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[Computer vs Chess Master Match] Why passion does not compute
Latest Updated by 2006-08-14 10:49:47
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The super computer Inspur may have beaten five Chinese chess grandmasters this week, but its high-tech efforts have not won over chess fans.

Grandmaster Liu Dahua, who lost both of the two games to Inspur, said the computer was still far from the true state of a human chess player.

Computers could calculate variations faster and more accurately than any human being and generally outclass humans tactically, Liu admitted. However, they have little sense of strategy or long-range planning.

"Strategies can be coded into a computer, but sense of strategy cannot," Xu Changming, a Chinese chess software developer, explained.

"However, sense of strategy is the most valued element in our Chinese chess," Liu added.

The sense of strategy often turns out to be decisive in a Chinese chess match. This can be traced back to its origin.

Like Western chess, Chinese chess descends from the game of Chaturanga, from India. From India it spread throughout Asia and also to Medieval Europe. In China, the game evolved into its current form during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD).

The Chinese chess board is very different from the one used for Western chess. International chess pieces are played on squares. Chinese chess pieces are played on line intersections, which are called points; the playing field is therefore a grid of nine files and ten ranks, making it 40 per cent larger than the Western chessboard.

With more open positions, the movement of the pieces tends to be more fluid.

Hardy Simes is an expert in international chess from the United States. Last year, he became interested in Chinese chess, though he found it still hard to grasp its quintessence after one year's practice.

"For sheer fun, it is hard to think of a two-player board game that matches Chinese chess. It exercises the brain in much the same way as Western (international) chess, but it is much faster moving," Hardy said.

Both forms have 32 pieces but the Chinese version has seven ranks led by a general compared with six led by a king in Western chess.

"There is no careful build-up of pawn structures, the major pieces come into play immediately, and drawn-out endgames are rare," Hardy said.

The object of the game is to capture the enemy general. The game is won as soon as one player can make no move that prevents capture of his general. This is checkmate.

Stalemate, where one player has no legal move but is not in check, is a win for the last player to move. The game is a draw when neither side can force a checkmate or a stalemate.

"Although the openings have been classified, my sense (as a pure amateur) is that it is possible to become a good player without a lot of rote learning," Hardy said.

According to researchers at Inspur, the complexity ratings for both the space and the game tree in Chinese chess are in higher than those of International chess.

Thus, Chinese chess is considered more of a tactical game that highly relies on acute intuition rather than mathematical calculation.

Computers' Achilles heel

Since chess still demands both intuition and calculation, players always want to know how their intuition could be measured by the machine's force of calculation.

Even the grandmasters marvelled at Inspur's speed of calculation. When it is pondering over one move, its rapid computing speed enables it to browse through scores of classic board situations and select the best alternative.

According to Zhai Yun, a member of the developing team for the champion Chinese chess software, their Chinese chess software has access to all the 20-year classic matches. The rules of the game, the various strategies and algorithms are all coded into computer language.

Inspur's five Chinese chess softwares that beat the grandmasters are the champions in a recent Chinese chess software competition held by Inspur Group, the largest provider of application and resolution of IT industry in China.

"That's why a computer often comes up with a splendid opening as it has many successful examples to follow from its stock," Zhai said.

"I need much time to compare and calculate, but the computer doesn't," Xu Tianhong, one of the five chess grandmasters participating the game.

However, "the computer doesn't know how to judge the board from the whole. Their inflexible logic can often bring them to a stalemate," Liu Dahua said.

Moreover, in Chinese chess match, there are no set rules.

The grandmasters usually differ in their styles and often come up with different openings and moves. Whatever the difference, they always have an acute sense of the board. In Liu's words, "after an all-inclusive assessment, an intuitive thinking might lead the players to the final victory."

This seemingly meager shortcoming of the computer turns out to be a fatal weakness for the computer, especially at the stage of endgame (Can Qi).

Meanwhile, the computer seems keen on gaining petty gains, thus contradicting this fundamental principle of the strategy game.

As an old Chinese saying goes, "Covet a little and lose a lot."

"As long as the computer cannot overcome this weakness, it is impossible for it to become a cut above human beings in this oriental game of strategy," Xu Tianhong remarked.

Editor: Wing

By: Source: China Daily Website
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