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AI ruined chess. Now, it’s making the game look good again



DeepMind and Kramnik leveraged AlphaZero’s ability to learn a game from scratch to explore new variations faster than decades or centuries of human play that would reveal its beauty and flaws. “You don’t want to invest many months or years of your life trying to play something, only to realize that ‘Oh, this isn’t exactly a good game,'” says Tomašev.

“For a good number of games at the highest level, half the game, sometimes a full game, is played without memory.”

Vladimir Kramnik, former world chess champion

AlphaZero is a more flexible and powerful successor to AlphaGo, which has established a marker in History of AI when he defeated a champion at Go in 201

6. He begins to learn a game with only the rules, a way to keep score and a pre-programmed desire to experiment and win. “When it starts playing it’s so bad I want to hide under my table,” says Ulrich Paquet, another DeepMind researcher on the project. “But watching it evolve from a void of nothing is exciting and almost pure.”

In chess, AlphaZero initially does not know that it can take an opponent’s pieces. Over the course of hours of high-speed play against later incarnations more powerful than himself, he becomes more adept, and to some eyes more natural, than previous chess machines. In the process he rediscovers ideas seen in centuries of human chess and adds his own twist. British grandmaster Matthew Salder described AlphaZero’s in-depth game study as “uncovering the secret notebooks of a great player of the past”.

The nine alternate visions of chess that AlphaZero tested included chess without castling, which Kramnik and others had already thought of, and had their first dedicated tournament in January. It eliminates a move called castling which allows a player to hide their king behind a protective screen of other pieces, a powerful fortification that can also be suffocating. Five of the variations altered the movement of pawns, including torpedo chess, in which pawns can move up to two squares at a time during the game, rather than just on their first move.

One way to read AlphaZero results is in cold numbers. Ties were less common in chess without castling than in conventional rules. And learning different rules shifted the value that AlphaZero placed on different pieces: according to conventional rules, a queen valued 9.5 pawns; according to the torpedo rules, the queen was worth only 7.1 pawns.

“After three moves you just don’t know what to do. It feels good, like a kid.”

Vladimir Kramnik, former world chess champion

DeepMind researchers were ultimately more interested in analyzing the project’s other big chess brain, Kramnik. “It’s not about numbers, but whether it’s qualitatively and aesthetically pleasing for humans to sit and play,” says Tomašev. A technical paper released Wednesday includes more than 70 pages of Kramnik’s commentary on AlphaZero’s explorations.

Kramnik saw flashes of beauty in how AlphaZero adapted to the new rules. Chess without castling has resulted in new and rich schemes to keep the king safe, he says. A more extreme change, self-capturing chess, in which a player can take their pieces, proved even more tempting. The rule actually offers a player more opportunities to sacrifice a piece to move forward, says Kramnik, a tactic considered a hallmark of elegant play for centuries. “All in all it makes the game better,” he says.

Kramnik hopes that AlphaZero’s adventures in alien chess forms will convince players of all skill levels to try them out. “It’s our gift to the chess world,” he says. Now may be an opportune time.

Chess was gaining popularity for years, but experienced a pandemic push as many people sought out new intellectual stimuli, says Jennifer Shahade, two-time US chess champion. Interest in Chess960 has also grown, suggesting an appetite for new types of play, even from some superstars. Later this week, Shahade will provide commentary on a Chess960 tournament that includes Magnus Carlsen and Kasparov, the former world champion, the number one in the world.

Like Kramnik, Shahade saw similar things in several variants tested by AlphaZero, although changes such as allowing pedestrians to move sideways seemed “mind blowing”. Should it gain ground, some players will still want to rely on computers and extensive research to move forward, but resetting the cycle could be fascinating to watch. “The findings would be fresh, they could be very exciting and benefit a different type of player,” says Shahade, who is also director of the women’s program at the US Chess Federation.


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