Thursday, 14 December 2017

Don't panic

The publication of a new paper by the team behind AlphaGo has really got the chess world talking.  Applying the AlphaGo learning method to chess, they developed a program that was able to beat Stockfish after 4 hours of self learning. To read the headlines (and comments) about this, it would almost seem that humans are about to be replaced by computers, in all facets of life.
For me, while it was an impressive result, it isn't the end of the world, or even chess. Self learning programs have been around for a while, and were quite strong, even 15 years ago. KnightCap was one such program, with the authors describing the self learning aspects in a paper they published in 1999 (which was cited by the authors of AlphaZero).
On the other hand, what did impress me was the successful implementation of the Monte Carlo Tree Search. This is an alternative to the tried and true Alpha-Beta search method (or its variants), and relies on a probabilistic approach to evaluating position.  Instead of assessing the various factors in a position (material, space, pawn structure), the program self-plays thousands of games from a given position, preferring the move that results in the most number of wins. The obvious flaw in this method (apart from computing restraints), is that while a move may lead to wins 99 times out of 100, the opponent may find the 1% reply that is a forced loss for the engine. But based on the result against Stockfish, this did not seem to occur in practice.
The other thing to point out is that this wasn't a match between AlphaZero and Stockfish, at least not in a competitive sense. Stockfish had a number of restrictions placed on it (no opening book, less powerful hardware), and I suspect the point of the exercise was to provide a measure of how successful the learning algorithm was. If the authors intend to develop the worlds strongest chess program, then entering the World Computer Chess Championships is instead the best way to test it.

AlphaZero (Computer) - Stockfish (Computer) [E17]
AlphaZero - Stockfish London ENG, 04.12.2017

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The secret to being happy

I've always felt that the secret to being happy is to make other people happy. Of course I don't always practice what I preach (at least according to my family), but as a rule of thumb, it has generally worked for me.
When you play chess though, it isn't always possible to keep other people happy. The goal is to try and beat the person sitting opposite you, and succeeding in doing this may result in a less than happy night for your opponent. But if you play a good game, it may at least be appreciated, or even better, bring joy to the watching crowd.
I was able to play a nice attacking game at the Belconnen Chess Club Xmas Blitz this evening. I got to drop my rook onto f3, which impressed to single spectator watching the game, and after a couple more moves, it was pretty much finished. The spectator was happy, I was pleased, and even my opponent cracked a smile!

Xu,Ruofan - Press,Shaun [C63]
Belco Xmas Blitz, 12.12.2017

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Age and Wisdom

I spent the day helping run the traditional end of year Junior Chess League event, the ACT Transfer Championship. Transfer is of course better known as Bughouse (although not so much in Australia), and is a favourite of juniors far and wide. However, despite the tournament being run by the Junior Chess League, it is in fact open to players of all ages.
Of the 21 teams who took part, the top places were mainly (but not exclusively) occupied by the older players. FM Michael Kethro and Jamie-Lee Guo (playing as Arjang FC) were unbeaten, scoring 13/13. 2 points back were John Cullen and Josh Tomlin, tied with Louie Serfontein and Luc Bailey. In the case of Tomlin and Cullen, they actually had less transfer experience than their younger opponents, but were still ale to beat most of them.
One possible reason is that to play Transfer well, you do have to be 'clever'. And by this you have to not only think about the moves, but also the broader context. Some moves are better than others, not because they are 'good', but because they're more likely to cause the opponent to make a mistake. When you are younger such thinking doesn't come easy, but as you get older, looking for flaws in the 'system' is part and parcel of life.
Overall most teams played it pretty straight (not a lot of trash talking, no distraction techniques etc) which was demonstrated by the fact I had to deal with very few issues.  Possibly the weirdest one was where two teams found both kings in check on one board, and confused by this, just decided to agree to a draw!

2018 Australian Championship - Early entry deadline approaches

The 2018 Australian Championships is being held at the North Sydney Leagues Club from the 2nd to the 12th of January 2018. Alongside the Championship will be the reserves event (Under 2150) and the 7 round Classic (for Under 1800).
The deadline for the early entry discount is approaching so if you are planning to play, you better enter soon. Entry for the Championship is restricted to players rated above 2150, although I do note that players rated below that have applied to be considered. Otherwise it is the Reserves or Classic, depending on how much time you can spare. There is also a FIDE Rated Blitz on the 7th (the only rest day), where the new FIDE Rules for blitz will be in effect (2 illegal moves lose!).
The tournament website is and contains an online entry form as well as other tournament details.

(NB I am a paid official for this event)

Friday, 8 December 2017

Two GM norms at Young Masters

The 2017 Lidums Australian Young Masters produced not one but two Grandmaster norms, one for IM Bobby Cheng (AUS), and one for IM Kanan Izzat (AZE). Both secured the norms with draws in the final round, finishing on 6.5/9. This also left them tied for first place, half a point ahead of GM Vasily Papin in third.
While two GM norms in a 10 player Round Robin is rare, it was helped in part by the fact that a couple of players were out of form. IM Ari Dale struggled to get going in the event, although he did win his last round game against GM Moulthun Ly. FM Chris Wallis and FM Patrick Gong both had early wins, but found the rest of the event tough going. Cheng scored 3/3 against the back markers, although Izzat drew with both Dale and Gong. IM R Praggnanandhaa had an early setback with a loss against Izzat and was unable to repeat his GM level performance from the World Junior. Sukanadar played a number of interesting games, but eventually finished on 4. Ly's last round loss to Dale dropped him down the table, while Demuth only lost 1 game, but with 6 draws, was destined for a mid table finish.
FM Yi Liu (AUS) won the IM event with 6/9, but this wasn't enough for an IM norm. However I am assuming that this win will result in an invite to the GM group next year, where he will be playing for both IM and GM norms.

2018 Australian Junior Championships

The 2018 Australian Junior Chess Championship is being held from the 13th to the 21st January 2018, at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. The event will be run across a number of age groups, with specific schedules for each. The Junior Championship itself is open to all eligible players Under 18 years of age (on the 1st January 2018) and will be a 9 round FIDE rated event. There is also events for Under 16, 14, 12, 10, and 8 years players (along with girls events for Under 18's down to Under 8's).
Players from the ACT have an extra incentive to take part in this event, as the ACT Government is providing a grant of $2000 for travel assistance. This is will be shared by all ACT players taking part in the tournament, with the grant being handled by the ACT Junior Chess League.
Details of the tournament can be found at the tournament website.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Obscure amazon items

There was a degree of excitement today, as Amazon opened its Australian 'shop' for the first time. Early reports indicate that this wasn't as momentous an occasion as expected, with nothing too ground breaking hitting the market, and prices not being much lower than normal Australian retail.
Of course I had to test the system by seeing what chess items they had. Turns out all the usual books, although Amazon seem to sell a lot of titles by obscure authors. In some cases they are reprints of out of copy right works (eg 'Chess' by RF Green) or more recent works aimed at the beginner/school market.
In the end the only item of note was a neon sign that read "Chess Player Parking Only". I don't know whether Amazon have vastly overestimated the number of chess centres in Australia (which seem to be the obvious market) or if it is intended as a 'gag' gift to be placed at the end of the garage on Christmas morning. I think the second theory is more likely to be correct.