Andriy Slyusarchuk’s blindfold victory over Rybka last week earned him his 15 minutes of chess fame, which is not at all bad for someone who took up the game 8 months ago! GM Sergey Shipov has written surely the most eloquent assessment of the ‘trick’, and of the current state of man-versus-machine contests.
There’s little that can be added to the enormous coverage Slyusarchuk’s feat has received, initially in Ukraine and then in the chess media. ChessBase has now devoted no less than three reports to ‘Dr. Pi’, so-called after his claim to have memorised Pi to 30 million decimal places:
ChessVibes also “tried hard to resist”, but bowed to the inevitable:
The best place to find the original sources has been the blog of Ukrainian GM Mikhail Golubev (in Russian). He’s been motivated by horror at the less-than-critical Ukrainian media coverage, and the perhaps foolhardy involvement of the Ukrainian Chess Federation in the whole circus.
An entertaining pitched battle is also being fought over the content of both the Russian and English Wikipedia pages on Slyusarchuk. The glowing accounts of the Lviv neurosurgeon’s (?) life that you could read a few days ago have been interspersed with numerous critical remarks. The Russian page currently begins “Ukrainian showman,” and includes a quote from the piece by Sergey Shipov that I’ve translated below.
Shipov, perhaps the world’s most respected chess commentator and the author of The Complete Hedgehog (Volume 2 is out soon!), was writing at his LiveJournal blog. It’s worth noting that his readership there isn’t only made up of chess fans, hence he also addresses his remarks to “those who aren’t up-to-date with the chess life of Planet Earth”. It’s perhaps also relevant that he graduated in Physics from Moscow State University – of his career as a magician/illusionist less is known! :)
Slyusarchuk and Rybka. Myth and Legend
The world is run by the media. They’re capable of turning any myth, any joke, into a worldwide sensation. Their efforts are enough to make any story, even the most ridiculous, appear to be a known fact.
I genuinely admire the energy and promotional skills of the Ukrainian genius Slyusarchuk. Well done to him!
I’m in no position to talk about his talents in other spheres, but so far I see no basis, and certainly no reason, to discuss his chess talent.
Imagine a boy stepping onto a stage. There’s a barbell there with the weight “300 kg” written on it. The boy lifts the barbell easily and gracefully with his left hand – the audience breaks into applause.
Or imagine a magician pulling one egg after another from his mouth. Or hiding a rabbit in a box and then opening it to reveal – the big-eared one’s gone.
Tell me, please, who would seriously assume the boy had really managed to lift a record weight, too much even for professionals with a mountain of muscles? And who’d believe a magician really is capable of giving birth to eggs from his mouth, or annihilating a rabbit with a wave of his hand?
No-one, of course.
It’s just a trick. A beautiful and professional trick. Impressive.
It’s only the technique of magicians that you can seriously discuss – the art of illusions, the “now you see it, now you don’t” sleight of hand, and so on.
And beating Rybka (with Black, blindfold, and on demand in front of an audience), is just such a trick. The process and result are just as impressive in their absurdity as giving birth to eggs in the mouth of a magician.
For those who aren’t up-to-date with the chess life of Planet Earth, I’ll explain the prehistory.
Computer programs have played with monstrous strength for a long time now. At the end of the 90s the strongest players in the world were still able to defeat the best programs in matches. The notorious victory of Deep Blue in a match against Kasparov in 1997 was a real sensation with a touch of the mysterious – many suspected the computer monster’s technicians of certain ploys… A lot’s been written on the subject. In short, no-one took that victory as a breakthrough. Kasparov, it went without saying, played better than the machine which, incidentally, was disassembled right away, and for good.
Then, at the start of the new millennium, a period of precarious equilibrium set in, when the cream of chess society could still compete with the programs on roughly equal terms. It was back then that Kasparov and Kramnik played their famous matches against Fritz and Junior. After matches ending in draws Kramnik went and lost to Fritz – and since then interest in man v. computer matches has dried up completely. For good. Flesh and blood players challenging computers has taken its place in the museum along with sprinters competing against cars, weightlifters against cranes and so on.
By the end of the first decade of the new century the programs had already become much stronger than people – the best of the best – and no professionals had any doubts on that score. Each of us uses the best programs in our home analysis. We know them like members of our family. Perhaps better. If in closed positions we’re still capable of competing against programs, disputing, proving them wrong, expressing our own judgements that go against the first lines of the programs, in open positions, in complications, in wild tactical battles, it’s become almost impossible to argue with the machines.
Contemporary programs (above all Rybka and Houdini) have a remarkably balanced and human evaluation function. They’re no longer as greedy as the programs of the 90s. They have a subtle feel for the initiative, work knowledgably with the pawn structure and take all the important strategic factors into account. Forgive the banality, but machines have a colossal advantage over us in a sporting struggle. They don’t get tired, fear nothing, never lose sight of the geometry of the board, consider all the candidate moves and so on. They’re notoriously much more stable than people. Which seals our fate.
In general, decades of painstaking work by programmers and professional chess players haven’t been in vain. Together they’ve created practically ideal players, far surpassing us living people.
That’s a fact.
Therefore Slyusarchuk’s achievements won’t be believed by anyone with even the slightest grasp of modern chess.
I’ll go further. Even if he was a well-known grandmaster (and not an unknown amateur), then in that case as well such a demonstration of superiority over Rybka would provoke exactly the same response. Identical.
In general, I’m among those who’re interested in Slyusarchuk’s achievements and admire his talents. But I ask that people distinguish magic tricks from the laws of physics.
P.S. I have to tell those who think Slyusarchuk might have “simply memorised” the necessary volume of chess information and used it in his battle against Rybka that… first and foremost, the necessary information doesn’t yet exist! To date, chess databases have only been created for a maximum of seven pieces on the board i.e. only relatively simple positions have been conclusively calculated to a result. And that, by the way, is a gigantic volume of information, beyond the grasp of mere mortals.
Put an eighth piece on the board and everyone will have to play using their own brains. People, computers, and even Slyusarchuk.
And all told the battle starts with 32 pieces on the board – so there’s no question of recollection, or any “alternative” algorithms. Everyone has to study the position, consider candidate moves, calculate variations, evaluate the ensuing positions and make a tough choice. Programs currently do that much better than people. Alas.
And moreover. The number of possible positions on the chessboard is 10 to the power of 120. That’s 40 orders of magnitude greater than the number of atoms in the Universe. So just consider how you’d go about memorising them… :)
Believe me, it’s much easier simply to play chess.
P.P.S. So what happened on the stage, then? It seems as though the genius, with a computer and helpers, successfully played out one of the games Rybka had previously lost.
Memorising one or two games is a trifling matter. Experienced professionals remember hundreds of games by heart. A hundred years ago Alexander Alekhine was able to recall thousands of games. And Slyusarchuk’s still got a very long way to go until he’s Alekhine…
Sergey later added a comment below his post:
Sorry, I got my figures a little mixed up. 10 to the power of 120 – that’s the number of possible games of chess. I came across that fantastic figure in my childhood.
While in the context of our event the number of possible positions is much more relevant. So then, according to those in the know, that’s estimated to be in the region of 10 to the power of 50.
However, the power of 50 is in essence no different to the power of 120 – in terms of being impossible for mortals to memorise.
It’s enough to compare that figure with the number of seconds in a hundred years of human life – 3153600000 i.e. three times less than the paltry 10 to the power of 10.
It turns out that in order to memorise all the possible positions (and also the evaluation and best continuations in each of them) the genius would, in one second of his life, have to grasp a mere trifle – 10 to the power of 40 positions (I’ll omit the multiplication by three – it’s not beyond Slyusarchuk to live to 300, given his talents).
That’s working with monstrous speed! From the cradle to the grave :)
Those readers hungry for some real chess to replace these ‘chess-related’ shenanigans haven’t got long to wait! The Candidates Matches in Kazan start in only two days’ time, and GM Sergey Shipov will be commentating on a game a round for Crestbook. I’m planning once more to translate the commentary live (or as near live as possible!) into English.
To see what you can expect, have a look, for instance, at Shipov’s commentary from Wijk-aan-Zee: http://www.chessintranslation.com/tata-steel-2011/