Humanity's last Stand?

Russell Sherwood  Wednesday, October 25, 2017

In recent years there has been a massive increase in the strength of Chess engines and their influence on Correspondence Chess has been significant, leading a number of critics to observe that CC is Computer Chess, not Correspondence Chess.


It Is true that a CC player playing without any computer support, at the higher levels, is putting themselves at a near fatal disadvantage but there is hope for the player wishing to play a human led game at this level.


How can this be? Much comes down to two issues:


  • Looking at the nature of the how the engine works and its strengths and weaknesses. It’s widely accepted that even the best engines (not necessarily the highest rated) only have the Chess knowledge of a 2200-2300 rated player. The reason they have ratings of (depending on which list you look at!) 3300-3500 is due to their tactical prowess, which is related to their ability to review millions of moves in time it takes a typical human to look at a mere handful.
  • The rise of the “engine jockey”: Players will powerful hardware/software and very little engine knowledge



So how can we, the poor human, make progress here?


The answer is twofold – utilising another engine (even in theory a rather weaker one) to check our moves for tactical holes – a form of error checking and attempting to exploit the engine's lack of knowledge. Now some more astute readers may be thinking that some Engines (Komodo for example) are rather better at positional play than others but whilst the better engines will know, for example, to occupy the open file , they are doing this driven by fairly simple formula’s rather than understanding the implication of the move which may be in 20-30-40 moves time.


How do we look to put this into practice?


  • Openings. In general engines struggle in openings, left to their own devices, as unless there is a clear way forward the number of options becomes too large a number of variations to be calculated, occasionally leading the engine astray. Looking through CC games is becomes obvious where a player thinks deviates very early in the game, knowing the typical engine will give a poor response. Now as a human to make this work, you need to understand the opening in question really well, especially its strategic aims.  This approach was (and is) used successfully in the King’s Indian Defence, where most engines are fairly clueless, although it must be said that the effectiveness of this approach is diminishing as engine knowledge is increasing in this area.
  • Deep Strategic middle game ideas. Another tactic used by “Engine Killers” is to steer the game towards tactically quiet, but strategically rich middlegames. This tends to be seen by players who utilise the Nf3/g3 type systems. Due to the flexibility of these systems opening knowledge (books) often run out quite quickly and the evaluation of the engine either heads towards 0.0 or is stuck on some random number (this is caused by some positional evaluation factor of the engine which may have no relevance in the position). If in this position you have a clear plan with quite distant objectives, which the engine is looking for tactical and basic positional style moves you opportunities become clear.
  • Engines can, sometimes, fall to a method related to the “slippery slope”. Imagine playing a game, materially is even, but your opponent has some significant positional plusses and you are under pressure. If you could free yourself from the pressure by giving away a pawn, in a non-fatal manner, you probably would, especially if it gave you some opportunities of your own. The engine is unlikely to do this. In this situation, it probably has an evaluation of about -0.4, but to give up the pawn would change this to -0.8 whereas to continue to play in the significantly pressurised would only lead to -0.5 or -0.6. This seems sensible but what then happens is that the engine goes down a slippery slope and 10 or 15 moves later is looking at an evaluation of -1.5 and a lost position!!
  • Endgames have always been a struggle for engines. Tablebases have “covered this up” somewhat but it is not uncommon to see massive misevaluations. Now as a human we can look to play against this directly or in a much deeper way in the middlegame. If we know that in this type of position a win is much more likely with a b pawn rather than a pawn and if his bishop is not on the board a win is  even more likely ,then  our play 20 or 30 moves earlier can steer the game in this direction, way beyond any meaningful horizon the engine may have!


So my dear human’s all is not lost and it is possible to make progress against the metal (and digital ) monsters and their poor slaves but only if we (a) Utilise where we are stronger than the engines and (b) use the engines to nullify their own strengths.


Should you be successful, don’t look to repeat your success in the exact same line as, like the Borg in Star Trek, your opponents will quickly adapt!


As a final thought – there were some games with GM’s + obsolete engines vs Leading edge engines, where the Leading Edge engines prevailed. This is something of a red herring for us as whilst the GM’s are almost certainly much better players than us, their approach was to play in their own style, rather than look to exploit the engines weakness. In addition, the time control’s for this was for OTB, which changes the nature of the game somewhat!


Good Luck!



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