Thursday, December 31, 2009

Time to Go

This will be my last BaconLOG entry. It was started while working at the Atlanta Chess & Game Center as a way of getting the word out in the way IM John Donaldson does with his excellent Mechanic’s Institute Newsletter. After leaving I used it, for the most part, to comment on the world of chess. The chess world has changed dramatically since playing in my first USCF rated tournament in 1970. One of the biggest changes has been the rise of the machine. Often called an ‘engine’, I have come to think of the computer chess program as the ‘Oracle’. The Oracle has altered the way the game is played. It used to be that the final word on a move, or position, was given by a Grandmaster. The joy in analyzing chess was to study the analysis of a GM and possibly finding a mistake. Today GM’s write in their commentary things like, “Deep Purple says this”, and no one questions the Oracle. It has been said that ‘beauty is in the flaws’ and if the Oracle makes no mistakes, where is the beauty?
Former World Champion Kasparov has been working with the young GM Magnus Carlsen recently. The pictures shown on websites and magazines all show a third entity working with them, the Oracle. World Champion Viswanathan Anand was quoted as saying recently: I use computer a lot, I must admit. I check analyses, variations, and I have to do this, because everybody else does so, and one has to check and re-check everything. But I use computers a little strangely, because while I am looking at a position with one eye, I can be watching a film or doing something else as well.
I read recently that the Oracle had produced a theoretical novelty on move 34. THIRTY-FOUR! GM Vlastimil Hort was asked in New in Chess, 2009/3: If you could change one thing in the chess world, what would it be? He answered, “I would strickly expel and forbid all computers. Using them is a surrender of the human brain.”
It is not just chess that has been altered by the Oracle. I played backgammon with Dan Heisman at a World Open earlier this decade. We only played for low stakes, only one dollar a point, as it was the first time I had played for money in almost two decades. After our session he asked about my past. I said that I had previously played professionally in the late 70’s and 80’s. He said, “I could tell. You’ve got that 80’s style.” He went on to tell me that a computer program, ‘Snowy’ had altered thinking on the game. As an example he said it was now commonly accepted that most players would make the two point with an opening roll of 6-4. I cringed at the thought of making that play, as it far too early to make that inner point as it limits one’s options considerably. I mentioned something I had read on the Chicago Point website: “Back in the 80’s players had style; now they are all techies.” Something similar could be said about chess.
Hans Berliner wrote in the NYTimes, Feb 6, 2003: "You don't have to be really good anymore to get results. What's happening with chess is that it's gradually losing it's place as the par excellence of intellectual activity. Smart people in search of a challenging game might tray a game called Go."
I have recently begun to study seriously the ancient oriental game of Go. Although I learned how to play decades ago, I have only played a few dozen games in my life. I now have two games ongoing on the Dragon Go Server. Because of the Oracle, that is simply not possible with correspondence chess. Fortunately, Go programs are not very strong, offering little, if any, help. I must think for myself and it’s the same for my opponent. Peter Shotwell writes in the forward to Go! More than a game: “It’s almost infinite complexity has defied computer programmers attempts to ‘memory crunch’ the game as they have done so successfully in chess. Low-ranked amateurs can beat any program, and the situation is unlikely to change much in the foreseeable future as it would take more than a lifetime to play a program that plays Go the way Big Blue, Fritz, and Deep Junior play chess. A chess champion who aided in the development of Deep Blue recently commented that computers have changed the way championship chess is won, because all the top players must now employ them to study complex combinations. On the other hand, only human minds can play Go well, making the Go board one of the last places on earth that has been unaffected by the incursion of modern machinery.”
I participated in many studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology psychology department, with many having to do with memory. Not only was I paid, but I also received results of the studies. One of the most important things I discovered was that, as one grows older, it is very important to try and learn new things. In the forward to Go Fundamentals by Shigemi Kishikawa, John Fairbairn writes: “Go has apparently been shown to provide beneficial intellectual stimulation that aids in staving off senile diseases. This may (like many of its benefits) be because it is a game that relies heavily on pattern recognition rather than pure analysis-right brain over left brain.”
The beauty of an idea is that it was discovered by a human mind. Computer programs do not have an idea; they only produce what it has been programmed to compute as the best move in a given position. It has been written that the difference between chess and Go is that while chess is akin ten to the twentieth power, Go is ten to the power of two hundred. Again from Peter Shotwell, “Part of the mystique of modern computer Go is the game’s sheer insolvability. Ever since Wang Ni noted in 1050 that no Go game had ever been repeated, many statistics and ‘folk lore’ have accumulated. One popular adage is that ‘There are more possible games than atoms in the universe’. Because the board is so large, even after pruning, the first 14 moves of Go produce a search tree with ten-thousand trillion leaves. It would take Deep Blue, which analyzed two-hundred million chess positions every second, over a year and a half to play one move of Go. Still, it would not know if that was a good move, because, unlike chess, Go is so vague in terms of profit-now versus influence-later calculations, and is so complex on a local scale.”
What seems now a lifetime ago when I was playing both chess and backgammon can best be summed-up by words from a Bob Dylan song, Shelter from the Storm:
'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from thestorm."

The love of my life read to me, what has now become a classic quote, from a book she was reading, by Trevanian. “What Go is to philosophers and warriors, chess is to accountants and merchants. “ The quote usually ends there, but it continues: “Ah! The bigotry of youth. It would be more kind, Nikko,to say that Go appeals to the philosopher in any man, and chess to the merchant in him." But Nicholai did not recant. “Yes, sir, that would be more kind. But less true."
She seemed to derive satisfaction from the fact that what she read bothered me...Now that I have delved more deeply into the game of Go, I have a much better understanding of what the author meant by the exchange. Players of Go consider chess in much the same way players of chess consider checkers. Zhang Yunqi lists the qualities required to excel at Go as, "The tactic of the soldier, the exactness of the mathetician, the imagination of the artist, the inspiration of the poet, the calm of the philosopher, and the greatest intelligence."
Microcomputer executive and expert Go player Nolan Bushnell said, “Those interested in impressing others with their intelligence play chess. Those who would settle for being chic play backgammon. Those who wish to become individuals of quality take up Go.”
During my studies of theology and philosophy, I have been most attracted to Taoism. Several years ago while on retreat at a monastery I read a book that changed who I am. That book is, Change Your Thoughts - Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. I have heard it said that you are the books you read read the people with whom you associate. My path first led me to chess, then backgammon, and now to the beautiful, nebulous, mystical game of Go. The Great Man, World Chess Champion Emanuel Lasker said, "If games are played by sentient beings on other planets, then they play Go."


LaughingVulcan said...

I am sorry to see the last of the BaconLOG posts! Heck, I just linked to you. ;)

But perhaps BaconLOG might remain with you posting about your continuing adventures in Go? :)

pshotwell said...

I came across your blog through Google Alert. My book is outdated in the computer department (and will be updated in the near future). Go to my recent interviews with some of the top programmers who now use the Monte Carlo methods with surprising results. This is on Just scroll down.
Peter Shotwell

LaughingVulcan said...

Your post got me to thinking, though. Especially for lower rated players, sometimes it isn't wise to consult the Oracle. For examples of this, see:


Not that I expect these to change your mind - I'm sure for you that it is time to Go! And good luck!

Backgammon said...

Backgammon computers also canceled the gap between talented and mediocre players, took the edge of proposition bets and made backgammon books almost useless. On the other hand, we wouldn't known half of what we know today about backgammon without them...

michaeltlucas said...

Sorry to hear that might be your last blog. Hope all is well with you. Live in California now. Heard Mark Coles passed away some time back. Say hi to the "Ironman" for me.

michaeltlucas said...

You're an excellent writer, by the way!

Anonymous said...

Don't let the door hit you on the way out.