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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Processing Power

 When chess engines first appeared on the scene, they were terrible. The first dedicated chess computer I had back in the late 1970s was “Boris.” The computer ran on an 8-bit microprocessor with only 2.5 KiB ROM and and 256 byte RAM. It cost me a princely sum: $300. In today’s dollars that was a little over $1000…hey, I had a good paying job and wasn’t married, so I spent money on anything that struck my fancy…Boris, cars, flying airplanes…traveling all over the East Coast playing in chess tournaments, etc. Boris was an amazing piece of equipment that played at the 1200-1400 level. I still have the wooden box it was housed in sitting on the dresser to hold my wallet, keys, watch etc.
       By the 1990s humans and computers were rivals. IBM’s Deep Blue thumped reigning world champion Kasparov and things kept getting better, or worse, depending on your point of view. These days GMs (and a lot of lower-rated players) use engines utilize the processing power of today’s powerful, and much cheaper, computers to help them prepare.
      In the early days engines did not give very good analysis, but they were really good for the compilation of databases. It was nice not having to keep scoresheets in shoeboxes and not having to keep track of correspondence games on postal chess recorder albums. In the early days some people were actually advertising in Chess Life that they would research openings and compile a database then mail it to you on a floppy disk...for a small fee, of course.
      These day’s databases are key to preparing for tournament play and there are endgame databases that contain analyses of endgame positions and optimal moves in each possible position. Engines are also used by strong players to search for opening ideas. Personally, I don’t know that this is any worse than in the old days when top level players had a gaggle of GM assistants doing the same thing, except today the whole process is a lot faster. Some players, even average players, are deeply into technology while others abhor their use.
      Some players even have gone so far as to build their own computers designed to handle chess-playing programs. Today’s top players, mostly very young, are products of the digital age and for them they tend to be comfortable with using high-tech aids to help them prepare and hone their skills. It apparently works well; just look at how strong 10-12 year olds are these days.
      Top IMs and GMs start weeks or months before a tournament and once they know who their opponents are going to be they start gathering information from the databases about the openings those players like to use. Then they begin analyzing openings commonly used by their opponents with the hope of finding a novelty. They try to predict all the possible moves and eventually come up with a report on what to expect. Usually they’ll also use their laptop to connect via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to their computer back home. And that’s not all: some even have backup laptops that run engines and database in case of Internet outages. What this means, at least at the very top level, is that the GM must memorize 500-1000 moves. Guys like Nakamura can then recite all that stuff back without looking at the board. Memorizing all that stuff proves that most of us will never be a GM; most of us can’t even remember our favorite opening more than a very few moves deep.
      Of course, controversy over whether the use of computers constitutes “cheating” or makes players lazy or somehow destroys the game is still around; probably always will be. But the fact remains that today’s players are better because of computers and they’re achieving more at a younger age. Fischer was considered an anomaly when he earned the GM title at 15. Today, if you aren’t a GM by the age of 14 or 15, you probably won’t be. I remember my first ever tournament...the state junior championship where, at age 15, I was one of the youngest participants! Talent will always matter, but technology is helping talented players learn faster and better.
      Still, I’m not sure I like it. Ignorance was bliss.

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