AI ruined chess. Now, it’s making game beautiful again


DeepMind and Kramnik exploited Alfazero’s ability to learn a game from scratch to explore new variants more quickly than decades or centuries of human play. “You don’t want to invest several months or years of your life trying to do something, only to realize that ‘Oh, it’s not just a beautiful game,” says Tomev.

Alfazo is a more resilient and powerful successor to AlphaGo, placing a marker in AI history when he defeated a champion in Go in 2016. It only starts learning a game equipped with rules, a way to keep score, and a pre-experimented and programmed urge to win. “When it starts playing it’s so bad that I want to hide under my table,” says Ulrich Paquet, another DeepMind researcher on the project. “But watching it grow from zero is exciting and almost pure.”

In chess, AlphaZero does not initially know that it can take pieces of an opponent. Playing against the more powerful avatars of the hourly high speed chords of its own, it becomes more efficient and more natural to some eyes than earlier chess engines. In the process it rediscovers the ideas seen in centuries of human chess and adds its own layer. English grandmaster Matthew Sailor described Alfazero’s thinking on games, such as “discovering the secret booklets of some of the greatest players of the past.”

The nine alternative visits to chess tested by Alfazero included no-castling chess, which Kramnik and others were already thinking of, and its first dedicated tournament in January. This eliminates a trick called Castling that allows a player to tuck their king behind a protective screen of other pieces – powerful fortifications that can also be agile. The five variants changed the movement of pawns, including torpedo chess, in which pawns can move up to two squares at a time throughout the game, only on their first move.

One way to read the results of AlphaZero is in cold numbers. Draws under traditional rules were less common under no-calling chess. And learning different rules changed the value of the alfazero placed on different pieces: under traditional rules, it valued a queen at 9.5 pawns; Under torpedo rules the queen was only worth 7.1 pawns.

Researchers at DeepMind eventually became more interested in the analysis of the other great chess brain on the project, Kramnik. “It’s not about the numbers, but whether it is qualitatively, aesthetically pleasing for humans to sit and play,” Tomaszev says. A technical paper released on Wednesday contains more than 70 pages of commentary by Kramnik on Alphazero’s explorations.

Kramnik saw glimpses of the beauty of how Alfazero adapted to the new rules. No-casting chess provoked rich new patterns to keep the king safe, they say. A more extreme change, self-possession chess, in which a player could take his own pieces, proved to be even more attractive. The rule effectively gives a player more opportunity to sacrifice a piece to move forward, Kramnik says, a strategy considered a hallmark of elegant play for centuries. “In all it just makes the game more beautiful,” he says.

Kramnik hopes Alfajo’s adventures in exotic forms of chess will convince players of all levels to try them. “This is our gift to the chess world,” he says. Now may be a suitable moment.

Jennifer Shahade, a two-time women’s chess champion, said chess has been gaining popularity over the years, but many have called for new intellectual stimulation. Interest has also increased in Chess960, suggesting an appetite for new types of games, including some superstars. Later this week, Shahade Chess960 will provide commentary for the tournament, which includes world number one Magnus Carlson and former winner Casparov.

Like Kramnik, Shahde saw things to test the many variants of the AlphaZero, even as changes such as allowing pawns to move sideways felt “capricious”. If one gains, some players still want to do deeper research on the computer and move on, but resetting the cycle can be fascinating to watch. Shahdad, who is the program director for women at the Shahad Federation, says, “The discovery will feel refreshing – it can be very exciting and benefit a different kind of player.”

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