child robot chess Vyacheslav Prokofyev\TASS via Getty Images

Why Human Chess Survives

At one time, it seemed that computers would sound the death knell for chess, not to mention all human mind games. Yet for followers of the game, the just-concluded world championship in London, won by the 27-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, was as exciting as any great soccer match.

CAMBRIDGE – With so much angst about artificial intelligence and the future of work, the recent world chess championship in London offers some hope. It is not that mankind has turned the tables on the march of progress. Rather, what is remarkable is what a creative and ultimately human match it was between reigning champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway (the 27-year-old “Mozart of Chess”) and 26-year-old challenger Fabiano Caruana of the United States (a major talent in his own right).

At one time, it did seem that computers would sound the death knell for chess, not to mention all human mind games. That was certainly my guess in the late 1970s, when the rise of computers was one of the main reasons I gave for retiring from competitive chess.

As an MIT graduate student, I had the privilege of playing a number of games against legendary hacker Richard Greenblatt’s remarkable early chess program. Greenblatt wired a large custom-built box, dedicated to sorting out legal chess moves in any given position, directly into the MIT mainframe computer. Although the program had “only” attained the level of a top club player, and I was still able to beat it consistently, the experience gave me a clear glimpse of what was to come, although not as quickly as I had guessed.

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