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Who is the best chess player in history? It depends how you look at it

Chess has fascinated people for over a thousand years since it was first invented in 8th century India. It’s truly one of mankind’s most storied and studied games, captivating people from all around the world — and just like any other game, the debate around the best player in history tends to pop up now and again.

In a way, the question doesn’t really make sense. You can only truly compare chess players from the same period (and even then, it’s not so easy). Comparing players from different eras doesn’t make sense because chess players are evolving based on what past players have created. A chess player from 30 years ago didn’t have access to the knowledge that we have today, and in the past century or so, the theory and understanding around chess have progressed tremendously. The advent of computers has brought yet another leap of progress, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Simply put, comparing top chess players is nothing but an exercise of the imagination — but it’s a fun exercise.

What if you could transport all of history’s best players and give them equal opportunities, who would come out on top?

The debate picked up some new steam when Jan Gustafsson and Peter Heine Nielsen, the seconds of current world champion Magnus Carlsen, published their ranking of chess players on Chess24 (one of the leading chess websites at the moment). Of course, like everyone else, they too agree that it’s subjective, but their list, like pretty much any other list out there, features the same familiar names that usually come up in such debates.

We’ll look at a few worthy candidates and then draw the line and see who is most deserving of the title and why. So without further ado, let’s dig in and see who could claim to be the best chess player in history.

The first contender — Paul Morphy (unofficial world champion 1858–1860)

Most aspiring chess players study Paul Morphy’s games pretty early on, and for good reason: they’re spectacular. Morphy didn’t just defeat his opponents, he created poetry on the chess board, dashing players with his offensive play and countless piece sacrifices.

Granted, Morphy also received a bit of help from his opponents. Back in those days, chess was still in its romantic period. In fact, Morphy can be considered the first modern player — although he preferred open and sharp positions, he appeared capable of playing any type of game and was successful against every style he countered. This is the main argument against Morphy’s challenge: there was no real opposition to him, chess was not truly established at the time. Morphy’s games, while spectacular and way ahead of his time, were still flawed by today’s standards. But if we judge by his day’s standards, there’s almost no competition.

By the time he was 20, the American had already surpassed everyone in his country by a mile. He traveled to Europe in search of stronger opposition. He did find it, but he also squashed it. At the Café de la Régence in Paris, the center of chess in France, Morphy soundly defeated resident chess professional Daniel Harrwitz. When he was still 21, Morphy defeated the German master Adolf Anderssen, considered by many to be Europe’s leading player, by 7-2 (with 2 draws) — even as Morphy was suffering from a severe bout of gastroenteritis during which he lost so much blood that he was unable to stand unaided.

Morphy went on to defeat pretty much everyone he encountered, giving numerous simultaneous exhibitions (including blindfold exhibitions, where he would defeat multiple opponents at a time, often playing with handicap).

Morphy refused to play chess for money, and after vanquishing any form of opposition, he gave up on chess, in part because there was no one left to challenge him. He reportedly declared that he would play no more matches without giving odds to his opponent. Despite being widely (and unofficially) hailed as the World Champion, Morphy withdrew from chess and resisted attempts to get him back into the game. Many of the world’s subsequent best players (including some on this list) would go on to name him as an inspiration and one of the best — if not the best player in history.

The early champions: Lasker and Capablanca

Emmanuel Lasker.

Chess changed in the next decades after Morphy retired. The first official World Championships marked the end of the true Romantic period and brought a new wave of chess players, more analytical and thorough. The second world champion was Emmanuel Lasker, who was World Chess Champion for 27 years, from 1894 to 1921, the longest reign of any officially recognized World Chess Champion in history.

Lasker was dominant. Not only was he an excellent attacker, but he had a thorough knowledge of chess theory and often saved seemingly lost positions, which cemented his position as his time’s leader.

His contemporaries believed that Lasker used a psychological approach and would play strange moves to confuse his opponents. However, more recent analysis suggests that he was so ahead of his time that he just mystified those he played against. His method was so unique at the time that his several published books received little success because few were able to draw lessons from them.

Lasker was also an accomplished bridge player and mathematician. He published several notable papers and is noted in mathematics for his contributions to commutative algebra, which included proving the primary decomposition of the ideals of polynomial rings.

Lasker was succeeded by a most unlikely player: José Raúl Capablanca, from Cuba. Capablanca was a prodigy who, as a child stunned everyone he played with, not just with his prowess and immense understanding of the game, but also with the speed at which he often liked to move.

Capablanca was undefeated for over 8 years, from 10 February 1916 to 21 March 1924, a period that included the world championship match with Lasker. He proved most formidable in seemingly simple positions: endgames. His “light touch” would ensure that seemingly equal or even worse positions could be won, and his understanding of endgames easily surpassed his peers’. But he excelled in all sorts of situations and trying to avoid positions that Capablanca excelled in was nigh impossible. He would repel most attacks with startling ease and then strike when given the smallest possible chance.

Statistical ranking systems place Capablanca high among the greatest players of all time, and he is almost always featured in the “best of” lists. Two separate studies using computer programs found Capablanca to be the most accurate of all the World Champions in their championship games.

Soviet Dominance: Alekhine, Tal, Botvinnik

Russian born Alekhine became a White émigré and moved to France. Image in public domain.

From the 1930s and all the way to the 21st century, chess was dominated by Soviet (and then Russian) players — with the notable exception of Bobby Fischer, who we’ll get to in a moment. The first of the streak was Alexander Alekhine (who would leave Russia and emigrate to France).

Alekhine was a spectacular attacking player. What set him apart from his contemporaries was his ability to find attacking plans out of seemingly quiet positions. Later analysis, including by Garry Kasparov, showed that Alekhin would actually prepare his attack quietly, only to strike when the trap was set. Alekhine’s attacking chess is studied to this day as a model and several prominent opening variations were named after him — including the rather infamous Alekhine defence, in which black seemingly breaks all the opening rules by only moving his knight the first couple of moves. Alekhine is also one of only two world champions to regain the title after losing it. The other is Mikhail Botvinnik.

Botvinnik with his trademark glasses. Image credits: Harry Pot.

Botvinnik was the first world-class player to develop within the Soviet Union. Whereas Alekhin was sharp as a knife, Botvinnik was like a bulldozer. He was strong in any position, capable of both attacking chess and slow, methodical battles. He was an innovator of his time, emphasizing physical fitness as well as mental preparation. He introduced a series of modern practice methods that are still widely used to this day.

Besides playing top-class competitive chess, he had a PhD in electrical engineering and worked as an engineer and computer scientist. He was one of the pioneers of computer chess, foreseeing the impact that computers can have not only on chess but on other fields such as economy or biology.

Botvinnik lost and regained the world title twice, and was at or near the very top of world chess for 30 years. Aside from his own play, he played a major role in the organization of chess in the Soviet space, creating a training system that influenced Soviet players for decades and ensured that they were dominant in the chess world. Botvinnik was intimidating at the chess board — though in a very different way to Mikhail Tal.

Mikhail Tal.

Few people love the game of chess like Mikhail Tal. A magician, he was often called, though his opponents often saw him as a devil. Whereas Botvinnik was methodical and strategic, Tal created chaos on the chess board.

“Chess, first of all, is art,” he would say — and Tal was one of its most creative artists. The archetype of an offensive player, Tal would swing between pragmatism and intuitive sacrifices. It wasn’t always clear what he was doing, even to the best of his opponents. Objectively, he often didn’t even play the best move — but at his best, Tal played the most challenging and complex moves.

Battling multiple health problems, Tal was able to adapt his style and be a part of the chess elite for decades. His claim to the best chess player of all time is stunted by the fact that he had a negative score against several top players, who were able to refute his style. But for many chess players, there’s simply no other player like Tal.

The big three. The terrible one: Bobby Fischer

Fischer playing a game of chess (with Tal in the background). Image in public domain.

If ever there was an enfant terrible in chess, it was Robert James Fischer. Bobby, as everyone called him, was arrogant from a young age, petulant even. But every bit of that, he could justify on the chessboard. Fischer was an attacking player by nature, and usually played only a few openings — the more aggressive ones. But from a young age, he had a deep understanding of all aspects of the game and was incredibly ambitious and hardworking. He quit school at 16 to focus on chess, learned Russian so he could study Russian chess books, learned Spanish so he could study South American chess books, he studied the games of every single leading player of his time, and was incredibly thorough in his study.

A lone American in a sea of Soviet players, he wanted nothing more than to defeat them and show he was better. “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego,” he once said, and he broke egos like no one else before or after him. Chess is a game of thin margins, especially among the top players; draws are common, and wins are hard-fought — but on his way to the top Fischer demolished opposition. He scored two consecutive 6-0’s against two of the time’s leading players, not conceding even a single draw, a feat that hadn’t happened before or since, and is unlikely to ever repeat. Defeating top opponents with the black pieces three times in a row is something akin to magic. He continued this streak by defeating Tigran Petrosian (a former World Champion 6-2) and then moved on to play Boris Spassky for the world title.

The Fischer-Spassky title match from 1972 was probably the most intense chess match ever played. It was a mini Cold War in itself, and it almost didn’t happen — several times. It took a neutral organizer (Iceland), an unexpected donation of extra money for the prize fund, and intervention from the higher echelons of the US to persuade Fischer to even play the game. For both the Americans and the Soviets, it was a matter of prestige and soft power. But things were never easy with Fischer. He wanted to play in a room without press, with a particular type of chess pieces, with a particular chair… it was all Fischer style — and in true Fischer style, he came out on top. He became the only undisputed, non-Russian chess champion in the whole 1927-2000 period.

Then, as he was standing on top of the world, arguably the best chess player the world had ever seen, he sort of vanished. He refused to defend his title after his conditions for the game weren’t fulfilled and for the most part, withdrew from public life. Aside from his spectacular play (which many, including some computer algorithms, consider the best in history), Fischer also created a variant of chess called Fischer Random (or Chess960) in which the starting position of the pieces is randomized before the start of each game, to eliminate the memorization of openings and push players to rely on their creativity on the board.

The big three. The biggest champion: Garry Kasparov

Image credits: The Kasparov Agency.

Kasparov became the youngest ever undisputed World Chess Champion in 1985 at age 22, defeating title holder Anatoly Karpov. But when he first began his quest (in 1984), there seemed to be little going for him. He found himself trailing 4–0 in a “first to six wins” (with 5 draws). Most people thought he’d lose quickly. Some feared a 6-0 defeat. But Kasparov endured, and 17 successive draws followed. After these draws… Kasparov lost again. He was down 5-0. It was only in game 32 that he won his first game. Kasparov won games 47 and 48 to bring the scores to 5–3, after which the game was cancelled by organizers, even though both players wanted to continue.

Kasparov narrowly won his rematch and developed a bitter rivalry with Karpov, with Kasparov narrowly coming out on top time and time again. Kasparov would go on to hold his title for 15 years, but even after he lost it (to Vladimir Kramnik), he still won major tournaments and was still widely considered the best player in the world for around five more years. He holds the record for the longest time as the No. 1 rated player in the world – from 1984 to 2005 and also holds the record for the most consecutive professional tournament victories (15).

Kasparov’s playing style is strongly reminiscent of Bobby Fischer: aggressive attacking chess, but also extremely well-prepared. He liked to attack without taking too many risks and at the smallest mistake by his opponent, he would strike — either directly or by slowly grinding them down. His imaginative chess was backed by precise calculation, and there were no real chinks in his chess armor.

Somewhat ironically, although Kasparov is considered by many the greatest chess player to ever live, he lost a game on behalf of humanity. In 1996-1997, Kasparov played in a pair of six-game chess matches with an IBM supercomputer called Deep Blue and lost. From that moment on, humans have never been able to surpass computers in chess.

The big three. The current leader: Magnus Carlsen

Image credits: Andreas Kontokan.

Chess has never been more competitive than it is today. The margins between players are growing thinner and thinner, and with the aid of computers, players can prepare openings with unprecedented accuracy. There’s a hungry pack of talented, hard-working players, trying to come out on top and put their name in history; and over all this, reigns Magnus Carlsen.

Carlsen started out as an aggressive, attacking player, but has adapted and developed his style to a point where he is truly a universal player. He can play anything and everything. He doesn’t shy away from any opening, and he has been likened to pretty much every great player of the past. Indeed, Magnus Carlsen seems to have a bit of every past champion inside him.

Carlsen is the highest rated player in history and has been on top for a decade now, leaving no doubt as to who’s the best player in the world right now. But is he the best chess player in history? He may well be. He’s the best not just in classical chess but also in shorter time controls like blitz, and even though he only narrowly defended his title the past two times, he’s still on top and still dominant.

There’s no telling how long Carlsen’s reign will last, but with each passing year, his claim for the GOAT becomes stronger and stronger.

The best female chess player in history — Judit Polgar

Judit Polgar, speaking at a UN event for fighting stereotypes.

Traditionally, chess had been a male-dominated activity. Women were seen as weaker players. The stereotypes and stigma against women in chess are still strikingly prevalent, though things are starting to change. Even current champion Magnus Carlsen admitted in a recent interview that “Chess societies have not been very kind to women and girls over the years,” adding that “there needs to be a bit of a change in culture.”

This makes the performances of Judit Polgar all the more notable. Despite facing striking adversity (such as not being allowed to play in men’s championships at first), Judit Polgar became 8th in the world in the mid-2000s. She had a similar style to Kasparov, playing attacking chess, and even defeated Kasparov at his prime.

“We are capable of the same fight as any man. It’s not a matter of gender, it’s a matter of being smart,” Polgar famously said. It’s nurture, not nature, she argued and women in chess aren’t nurtured enough. Supported by her family, Polgár achieved the title of Grandmaster at the age of 15 years and 4 months — at the time the youngest to have done so, breaking the record previously held by Bobby Fischer.

Polgar’s case is even more intriguing since she and her sisters underwent an educational experiment carried out by their father, László Polgár. László wanted to prove that “geniuses are made, not born,” and picked chess as a subject. Since Judit became undoubtedly the best female player in history, her sister Susan became female world champion, and their other sister Sofia also became a successful chess player, it’s probably safe to say that his experiment was a success.

The best (non-human) player

The best chess player in the world is not a person — it hasn’t been a person for over two decades. Computers have surpassed humans so much that all the top players use computers to study openings and find the best moves in different positions.

There are competitions for chess engines just like for human players, and the current best engine seems to be Stockfish. A couple of years ago, Google claimed chess supremacy with its AlphaZero engine, which operates on a neural network, as opposed to Stockfish. However, despite beating stockfish in a 100-game match organized by Google, AlphaZero didn’t participate in a computer tournament to prove its supremacy.

Leela Chess Zero, an open-source chess engine based on AlphaZero did, and managed to beat Stockfish and claimed a few titles, and the two are duking it out month after month. It’s noteworthy that AlphaZero seems to play in a more “creative” way, and several ideas produced by the engine are now used in competitive human play.

The bottom line and a personal top 10 chess players

So, with all this being said, who’s the best of the best? There’s no straightforward answer, and it depends on how you look at things (again, there’s no “real” answer as to who’s the best, it’s just an imagination exercise.

If you value being better than your peers, then no one can truly beat Paul Morphy. But Morphy had little real opposition, and his opponents were largely weak. If you value winning against strong opposition, then Bobby Fischer dominated a field of very strong players. But he was only at the top for a couple of years. If you value longevity, then Lasker would probably be your pick, but Lasker wasn’t as dominant as Kasparov was, and didn’t face as much opposition as Kasparov or Carlsen. To put a cherry on top of this chess cake, we still don’t know how far Carlsen will go, so there’s still that wild card.

Still, if you were forced to pick the best human chess player in history, the three names that would probably come up would be Fischer, Kasparov, and Carlsen. Each can make a strong case for themselves: Fischer squashed strong opponents like no one before or after him, Kasparov aggressively topped the charts for 20 years, and Carlsen dominated a decade of unprecedented competition — and he’s still going. While the likes of Lasker, Alekhine, Botvinnik, Morphy, or Capablanca can make their own valid claim, it’s probably from the former three names that you’d have to pick the best chess player.

Rank1-year peak5-year peak10-year peak15-year peak20-year peak
1Bobby Fischer, 2881Garry Kasparov, 2875Garry Kasparov, 2863Garry Kasparov, 2862Garry Kasparov, 2856
2Garry Kasparov, 2879Emanuel Lasker, 2854Emanuel Lasker, 2847Anatoly Karpov, 2820Anatoly Karpov, 2818
3Mikhail Botvinnik, 2871José Capablanca, 2843Anatoly Karpov, 2821Emanuel Lasker, 2816Emanuel Lasker, 2809
4José Capablanca, 2866Mikhail Botvinnik, 2843José Capablanca, 2813José Capablanca, 2798Alexander Alekhine, 2781
5Emanuel Lasker, 2863Bobby Fischer, 2841Bobby Fischer, 2810Alexander Alekhine, 2794Viktor Korchnoi, 2766
6Alexander Alekhine, 2851Anatoly Karpov, 2829Mikhail Botvinnik, 2810Mikhail Botvinnik, 2789Vasily Smyslov, 2759
A comparison in rating for chess players developed by statistician Jeff Sonas of Chessmetrics. Does not include Magnus Carlsen, whose performances came later.

There seems to be a general agreement that if Magnus Carlsen can keep it up for another decade, he’s got a solid chance of truly becoming the greatest of all time, but until that happens, it’s Kasparov that gets to play the longevity card. As dominant as Fischer was, his best results span over a relatively short period and he didn’t truly confirm his immense potential.

We mentioned the top 50 rankings published by Chess24 (which is an excellent follow-up if you’d like to dig into this even more). Here’s their top 10.

  1. Garry Kasparov
  2. Magnus Carlsen
  3. Bobby Fischer
  4. Emmanuel Lasker
  5. Alexander Alekhine
  6. Anatoly Karpov
  7. José Raúl Capablanca
  8. Mikhail Botvinnik
  9. Viswanathan Anand
  10. Paul Morphy

Since there’s no right or wrong answer, here’s our very own top 10 chess players in history. What’s yours?

  1. Garry Kasparov
  2. Bobby Fischer
  3. Magnus Carlsen
  4. Paul Morphy
  5. Emmanuel Lasker
  6. José Raúl Capablanca
  7. Alexander Alekhine
  8. Mikhail Botvinnik
  9. Mikhail Tal
  10. Anatoly Karpov

This sandstone cube may be the oldest chess piece we’ve ever found

One tiny piece of sandstone found in Jordan could be the world’s oldest known chess piece ever found.

Chess is believed to come from India from around 1,500 years ago. Since then, it has spread around the world. That being said, the game itself, its pieces, and its name, likely changed over time.

Image credits John Peter Oleson.

In a presentation at the American Schools of Oriental Research last week, classical archeologist John Oleson from the University of Victoria has reported that a tiny sandstone object could be the oldest known chess piece — and discussed what it might represent.

In the presentation’s abstract, Oleson notes that Islamic references to chess date as far back as the seventh century AD, and it seemed to have been a very popular pastime.

The object in question was found at a site called Humayma, which Oleson notes was along the busy Via Nova Traiana, an ancient trade route between Asia and the Near and Middle East, in 1991. This carved, two-pronged (but otherwise rectangular) bit of sandstone has been dated using contextual cues to approximately 1,300 years ago. According to Oleson, it looks very much like other early Islamic chess pieces, most likely a rook (castle).

Other objects found in archeological sites from Jordan and the Near East that have been identified as rooks are nearly identical to this sandstone rectangle, whether they were made of wood, stone, or ivory.

In today’s version of the game, rooks symbolize medieval fortifications such as towers or sections of wall, and move horizontally or vertically through any number of unoccupied squares. Oleson says that rooks symbolized two-horse chariots in early Islamic figures, with the carving meant to represent the horses.

Chess was likely carried west by merchants along the Via Nova Traiana. Humayma was a trading outpost of the Abbasid family who, Oleson notes, made an effort to keep up-to-date with current events and trends in Iraq and Syria to the east. So, while there isn’t hard, conclusive evidence that this is a chess piece, circumstantial evidence definitely seems to support that view. If archaeologists can indeed verify that the stone object is a chess piece, it would be the earliest example of a rook-like chess piece, and the oldest chess piece ever found of any type.

The abstract of the presentation, titled “The World’s Earliest Known Chess Piece, from Humayma (Jordan)?” (page 67) is available on the American Schools of Oriental Research’s page here.

AI learns to play chess by studying game commentaries instead of practicing

Credit: Pixabay.

Since Alan Turing wrote the first computer program for chess in 1951 (completely on paper) all the way to Gary Gasparov’s infamous loss at the proverbial hand of IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer in 1998, chess has always been used as an indicator of progress for computers. Today, artificial intelligence systems are so advanced that humans barely have a chance at beating them. Google’s AlphaZero is a prime example; it started out knowing only the rules of chess and nothing more — no opening and closing moves, no libraries, nada. In a matter of hours, it had already played more games against itself than have ever been recorded in human chess history.

In a new study, researchers in artificial intelligence at University College London have yet again turned to chess. Only this time, their machine learning program didn’t practice millions of games to master chess but rather analyzed the language of expert commentators. Someday, the researchers say that a similar approach could allow machines to decipher emotional language and acquire skills which would have otherwise been inaccessible through ‘brute force’.

First, the researchers went through 2,700 chess game commentaries, which were pruned so that ambiguous or uninteresting moves were removed. They then employed a recurrent neural network —  a type of neural network where the output from the previous step is fed as input to the current step — and a mathematical technique called word embeddings to parse the language of the commentators.

The algorithm, called SentiMATE, worked out the basic rules of chess as well as several key strategies — including forking and castling — all by itself. On the flip side, it played quite poorly, at least, as compared to a grandmaster AI.

“We present SentiMATE, a novel end-to-end Deep Learning model for Chess, employing Natural Language Processing that aims to learn an effective evaluation function assessing move quality. This function is pre-trained on the sentiment of commentary associated with the training moves and is used to guide and optimize the agent’s game-playing decision making. The contributions of this research are three-fold: we build and put forward both a classifier which extracts commentary describing the quality of Chess moves in vast commentary datasets, and a Sentiment Analysis model trained on Chess commentary to accurately predict the quality of said moves, to then use those predictions to evaluate the optimal next move of a Chess agent,” the authors wrote.

High-level performance was not its objective, though. Where SentiMATE shines is in its ability to use language to acquire a skill instead of practicing it, thus employing less data and computing power than conventional approaches. AlphaZero, for instance, requires thousands of “little brain” — specialized chips called Tensor Processing Units (TPUs) — and millions of practice sessions to master games such as chess, Go, or Dota 2.

In a world with millions of books, blogs, and studies, machines like SentiMATE could find many practical applications. Such a machine, for instance, could learn to predict financial activities or write better stories simply by tapping into the sum of human knowledge.

SentiMATE was described in a paper published in the pre-print server ArXiv.


Novel AI can master games like chess and Go by itself, no humans needed

UK researchers have improved upon a pre-existing AI, allowing it to teach itself how to play three difficult board games: chess, shogi, and Go.


Image via Pexels.

Can’t find a worthy opponent to face in your favorite board game? Fret not! Researchers at the DeepMind group and University College, both in the UK, have created an AI system capable of teaching itself (and mastering) three such games. In a new paper, the group describes the AI and why they believe it represents an important step forward for the development of artificial intelligence.

Let’s play a game

“This work has, in effect, closed a multi-decade chapter in AI research,” Murray Campbell, a member of the team that designed IBM’s Deep Blue, writes in a commentary accompanying the study.

“AI researchers need to look to a new generation of games to provide the next set of challenges.”

Nothing puts the huge strides AI has made over the years into perspective quite like having one beat you at a game. Over two decades ago, an AI known as Deep Blue managed such a feat in a chess game against world champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. Since then, the machines have also managed victories in shogi and Go (think of them as Japanese and Chinese versions of chess).

While impressive, such achievements also showcased the shortcomings of these computer opponents. These programs were good at their respective game — but only at playing that one game. In the new paper, researchers showcase an AI that can learn and master multiple games on its own.

Christened AlphaZero, this AI is based closely on the AlphaGo Zero software and uses a similar reinforcement learning system. Much like a human would, it learns through trial and error by repeatedly playing a game and looking at the results of its actions. All we have to do is explain the basic rules of the game, and then the computer starts playing — against itself. Repeated matches let AlphaZero see which moves help bring about a win, and which simply don’t work.

Over time, all this experience lets the AI become quite adept at the game. AlphaZero has shown that given enough time to practice, it can come to defeat both human adversaries and other dedicated board game AIs — which is no small feat. The system also uses a search method known as the Monte Carlo tree search. Combining the two technologies allows the system to teach itself how to get better at playing a game.

AlphaZero results.

Tournament evaluation of AlphaZero in chess, shogi, and Go. The results show games won, drawn, or lost (from AlphaZero’s perspective) in matches against Stockfish, Elmo, and AlphaGo Zero (AG0). AlphaZero was allowed three days for training in each game.
Image credits DeepMind Technologies Ltd

It certainly did help that the team ran the AI on a very beefy platform — the rig employed 5000 tensor processing units, which is on a par with the capabilities of large supercomputers.

Still, AlphaZero can handle any game that provides all the information that’s relevant to decision-making. The new generation of games to which Campbell alluded earlier do not fit into this category. In games such as poker, for example, players can hold their cards close to their chests (and thus obfuscate relevant information). Other examples include many multiplayer games, such as StarCraft II or Dota. However, it likely won’t be long until AlphaZero can tackle such games as well.

“Those multiplayer games are harder than Go, but not that much higher,” Campbell tells IEEE Spectrum. “A group has already beaten the best players at Dota 2, though it was a restricted version of the game; Starcraft may be a little harder. I think both games are within 2 to 3 years of solution.”

The paper “Mastering board games” has been published in the journal Science.

Magnus Carlsen retains World Chess Champion title

It was a grueling and balanced fight that needed extra-time to conclude, but at the end of it all, Magnus Carlsen kept his title with a convincing performance.

Carlsen (left) smothered his opponent in tie-breakers.

A balanced act

Carlsen became world champion in 2013 and hasn’t looked back since. The highest rated player in history and regarded by some as the best player to ever grace chess, Carlsen is known as a brilliant and tenacious player, and is used to being favored to win. But in 2018, things weren’t as clear. His challenger, Fabiano Caruana (US), stood out as a worthy competitor. Caruana showed extremely precise preparation and impressed using his ability to calculate the best position.

The stage was set, and the two dueled it out over 12 long games. They each had their chance — Carlsen came inches to winning the first game, whereas only a seeming miracle saved him in game 6

Funny enough, the computers managed to find a winning line for black (Caruana) here, but all chess experts agreed that no human can be expected to discover that line.

They both had their fair share of chances, but every passing game brought another draw — and after 11 games, it was time for the decisive game.

Carlsen says “Tie-breakers, please!”

Since tie-breakers are carried out in a much shorter time control, where Carlsen was considered a clear favorite, the last game was met with great excitement, especially because Caruana was expected to try and force a victory — and try he did. However, things didn’t go as expected and the situation quickly backfired, leading to a situation where Carlsen was pushing for a decisive win and a title.

But Carlsen had other plans. Instead of pushing for a win (which, truth be told, was not exactly clear), he decided to offer a draw.

White (Caruana) is clearly under pressure, but Black (Carlsen) decided to offer a draw.

Thus, the stage was set for tie-breakers, though not without some controversy.

Carlsen crushes

Again, Carlsen was widely regarded as a favorite if the match got to tie-breakers — but that was before the game. After the two finally reached that stage, not everyone was convinced of who was favorite. Hikaru Nakamura, four-time US champion, said it would be “odd” if Caruana lost the game.

Former world champion Garry Kasparov also reconsidered Carlsen’s odds of winning.

But the doubts were unfounded. Unphased, Carlsen pressed on and won in a decisive fashion. The tie-breakers, consisting of 4 games played with 25 minutes for each player, kicked off with a clear win for Carlsen, and the second game was even more convincing. Caruana had to make something happen in the third game but failed to do so — and Magnus Carlsen retained his World Championship title.

For more details, you can check out the tournament’s Wikipedia page, with detailed mentions of each game, and for even more in-depth analysis, Peter Svidler, eight-time Russian Chess Champion, has excellent in-depth analysis videos.

Chess tournament shows you really burn a lot of calories while thinking

Technology made its way to the world of chess, and it’s confirming something that we were hoping for a long time: thinking hard really does burn a lot of calories.

Burning calories with chess

The Isle of Man is currently hosting the biggest open chess tournament of the year, attended by some of the world’s greatest players as well as young, up-and-coming prodigies. The tournament has already produced some spectacular games and remarkable upsets (no spoilers), but one of the most interesting things to come out of the tournament is not chess-related at all.

In the tournament, organizers asked some of the players to wear heart and calorie monitors. The players can, of course, decline (some feel that they could give away significant information by revealing their heart rates during a game), but most accepted — and the data looks quite interesting.

For instance, Grandmaster Mikhail Antipov burned 560 calories during two hours of play — the equivalent of running around 8 km (5 miles) or swimming for one hour. Full disclosure: the number of calories you burn in different activities depends on your own physique and although Antipov’s height and weight are not public, he seems to have a fairly normal distribution, so we’ll go with that.

We burn calories all the time, just by breathing, but Antipov’s rate is truly remarkable. It’s like he’s having a brisk walk, or even a light swim, for the duration of the game — but he’s sitting down. As the event’s photographer FM Maria Emelianovva noted, the stress of chess was making Russian GM Mikhail Antipov‘s heart pump, which made him consume more calories — a higher heart rate requires more breathing, which increases the number of calories you burn.

So is chess a sport?

The question is not trivial, as classifying chess as a sport could make a big difference for receiving funding and organizing competitions — it could make a big difference for chess all around the world. Does burning a bunch of calories justify classifying chess as a sport?

If you ask the International Olympic Committee and many countries, the answer is ‘yes’ — though not because of burning calories. But in the UK, for instance, it’s not, as authorities state that it doesn’t have a physical component. Some have expressed hope that the heart monitors could be used to justify re-classification, though that’s mere speculation at this point.

There’s no denying that chess is good for the mind, and as it turns out, it can also burn quite a few calories — but if you want to lose some extra pounds, you’re probably better off simply sticking to a healthier diet and working out once in a while.

Antipov’s opponent, Super GM Hikaru Nakamura, also agreed to wear a heart monitor, and at one point, his heart rate jumped to a remarkable 130 beats/minute. Ultimately, their game ended up in a draw.

Chess Game.

Google’s AlphaZero surpassed the sum of human chess knowledge — in 4 hours

Google’s latest AI, AlphaZero, just defeated the world’s champion chess program Stockfish — after only four hours of learning, by itself, without any human input beyond the game’s rules.

Chess Game.

Image via Pixabay.

Mastering chess can take us a lifetime, but with a big enough brain, it will hardly keep you occupied for one afternoon. At least, that’s the case with Google‘s newest AI installment AlphaZero. The program showcased a “superhuman performance” with the game, beating the world’s champion program Stockfish after only four hours’ practice.

To be blunt, this AI managed to surpass the highest peaks of human achievement in chess in half your shift.

Castle and rule

AlphaZero was instructed only on the ruleset of chess and nothing more. Starting without any strategy to use as a crutch, the AI needed only four hours to master the game to such an extent that it destroyed Stockfish — the highest-rated chess-playing program today.

The firm’s DeepMind division says that it played 100 games against Stockfish 8. Each program was given one minute’s worth of thinking time per move. AlphaZero won 25 games in which it played with white (gaining the first-move advantage) and a further three in which it played black. The two programs drew the remaining 72 games.

Stockfish 8 had previously won 2016’s Top Chess Engine Championship. The software was first released in 2008 and has been improved on by volunteers in the years since.

“We now know who our new overlord is,” quipped chess researcher David Kramaley, CEO of chess science website Chessable. “It will no doubt revolutionise the game, but think about how this could be applied outside chess. This algorithm could run cities, continents, universes.”

AlphaZero was developed at Google’s DeepMind labs and is a more generic version of AlphaGo Zero, the AI that ousted the human champion of Go, a Chinese board game considered to be the most difficult strategy game in the world. The Go victory was, so far, considered the bleeding edge of its ability, but DeepMind has kept working on and refining this AI, culminating in a startling success in October: a new, fully autonomous version of the AI, which only learned by playing against itself, never humans, bested all its previous incarnations.

By contrast, AlphaGo Zero’s predecessors learned how to play the game, in part, by watching moves made by human players. This was believed to help the fledgling software improve its game. However, in a slight blow to the human ego, it might have actually hindered the AI, considering that AlphaGo Zero’s fully self-reliant learning was so much more effective in a one-on-one competition.

“What we’re seeing here is a model free from human bias and presuppositions. It can learn whatever it determines is optimal, which may indeed be more nuanced that our own conceptions of the same,” MIT computer scientist Nick Hynes told Gizmodo following the October victory.

“It’s like an alien civilisation inventing its own mathematics.”

But it took AlphaZero less than two months to best even that achievement. In their new paper, the team showcases how the very latest AlphaZero AI takes this self-playing method — called reinforcement learning — and mixes it with a much more generally-applicable frame of thought. All in all, this allows the AI to understand and solve a broader range of problems. It doesn’t play just chess, but also Shogi (Japanese chess) as well as Go — and it took only two and eight hours respectively to master these games.

For now, Google’s scientists aren’t publicly commenting on the research, and the paper is still awaiting peer-review. But for now, one thing is certain: AlphaZero made a lot of waves in the chess community.

“I always wondered how it would be if a superior species landed on Earth and showed us how they played chess,” grandmaster Peter Nielsen told BBC.

“Now I know.”

Who knows, maybe AlphaZero will be the computer to finally crack chess forever.

The paper “Mastering Chess and Shogi by Self-Play with a General Reinforcement Learning Algorithm” has been published on Cornell University’s site arXiv.

Elon Musk’s AI just beat the pros at Dota 2 — one of the most popular and complex computer games

After chess and Go, artificial intelligence starts beating us at more and more games. If just for a section of the game, AI proved superior to the Dota 2 pros.

As the world’s biggest eSports unfolded, fans in Seattle’s KeyArena were given a special treat. While 18 teams were fighting for the over $24,000,000 prize pool, an unlikely contender entered the ring: a bot from Elon Musk-backed start-up OpenAI. OpenAI made short work of Danylo “Dendi” Ishutin, one of the most respected pros in the scene, though only for the opening phase of the game (the laning phase).

Defense of the Ancients

Defense of the Ancients, or Dota, started as a battle mod of Warcraft III, all the way back in 2003. Since then, the project developed as a standalone game — becoming Dota2. Year after year, the player base grew, the game developed, and the scene flourished.

In Dota, two teams of five players fight against each other, with the goal of destroying each other’s base. It’s a surprisingly complex game, with many facets. First, teams take turns picking and banning from a pool of over 100 heroes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses — as well as an arsenal of unique skills and spells. There’s a lot of strategy involved in this phase, as well as in the gameplay itself. In several ways, Dota is like a game of chess. Of course, being nimble with the mouse and keyboard, knowing when to attack and cast abilities is also crucial, but what really makes Dota the hit it is today is the team play. It’s a 5v5 game, with each player playing a distinct and very important role.

The AI didn’t go through all these phases — not yet at least — so we can still enjoy human supremacy. But for the simpler early stages of the game, the ship has long sailed.

1v1 gameplay.

Man vs Robot

More than two decades ago, in 1996, IBM’s Deep Blue chess algorithm shocked the world when it defeated the world champion, Gary Kasparov. In 2016, another AI beat the Go world champion, which is even more impressive, considering that Go has over 10600 more possible moves than chess. That’s way, way, way more than there are atoms in the Universe. But Dota, as many other computer games, has a few fundamental differences from chess and Go.

For starters, you don’t see all the map/board. In chess and Go, both players see the same thing: everything. Dota involves the so-called fog of war — players see their own side of the map and are unaware of what is happening outside it. Making algorithm-based decisions when you don’t have all the information becomes immensely difficult but after only two weeks of training, the AI managed to beat the pros in a 1v1 game.

In those two weeks, it amassed lifetimes of experience, which was easily visible in the matchup. Like the other players who faced it, Dendi expressed surprise that the bot beat him so easily, saying that it “feels a little like [a] human, but a little like something else.”

There’s still a lot of ground to cover before a bot team can take on a human team — the 1v1 game is only a mock simulation of the 5v5 game — but it feels like AIs are stepping into a whole new world where they just shouldn’t. Next year, the plan is to have a full bot team take on the humans.

Elon Musk, the mastermind behind Tesla Motors and SpaceX, founded OpenAI as a nonprofit venture to prevent AI from destroying the world, something which he has been very vocal about. For now, the AI is limited to eSports parlor tricks but even this seemed unbelievable just a few months ago. Who knows what will happen next?

Scientists ask the public’s help in getting to the bottom of consciousness — by cracking a chess problem

Sir Roger Penrose from Oxford’s Mathematical Institute has a quest for you, a quest which will see you topple the belligerence of a dark king and hone in on what it means to be human.

Image via Pexels.

We define what it means to be human by our consciousness. It’s this self-awareness that we call upon to set ourselves apart from everything else under the sun, and yet, we can’t explain it any better than we could millennia ago. We’ve tried pinpointing where it’s anchored into the brain (see here and here), we’ve developed some interesting theories about how it works, but we’ve never managed to replicate it, not even in our most powerful thinking machines.

So what is consciousness, and what is it about it that we’ve failed to instill in a computer? That’s what Sir Penrose wants to find out — and he needs the help of everyone who will join him. In a public challenge set to coincide with the launch of the Penrose Institute (a UK-based research group affiliated with Oxford University and University College London), the Sir and the institute’s fellows ask people to solve a chess problem they believe can determine what sets our mind apart from machines.


“We know that there are things that the human mind achieves that even the most powerful supercomputer cannot, but we don’t know why,” Sir Roger Penrose from the Mathematical Institute of Oxford told The Telegraph.

“If you put this puzzle into a chess computer, it just assumes a black win because of the number of pieces and positions, but a human will look at this and know quickly that is not the case.”


Computers are often compared to our minds, but in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, published in 1989, Sir Penrose argued that not even quantum computers could rival our brain. Better understanding quantum physics might help us get to the bottom of consciousness, he adds. It’s a pretty controversial view, but Sir Penrose argues that there isn’t any data showing that the two aren’t related, so why not explore the possibility?

Still, we have to start from somewhere, and narrowing down the list of possibilities is a good first step. So the chess challenge was issued to determine what sets the human mind and its greatest emulator — supercomputers — apart. Here’s the problem:

Image credits Penrose Institute.

The goal is to figure out a way to legally get the white player to draw with the black, or outright win. A computer will always assume the black will win in this scenario, because the three bishops will force it to calculate all possible positions, which “will rapidly expand to something that exceeds all the computational power on planet Earth”, Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph explains.

But it should be easy for a human to solve, Sir Penrose says — given that you know the rules of chess. It isn’t going to give us the answers to consciousness by itself, but it’s definitely a fresh approach on a subject that has eluded us for a long time. And it might help with the existential angst people are feeling more and more lately in regards to AIs.

“If we find out how humans differ from computers, then it could have profound sociological implications,” Sir Penrose added.

“People get very depressed when they think of a future where robots or computers will take their jobs, but it might be that there are areas where computers will never be better than us, such as creativity.”

If you do take on this quest and succeed, you should email your results to puzzles@penroseinstitute.com.

What the team is most interested isn’t the solution itself, but how you got there — the thought process that led you to the solution. Was it a sudden revelation, a flash of inspiration, or did you need days full of perspiration to crack the dark king’s ploy?

Don’t be shy on the details, and you might just prove to be the key to getting to the bottom of consciousness.


Computer squares off against professional poker players – and loses badly

Even the best chess players are no match for computers these days, but computers are still struggling when it comes to games that have a random or unknown component. In games like Bridge or Poker, humans still hold the crown. Scientists from the Carnegie Mellon University tried to change that, by designing Claudico – a computer program built to defeat humans. But Claudico lost, badly.

“We knew Claudico was the strongest computer poker program in the world, but we had no idea before this competition how it would fare against four Top 10 poker players,” explains CMU professor computer science Tuomas Sandholm. He directed the development of the Claudico program, adding, “It would have been no shame for Claudico to lose to a set of such talented pros, so even pulling off a statistical tie with them is a tremendous achievement.”

The four pros each played over 20,000 hands with the software, and even though it lost, computer scientists believe the experiment was a complete success; according to them, it’s not a matter of if computers can ultimately win at poker, it’s a matter of when.

“I wouldn’t bet on the humans for too much longer,” said Michael Bowling, a computer science professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, who has developed one of the leading poker programs. “I would say now, after this [tournament] it will take one to three years” for a computer to beat top players, he said. “Up to this point, we just didn’t know how close we were.”

Needless to say, the poker man-vs-AI showdown was watched closely both by poker and AI enthusiasts alike. Humans won 9 of the 13 days of tournament, with a total difference of $732,713 (theoretical money). But when you consider that the total sum involved was over $150 million, that difference suddenly doesn’t seem that big.

“It’s definitely been a good run,” said Bjorn Li, who finished with the biggest lead over Claudico, $529,033. That earned him $44,676 from the $100,000 prize pot that the casino and co-sponsor Microsoft put up for the players to divide based on the outcome of the tournament. Doug Polk, the world’s No. 1-ranked online player, won $26,734; Dong Kyu Kim won $18,589; and Jason Les won $10,000.

Li too seems to believe that humans will eventually start losing at poker against an AI, but for now, he enjoys the fact that humans still rule the tables.

“We know theoretically that artificial intelligence is going to overtake us one day, But at the end of the day, the most important thing is that the humans remain on top for now.”

Doug Polk on the other hand believes that while the computer is definitely a formidable adversary, it still can’t replace humans, and it sometimes behaves completely erratically.

“Betting $19,000 to win a $700 pot just isn’t something that a person would do,” he says.

So why is it that computers destroy chess players, but not poker players? Does that signify that poker is somehow more complex then chess? Not really – the difference is in the nature of the game.

“In chess it’s a game of complete information, so when it’s your turn to move you know exactly what the state of the world is, what the state of the game is,” Sandholm said. “In poker, you don’t. This is really to be able to assist humans and companies in interacting, let’s say in negotiation,” Sandholm said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you had an agent that helped you strategize in the world when you’re buying a car or buying insurance?”

A poker playing AI that would help me buy better insurance? Yep, that sounds good, but for now, researchers need to tweak Claudico’s algorithms.

The Formula that Could Destroy Chess Forever

photo credit: Mukumbura

photo credit: Mukumbura

Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and India’s Viswanathan Anand are duking it out in the world championship, apparently, without anyone else contesting their supremacy. But as insanely good as they are, they still can’t stand up to the best computers today. As a matter of fact, there is one theory which, if proven, could pretty much spoil chess forever.

“Everyone agrees that if a computer were given X number of years, it would be able to calculate the ultimate way to win at chess. Or at least the ultimate way of averting a loss,” says Kjetil Haugen. Hagen is vice-rector of Molde University College, a professor of logistics and sports management and an avid game theory enthusiast.

Kjetil Haugen of Molde University . Credits: ,olde University

Kjetil Haugen of Molde University . Credits: ,olde University

The claim is not new – as a matter of fact, it’s 100 years old. In 1913 the German mathematician Ernst Zermelo published what would later be known as the Zermelo theory; one of the things the Zermelo says is that in any game played by 2 players, which involves alternating moves and has a limited amount of moves, a winning strategy exists.

As time passed, the theory found applications in numerous fields and was interpreted in many ways, but so far, fortunately or not, no one was able to find THE winning strategy for chess.

“The main problem hindering the discovery of that formula involves the limits of computer power,” says Haugen.

The number of total moves in chess is so unfathomably large that with the world’s current processing capacity and taking into consideration predictable advancements, this won’t happen in the near future. But even if it would be possible… would such a thing be desirable?

In a way, chess is like a way more complex and complicated version of Tic-Tac-Toe – you move something, then the other player moves, and you have a clear objective. Of course, finding the winning strategy (in which you either win or draw, but can’t lose) in Tic-Tac-Toe is very simple.

“This is why they don’t organise a world championship in tic-tac-toe. Chess is an overgrown version of it. As a game it is structurally very similar, with two players taking alternating moves within a finite strategic space. But in reality they are far apart. The possible moves in chess are also finite, but the difference between them is an enormous order of magnitude.”

Chess is also something which isn’t simplifiable – it’s gonna take raw computer power, not some out of the box thinking. But if the secret formula for determining the outcome of any game of chess were to be found, that would virtually ruin the game forever. Rules would have to be changed and this fascinating, ancient game would be forever changed.

Professor Kjetil Haugen admits that he doesn’t play chess – he prefers to watch football – which for our American fans means ‘soccer’.

“That, too, is a thrilling game involving plenty of mathematics. Quite a lot about soccer has much in common with my work,” he says with a smile.