Are Chess Computers Unbeatable? The Cold Hard Truth

There’s no doubt about it that chess computers have come on leaps and bounds over the years. Chess is a game which lends itself very well to mathematical analysis and thus, it’s a great game to put computers to work on. The question is can a human play fairly against a computer? And if not, is there any point in humans playing chess anymore?

Are chess computers unbeatable? Chess computers are now so strong that they are practically unbeatable. It is highly unlikely that even the greatest human players would beat a computer playing at a full capacity. This is because a computer can analyze millions of possibilities and compare them against each other within seconds. No human mind can hope to compete with such analytical powers.

However, chess is not a “solved” game. In practice, that means that there isn’t one perfect sequence of moves that always wins. The possibilities for how the pieces are positioned on a chess board are huge, and thus chess will always be interesting.

Are chess computer unbeatable? - ChessPulse.com
Are chess computer unbeatable? – ChessPulse.com

A Brief History Of Humans Vs Computers

The very first computer to play and beat a human being was the charmingly named, umm… MANIAC, which was developed at Los Alamos (yes, the same place that they developed the atomic weapon). However, it wasn’t playing “chess” but rather a simplified variant of chess which was all a computer could be programmed to handle at the time.

It thrashed a novice human player in 23 moves and thus, in 1956, the computer made its first claim to the domination of the sport of chess.

The Mac Hack VI

Despite MANIAC’s victory, chess computers remained fairly shoddy until around 1968. Richard Greenblatt of MIT developed Mac Hack VI in 1966 which despite being limited to just 10 Kb of memory was capable of analyzing a game up to 10 moves ahead!

Dr Hubert Dreyfuss of the University of California poured scorn on the idea of chess playing computers in 1967 claiming that no program could beat even a 10-year old that was decent at chess. He was persuaded to take on Mac Hack VI, the game was interesting, but he was soundly thrashed.

Then in 1968, Mac Hack VI, obtained a United States Chess Federation ranking of above the average of 1,500 and conclusively beat a human player at tournament level.

Chess X.X

Students at Northwestern University devised chess x.x. another computer simulation that in 1978 would win the 84th Minnesota Open Championship and become the first chess computer to ever win a high standard chess tournament.

David Levy Strikes Back

In 1968, David Levy the chess Master, bet that no computer would be able to beat him in the next 10 years. In 1978, after chess x.x. had had its marvelous tournament success, it faced Levy and it lost. Levy collected on his bet.

Joe Sentef Becomes The First Master To Fall

In 1981, Joe Sentef became the first chess master to lose a match (5-0 too) to a computer in a major tournament. Cray Blitz, the winning program, was then given a master’s rating of 2258.

Ed Formanek The Vangquished International Master

Then in 1988, Ed Formanek an International Master was beaten by a chess computer 4 ½ – ½ and HiTech advance the machines forward.

There then followed a period of chess computers playing various masters between 1989 and 1995. Sometimes, the machines won, sometimes, the masters did. It was getting close now.

Deep Blue Ends The Discussion

In 1996, IBM produced “Deep Blue”. The first chess computer that it was claimed could vanquish a world champion. Gary Kasparov, then world champion, rose to the challenge admirably and though he didn’t win every game – he did win 4-2.

A year later, after Deep Blue had been upgraded, they played again. This time Deep Blue emerged victorious; Gary Kasparov was beaten 3 ½ to 2 ½.

Though by this point in time several former world champions had conceded games to a computer, this was the very first time in history that a computer beat a word champion in proper match play.

Kasparov blamed his failures on many things and some of his criticisms were valid. For example, Deep Blue’s programmers had access to all Kasparov’s games, whereas he had no games of Deep Blue’s to study.

He also said that he was just not having any fun and puts his own exhaustion and mental state down as the reason that he lost his final game.

He was also unhappy that IBM modified the code during the match. He felt that this was cheating though IBM denied this – they refused to provide the code logs that would have proven it.

Kasparov also wanted a rematch, but IBM refused to take part and, instead, dismantled Deep Blue. Kasparov was angry because he had believed this was a match in the name of science, but he felt that IBM had really only wanted to do this as a marketing stunt.

Whatever, the truth of the matter – the time of the machines was upon us.

Moving Forward

There have been many man vs machine matches in the time after Kasparov’s defeat. The human players stopped losing when the chess computers were given handicaps to even the odds. Of course, that didn’t mean the humans always won, either but the odds became fairer.

A modern computer is many thousands of times more powerful than Deep Blue was back in 1997. A computer running with all of its processing power and the full chess algorithm can beat any player in the world at any time and without very much effort.

This doesn’t mean that a human player might not score the occasional win or draw along the way but in a longer match? A computer with no handicap would always emerge victorious. It’s telling that there have been no real major man vs machine matches in the last decade except for a handicapped version of the Komodo engine playing against grandmasters. In 2020, David Smerdon of Australia, beat Komodo 5-1 but he was given knight odds (that is the computer removed a knight from the board at the start of play) to enable that state of affairs.


Does This Mean That Chess Is Now Pointless?

No, definitely not. Sure, human chess players may not be able to beat machines but when was that the point of any sport?

You could easily build a tennis playing robot, for example, that would trounce all tennis players, would this mean that it wasn’t worth playing tennis anymore?

The real game of chess is between human beings and that’s what makes it exciting and enjoyable and while no human being can match a computer, Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, has proven that humans can keep on getting better at chess.


The Final Frontier Of Computer Chess

We have written about whether chess is “solvable” at length here, but to briefly recap. One thing that we know is that there are so many moves and board positions in chess that even the most powerful computer possible (and we can’t build that computer today) would not be able to analyze them all between here and the end of time.

This means that, in theory, there is no perfect chess playing computer and that while, over a series of matches, a computer is guaranteed to beat a human being. There is always hope, for now at least, of a talented player winning a game against a computer.


Conclusion

Are chess computers unbeatable? Since chess is not a solved game, computers are in theory beatable. In practice, however, they certainly are unbeatable because they can analyze far more moves ahead than any human chess player can.

When Gary Kasparov was beaten by Deep Blue in 1997, this question was properly resolved in practical terms. In fact, it’s become a matter of course now – you won’t find Magnus Carlsen playing a championship level match with a computer because it would be a waste of time and, quite possibly, embarrassing for the best human chess player the world has ever seen.

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