contact:  stories@storycollider.org
subscribe:  our mailing list

The Departed Queen

“Machines are not rivals or friends: they are tools,” wrote David Ferrucci this year in TIME magazine. Ferrucci should know what he is talking about; he was the leader of the team that developed IBM’s Watson computer, which defeated the best human champions in Jeopardy! in 2011.

I suspect that Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter, the people whom Watson beat, might have a somewhat different viewpoint. It is one thing to program a machine in your laboratory in Yorktown Heights. It is another thing to face it, and try to beat it, in front of a nationwide television audience. No matter how much Ferrucci may want us to see Watson as just a tool, his machine never would have obtained so much notoriety if people did not consider the computer a rival, or even a threat.

I too have wrestled with the implications of having my intelligence superseded by artificial intelligence. I am a chess player, and have been one for forty years. My tournament career has almost perfectly coincided with the rise of chess-playing machines. They began as a laughingstock in the late 1970s. By the 1980s they had become strong adversaries. And in 1997—in a shock to most chess players—IBM’s Deep Blue, precursor to Watson, defeated the human world champion in a match. Some people thought it would be the death of chess.

We were right to be worried, but the real significance of this event was completely misunderstood, both by media and by chess players. The question we should have been asking was not, “What will happen when one custom-built machine can beat the world champion?” but, “What will happen when every chess player can own a machine that can beat the world’s best human?” That day arrived, not in 1997, but roughly six to eight years later, and it has transformed chess more than Deep Blue did. Every chess player can now have the equivalent of a grandmaster as a coach. But the computer can be misused, and many players have become overly reliant on it. They forget that the game is still a contest between humans, with all of their imperfections.

Somewhere between the machine as adversary and the machine as oracle, and somewhere above Ferrucci’s vision of the machine as a tool, lies an elusive fourth possibility: the machine as a partner, as a full-fledged artificial intelligence. On one memorable occasion, I awakened that intelligence in my home computer. It became a sort of debate partner, but a distinctly non-human one, which led me via a Socratic process to a deeper understanding of one particular chess position. In the process, it helped me to play the best game of my chess life. The computer did not kill chess; it made the game incomparably richer.


Among all sports, chess is one of the most democratic. Casting my eye over the ballroom at the Sands Regency Casino in Reno, Nevada, I see two hundred and fifty players of all abilities, from near-beginners to grandmasters. In what other sport can an amateur enter the same event as a U.S. champion? Or an eight-year-old boy play an eighty-year-old man on even terms? (The eight-year-old may even be the favorite.) The crowd includes many players of color, many from other countries, and a few women (though not nearly enough).

Chess is, like any sport, a ruthless meritocracy.

At the same time, chess is, like any sport, a ruthless meritocracy. The tournament hall in Reno is strongly segregated by skill, though this may not be apparent to the naked eye. The top ten boards, up on the stage, are the province of the grandmasters and international masters. Off the main stage, from right to left in the tournament hall, follow the masters, the experts, and the category players from class A down to D and E.

The meritocracy is aided and abetted by a rating system that would horrify politically correct academics. Long after IQs fell into disrepute and aptitude tests began to attract suspicion, the measurement of intelligence is alive and flourishing in chess. The Elo rating system, designed by statistician Arpad Elo in the 1950s, quantifies every player’s skill with a number (usually between 100 and 2800, though there are no fixed upper and lower limits). The system is accurate to a sometimes spooky extent. In the first round at Reno, the favored player won every single game in the master section: twenty-six victories in twenty-six games, a statistical implausibility that would have sent Professor Elo scurrying back to his blackboard. The combination of numbers and psychology is a potent mix. The lower-rated player becomes afraid of phantoms, believing the opponent has hatched deep schemes that he can’t see. The higher-rated player bears down extra hard, expecting his opponent to make a mistake eventually. In this way, the rating system becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the final round of the tournament I am playing on board eleven, just offstage, and my opponent is named David Pruess. He is a genial twenty-four-year-old international master, and at this moment the only person in America who draws a full-time salary for playing chess. He is the current holder of the Samford Fellowship, which provides thirty-two thousand dollars and intensive chess training for one gifted young player per year.

According to our ratings, it is a complete mismatch. I know it and Pruess knows it. According to the rating system I should be a seven-to-one underdog, but because of the psychological effect of ratings, the odds are longer than that. But in this game, psychology proves to be Pruess’s undoing.

Page 1 2 3 4 View All

Tags: , , , ,