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?

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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.

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