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HUMAN SPIRIT

Why the chess community actually grew when computers learned to play

REUTERS/Peter Morgan
World chess champion Garry Kasparov rests his head in his hands as he is seen on a monitor during game six of the chess match against IBM supercomputer Deep Blue.
This article is more than 2 years old.
As machines perform more and more tasks, questions arise around which human skills will become obsolete.

In 1997, human dominance of chess came to a sputtering halt, and no one saw it coming. At the time, Garry Kasparov was undisputedly the best chess player in the world. After beating every human in the running, he was looking for a new challenge. It was an easy yes when he was invited in 1996 to play against Deep Blue, a chess-playing computer developed by IBM. The computer was no match for Kasparov, whose winning streak continued. But when they had a rematch the following year, the tables turned. In a six-game match, Kasparov won the first, lost the second, had draws on the next three … and lost the final round. I remember it well. I watched every match. To Kasparov’s chagrin, Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a world champion in a chess match.

This was a stunning moment for the chess community, and the entire world. Chess was thought to be one of the last things a computer would be able to conquer. Alan Turing, the father of computing, tried in vain to build a chess algorithm before his death in 1954. While his efforts enabled a computer to play chess against a human, it was never able to win. Turing passed away decades before the infamous Kasparov vs. Deep Blue matchup, so he was never able to see a computer pass the Turing Test: After losing the match, Kasparov was convinced there had to be a man behind the machine.

Deep Blue’s victory may have been a fluke, or an off day for Kasparov. But the computer kept improving. Within a couple of years, playing chess against a computer no longer required special equipment. Normal computers could compete with grand masters. Now, there isn’t a person in the world who can beat their own phone at a game of chess.

As machines perform more and more tasks, questions arise around which human skills will become obsolete. At first face, you might think the ability to play chess would be one of them. You might imagine that our relationship with the board game would change as a result. And it has. But in the opposite direction you’d expect.

The chess community actually grew when computers learned to play. There is more interest than ever in chess tournaments. According to the most recent data from the World Chess Federation, the number of active professional players nearly doubled between 2009 to 2014. The number of open tournaments increased by 37% worldwide. An average of 4.18 games start every single second on Chess.com alone. There’s no definitive statistic of how many chess players there are, but estimates range up to one billion players globally. That makes it the most popular game in the world, despite the fact that computers can beat us without fail. Why do we still love the game so much? I think I might know.

Humans have a deep appreciation for other humans doing remarkable things. Because of this, there will always be a demand for outstanding chess players, artists, and anyone pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible. Even if computers can win every chess game, or create incredible art in every form, the fact that a machine did it is actually diminishing. We like the constraint of being human, and seeing what’s possible from within those boundaries. When we see a performance, we don’t just see it for what it is. We see the entire history, the years of training that led up to them being able to perform with such excellence.

We can listen to every song in the world through our phones, and we still go to the live show. We can play video games simulating basketball, and yet we’ll buy season tickets to sit courtside. We pay good money to see people bump up against their limits.

After his Big Blue defeat, Kasparov eventually came around to the idea that computers and chess are a good match. He invented a variant of the game where a human player uses a computer as support while competing in a tournament. The machine becomes an input for the person’s decision-making process, changing the narrative from human versus machine to human plus machine. What’s remarkable is that even the best engines will lose to a human working with a machine, because the two enhance each other. They are better together.

No matter the decade, no matter what computers master, the power of human performance will prevail. Witnessing the utmost that humans can achieve will be an eternal privilege. Although we can build machines that are better at nearly everything, our fascination with the strength of the human spirit will never be replaced.

Tobi Lütke is the founder and CEO of Shopify.

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