Magnus Carlsen is officially the greatest chess player to have ever walked the planet. There is, of course, some serious competition for that title but his FIDE ranking makes him one of a kind, at least so far in 2021. But is Magnus good enough to take on the best chess computers or would he, like so many before him be soundly thrashed by the algorithms and processing power of the machine?
Is Magnus Carlsen better than a computer? Carlsen is not better at chess than a computer because no human mind can keep up with a chess computer that is using maximum analytical capacity. A computer can analyze billions of possibilities and billions of positions ahead. Despite his chess genius, Carlsen cannot compare to that kind of analytical power.
He could, perhaps, beat a computer in one-off games but he wouldn’t be able to do it consistently. Let’s explore this a little more.
What Does Magnus Carlsen Say About Playing Chess Against A Computer?
Before we begin examining what it is that makes computers better players than Magnus Carlsen, we ought to begin with what Magnus himself said when asked if he would ever play a public tournament match against a computer.
He said to a journalist from the German magazine DW, “I personally never wanted that. I find it much more interesting to play humans. And also, of course, now that they have become so strong in a game like that, I wouldn’t stand a chance.”
That is Magnus Carlsen makes no bones about this – he has been very upfront about the state of computer chess, he knows he can’t beat the computer.
No Human Being Can Beat A Chess Computer (Consistently)
At this point in time, no human being can compete with the machine and while there are still occasional computer vs human chess tournaments played around the world – when they do take place, the computer will typically offer “odds”.
At this point in time, a grandmaster will beat the computer more often than not but only if the computer removes a knight from the board before they begin the game. There is some expectation with the chess community that this will change and that eventually the computer will win even with this material disadvantage but so far, at least, this has proven to be speculation and the grandmasters are still winning with the knight in hand.
How Do Computers Play Chess?
Computers cannot, of course, learn the rules of chess in the way that we can. They’re not sentient even if “artificial intelligence” is on the verge of making them seem that way. That means we have to define a set of rules for computers to use as decision making guides.
These rules are expressed mathematically (as Facebook’s rules or YouTube’s rules are also expressed) and are called “the algorithm” (just as the rules on Facebook and YouTube are).
The Mathematical Definition Of Chess For Computers
But how do we define chess mathematically? Well, there are two important concepts for training a chess computer so that it can move beyond the constraints of the rules of chess and appear to “think about chess”:
- The total value of the pieces on the board. You are probably aware that each chess piece has a value assigned to it (a pawn is 1 point, a bishop or a knight is 3, a rook 5 and a queen is worth 9) and this is a useful starting place. The player with the most points remaining when compared to the other player has an advantage and this is how chess was “scored” long before the invention of the computer.
- The total area controlled by those pieces on the board. Each piece threatens a particular position on the board and can be moved to any of these positions when required. That’s the “area of control” of a piece. That area is “disputed” if threatened by a piece from an opposing player and thus to control it – more than one piece may be required to threaten it.
It is these two very simple concepts that are expressed in mathematical form that allow chess computers to play chess as able opposition to a human being.
The Development of Computer Chess: The Losing Years
Then the question comes down to – which can think that farthest into the future? The human being or the chess computer?
Well, for many decades that answer was – the human being. The first chess programs came into existence in the early 1960s and could be soundly trounced by an even halfway decent human player. However, as computers became more powerful and could look farther and farther ahead. Each passing year saw “team human” lose some of their advantage to the machines.
Chess Cannot Be Solved: Not Even By A Super Powerful Computer
However, there is a big challenge for chess computers. Chess cannot be “solved”. That is there is no way to analyze every possible position and move on the board to the point at which a “perfect game” (a perfect game is one in which no mistakes are made by either player and which when played in the most optimal manner must either result in a guaranteed win for one player or a forced draw).
This is because there are so many combinations of moves and positions in chess that even a computer that was as powerful as the most powerful theoretical computer (e.g. it only exists in our imaginations due to the limitations on manufacturing such a device) couldn’t get through them all before the end of the universe.
That means there’s no guaranteed win for a chess computer and a great player that is playing against a chess computer than can only “see ahead” roughly as far as the player can, ought to be able to beat the computer.
The Rise Of The Chess Machines
That’s exactly how things kept on turning out. By the 1970s, the chess computers could easily beat a weak human player but couldn’t touch a great human player.
In the 1980s, however, the chess computers began to claim the scalps of better and better players. And by 1996, IBM’s Deep Blue was playing opposite the world champion, Gary Kasparov.
Kasparov did well and he beat Deep Blue in their first match. Sadly, a year later they played a rematch and by this time Deep Blue had learned a lot since their last game. The computer beat Kasparov 3 ½ – 2 ½ and that was that.
Magnus Carlsen And Chess Computers
The computer was in ascendancy and Magnus Carlsen is quite right, the modern computer (on full power) ought to thrash him completely. A wristwatch in 2020 often has more computer power than Deep Blue did when it was beating Kasparov. An actual computer is many thousands of times more powerful.
The chess computer has no natural gift for the game. It cannot play elegant or exciting chess like Magnus Carlsen can, but it can see so much farther into the future that Carlsen cannot compete and nor can any living human being.
Thus, Magnus is a sensible man to avoid playing public chess against computers. Not only would the machine win but it might dent his aura of brilliance with other players and make it harder for him to win in competitive chess in the future.
Is Magnus Carlsen better than a computer? As we said at the start, no. There is no way that even the greatest living human player could ever beat the best chess computers playing at full capacity. Though technically, as computers can’t play chess without having someone program them – Magnus is certainly better than a computer without such programming.
Computer chess has now been separated from the world chess championships and human chess in general. While it is impossible to “solve chess” the algorithms that computers use to calculate positional value are so accurate that they are more than good enough to tackle playing humans and the computers can see much farther ahead than a human player can. This gives them a resounding and decisive advantage over all human players including, unfortunately, Magnus Carlsen.