Chess, Consciousness, and Computers


Philosophy has, believe it or not, dropped off my radar (for now). The school semester is over. Most of my philosophical work is done. I am no longer reading books and articles for hours a day. Why? Because I have chess on the brain! The game has somehow transformed my consciousness. I am actually getting less sleep because I go into a lighter sleep cycle in the early morning and my consciousness turns on and starts automatically thinking about chess tactics and moving pieces.

The game has absolutely intrigued me. It is a game of wit, cunning, logic, and creativity. And it is a game of real sport. There are attacks and defenses, thrusts and parries, traps and tactics, pins and skewers, bluffs and brilliance. The theoretical depth to the game is absolutely stunning. But it is balanced through this really interesting rating system, which is all about relative skill.

Let’s say I have a score of 1000. Theoretically, I should be less likely to beat a player with a score of 1500. However, if I do beat that player, then my score will rise dramatically and their score will drop accordingly. The objectivity of the rating system makes the competitive play very interesting. A grandmaster with a high score would not waste his time playing a beginner, for this would not be a challenge and his score would not go up if he won. And likewise, a beginner will probably want to play someone with a rating closer to his own. Accordingly, the better you get at chess the harder it becomes to win on a regular basis, because you start playing people with higher ratings. In this way, the competitive play in chess is balanced wonderfully so that the level of competition is usually such that you get interesting games.

And if you are a naturally competitive person like me, then the objectivity of the rating system is truly inspirational. The rating system allows for a rare quantification of intellectual skill. This quantification allows for a measure of objectivity in self-evaluation (This is especially true with the advent of computer analysis, as I explain below). As you play more players, and start beating people with higher and higher ratings, you can get an objective sense of where you stand in relation to everyone else. It seems unlikely that I will ever reach the highest levels of competitive play, but I think there is an intrinsic value to the enrichment of one’s intellectual gumption. Even if you don’t become the best in the world, the practice of chess is truly an exercise in the radical augmentation of consciousness.

Indeed, the way your average chess player operates is through sheer consciousness. They have to consciously imagine the various “If, then” conditionals then are associated with each possible move. At every step in the game, the player has to step offline, and reflect on the various possibilities. “If I do that, then they will do this. And if they do that, then I can do this or that. And if I do this, then that might happen, etc.” For causal players, you only need to think one move in advance, but the further into the future you are able to calculate, the higher your level of play and the more likely you are to develop devastating attacks on your opponent. To play chess effectively then requires a highly developed sense of conscious reflection. The ability to explicitly calculate the various futural possibilities is critical for playing chess successfully. However, since even the best players can’t look too far into the future without overloading their working memory with too much information, they must rely on intuition and creativity. The fact that you are unlikely to play the same chess game twice requires a smooth interplay between logical calculation and creative hypothesis testing.

This is especially true of blitz games were you don’t have the luxury of deeply calculating every move. Good blitz players must operate through their intuition. On this level of play, they “feel out” possibilities rather than rationally calculating every move. This fast-paced play requires that the unconscious mind be adequately trained such that slow, deliberate calculation is replaced by speedy intuition. According to Hubert Dreyfus’ model of expertise [1], there are 5 stages to directed skill acquisition:

  1. Novice.  “Most beginners are notoriously slow players, as they attempt to remember all these rules and their priorities.”
  2. Advanced beginner. “With experience, the chess beginner learns to recognize overextended positions and how to avoid them. Similarly, she begins to recognize such situational aspects of positions as a weakened king’s side or a strong pawn structure despite the lack of precise and situation-free definition. The player can then follow maxims such as: Attack a weakened king’s side.”
  3. Competence. “The class A chess player, here classed as competent, may decide after studying a position that her opponent has weakened his king’s defenses so that an  attack against the king is a viable goal. If she chooses to attack, she can ignore features involving weaknesses in her own position created by the attack as well as the loss of pieces not essential to the attack. Pieces defending the enemy king become salient. Successful plans induce euphoria, while mistakes are felt in the pit of the stomach.”
  4. Proficient. “The proficient chess player, who is classed a master, can recognize almost immediately a large repertoire of types of positions. She then deliberates to determine which move will best achieve her goal. She may, for example, know that she should attack, but she must calculate how best to do so.”
  5. Expertise. “The expert chess player, classed as an international master or grandmaster, experiences a compelling sense of the issue and the best move. Excellent chess players can play at the rate of 5 to 10 seconds a move and even faster without any serious degradation in performance. At this speed they must depend almost entirely on intuition and hardly at all on analysis and comparison of alternatives. It has been estimated that a master chess player can distinguish roughly 50,000 types of positions. For much expert performance, the number of classes of discriminable situations, built up on the basis of experience, must be comparably large.”

When Artificial Intelligence was first dreamt up, chess represented one of the highest peaks of intelligence. The mixture of creativity, strategy, boldness, wit, deviousness, and logic were enough to convince many people that if computers could ever beat a human grandmaster, then they would be, without a doubt, truly intelligent. And now we have $10 iphone apps with chess programs smart enough to beat almost any human chess player. But, obviously, iphones are not intelligent in the way a human is intelligent. So what happened? How is it that chess programs became so good without also developing intellectual skills that are domain general rather than radically domain specific? During the 1950s, it was assumed that the exponential growth of chess move possibilities would bog down any computer if it attempted to just brute force the game moves based on an algorithmic analysis of each move as if it were an isolated book program. But this is the only obvious way to program computers to play good chess. So if computers ever did beat humans, it would be pretty amazing.

But with the widespread availability of cheap computing power, we can now have grandmasters in the palm of our hands. This has radically changed the chess world. But not in the way you’d think. The game hasn’t been “solved”, unlike checkers. Thankfully, chess is too complex for computers to determine the winner after a single move. But when you can calculate 200 million possible moves a second, lack of intuition becomes no hindrance to complete domination of humans. Computers are now literal chess gods, always playing the move that has the best possible likelihood of winning.

I find this development in the chess world to be absolutely interesting. With computer analysis now available, the object of human chess skill acquisition is to play like a computer. But since the human mind will never be able to rival 200 million possible moves a second, we must consciously train our unconscious mind to play like computers. The conscious mind is the worst way to mimic computer play. Conscious access to working memory only allows a limited amount of information chunks to be simultaneously weighed. Conscious thinking is slow, linear, and clunky (although certainly capable of stunning feats of intelligence). But the unconscious mind is much faster thanks to parallel processing and a deeper cognitive reservoir with theoretically unlimited memory, which always blows my mind a little when I think about it.

In this sense, there is a little bit of truth in the classic myth that we only use 10% of our brains. There is a lot of wisdom in this statement, but you have to break it down and look past its obvious falsity. When someone says “we only use 10% of our brains”, the “we” they are referring to is the autobiographical consciousness, not the unconscious mind. What they mean to say is that our consciousness only has access to a small fraction of the total cognitive reservoir. There is a good evolutionary reason for this. Consciousness is too slow to react to a bear in the woods or a snake beneath our feet. As the famous deafferentation case of IW demonstrates, if we had to use our slow consciousness to control our bodies, the results would be less than efficient.

There are then many reasons why I have suddenly become drawn to the world of chess. The game appeals to my mind in many ways. I like the idea of reshaping my brain through practice and training. With computer training, chess players are training themselves to think like computers so when the pressure is on, they can not think like computers, and use complex situational awareness (Stages 3-5 of skill acquisition). I have been playing this iphone chess computer all the time. I train myself by trying to guess what the computer is going to do next. If I can’t understand why the computer moved where it did, I will sit there and study the situation until I can come up with a reason. This is because the best chess players don’t memorize patterns and blindly calculate. They have reasons and principles for what they do. And some real John Madden type strategy. Watching chess masters play is amazing.

Well, that’s what has been on my mind lately. I should get back to practicing chess…


[1] Dreyfus, H. L. (2002). Intelligence without representation – Merleau-Ponty’s critique of mental representation The relevance of phenomenology to scientific explanation. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1(4), 367-383.



Filed under Consciousness, Phenomenology, Psychology

3 responses to “Chess, Consciousness, and Computers

  1. Pingback: Chess, Consciousness, and Computers | Minds and Brains | Chess IQ

  2. Pingback: Chess, Consciousness, and Computers | Minds and Brains | The Knowledge Blog – Dominima

  3. Tyle Stelzig

    Deep Blue didn’t beat Kasparov off brute force alone. Sure, it probably pursued its minimax algorithm deeper than Kasparov could. But it too had to rely on a heuristic function to evaluate the desirability of the terminal nodes of its search tree. And this heuristic evaluation function, while probably less sophisticated than Kasparov’s, captures the idea of intuition. Deep Blue played chess pretty much the same way we do.

    I do, however, agree with your point that this algorithm is still “radically domain specific”. And this domain specificity is not unique to chess programs, of course. AI seems to be telling us (through its successes, ironically) that we just aren’t rule-based Von Neumann machines. This isn’t much of a surprise, obviously, if we’re familiar with neuroanatomy, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

    Wish I could play chess!

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