Friday, July 24, 2015

Another "Fix" for Advanced Chess ?

Last month ICCF GM Arno Nickel published an open letter on the popular Chessbase web site, lamenting the "draw death of correspondence chess" and proposing a new scoring system for certain types of drawn games. You may read the complete article and commentary at .

The thread running through many responses has nothing to do with the proposal, but rather the question of whether use of chess engines (in the selection of moves in live games) should be permitted at all. The editorial remarks preceding the article are telling: "For some the growing use of computers is a modern day curse ... the main problem is the resulting increase of draws."

The real problem is a growing dissatisfaction (with engine-assisted correspondence chess) leading to world-wide decline in participation. Closely related is the problem of multiple tie scores in tournaments and how to declare winners in an equitable fashion. The traditional Sonneborn-Berger tie-break method (SB points) is liable to fail as more and more competitors finish in a dead heat. ICCF has already prioritized the Bamberger Rule ahead of S-B; Bamberger counts number of actual wins instead of total scores (wins plus draws.) However, as chess engines (and the processors they run on *) continue to improve, the draw rate will exceed the current 90 % and the number of wins from actual play will decrease. Bamberger may be deciding event winners on the basis of sporadic time forfeits. In the 28th WC Finals, GM Nikolai Papenin (highest-rated player at start of the event) finished in last place with an unprecedented six losses. Due to the war situation in his native Crimea, he wrote he had "no time for chess." Had he been playing under normal circumstances, scoring six more draws instead of losses (one of these by time forfeit),  ICCF's 28th World Championship would be at 94 % draws.


Commenting in the above-mentioned article, ICCF GM Tansel Turget stated: "Until recently, human could add 200-300 points to the strength of the chess engine, but this additional human input is decreasing with the improvement of chess engines (against a computer with no human input, I think we (human+computer) can still score 70-80%). If my theory is correct (may not be), then there is still a lot of human influence in cc, which is very encouraging. We may not be able to effect the result of a game every game, but we still have enough influence to change the result in a significant number of games."

One ICCF official opined: "The reason ICCF allows them is that there is not a good way to enforce a no computers rule." So much for centaur chess being the highest art form; it exists by default, not design. The inevitable march of the machines toward 100% draws doesn't leave much room for "significant" human contribution. ICCF's band-aid approach (Bamberger Rule, Nalimov adjudications, Nickels' proposal etc) will not rescue Advanced Chess from the draw death. What is needed is for ICCF to acknowledge Advanced Chess was a mistake and to return to traditional cc, following FIDE's lead in implementing Dr. Ken Regan's (or similar) statistical engine detection system.

Postscript. In the world of traditional (no-engine) correspondence chess, "engine abuse" is a huge concern, but the problem is largely of the organizations' own making. Unethical players utilize chess computers in events where they are expressly forbidden by the rules. Such shenanigans have gone on for thirty-five years, ever since 1980 and the introduction of stand-alone micro devices followed by software (engines) for the exploding pc market. Sadly, these "no engine" groups have inconsistent rules enforcement or, more likely, make absolutely no effort to detect "engine abusers." Draws are not the problem here, it's "wins" by players rated 500 or more ELO points below their opponents, or "wins" where moves by the victor match engine output at a rate approaching 100%. Chess ratings, titles and prizes have become meaningless in these venues. Declining membership in traditional cc organizations is the elephant in the room.