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.
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.
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.
Judit Polgár made a splash at the London Chess Conference when her perspectives on Chess and Female Empowerment caught the attention of the media. Until her retirement from competition in 2014, she was one of the top players in the world, competing in open tournaments, never in women-only events.
First up was the Guardian which on the opening day of the Conference published an opinion piece which called for a review of the segregation between male and female chess players. Judit regards such an arrangement as patronising although she recognises that many women place value on women’s titles.
At the final round table, Judit fielded a wide range of questions from the audience. In the extract below (2:10) she explains why boys and girls diverge due to small differences in how they are treated when they are young and the different level of expectations.
The full video of the round table is available here.
After the Conference, Judit was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 by Emma Barnett who is one of the most popular broadcasters in the UK. They had an amiable and informative discussion for 20 minutes in which Judit talks about her life as a chess player.
The recording is available on BBC Sounds (1:40) for 28 days. Time to put on the headphones.
Judit was a top player and now is a top ambassador for chess. Her deep love of the game shines through her interviews in which she is invariably confident and charming. Her passion is to bring chess to children and women. If anybody can succeed it is Judit.
We have interviewed key speakers of the conference. First up is Delia Duca Iliescu. In Romania, she is well known as the presenter of a weekly chess show on TV. She conceived and pitched “Strategy in Black and White” herself. A promising player as a child she went on to win junior titles but hated to study opening theory. At tournaments nowadays you rather see her as an arbiter than as a player.
Recently Delia has become a lecturer of computer science at the University of Brasov after ten years as a software engineer. AlphaZero inspired her to start a PhD in machine learning. She is connecting Artificial Intelligence with her chess speciality: chess problems, particularly chess compositions. In our interview, she tells more about this.
Most presentations and videos from many of them are now available on our presentations page which we added in the menu. This will be continually updated as the remaining presentations are coming in. The videos and presentations are merged in a convenient way as you can see from this exemplary one:
We have also created a playlist of conference videos on youtube. There you also find accompanying summaries of the presentations. All thanks to our many contributors and to the fantastic efforts by our digilent and always helpful videographer Etienne Mensch who joined the conference team this year.
Etienne is Digital Director at a vocational training centre in Strasbourg. He is an International Master and experienced chess coach, among the talents he nurtured is Grandmaster Bilel Bellahcene. He was also Education Director of the French Chess Federation and managed live transmissions of several high level chess events.
We wish everyone a merry festive time and all the best for 2019!
France is the must-watch-country for all chess federations. Bachar Kouatly has devised an exciting turnaround of the French Chess Federation (FFE) to “a broad direction, a transversal direction, not only a narrow focus on competitive chess. Without it, the federation doesn’t exist, but with only competitive chess we remain weak.”
Chess is now helping to improve social cohesion and inclusion, explained Kouatly in his remarkable presentation: “We are a tool in the public policy in France.” The prime example is an agreement with the Ministry of Justice´s Department for Youth Protection. Adolescents at the brink of prison can now learn and play chess. The Ministry is paying the chess teachers and club membership fees.
When Kouatly was elected as Federation President two years ago, Jean-Michel Blanquer was one of his election team. Blanquer has since become Minister of Education and is opening doors for chess in France. The Federation has signed agreements with the national associations of sport in primary schools (USEP), sport in secondary schools (UNSS) and with French schools outside of France (AEFE).
An important meeting with the latter prevented Johanna Basti from coming to the London Conference. She negotiated the contracts with the national institutions on behalf of the Federation and is a member of the new Education Commission of the European Chess Union. Blanquer and Basti believe in the social potential of chess but are not rooted in competitive chess. In the past, the French Federation had been run by school teachers who, perhaps paradoxically, were oriented to competition rather than education. Their commitment to the conventional implementation of chess left no room to develop chess more widely within society.
Bachar Kouatly, who was the first Grandmaster in France and is a successful technology entrepreneur, appealed to chess federations everywhere to bring in more people from the outside: “If you are able to bring other people with fresh blood and fresh ideas who will put you out, it means you succeeded!”
Bo Johansson considers from an education scientist´s point of view which children benefit from chess and why. His colleague Christina Schenz argues for chess to promote giftedness in all children. Roland Grabner introduces the conditions of successful maths learning and how chess can contribute. David Wells reviews connections between chess and maths. Jorge Nuno Silva takes you by fasttrack through the history of games and mathematical learning. Rob Eastaway shows how simple games (some of which can be transfered to the chess board) convey mathematical insight.
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