The sixth game of the World Chess Championship was over before the sun set. This was new. The intricately fought contests had thus far lasted until night fell, and sometimes well beyond. The darkness heightened the strategic drama, leaving an eerie purple glow shining out from behind the thick glass of the players’ room.
But Friday was an easy day at the office for the two grandmasters: less than two hours of play and a chance to steal away to an early dinner and an early bedtime. For the paying customers at the match venue in lower Manhattan, and chess enthusiasts around the world following the game online, it was a disappointment. The onlookers in New York ambled out into the late afternoon dusk after the game, nonplussed.
Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian world No. 1, is defending his world title against Russia’s Sergey Karjakin, the world No. 9. The two competitors have been locked in the chess version of a Russo-Norwegian cold war for a week. Each player has on occasion peered into the whites of the other’s eyes, but neither has yet managed to pull the trigger, and the championship remains bloodless. After Friday’s remarkably quick draw (32 moves1) they’ve now drawn each of the first six games. Their best-of-12 battle, now tied at 3-3,2 may last until the end of the month.
Friday’s Game 6 began — just like Games 2, 3 and 4 — with the Ruy Lopez opening. Also called the Spanish, this series of moves is a longtime staple of chess — the moves naturally develop two knights and a bishop and create some early tension on the board. Not only have Carlsen and Karjakin leaned heavily upon this popular, 500-year-old opening throughout the match, but in Game 6 each of the players’ first 12 moves was either the first or second most commonly played move historically in each given position, per the ChessBase database. In other words, it felt very familiar. The combatants finally went beyond the database with black’s 14th move, when Carlsen pushed his pawn to c5, arriving at this position, which hadn’t been seen before in grandmaster play:
But other than the faintest shimmering of a suggestion of an advantage for white (Karjakin) early on, the computer chess engine Stockfish saw the entire game, from start to finish, as dead even, its dial fixed very near the 50-50 mark for all 32 moves.
Given what was happening on the board Friday, I figured there must be something more interesting lurking nearby. So I went to go talk to a longtime IBM employee.
I met Murray Campbell in the sprawling but empty VIP section of the venue. Hors d’oeuvres and espressos orbited on silver trays, the dress code was upped a notch and the boring chess game was relayed on high-def screens dotting the room. (Sadly the game ended before the cocktail hour; the VIP bar looked enticing.) Campbell was a member of the IBM team that developed Deep Blue, the computer that challenged arguably the greatest chess player of all time, Garry Kasparov, in a much-hyped man-vs.-machine match 20 years ago. A year after that, it defeated him in a rematch. Nowadays, humans are mincemeat to a good computer chess engine. Campbell still works at IBM Research, where he’s won the company chess tournament the last two years in a row.
Carlsen and Karjakin — 25 and 26 years old, respectively — are arguably the first pair of world championship contenders who are very much of the computer chess era. As we sat on the veranda, I asked Campbell how he thinks that’s changed the game — what had he and Deep Blue wrought?
“Grandmasters that have grown up with most of their training in the computer era play a much more objective style of chess,” Campbell told me. “They’re less willing to dismiss a move because it’s ugly, or doesn’t appeal to their aesthetics.”
Well sure, but does that mean chess’s “aesthetics” have been sacrificed in the process? Has the elegance of a great combination of moves been traded for the the slavish devotion to a computer driven “evaluation”?
“Chess is an art, but it’s more of a sport,” Campbell said. “If you’re interested in winning, then you play the right move, even if it’s an ‘ugly’ move or a ‘computer’ move.” (Air quotes his.)
So is the computer to blame for all these draws over the past week?
“Super-deep preparation can create a draw-ish tendency,” Campbell said. “The white player will try to create a position where the opponent has chances to go wrong. And the black player, if they’ve prepared well enough, will have found the way to navigate through that mess and find the way to the draw. I can certainly think of some 20- or 30-move games that have probably been entirely calculated at home.”
In other words, the computer, Campbell said, accelerates the calculation and preparation that can lead to draws. Thanks, computer.