Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence Is Constantly Changing What We Know About Chess, Says Viswanathan Anand

His legendary face-off with the computer program, Rebel, may have been a watershed moment in the history of chess, but by Viswanathan Anand’s own admission, Artificial Intelligence or AI has progressed by leaps and bounds in its duels with the human mind.

“AI is constantly rewriting what we think of as chess knowledge and it’s exciting as well as exhausting,” said Anand as he sat down for a chat with, “We (humans) have to constantly, if not change our approach to chess, at least update them. New concepts are popping up and we need to work with them even if they conflict with our old ideas.”

The face-off between humans and computers at chess is not new. The 1990s and early 2000s were known for seeing chess champions like Gary Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Anand himself face off against computer programs like Deep Blue, Deep Fritz, Maniac and Rebel — matches that ended with humans on the losing side on more occasions.

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In a 2018 interview with CNBC-TV18, Anand went on record to admit that the debate over whether humans were better at chess than machines was a foregone conclusion in favour of AI. He added that all humans could hope for today was to learn all we could from computers in the hope to get better at the game.

Viswanathan Anand with other chess players. (Photo Credit: Jude Sannith)

However, the chess grandmaster and five-time world champion believes that if there’s one tip that more chess players need to take home with them, it’s the need to stay intuitive as opposed to impulsive. Over the last week, Anand has been imparting some of these tips as mentor to the 20-member Indian contingent that will represent the country at the upcoming Chess Olympiad.

The tournament, conducted since 1924, is scheduled to be held in Chennai between July 22 and August 8 and will see India host it for the first time. The last two editions of the Olympiad were held virtually on account of the pandemic. India and Russia shared a Gold in the 2020 edition.

Asked if the Indian team could possibly replicate its medal-winning 2020 performance, Anand is conservative in his predictions. “We are definitely one of the top teams — I’m not sure if we’re the third or fourth strongest — and we have the capacity to do better and beat the others,” he said, “But there is nothing that can be taken for granted. We have to fight for every point.”

The good news, though, is that promising young talent in the Indian side is hardly ever in short supply. After all, part of the contingent is an Indian chess prodigy and youngest grandmaster, 16-year-old Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa. However, there’s more firepower in the Indian ranks.

(Photo Credit: Jude Sannith)

“It’s perfect that we have so many talented youngsters — Gukesh (Dommaraju) and Arjun (Erigaisi) are in the top 70, which is spectacular given that just six months ago they were not,” Anand says, “While Praggnanandhaa has not played in tournaments that raise he’s ratings he’s shown exception levels recently.”

Incidentally, India will also field two women’s team at the Olympiad featuring household names like Koneru Humpy. But it’s 20-year-old Heraklion 2022 champion Vaishali Rameshbabu that Anand is more excited about. “It’s nice we can field two women’s teams since our women don’t get too many chances — Vaishali for one has had fantastic results including her recent win in Greece,” he said.

What exactly would you find if you opened Anand’s coaching playbook, though? “I’ve been sharing my experience with some of the players, telling them what happened to me and what might happen to them,” he says. “Our players don’t have glaring weaknesses, but they need to work on consistency,” he adds, “This is going to be a bigger event than the ones they’re used to, so everyone is going to have to fight harder, and be mentally prepared.”

Anand regards the American contingent as India’s big challenge at the upcoming Olympiad: “If they (USA) come as a full-strength team, they are the odds-on favourite. But it wouldn’t surprise me even if they lost to one of our teams because these are good players.”

The last few years has seen chess in India skyrocket up the popularity charts. Aside from wins by new prodigies that have made headlines, celebrities in the world of sports, entertainment and business have taken to the game. Indian cricketers Yuzvendra Chahal and Ravichandran Ashwin are two prominent aficionados whose ambassadorships have helped chess achieve a new level of patronage.

“It’s nice that Yuzvendra and Ashwin play chess quite openly,” says Anand, “It’s funny that sometimes we chess players need to play a physical sport to focus while sportsmen need to play a mental sport like chess to improve their focus.”


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