Just before the turn of the new century I began to concern myself exclusively with Engine Chess. By the term, (engine chess) I mean one chess program playing another chess program. The winboard GUI had facilitated this but it was not until the Arena GUI was made available to the public in 2001 that we had a graphic interface specifically designed to play one chess engine against another.
Arena not only was compatible with the winboard protocols but also the newer UCI engines. Everything was configurable; the time controls, the number of games in a match, the engine parameters and of course the opening books along with their weighted learning capabilities. One could now take their computer hardware, chess engines and opining books onto the internet and play against other computers and their human handlers.
Commercial chess programs, particularly Chessbase’s Fritz 7-8 came along with strong client based engines and very pleasing graphics. In September of 2001 Chessbase’s player site, Playchess.com opened a room specifically for engine play and competitive engine chess came into existences. An Elo rating system based on individual computers, programs and the way their users configured them now was possible rather than be based on how they did against human Masters, This made judgments of relative engine strength more viable and contributed to programming development.
Now I know what some are thinking that there had been WCCC tournaments held every few years since 1974. But in fact these events were and still are primarily for showcasing commercial programs and cutting edge computer hardware. In my world view, these elite events held in exotic locations do not constitute Engine Chess being played in public venues by ordinary individuals that we enjoy today.
The commercial programs quickly proved themselves to be as strong their advertising departments had clamed. Fritz, Shredder, Junior, Hiarcs and many others all proved that they could play hauntingly beautiful chess. In early 2006 Vasik Rajlich’s UCI engine Rybka (little fish) rose to the top and is currently the dominant chess program in the world. One of the things I realized early about engine chess was that all things be equal, (both players having similar hardware and using the strongest program available) it is the opening book that made the difference.
Not only does the opening book set the tone of the game but its manipulation is best way for the human operator to communicate with his program. Even if an engine has detailed configuration setting, (material value of the pieces, king safety, aggressive vs. defensive stile) these are esoteric and communicate with the program in a none human way. Only the engine book guided by a human intelligence can channel a chess engines positional decision making power to its fullest potential.
It is possible to move a huge mound of dirt by hand. Using shovels, wheelbarrows and human muscle. History is replete with such accomplishments. Today however we attack the mound with bulldozers and trucks making short work of it. It is no disrespect to the laborers that would have done this feat in the past. As we move forward in 21st century applying these computer programs, theses engines of the mind to our beloved game of chess we mean not to diminish the accomplishments of the great human players but only to advance the game , the art that is chess.
Sometime in the early 90s I became aware of Dr. Robert Hyatt’s open source Crafty program. Not being a programmer, my ability to modify and manipulate the engine was limited. But I saw the potential of chess engines being separate from the graphical interface. They could be modified like internal combustion engines and then dropped into a GUI as if it were a racing chassis. This may have been common in computer programming at that time, I do not know, (compartmentalizing programs so as to be updateable) however the ability to drop an engine into the chess program was and still is a cool idea. Undoubtedly it has contributed to the development of the number crunching magic that goes on inside these invisible contraptions.
There were many good early engines that ran in the winboard GUI. (Delfi, Gromit, Little Goliath, Yace) to name but a few. Remember good is a vary relative term as I have used it here. Like Crafty they all had multiple configuration settings and could be tweaked nicely to the hardware that you were running them on. Opening books that could easily be modified came into being along with book learning and positional learning. Nalimov 3-4 man end game table bases where mated to many of these engines. Winboard protocols were superseded by UCI and we came into the modern era of computer chess.
By the end of the century the 32bit CPU had picked up speed and I will be darned if I could beat the things any longer. If the truth be known, no one could. We all had chess masters setting on our desks.
This may be an obscure reference but I believe to be an accurate analogy. In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind remember how after the mother ship had landed and the humans were beginning to communicate with it using musical notes and harmonics. At a given point the communication got to fast and complex for the human operators. A bank of computers could be seen in the background and a voice says “ok, we are taking over this conversation now” and the computers where turned on. The exchange continued faster and more complex than it had been. Strange yet somehow familiar as nonhuman intelligence spoke to us in a human way. This I think is what we are experiencing when we match one computer engine against a another. A strangely beautiful and somewhat disturbing display of nonhuman intelligent.