May 11, 1997. The date is written in fire in the memory of Garry Kasparov, that of the IBM developers, the chroniclers and, in general, that of any chess fan or even the history of the 20th century. After a long tug-of-war, a round-trip competition whose first games dated back to the beginning of 1996, Deep Blue, a powerful supercomputer designed by Armonk's multinational, definitively doubled the pulse of the Russian Grand Master and defeated him in a field in which he had been practically unbeatable: the board of white and black squares.
Beyond the game, chess, strategies with queens and affixes, Deep Blue's victory showed us the potential of machines to beat even the best humans in their field. The IBM supercomputer did it in the late 1990s and it still does today, a quarter of a century later, GT Sophy on the PS4 with the Gran Turismo. And that to cite just one example.
The fact is that the machines —and nowadays artificial intelligence in a special way— may not only serve to get the colors out of us and make the great flesh and blood champions bite the dust. Perhaps they can also help us to compete better. Or even, twisting the loop a little more, to improve the rules and the general conception of our own games.
A gifted student… with a silicon brain
Can the student teach the teacher not only how to play, but how to improve the game?
It has just been demonstrated wonderfully by AlphaZero, the program developed by DeepMind —a laboratory linked to Alphabet Inc.— to master chess, shogi and go, three of the most complex and demanding board and strategy games for the human brain.
As its name implies, AlphaZero differs from previous versions of artificial intelligence by its ability to learn how to play "from scratch", based solely on knowledge of the rules. It is not "fed" with huge amounts of games and examples inserted by its creators. No. Without human supervision, by repeating its own "auto-plays" over and over again, AlphaZero develops its own game strategies.
Over the last few years that has worked like a charm for him to reign over the board; but now the experts have gone a step further: they propose harnessing the power of its silicon brain to achieve 'better' chess. "AlphaZero's ability to continually improve its understanding and achieve superhuman playing strength in classical chess and Go lends itself to the question of evaluating chess variants and possible variants of other board games in the future," he says. a group of researchers in the journal Communications of the ACM.
"By implementing the rules alone it is possible to effectively simulate decades of human experience in one day, opening a window into high-level play of each variant. Computer chess comes full circle, from the early days of playing against the man and machine to a collaborative present of man and machine, in which artificial intelligence can empower players to explore what chess is and what it might become," the authors reason in the Association for Computing publication Machinery.
It is not a question, they insist, of questioning the model of classical chess —"it is still fascinating and is unlikely to go out of style", they defend—, but of looking for alternative variants to achieve a "more creative" game. It is also nothing new, nor a turn of the wheel in the history of chess itself. As the authors remind us, the game we know today is the result of the adjustments applied since the 6th century and there are figures that we have fully internalized today that are relatively frequent. Castling, for example, was applied in its present form in the 17th century.
"What would chess have been like if castling hadn't been built into the rules? Without resorting to repeating history, we reinvented chess and addressed those questions with AlphaZero."
The authors formulate, specifically, nine "changes", some of which have already been proposed by the courts themselves over the years. The table of Communications of the ACM with the variants can be consulted under these lines, but in general three modifications are proposed: dispensing in part or totally with the castling rule; a number of alterations to the moves pawns can make, including backward and sideways moves; the "self-capture" option, which would allow the judges to get hold of their own pieces; and an alteration that would consider a game ending in a draw as a victory for the attacking player.
The goal is to combine the power of AlphaZero and human curiosity itself to "reimagine what chess would have been like if history had taken a slightly different course."
"When the statistical properties of the high-level games of AlphaZero are compared with those of classical chess, a series of more decisive variants appear, without affecting the diversity of plausible options available to a player", reflects the article that it concludes that, both statistically and even aesthetically, "some variants would lead to games that are at least as attractive as classical chess", the authors reflect.
Some of his proposals are in fact more than that.
A first tournament without castling was already held in Chennai at the beginning of 2020 and there are portals where you can play with some of the modifications they suggest. In their case, for each variant they used the AlphaZero model in 10,000 autoplay games at one second per move and 1,000 games at one minute. His tests yielded interesting results. For example, those of the second type required between 62 and 76 moves, which does not represent a great difference with respect to the 68 that is usually recorded, on average, in games played with the classic rules.
Reimagining Chess with AlphaZero from CACM on Vimeo.
Whether you are more or less in favor of touching the canon of chess, what seems undeniable is that computer programs are already influencing the game. It is not necessary to go to the example of Kasparov and Deep Blue. The Communications of the ACM article reflects, for example, how the number of "decisive games" in super tournaments has decreased and that players are taking longer to go from preparing at home to executing original moves on the board.
The idea would not differ much either from the philosophy of random chess proposed by another Grand Master and former world champion, Bobby Fischer, who proposed a fortuitous start of the games to prevent dominance in opening strategies from marking the rest of the game.
The goal: to achieve "more creative" games.
Although in this case it means letting the teacher be advised by a pupil with a silicon brain.