An unexamined life is not worth living.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

How computers changed chess


Ershov-Jiganchine, 1996, White to move

What does this position have to do with the subject? Please bear with me for a minute. Today I was going through my REALLY old chess games, the ones that I never entered into a computer (because I did not have one at the time), curious to see the quality of my games when I was 13-14 years old. I had the “first rank” in Russian classification which is supposed to equal 1900 ELO. Next is KMS, which corresponds to being an expert. I must say the types of mistakes I was making are the kind of slips I expect a 1900 player to make. This position is a good example of the kinds of things that my opponents and myself would miss. In the game White played 37. Rd8? and the game was quickly drawn. A simple 37. Rb7! instead leads to a huge advantage. Doubling rooks on the 7th rank in 4-rook endgames is deadly! If you go through a game with the engine running in the background, the monster would scream at you 37. Rb7 +-. (e.g. 37. Rb7 Kh8 38. Rdd7 Rg8 39. a5 +-) Without a computer - to find an obvious move like this in post-mortem, without knowing that this is a typical idea, you’d have to either show the whole game to a chess coach, or spend hours yourself analysing every move. As a result – I missed the chance to learn from a very instructive exchange of mistakes. Today – I can spot a mistake like this fairly easily (any exchange of pieces is potentially a critical moment in a game), but at the time – I never did look back to move 37 of that game.

Another thing that struck me – theory in our games ended at around move 5, and we`d be playing on our own (kind of a good thing). I had few opening books at the time, and if my opponent played a move that was not mentioned anywhere, even after the game I had no clue whether “the novelty” was good or bad.

To summarize - computers have changed the rules of the game (and how you study it) in roughly the following ways, making it both easier and harder to study chess

  1. You no longer need a coach to spot your mistakes – the engine can tell you of all the critical points in your game – just look at the evaluation graph
  2. The tools make it much easier to analyse your own games, as you can get to any position within seconds, correct analysis on the fly and so on. Before – setting up the board and looking at the rook endgame involved 10 minutes of shuffling pieces around just to get there …
  3. Every idiotic opening move you or your opponent can possibly play has been played before. It`s all the matter of how much can fit into your memory

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