May 26, 2024

Chess Computer Crushes Elite Human Player

Last week Hydra, a chess-playing computer, completed its rout of Michael Adams, the seventh-ranked human player in the world. Hydra won five of six games, and Adams barely escaped with a draw in the other game. ChessBase has the details, including a page where you can play through the six games.

It’s time to admit that computers play better chess than people.

This may seem inevitable in hindsight, but for the longest time people insisted that human chess players had something special which computers could never duplicate. That was true, up to a point. Computers have never succeeded at approaching chess the way people do. The best human players make subtle, intuitive judgments that are probably based on pattern-matching deep in their neural circuitry. Often an elite player cannot verbalize how he knows that one configuration of pieces is dangerous when another nearly identical configuration is not. He just knows. He does calculate in the “if he does this, I’ll do that, then he’ll do this, …” fashion, but only when necessary.

Every attempt to transplant human “intelligence” into a chess computer has failed miserably. Computers understand very little about chess. They rely instead on rudimentary judgment about chess positions, coupled with prodigious calculation, looking ahead at hundred of millions or billions of possible board positions.

Chess players classify game situations into two categories, “tactical” and “positional”. Tactical situations feature direct, violent clashes between pieces, and call mostly for calculation, with intuition as a backstop. Positional situations are slow and subtle, requiring deep judgments and long maneuvers. Everybody expected computers to excel at tactics. The big surprise is that the computer approach seems to work well in positional situations too. Somehow, calculation can substitute for judgment, even when conditions seem to require judgment.

This is not to say that it’s easy to create a chess computer that plays as well as Hydra. Quite the contrary. Great effort has been spent on perfecting computer chess algorithms. That effort has gone not to teaching computers about chess, but to improving the algorithms for deciding when to cut off calculations and when to calculate more deeply. Indeed, algorithmic improvements have been a much bigger factor even than Moore’s Law over the years.

Chess computers have succeeded by ignoring what human chessplayers do best, and doing instead what computers do best. And what computers do best is to run programs written by very clever human programmers.


  1. Why is chess considered the ultimate game to compare human intelligence to machines which are only there because humans have invented them? Who did ever seriously challenge his pocket calculator in determining square root of 12345 within 2 seconds and an accuracy of 0.0000001? Nobody.
    Isn’t it foolish to compete with machines which were invented to facilitate certain things because there are (temporary) limitations to human mind and activity? And then go for a competition? Crazy somehow. Who will compete with an airplane??? Most humans cannot fly! Looks to me as in the times of the cold war when the USSR was able to market the superiority in chess as a superiority in ideology. and then the hero Bobby Fischer comes along with seemingly not support and kills them single handledly. Are we looking for another Bobby when going into a competition with computers? Kasparov failed – deservingly so. who’s next?

  2. I just don’t understand why humans don’t like to admit that they are gradually losing the race. Computers will obviously be the best and of course the day is not far when the world champion in chess will be a computer

  3. Тhe best chess program in the world is “Rybka” and it plays at strenght above 3000…

  4. Seems to me that computers are getting better and better. Although it’s true that they are programmed by humans – humans merely put the logic and rules into the engine and the silicon executes them. It will always play the most efficient move and think enough ‘ply’ ahead that 99% of humans won’t be able to beat it. But there’s always that 1% huh?

  5. I make bold to say, that obviously the best chess player is yet to be born, sorry Kasparov.
    I think what the computers beating the world chess champion shows, is lack of sufficient creativity by the humans.

    Chess computers can never ever be creative thinkers, obviously the level of creativity of even the best chess player is in doubt. Please Plabo Picasso to the rescue

  6. Timothy J Scriven says

    I’m not willing to give up just yet, I think that if we studied how to beat computers spefically ( there is an art to it, one 2100 player has scored many wins against GM level computers) and were given tablebases, opening books etc ( as has already been mentioned) our best players could still cream computers more than half the time. When a computer can beat the best human player, even after that player has prepared for the match very carefully and studied in great depth and with the aid of other grandmasters how to beat computers than I’ll admit we have forever lost the crown, I just don’t think that day has come yet but maybe I am being optimistic. Remember however that Adam’s used no anti computer tricks and played e4.

  7. Theo Bakker says

    Micky’s thrashing seems to be rather decisive indeed. I’m really sorry for this great player.
    Don’t be fooled by the fact that Hydra runs on exceptional hardware: well within the next 50 years your handheld computer will certainly outrun it (though I’ll probably not live to see that) ..
    So maybe it’s about time to call it a day: YES, computers ARE becoming quick enough to compensate their lack of understanding by means of pure numercrunching. Remember though that they’ll never really LIVE to enjoy it ..
    So let humans play humans again and programmers turn to the next mountain: make a computerprogram beat a professional GO player.
    I don’t expect to survive that long either.

  8. Mike,

    It’s not just one round. Last year another computer scored a narrow victory in a match against Garry Kasparov, who is generally considered to be the best human player ever. Not even Kasparov could get five wins and a draw in six games against Adams.

  9. Winning one round does not settle the matter permanently. I think there is a spy-vs-spy dynamic here, and if lots of humans are given access to smart chess programs, perhaps some of them will learn to fight back.

    Either that, or perhaps chess can become a solved game like tic-tac-toe.

  10. Computers are still cr*p at playing Go. Even I can beat the worlds best. Objective proof that Go is better than Chess… 🙂


    Hydra got creamed in a recent freestyle tournament by a couple of chess nobodies (so did a bunch of GMs). It’s an impressive program, but it plays with a strong advantage which can be overcome when the human players are allowed equal analysis tools and opening/closing books.