The Chessmaster and the Computer

Gary Kasparov’s essay “The Chessmaster and the Computer” in the New York Review of Books is really excellent.

How has the rise of computers changed the game of chess? This is the focus but there are broader lessons. Here’s an excerpt relevant to my post a few days ago on technological change:

Like so much else in our technology-rich and innovation-poor modern world, chess computing has fallen prey to incrementalism and the demands of the market. Brute-force programs play the best chess, so why bother with anything else? Why waste time and money experimenting with new and innovative ideas when we already know what works? Such thinking should horrify anyone worthy of the name of scientist, but it seems, tragically, to be the norm. Our best minds have gone into financial engineering instead of real engineering, with catastrophic results for both sectors.

I am intrigued by the word “incrementalism.” VCs and other commentators sometimes criticize entrepreneurs for focusing on incremental improvements — a slightly better Facebook app, say — and not enough on revolutionary inventions. But aren’t most revolutions simply the last evolution in a long process?


I played a lot of chess as a kid. It is one of my fondest memories of childhood and I wish someday to take it up again. A few reflections:

1. Being good at chess is not a reflection of general intelligence, as Kasparov points out. Like the SAT, chess stresses certain capabilities — mostly ability to work hard and practice — but not the whole picture.

2. Of course the self-discipline to work hard and practice is itself noteworthy. Kasparov: “The ability to work hard for days on end without losing focus is a talent. The ability to keep absorbing new information after many hours of study is a talent.” This is the best reason to encourage your kids to play chess!

3. There is one winner and one loser (barring a draw) in chess. In life you want to create win-win situations. Non-zero sum situations. This is the most glaring reason why chess strategy does not translate to life strategy completely. Although there are still many ideas that do transfer well.

4. Searching for Bobby Fischer ranks as one of my favorite movies of all-time. I recommend it. The most interesting life theme is whether you must hate your opponents, as Fischer did, to win.

5 comments on “The Chessmaster and the Computer
  • But a friendly game of chess *is* win-win, looked at outside the game itself.

    On a related note, ever since Deep Blue beat Kasparov for the first time, I have thought (and said) that this tells us more about chess than it does about computers or intelligence. Chess is an abstract/symbolic mathematical problem, albeit a relatively intractable one. When computers play chess *the way* people do, that will be interesting.

  • Most people think that the features of an excellent chessmaster is to calculate all the possibilities and probabilities of each move and then select the best one.

    But I read that most chessmasters’ goal is not to select the best move at that time, but a move that will keep many options open in the long term. A move that, after predicting the competitor’s move, will give you freedom to choose and pursue several strategies. It’s called robust strategy and many researchers try to apply this to management science.

    Wonder how a computer could balance or make a trade-off between “best move” and the one that keeps options open but not necessarily attacks the competitor yet.

  • I hated “Searching for Bobby Fischer” because it dramatized the slow game of chess by turning it into a furious sprint. It looked like MTV, where tons of images flash by without giving the audience a chance to see anything more than a flicker.

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