster games before the 20th century began with Pawn to King 4 or Pawn to Queen 4. Control of the center is still important, but certain grandmasters in this century found some effective “hypermodern” openings that delay development of the center, with the idea that the opponent will overextend his position and leave himself vulnerable for attack.

The simplest way to understand position is by looking at your pieces and counting the number of safe squares that they can attack. The more squares they control, the stronger the position. Thus, a seemingly quiet pawn move can be very strong if it opens many new squares for a more powerful piece behind it.

The defensive aspect of position is the safety of the King. This is self-explanatory. A computer must assign a value to the safety of the King’s position in order to know how to make a purely defensive move.

Tempo is related to position but focuses on the race to develop control of the board. A player is said to “lose a tempo” if he dillydallies while the opponent is making more productive advances.

The programmers have defined how Deep Blue’s program evaluates these factors. The computer then searches through all the legal moves and chooses the one that yields the highest value.

I don’t know about you, but this process is beyond my computational capacity in any meaningful and constrained time frame.

So let’s think about this.  It’s been estimated that through a process of elimination and prioritization of high potential moves, that human chess masters consider approximately three dozen serious options or so before making a move versus two hundred million per second by Deep Blue.  Then, we apply a mix of analysis, judgment, preference, creativity, experience, intuition and a dash of guts to form a decision cocktail and make a choice (or sometimes take a gamble), often resulting in a very good outcomes.

So, How do Garry Kasparovs work?

So is this yet another tale of man versus machine, like the folklore of John Henry versus the steam hammer? Is it better to have nearly limitless computational capacity with limited experience and intuition, or vast experience and intuition and less computational capacity? It seems to me that a Deep Blue Kasparov would be invincible. Maybe man versus machine is the wrong question?

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