When humankind’s dominance of a game it invented at least 1400 years ago ceased, it was in the way that TS Eliot described the world ending: not with a bang, but a whimper.
In 1997, the then world champion Garry Kasparov, one of the three strongest players in chess history, succumbed to an opening trap that even tyros of the game know well. His remorseless, emotionless, perspiration-free opponent played the regulation piece sacrifice, reducing Kasparov’s position — and his ego — to ruins and plunging humanity, or parts of it, into existential despair.
Kasparov’s non-human opponent was the IBM super-computer called Deep Blue, which had been beaten 4-2 in a six-game match only the previous year by the very same human world champion. The rematch was different, with Kasparov alleging the monster machine was receiving subtle forms of help from its (human) programmers, among them the former chess prodigy and strong United States grandmaster, Joel Benjamin.
Deep Blue was developed with only one aim: get Garry. Its development budget was phenomenal and it was no surprise that, having won the sixth game of the rematch and with it the contest by 31/2 to 21/2, parent company IBM retired the silicon slayer.
Computers play blemish-free chess with shattering swiftness and consistency. No human player can live with them in a game. Apart from computer-vs-computer games and matches, the machines — nowadays called engines, with fierce names like Komodo and Stockfish — are used to train and prepare opening schemes for future opponents.
The result gladdens those in love with artificial intelligence, with the illusion of “accuracy” (because it is the engines calculating degrees of correctness), and with chess as a purely competitive activity in which the only worthwhile outcome is a win. Winning at all costs, including casting aside beauty and something that for convenience let us call “heart and soul”, is the prevailing tenor of the times.
Had I come to chess now, or even 10 years ago, rather than as a six-year old in 1966, the game would have excited little interest in me. The sheer functionality of the play of the current top players and the readily apparent non-human and machine-like nature of their games is repellent.
What is evident is that human creativity and imagination are subservient to a set of “protocols” — opening choices, strategic plans, attacking and defensive formations and the like — that are decided before any given game based on what the engine has to say about the upcoming opponent’s weaknesses and strengths.
Imagine a chess version of The Stepford Wives, in which the humans are zombies fronting for the engines or a chess-addiction melodrama based on The Valley of the Dolls, where the grandmasters are juiced up on what they are drinking in from the machines.
Essentially what has happened is an abrogation by men and women, girls and boys, of both short- and long-range thinking, a yielding of independence of mind to a device created to help humans but that is now controlling what they do.
In a very real sense this is a betrayal of the Laws of Robotics that the prescient writer and professor of bio-chemistry, Isaac Asimov, drew up 70 or so years ago, among the principal commands of which is that no robot should cause harm to any human being; that it should choose self-destruction rather than entertain even the slightest possible injury to a human.
The dilemma is older even than Asimov’s musings. It first took form — in the Eng-lish language, at any rate — with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (l818), in which the eponymous Dr Victor Frankenstein strives to create not only human life but life with consciousness. The upshot — the Creature — is feared by humans and harried to its death. But it does at least show signs of sentience.
There is more before Asimov’s mid-20th century ethical and practical concerns. In the little-known but supremely perceptive short story, Moxon’s Master, the American wit, satirist, writer and journalist extraordinaire Ambrose Bierce (1842 to circa 1914) examined human nature and how that was likely to be passed on to anything created by humans.
Moxon invents a chess-playing machine, giving it the appearance of a person of about 1.5m in height with gorilla-like proportions: – thick, short neck and broad, squat head, which is adorned by a crimson fez, with a similarly coloured tunic belted at the waist.
The narrator of the tale witnesses, to his everlasting regret, Moxon’s last stand on an ill-fated evening when the creator lures the machine into a checkmate ambush. Primitive rage wells up instantly in the defeated, which extends its noticeably long arms towards its maker and kills him.
Bierce knew a thing or two about the violence of human nature. He had been a first lieutenant in the Union army during the American Civil War. In 1913 he saddled up and rode across the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo) and into Mexico, to report on the revolution there. He was never seen again, although it is tempting to accept what became of him as imagined in Carlos Fuentes’s superb novel The Old Gringo.
It is conceivable that none of Shelley, Bierce and Asimov would be shocked by the cheating scandal that is rocking the chess world. In brief, the young US grandmaster Hans Niemann beat the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, in an over-the-board, face-to-face game in the prestigious Sinquefield tournament in September.
Carlsen withdrew from the event, casting aspersions on Niemann and suggesting not very subtly — but safely enough away from libel—that the winner had cheated.
Such a withdrawal is almost unprecedented. All players have an obligation to com-plete tournaments so for the best player in the world to pull out was immensely sig-nificant — and irresponsible, no matter the motivation.
Things began to get conspiratorial from this point on. First, the online behemoth Chess.com announced that Niemann had cheated in online games on its platform (by consulting chess engines while playing games). It was lost on no chess follower that Carlsen’s company, Play Magnus, had just been acquired by Chess.com for a mere $82-million. Could there be collusion there? Do bears hibernate in winter?
Niemann hit back in an emotional and powerful interview in which he acknowledged cheating in some online games when 12 and 16 — he is only 19 now — but never in games that were rated or in over-the-board games.
Explicitly and persuasively, he pointed out that he did not cheat in the face-to-face game against Carlsen. (Players are subjected to body-check metal-detector tests before these games and are under such intense second-by-second camera and human scrutiny that the chances of cheating in an over-the-board contest are as slim as human intelligence existing in Mar-a-lago.)
Carlsen then produced less of a lily-livered statement by saying he believes that Niemann cheated more often than he admitted. Continuing its role as Carlsen’s cat’s paw, or handmaid, Chess.com released a 72-page “report” that it claims “proves” the levels of Niemann’s “cheating”.
The document is replete with sound and fury and more allegations of further cheating but it does not make the point compellingly because Chess.com says it can’t divulge its forensic methods for fear that others will use them to circumvent the anti-cheating devices it has in place. This is like accusing someone of theft but saying you can’t produce the finger-prints, the stolen goods or any witnesses at all to the deed just in case others with ill intent replicate the means thus revealed.
Carlsen and his allies have yet to prove that Niemann cheated in their personal encounter. Instead, Carlsen is unethically using Niemann’s record of cheating seven and three years ago to say that he cheated in their game — a non sequitur that only a hubristic personality with the fatal flaw of deep and life-long arrogance could perpetrate.
It is a tragic mess and there is no defending Niemann’s youthful follies and confessed cheating.
But the larger point is the degree to which everyone and everything is defaulting to the machinery, the infernal chess machines, the damned engines.
Before them, without them, chess was played with what I earlier called heart and soul. With them, we have caution, cheating, suspicion, paranoia and its synonym, persecution complex.
Video killed the radio star; chess engines have killed even more than that. Welcome to The End of Beauty and The Last Chess Show.
This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian. Re-published here with kind permission of the author and the Editor of the M&G.