by Special Correspondent Andy Okun, with reporting by Natalya Kovaleva
In the run-up to AlphaGo’s challenge match with Lee Sedol 9p in Seoul in a little over a week, go players have been worrying about the new age whose beginning might be marked by an AlphaGo victory. What will the go world be like when computers are so good? Will people still want to play go? What will change? Taking advantage of the collegiality of the IMSA Elite Mind Games in Huaian, we sought counsel from a community that has been through this before. We asked chess players how the game was affected by Garry Kasparov’s historic loss to IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, the steady growth in strength of computer chess since, and how go players should greet the news. The general view was that go players should not be afraid of the new age, but that things will be different. There may even be some new and interesting problems to handle, as there have in chess.
“So many cheats!” said KwaiKeong Chan (right), a long time chess player, arbiter and organizer from Hong Kong. Chan is helping run the chess section of the IEMG as deputy chief arbiter. The software is so strong that it has become very easy to find new ways to cheat, Chan said. “Hiding in the toilet is primitive,” he said dismissively of a toilet-based chess scandal last year in Dubai, although he refused to detail some of the more subtle methods people use. Strong computers also are how officials crack down on cheats, he said. Chess software is so good that given a board position and an ELO rating, you can predict the exact set of moves a player of that strength will likely draw from. If a player consistently picks better moves than are likely for his or her rating, officials know to pay close attention. “You cannot play beyond yourself. It’s not humanly possible,” said Chan, who himself had designed some very early chess-playing software.
Beyond that, chess players don’t really care about computers’ strength and said go players shouldn’t either, he said. Rather, the advent of strong computer go will bring publicity to the game, as Deep Blue did for chess, Chan said. “That is always a good thing, publicity, good or bad. Publicity is what you need.” Chess is being played more than ever before, and while Deep Blue is not the main reason for that – he cited years of community effort in presenting chess well – it did produce a second surge of new players after the Bobby Fischer surge of the 1970s.
The presence of such strong computers has had other effects on how chess is played and the nature of chess expertise, players suggested. Since strong computers can provide weak and middling players with solid and accurate analysis, the role of the chess master is different than it was, said Russian player Alexandra Kosteniuk (left), a grandmaster, former Women’s World Chess Champion and author of “Diary of a Chess Queen.” The strength of players has gone up, but the best players don’t command the same respect they might have in years past because the best critique is available to everyone. “Maybe in a few years, there will be no go masters,” she said.
Shahriyar Mamedyarov, a 31-year-old Azerbaijani grandmaster and former rapid chess World Champion, said it used to be that when he was in world championship tournaments, he might have seven or eight fellow players with him helping him prepare for the games. He doesn’t need to do that now, since any questions he has or analysis he needs done can be done by computer. Valentina Evgenyevna Gunina, a three-time Russian women’s champion, said computers had raised the standard of training and that “we need to memorize much more than we did before.”
Kirsan ILyumzhinov, the controversial president of both the Federation Internationale des Echecs and the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, as well as the head of IMSA and a long time sponsor of computer go competitions, said in the early days of the computer go project, human players and human programmers would work hard to develop the computer player and make it stronger. “Now the computer develops and trains the human.”
Perhaps the bluntest argument against fear of computers learning to play our games well came from Ruslan Ponomariov (right), a Ukrainian grandmaster and FIDE World Champion from 2002 to 2004.
“What we can do?” he asked with a shrug.
photos credits: Kirill Merkurev (Chan); chessqueen.com (Kosteniuk); en.chessbase.com (Ponomariov)