Chess engines, e-boards, software, analysis and more... Digital technology has taken the chess world by storm, pushing the game many notches up

Admittedly, the Anand-Carlsen game was a contest of superb minds, but can we discount the role of digi-tech in modern chess? Forget the villagers playing war-game moves under a banyan tree in sixth Century, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov in the 1980s weren’t blessed with the kind of outside support chess players get today. For the viewer, it is virtual bonanza — television coverage, Net streaming and move-by-move commentary, advancing chessmen on an e-board in tandem with the game... Following a live game was never so easy.

The game’s affair with computers gained prominence when IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997. The controversy surrounding it didn’t prevent chess computers from getting regular upgrades. Now Houdini (chess engine) and HIARCS (chess software), running on a laptop, can comfortably beat world’s top chess players, claim experts. “Technology has made chess-playing more exciting,” agrees Grandmaster Adhiban Baskaran. “You can watch the game live on websites such as www.theweekinchess.com, www.chessdom.com and www.chessvibes.com. Information is accessible to all, so update on a regular basis if you don’t want to be left behind.” Websites help you develop your game, chess engines give you accurate game assessments, he says.

Pick the best

Chess engines calculate possible moves in each board position, evaluate them and pick the best. Remember the collective gasp when Anand fell into Carlsen’s ‘little trap’ and made the wrong queen move in Game 5? Chess engines! Even as the commentators were live-guessing the contestant’s next move, fans were tweeting conclusions to them! In what’s called ‘opening books’, specialists now make second-gen chess engines play a particular opening thousands of times to discover ‘novelties’ — trick-moves not played before. It is a long way indeed from relying on chess books shipped from abroad by Chess Mate company or wait six months for Chess Informant to publish top-level games. Today, ‘opening’ preparation is based on databases with millions of games, updated every day.

The Internet gives players instant access to all tournament games, says Grandmaster MR Venkatesh. You watch them live, improve your game. Chess engines Rybka, Houdini, Fritz let you find the best move in any chess position, he says. At the International Master- / Grandmaster-levels, mistakes are few, hence to overpower the opponent you need to have an extra weapon. Players now focus on finding novel moves to surprise opponents, and home preparation is preferred to over-the-board fight to gain advantage in the opening stage itself.

Are rumours that Carlsen practised with a supercomputer true? Does his game resemble how engines play – with no trace of human bias? How much of the FIDE World Chess Championship 2013 was digi-tech? “Both would have had access to multi-crore worth of technology,” says Venkatesh, but was sure they mastered conventional chess before turning to technology. Anand or Carlsen might have employed “human technology” to help them, he says.

Digi-tech has made the game more popular among non-chess people and more interesting for players, he says. The Chennai WCC, telecast live on television attracted many non-chess people to the game. Chess players enjoy analysing games with chess friends and when shown live, try to guess the Grandmaster’s move. Under the influence of chess engines and access to unlimited chess material, players are ready to handle openings and positions they wouldn’t have tried earlier. Analysis with these strong machines helps them gain confidence. Fundamental principles created by past masters are important, but technology helps overcome diffidence in trying new moves. And parents see chess as a healthy alternative to video games. Pitting yourself against the same opponents limits diversity, but online games help you confront varying styles. Isn’t it true you train better when playing games or doing puzzles online?

Will chess-playing super-computers ruin professional chess? Not likely, if you go by the popularity of the 2013 championship. Will championships be played through video-conferencing with arbiters on both ends? Maybe. Would you join a club when you can play on the Internet for free? “Without direct interaction with others? No way,” says NN Sivagnanam, Mylapore Club. “Getting defeated repeatedly by the computer is frustrating. Young players need to discuss challenges with opponents, experience the joy of winning.”

Personal touch is must

Still, “Chess players have become more dependent on chess engines instead of thinking / analysing the positions by themselves,” rues Venkatesh. “Engines find the best moves, and that makes players lazy. Technology is good for the game, for players, only when used judiciously.” Make the best use of it, he says, but build a strong a foundation with the old ‘thinking’ ways.

Move by move

- At WCC 2006 Veselin Topalov accused Vladimir Kramnik of getting help from a computer during his toilet visits.

- After this ‘toiletgate’, tournament chess players are sometimes scanned with metal detectors.

- Borislav Ivanov retired from chess when suspected of carrying a device in his shoes.

- At the European Club Cup 2013 digital game technology LiveChess 2.0 software broadcast 176 games live via the Cloud.