Chess and Computers: The Perfect Partnership

Chess is one of the oldest, most popular board games played. On the 20th July we celebrate international chess day: a great occasion to look back at the origins and history of chess but also at the present state of the game loved and respected by so many.

Reading time: 10 minutes
By Eliatra
Chess is one of the oldest, most popular board games played. On the 20th of July we celebrate international chess day: a great occasion to look back at the origins and history of chess but also at the present state of the game loved and respected by so many.
Chess is everything: art, science, and sport. - Anatoly Karpov

Chess before it was Chess.

As with every great invention or idea, typically there is one figure who reprobates in the fame and glory as the sole inventor. Nevertheless, often there are many clever minds, individuals, and prototypes prior who helped pave the way for this. This also true for chess, the game of chess was invented much earlier. Back when it wasn’t even called chess.
In the mid-19th century, the games manufacturer John Jaques & Son established the iconic appearance of modern chess pieces. A visual standard was created (the so-called Staunton design) and the game was taken to a new level.

The History of Chess in 7 Stages:

500 AD: Clay figures + Ashtāpada
The board game of the Indian racing game Ashtāpada was provided with small clay figures. Even if the rules and course of the game were different from our modern chess, an early archetype of chess was formed by combining these two elements.
3rd to 6th Centuries: Chaturanga “Four Divisions/Elements”
Four military divisions were in the foreground: infantry, cavalry or horsemen, war elephants and chariots or ships. Similarities to modern figures exist. There was a four-sided die and up to four players.
7th Century: Chatrang & Shatrandj
It is said that the Indian Chaturanga reached Persia and Arabia in the luggage of soldiers and traders. Adapted to the national languages, it became the Persian Chatrang or the Arabic Shatrandsch popular and loved games during this period.
It is during this early chess phase that the chess bid/ check/ checkmate is likely to of been developed. Seeing as the word “Checkmate” in chess comes from the Persian phrase “Shah Mat,” which means “the King is dead.” - Wikipedia
9th to 11th Century: Chess in Europe
How the early game of chess came to Europe is not entirely clear. It is said to of most likely reached the continent via several countries simultaneously. Each country developed its own rules, each region understood the game a little differently. In the 15th and 16th centuries there were efforts to standardize the various chess variants.
18th & 19th Century: Chess Clubs & Cafes
Chess in the heart of society: chess clubs and chess cafés were en vogue, fashionable and on trend. It is well documented in the books of history that some of the great minds like Voltaire, Rousseau or Napoleon could often be found in such establishments.
20th Century onwards: Tournament chess & chess professionals
More noticeably in the last 150 years, chess has become a respected top sport. It was above all, the former Soviet Union that strongly shaped the game in the 20th century. Many chess professionals came and still come from there, and chess is held in high esteem, it is said that to date that over 600 million people play chess on a regular basis.

Chess and Computers: A Worthy Opponent and Teacher

Since the beginning of digitisation and especially in the wake of artificial intelligence research, chess has also been an important topic in science and software development.
Chess computers have continued to get better and better; training programs have become smarter, so much so that: On 11th May 1997, an IBM computer called IBM ® Deep Blue ® beat the world chess champion after a six-game match: two wins for IBM, one for the champion and three draws.

Deep Blue from IBM: Trained by Historical Data

Developed by IBM, it was the Deep Blue chess computer that beat the reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a game of chess in 1997. A turning point that divided chess players all over the world into two camps: fans and sceptics.
A new era of chess was born for many. With chess computers being said to be smarter than you are, you have the best possible opponent. Tinkerers (one who experiments to repair, fix, or improve) saw this as an opportunity to further develop their favourite board game. It was clear to them that chess would now be played on a whole new level.
The more people that started to use chess computers, the more creative the players became. Through training simulations, experienced chess fans have been able to develop and create new chess moves, called “novelties” for the first time in more than 1500 years.
What is a chess novelty?
“A chess novelty (also known as a theoretical novelty) is a new move or idea in the opening that was previously unknown to chess theory. In other words, a novelty is an opening move that hasn’t been played before. A novelty can be a singular move or a series of moves. In chess literature and databases, a novelty is sometimes abbreviated to “N” or “TN” (for theoretical novelty).” - Chess.com

AlphaZero from Alphabet: Trained by Itself

The next technical (and above all emotional) milestone in the history of chess computers was in 2017, when the Google AI “AlphaZero” made headlines. After a short training phase with itself, the artificial intelligence was able to beat the best chess computer in the world to date (“Stockfish”).
Unlike before, AlphaZero didn’t fall back on an existing play database from which it used. She was only given the basics of chess and wished her good luck. After about 4 hours, the AI had trained itself so far that it could play its way to the top of the world chess computer.
“By contrast, AlphaZero had not been taught any chess strategies by its human creators—not even standard openings. Rather, it used the latest machine-learning principles to teach itself chess by playing against itself… Since AlphaZero had learned nothing from any human, many of its winning moves and strategies seemed unconventional to the human eye.” - Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Chess Trendy… an Oxymoron no more

Away from AI and digitization, chess also plays a major role in mainstream society today. As the clear winner of the corona pandemic, board games, especially chess, are more popular than ever, and the Global Board Game sector is set to be worth $12 billion by 2023.

Chess on Twitch: Hikaru Nakamura

“In poker, you want to play the weaker guys. In chess, it’s the opposite.” - Hikaru Nakamura, Chess Grandmaster.
Chess has become part of mainstream culture so much, so it is being supported by new media formats such as Twitch, an interactive livestreaming service, where chess games are streamed with along with other games and sports.
Chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura has become a streaming hit on the new media platform. The multiple US champion is a chess professional and world leader in blitz chess (tournament chess with limited moves). On Twitch, you were able to follow live how the chess professional coached chess beginners.
Hikaru’s chess apprentices were big names within the Twitch Community, but Chess beginners in the globally loved game. At peak times, up to 150,000 people interested in chess watched these unusual matches. Hitch has taken steaming of chess to new levels, In June 2022 alone over 6.42 million hours of chess was viewed on Twitch.

Netflix and Chess: The Queen’s Gambit

In 2020 The Queen’s Gambit was released on Netflix. A series about the chess talent Beth, who fights her way from the dreary life of an orphan to the top of the chess world. The mini-series describes the challenges that the male-dominated sport brings with it for a young woman. In each episode the viewer accompanies the life of the fictional chess genius on their way to the top.
Driven by the Netflix series, many chess websites and institutes have seen extreme user growth. The number of users on online chess platforms such as chess.com exploded, and chess boards were hard to come by as a Christmas present in 2020. eBay stated that within the first 10 days of the series release they saw an increase of 273% in searches for “Chess Sets”, that is one search every 6 seconds within the 10-day period.
“Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful. It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.” - Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, The Queen’s Gambit.

Chess Facts

    The motto of chess is “Gens una sumus”, which is Latin for “We are one people”.
    The second book ever printed in the English language was about chess!
    The number of possible unique chess games is much greater than, the number of electrons in the entire universe.
    The folding chessboard was invented by a priest who was forbidden to play chess. The priest found a way around it by making a folding chessboard. When folded together and put on a bookshelf, it simply looks like two books.
    The Elo rating describes the playing strength of chess players. The higher the number, the better the chess player. The Elo rating of Magnus Carlsen and other chess grandmasters is over 2800, top chess computers easily reach 3500 Elo points.

Chess and Life

Chess in all its forms has been being played, loved, and rejoiced for over 1500 years, it is the oldest and one of the most respected games ever. As a result, chess has brought individuals together from all cultures, backgrounds, and ages over their common passion and bond for the game.
Computers, technology, and AI have helped a 1500-year-old game and its players learn, evolve, and develop, taking the game to a whole new level. Technology has catapulted the game to reach individuals who previously never thought they would play or enjoy the game on new platforms and in shared spaces.
Like all games and sports, there can only be one winner of the game itself, however chess teaches its players to win with grace, and the importance of losing. In chess when players lose, they analyse each of their moves, identify what went wrong to learn and improve for their next match, and when they finally do win, the appreciation for that victory is tenfold.
This approach can be applied to life and individuals in general: You learn from mistakes or things not going to plan, these lessons are far more important than success or victory, and individuals will only fail when they stop learning or trying.
The true beauty of chess is the chaos, every game of chess is different, simple yet complex. There is no perfect strategy for chess, its players develop strategies depending on style and their opponent. Like life everyone’s journey is different, and individuals must adapt to situations and surroundings creating their own strategy for their own version of success.
Today we celebrate Chess, its origins, history and its development, the lessons we can all learn and appreciate. If you have never played chess… it’s never too late, why not try something new!
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