Can a machine play chess? British mathematician Alan Turing - who broke the German Enigma codes during WW2, and immortalised in the 2014 Hollywood movie, The Imitation Game - is widely acknowledged as the father of computer science, and he was the first to ask this relevant question 70 year's ago today during a famous lecture at the London Mathematical Society on February 20th, 1947.
Of course, today, all of us know the answer to Turing’s question is a resounding, “yes.” But back then, what was, so far as is known, the earliest public lecture to mention computer intelligence, Turing suggested using chess as the benchmark for testing “intelligent machinery.” Today, we refer to it as artificial intelligence, more commonly known as AI.
Turing then created (with the assistance of David Champernowne) during the conference the world’s first theoretical chess playing computer program, which was christened “TuroChamp”. The program was devised with pencil and paper, the calculations being performed manually by Turing and Champernowne themselves - each move would take them half an hour or more to calculate.
Now, 70 years on from Turing’s lecture, chess and computers are synonymous. There’s no sphere of the game where computers have an influence over now - we have playing engines that have the strength of super-grandmasters crunching all the calculations and extensively deep-mining opening preparation, and even very complex endgames that can be finely calculated with silicon certainty. Not only that, but nowadays, no top chess player worth his or her salt will dare turn up at a tournament without a laptop filled to the gunnels with all the latest playing engines and research databases containing millions of games on it.
The first leg of the FIDE Grand Prix is now underway in Sharjah, UAE - and this is the first rung on the ladder to deciding who will be Magnus Carlsen’s next title-challenger, as the winner and runner-up in the series will qualify into the 2018 Candidates tournament - and none of the 18-players competing will be without the assistance of a leading playing engine and a multi-million game database.
The top seeds and favourites to win through, are: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), and Hikaru Nakamura, the four-time US champion. But the French star is the one setting the pace by getting off to a flyer, as he leads the field with a perfect 2/2, half a point ahead of Michael Adams (England) and Mamedyarov.
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave - GM Li Chao
Sharjah FIDE Grand Prix, (1)
Petroff’s Defence, Marshall Variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 Before the revival of the Berlin 'Wall' Defence during the Kramnik-Kasparov World Championship match in London in 2000, the Petroff's Defence was the dreaded drawing system Black player's would adopt to thwart aggressive opponents. Nowadays, the Petroff is more akin to a Sicilian Najdorf compared to the Berlin! 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Bd6 The Marshall variation, named after US Champion Frank J. Marshall, who had a fondness for a direct attack on his opponent's kingside, even when playing Black! And here, just like the Marshall Attack in the Ruy Lopez, Black posts his bishops actively. 7.0-0 0-0 8.c4 c6 9.Nc3 Nxc3 10.bxc3 dxc4 11.Bxc4 Bf5 12.Ne5 Bxe5 13.dxe5 Qe7 14.Re1 Nd7 15.Qf3 g6 16.Qg3 Rfe8 17.Bf4 Qc5 18.Bb3 a5 19.a4 b5 20.h4! MVL isn't interested in the finesse of endgame play, he's going straight for the jugular with a mating attack! He intends h4-h5xg6 and then attempt to bludgeon his way through to his opponent's king. 20...Be6 21.Bc2 b4 22.Bd3 b3 Li looks to create as much confusion as possible with his advanced b-pawn. He has to be careful not to give White too much space and time by playing 22...Qxc3?! 23.Rec1! Qd4 24.Rd1! (White basically saves a tempo with 23.Rec1 to get the rook on a better semi-open file.) 24...Qc5 25.h5 Qf8 26.Be4 Rac8 27.Rd6 and Black's position is all beginning to get somewhat awkward, as White's forces have swiftly taken control and looking to make a lethal strike. 23.h5 Nf8 It's the old Bent Larsen adage, that with a knight on f8 it can't be mate. As a rule of thumb, generally the great Dane is correct here. 24.Bh6 b2 25.Rab1 Rab8 26.Qf4 With the not-too-subtle threat of Qf6 mating. 26...Nd7?! Li wobbles in a critical position by missing 26...Ba2!? with the dangerous b-pawn thwarting off the mating attacks. So White will have to react energetically now, with 27.e6! (Not 27.Qf6? Ne6! 28.Rbd1 Qe7 and Black is winning.) 27...f5! (There's no time now for 27...Nxe6?? 28.Rxe6! Bxe6 (If 28...Rxe6 29.Qxb8+ is a forced win) 29.Qf6 winning quickly.) 28.hxg6 hxg6 29.Bxf8 (forced, otherwise ...Nxe6 is winning) 29...Rxf8 30.Qh6 Qxc3 31.e7 Rfe8 32.Qxg6+ Qg7 33.Qxf5 Rxe7 34.Rxe7 Qxe7 35.Qg6+ Qg7 36.Rxb2! Rxb2 37.Qe8+ Qf8 38.Qg6+ Qg7 39.Qe8+ with a perpetual check. 27.Qg5! Threatening hxg6 and Bxg6 mating. 27...Qe7 28.Qxe7 Rxe7 Black may well have seen off the immediate dangers with the queens being exchanged, but as the dust settles MVL has emerged with the more active pieces and easily picking off the b-pawn. 29.Re2 Ree8 30.Rexb2 Rxb2 31.Rxb2 Nxe5 32.Be2 gxh5 33.f3 Much stronger was 33.Rb6! threatening Ra6 and winning either Black's a- or c-pawns - and with the Bh6 in the mix, there's still the back-rank mating threats to worry about. 33...Nd7 There's no respite in seeking further exchanges, as after 33...Bc4 34.Bxc4 Nxc4 35.Rb7! and, despite being a pawn down here, it will only be a matter of time as White holds all the aces with his rook on the seventh, the omnipresent back-rank mating threats, easily attacking a5 and c6, and also threats of Kh2-h3-h4xh5. 34.Rb7 Nc5 35.Ra7 Nb3 36.g3 White wants to firmly anchor the Black pawn on h5. 36...Bd5 37.Kf2 Rb8 38.Bf1 Be6 39.Bd3 Bd5 40.Bf5 Black is practically paralysed due to the back-rank mating threats and having to defend a5. 40...Re8 41.Bc2 c5 42.Rc7 c4 43.Bf5 Rb8 Black is beginning to run out of moves he can constructively make without compromising his position. 44.Bd7! With the threat of Bb5 attacking the c4-pawn - and if c4 (or a5) falls, Black's position will collapse quickly due to the other pawn weaknesses. 44...f6 45.Bb5 Bf7 46.Rc6 MVL is in no hurry to rush this, as Black writhes in agony now with pawn weaknesses on a5, c4, f6 and h5. 46...Na1 47.Ra6 Nc2 48.Rxa5 Na3 49.Bc6 Nb1 50.Rb5 1-0 Black resigns, as there's no way to prevent 50...Rxb5 51.axb5 and the b-pawn passing without a heavy loss of material.