Chess and Computers

What are chess computers?

While at one-time chess was seen as the ultimate test of human brain against human brain, there has been an ongoing move away from this towards a more digitised chess-playing environment.

Chess computers have been around for over half a century, although it wasn’t until the 1980s that they were able to beat the world’s greatest chess players. Deep Blue was the first ever chess computer to have a famous success over a Grandmaster in 1997, but chess programmes on home computers have been popular for decades and today’s chess software which can run on smartphone devices are capable of defeating even the most skilled human chess players.

The Early Days of Chess Computers

MANIAC, back in 1956, was the first ever computer which was capable of defeating a human in a simplified version of chess. It was capable of defeating an unskilled beginner player in only 23 moves. In 1967, a computer first won a chess game in a tournament against humans – Mac Hack VI managed to beat a US Chess Federation player with a 1510 rating.

In 1981, Cray Blitz took the honour of becoming the first ever chess computer which was capable of beating a master during a tournament. It was also the first chess computer to gain the rating of a master.

Deep Blue vs Kasparov

Deep Blue vs Kasparov

One of the best-known chess computers of all time is Deep Blue, which beat grandmaster Kasparov in 1996. This was the first ever time that a reigning chess world champion lost to a chess computer while using standard time controls, although Kasparov did end up winning three and drawing two of the match’s five games. A year later, Deep Blue returned in a new and upgraded format and beat Kasparov 3 ½ to 2 ½ in a 6-game match. While Kasparov made claims that there were a number of factors against him in the match, including the fact that he was preventing from accessing any of the computer’s recent games, it was still the first time a chess computer had beaten a grand master under tournament conditions.

Man Versus Machine

The fascination with chess computers being able to defeat human players became so strong that in 2004-2005, a special championship was set up which putted leading chess computers against leading chess grandmasters. The Man Vs Machine World Team Championships were held in Spain, and both of the two tournaments saw convincing wins for the chess computers.

The Pocket Fritz 4

Pocket Fritz 4

In 2009, perhaps the greatest achievement of a chess engine to date came in the form of Pocket Fritz 4. This chess engine ran on slow hardware – a 528MHz HTC Touch HD smartphone. Despite its diminutive programming, it still managed to achieve the level of a grandmaster, winning a category six tournament and achieving a performance rating as high as 2898. It also won the Argentinian Copa Mercosur tournament, achieving an even higher level of performance than the famous supercomputer Deep Blue.

Computer Chess Engine Winning A Freestyle Tournament

Just a couple of years ago in 2017, another chess engine known as Zor came first in the freestyle Ultimate Challenge chess tournament. In contrast, the top human player only came in third place and only because they were playing on a team with a computer.

In any freestyle tournament, players can be either computers, humans or in a team of both computers and humans. When both computers and humans work together, the humans are able to direct the computer to use a specified strategy for any given move, or alternatively, choose their preferred move from one of several computers.

The Future of Chess Computers

Chess computers aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they are becoming more prevalent than ever before. Today, chess computers are permitted to enter chess tournaments freely and are considered to be equal to any human player. Perhaps the time is coming when we will see a chess computer taking the title of World Chess Champion.