Chess and Technology

This year we have moved online in keeping with the theme of the Conference: Chess and Technology. We are inviting industry leaders, pioneers and startups alike. We are expecting 400+ attendees, mostly decision-makers, technologists and multipliers, and 25+ businesses to be present. In 30+ sessions of different formats, the conference will reflect on the fast developments since the start of the pandemic and offer glimpses of what we can expect in the near future. We also offer opportunities to exhibit products and to network.  For more information, visit ChessTech2020.

Explaining Chess

One of the great things about chess is that it is a crucible for so many aspects of computer technology. The development of chess engines has transformed chess over the last 25 years. Computers famously became much stronger players than humans. The latest artificial intelligence innovations from DeepMind’s AlphaZero combine neural networks with Monte-Carlo tree searches to produce new insights into chess theory (see Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan’s talk). The approach is now popular with the emergence fo the Leela Chess Zero project: an open-source chess engine based upon AlphaGo.

The well-known drawback to neural networks is that although they may produce excellent results, they are like a black box. You cannot interrogate a neural network in the same way that you could ask questions of an expert or indeed an expert system. If you look under the bonnet of a neural net you just see a bunch of numbers, no doubt finely tuned, but in themselves meaningless. Even if you use the leading conventional chess engine Stockfish you are stuck with its evaluations. It is not showing you, it is telling you. Step forwards Decodea’s Gideon Segev who articulated the issue and the solution.

Decodea is an Israeli company in the rapidly expanding field of Explainable AI. Their approach is take the output from an AI system, Stockfish in the case of chess, and then to provide an explanation based upon high level concepts such as deduction chains (“if this then that”) and counterfactuals (“if this hadn’t happened”). Gideon shows some examples from games in which surprising moves are shown to have an inevitable logic to them. These explanations convert the mysterious into the familiar. Where chess leads, other domains will follow.

Good Intentions

Prize funds in women-only competitions have increased considerably in recent years. Half a million Euros were at stake at the recent World Championship match. Ju Wenjun and Alexandra Goryachkina gained more than any woman or man at any chess competition in 2019. At the Women Candidates Tournament, 200,000 Euros were split among its eight participants; at the ongoing Cairns Cup in St Louis, ten invitees share 180 000 dollars. Female professional chess players are earning more than ever and are doing much better than men with similar ratings.

Organisers and sponsors have certainly the best intentions to promote women in chess. But in spite of all the resources flowing their way, top female ratings have been stagnating over the last 15 years. Is this due to the incentives for top female players to focus on women-only competitions? How this hypothesis could be proved or disproved was a matter of discussion at the Conference. There seem to be enough results and rating data available and such a study would not require many resources.

The argument would be that in female-only competitions the top players face many weaker or even much weaker opponents, and those games will not serve to help them develop. Judit Pólgar is the only female who focused on facing the strongest possible opponents throughout her career. She is the only woman who competed on equal terms with the world elite.

An optimal tournament for female professionals seems to be the Gibraltar Open. This is the only place where they can play several opponents rated above 2600. At the same time, £55,000 of the prize money is reserved for them. However, this year many top females skipped Gibraltar, as the World Championship overlapped and the Cairns Cup started only a week after.

The chess federation of Mar del Plata in Argentina considers female-only competitions as discriminatory and does not organise them any more. However, female players have become immured to female-only competitions and some would retire from competition play if they were scrapped.

Chess federations should consider where they want to be in the long run: establish a female-only circuit or help top women players to compete equally with men? Shall chess be inclusive or segregated? And how much prize money should be devoted to female-only competitions.

Girl Power – Sarah Hurst reporting for Kingpin

When I heard that the theme of this year’s London Chess Conference was going to be ‘Chess and Female Empowerment,’ I wanted to be there. I didn’t know what chess and female empowerment was, exactly, but it sounded intriguing. The organisers accepted my proposal to give a talk called ‘Chess is My Passport’, about how chess had taken me all over the world and brought me into contact with interesting people, who sometimes gave me non-chess career opportunities.

Once the other opening talks were under way I started to feel that I hadn’t taken the subject seriously enough. Other speakers had devoted years to bringing more girls into chess. I had only tried to get my daughter to play chess at primary school, and she gave up. But that makes her one of the majority of girls who try chess and give up at age 11, as we learned from the presentations. The question was why?

Continue reading at Kingpin

Most women work below their level of competence

Tom Schuller author of The Paula Principle

London Chess Conference, Day 1, 30 November 2019

I had an unusual, and enjoyable, invitation last month, to speak on the Paula Principle – to a conference on Chess and Female Empowerment. The primary focus was on encouraging girls not just to start playing chess but to continue after the age of 11. 

Until that age, there are as many girls as boys playing, but apparently there is a very steep drop-off as they enter puberty. Why? Of course, in part, it’s because girls find other things to interest them. I assumed the main reason was that they dislike individual aggression, the hand-to-hand combat of chess. Well, we were told that girls are just as competitive. But they are interested in problem-solving as much as winning and in the social aspects of the game. So when it’s only about winning, and with little social interaction, they lose interest.

Be that as it may, there was convincing evidence from other speakers on the diverse positive benefits of playing chess. Some of these were fairly obvious: the mental discipline, concentration and logical thought. But I was impressed by convincing accounts of other improvements: in young people’s decision-making, in taking responsibility for their own actions, and several other life skills.

As I say, the focus was on young people, but I had the chance of talking with one participant who runs chess classes for adults as well as children, at the Acorns Chess Club. She impressed on me the value for every one of playing, and how chess improves people’s empathy and communication abilities, as well as the enjoyment of the game. But here’s a life-course gender difference: apparently men who have played chess as children quite often come back into the game in mid-life, but women rarely do. This means girls have few adult role models. It’s not clear why this should be – maybe just busyness – but it’s something that would be worth knowing more about. I wonder how far this is true of other sports and pastimes.

Before the conference, I had wondered how far the Paula Principle would be relevant. I assumed that the individual-combat nature of chess might exclude many of the potential lessons. But the discussions convinced me that it’s a game which for all its intense single-mindedness and competitive concentration also brings many other qualities – provided the context and culture are right.

This article is extracted from Tom Schuller’s blog.

The Paula Principle that most women work below their level of competence mirrors the Peter Principle in Organisational Development that people (mainly men in the 1960s) rise to their level of incompetence.

Game Changer – The Alpha Zero programme

Each of the sessions at the London Chess Conference 2019 contained a wealth of wisdom none more so than the presentation given by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan on their book Game Changer published by New in Chess which has received glowing reviews. The book won the English Chess Federation Book of the Year award and so we were pleased to invite them to explain what the book is about and why AlphaZero has been such a “game changer”. AlphaZero is world-beating chess software developed by Google’s Artificial Intelligence specialists at DeepMind.

The commotion caused by AlphaZero in the chess world relies upon the coincidence of two extraordinary factors. Firstly, there is the revolutionary “self-learning” software. This comprises a suite of algorithms that evaluate game performance and provide automatic feedback to update the move decision parameters. With fast processing, it only took 9 hours to process 44 million games which was sufficient to reach the pinnacle of chess strength – and to crush Stockfish. Until then, Stockfish was the top chess engine in the world, incorporating expertise from generations of chess players. By contrast, AlphaZero did not include any prior knowledge of chess. This is the significance of the suffix “Zero” – there is zero human chess expertise. In fact, the technical programmers of AlphaZero are not chess players.

The founder of DeepMind, Demis Hassabis, invited his old friends Matthew and Natasha to look over the games that had been generated in a private experimental match between the “machine learning” AlphaZero and the “expert system” Stockfish. Former British champion Matthew Sadler doesn’t play chess professionally nowadays but nevertheless remains (at the time of the presentation) the 2nd ranked player in England. He retired from chess pre-Magnus for a career in software architecture but keeps abreast of developments and practises on chess engines. His co-author Natasha Regan is a titled chess player and also a player of Go and Shogi. AlphaZero had emerged from a previous implementation (AlphaGo) in the game of Go where the world’s top player Lee Sedol from South Korea was comprehensively defeated – drawing the world’s attention to the potential for deep learning – the multi-level approach to machine learning.

The second extraordinary factor is the nature of AlphaZero’s games – brilliant and dazzling – a giant step for mankind. We are familiar with chess engines exploring deep and wide to analyse variations. What we get extra with AlphaZero is strategic vision. All of a sudden, the middlegame tomes have to be rewritten. Themes which were previously disparaged are now centre stage. AlphaZero has unearthed a new range of themes as described in Game Changer. The byword is strategic flexibility – e.g. being able to switch plans depending upon the position.

Perhaps the most visually striking theme is advancing the rook pawns as far as it will go. We tell beginners to keep their rook pawns back lest the king’s position becomes compromised. AlphaZero shows that this traditional advice is too cautious and that there are attacking possibilities as well as defensive advantages e.g. allowing room for the king to escape. AlphaZero also drew attention to the advantages of opposite-coloured bishops. The fear of draws is outweighed by the offensive capabilities. AlphaZero is much less materialistic than conventional theory. Pawn and exchange sacrifices are commonly used to increase piece mobility and open up long term attacking chances even though the justification may not seem obvious for several moves. Conversely, AlphaZero seeks to restrict the mobility of the opponent’s pieces.

Game Changer is their second book together. Their previous book was called Chess for Life and contained fascinating analyses, augmented with statistical analysis, of how to play against particular people and positions. I asked Natasha whether AlphaZero made them reconsider their opinions. She freely admitted that AlphaZero has led to a complete re-evaluation and gave the example of the Carlsbad pawn structure which typically arises in queen’s pawn games. White is conventionally expected to launch a minority attack. However, AlphaZero was much more inventive and just as inclined to launch a kingside attack. Whether ordinary players are able to follow these new precepts is debatable. In the video below there is a cameo from Magnus Carlsen in which he admires AlphaZero but recognises that he is not a computer.

Carlsbad Structure

We have Matthew and Natasha to thank for having brought to the world’s attention the breakthrough represented by AlphaZero. Clearly chess authors have a new lease of life as they update the theory of the middlegame. You can find more Game Changer videos from Matthew and Natasha on their YouTube channel.

Top Women Benefit Most from Federation Spending

Alice O´Gorman´s brilliant and insightful presentation during our plenary session is a must-see for everyone involved in policies for women and girls in chess. It contains preliminary results from a survey that Alice is conducting on behalf of the Women’s Commission of the European Chess Union. So far 44 of 54 European federations have responded – which is actually good compared to historic response rates. The results if confirmed have some striking implications. See below for the video of the presentation.

Most European federations focus almost exclusively on their top players. This applies to women as much as men. Resources for women are primarily devoted to the elite level – the biennial international Chess Olympiad, the annual national women’s championship and training their top players and junior internationals. Only one federation has mentioned a goal that goes beyond winning female-only titles – in this case, the goal was a woman winning the open national championship.

The survey found a mismatch between federation spending on women´s chess and closing the gender gap. Pumping more money into women’s chess has not brought more women into the game. One reason for this is that women’s championships are usually held a the same time as the open championships. Consequently, women are drawn into the women-only event at the expense of their participation in the open event.

Very few federations pursue explicit policies of increasing the number of girls and women who participate in chess. However, the survey indicates that there is one sure way in which federations can increase female engagement: female-only training. By creating a friendly environment such as a girls training camp, whether for beginners or improving juniors, girls engage more enthusiastically with chess. Alice, who is a medical student in Dublin, herself got interested in chess as a result of a chess camp.

The survey results are a salutary reminder that current policies regarding women’s chess are unlikely to bring about improvements in either female participation rates or performance levels. In fact, a notable finding is that female participation and performance are no worse, and on average slightly better, in those federations in which there is no separate funding for female chess. The policy challenge becomes one of targeted funding especially at the under 14 level.

The video includes Questions and Answers.

Does Chess Empower Girls?

The opening speaker at the London Chess Conference 2019 was April Cronin. April is a recently retired primary school headteacher and former Irish woman’s chess champion. She has been running chess in schools for many years where she has served as a role model for girls.  Nowadays she is devoting herself to extolling the benefits of chess in primary schools (age 7-11).  She is therefore uniquely qualified to make observations on what children gain from chess and to make informed observations on gender differences.

April Cronin opening plenary at the London Chess Conference

April’s main argument is that chess empowers all children and encouraging girls to play chess allows them to participate in this most enriching of activities. However, there are certain aspects of the way that girls engage with chess that we should accommodate if we are to give them the best experiences.

She acknowledges that there is a preponderance of boys in the school chess team, at the top boards and as participants in the school chess club. She notes that the after-school club comprises 75% boys. She estimates that at the adult level around 5% are women. 

April says that chess was very empowering in her own life and strongly believes it to be empowering of the children she teaches. Extra-curricular activities have protective effects in terms of social development and staying in school. She says that all children should be given the chance to learn chess at school which can turn out to be “incredibly empowering. Chess is empowering in ways we do not fully understand. 

She notes that kids love chess. The common experience of schools is that chess starts small-scale, perhaps focusing on the less sporty children, but then the chess programmes expand rapidly. Parents are usually delighted because chess is seen as developing the brain e.g. through improved concentration. There is also widespread social approval.

There is a reason chess so effective: simulated decision making. A child needs to make many decisions during each game. They have to evaluate options. No chance is involved – the child is responsible for the result of the game. Whether they win or lose, children enjoy this freedom of choice 

You can hear April Cronin present her analysis in the video below.