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Beyond the Carlsen-Niemann cheating scandal, a fundamental question: Has technology killed chess?

If all of chess exists in a giant database, and can effectively be memorised, has it turned into just a memory game and lost the brilliance of human improvisation and reflex?

Has this tech juicing-up put chess out of the reach of those who cannot access these toys? Has technology restricted a sport — that anyway flexes the cerebrum, and has no need for other muscles — to those who can pore over databases and design the best patterns of play? (Photo: chessphotoshop.com)

The sleuthing and amateur forensics by chess enthusiasts in the aftermath of the Magnus Carlsen-Hans Niemann cheating storm raises a deeper question: Just how much has technology infiltrated chess and robbed it of the human elements that turn its unpredictability into its biggest attraction?

After Carlsen refused to play with Niemann, based on his deep reservations over whether the American was cheating, a host of experts analysed the over-the-board match the two had played where the Norwegian had lost, playing white. They ran simulations on playing patterns and moves, desperately looking for online chess’s version of guilty fingerprints and having found none for that particular game, concluded that there had been no cheating. They then accused Carlsen of poor sportsmanship, sullen after losing to a lippy upstart. Had anyone found a move suspiciously similar to one from the past and aiding Neimann unfairly, there is no doubt, his damnation — with the internet loving this controversy — would have been just as swift.

We are still nowhere close to finding answers to these questions. But in a world of hyper-communication and hyper-technology, where a Twitter thread or blog post can be judge, jury and hangman, this blind, all-encompassing reliance on technology to pass judgement in an age-old sport, is ludicrous.

At an extended level, it takes chess further away from the uniquely human aspects of the sport. It’s also why Carlsen spoke of Niemann “not looking tensed enough” or not seeming focussed enough at critical junctures — grounds that are subjective, nebulous and human — when voicing his suspicions. Not that these indications are 100 per cent reliable either. But to expect that every cheating instance will have some digital diary entry, or conversely, that in the absence of these tread marks, no hit-and-run cheating happened, are both inferences that are wildly off the mark. Relying on them to retrofit either theory is sheer foolishness.

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But here’s the bigger question: Has technology killed the fun in chess? This is no rage against machines, given that science has pervaded every sport: Aerodynamics in speed events, wearable technology for kinesthetics and the famously rehearsed and re-run offensive and defensive plays of American sport, with their deep analytics carried out by hoodie-wearing geeks slumped over their ipads. Not to mention the Breaking Bad of sport — chemical doping, blood transfusions, recovery potions, electromagnetic stimuli and masking agents. But technology in chess — a sport which has no dire physical exertions beyond sitting for long, staring at the same di-chromatic pieces — has methodically chipped away at all improvisation, especially at the high-stakes levels, with draw results preferred.

Even in its preparations, chess seems like an exercise in cramming, with YouTubers, streamers and yuppie Grand Masters gleefully pre-empting, guessing and foreseeing openings, with the reams of material available. What pans out is a cold, calculated game involving mathematically-generated algorithms, with their equally documented counters. Whatever joy and fun remains is in tracing back similar precedents. When supercomputers got whirring in chess — and it was wildly exciting to be sure — the sport set out on an unforked path of “who will ace technology better?”

It is little wonder that the technologically superior US, China, Russia and Europe as well as India, dominate the sport. But the question to be asked is: Has this tech juicing-up put chess out of the reach of those who cannot access these toys? Has technology restricted a sport — that anyway flexes the cerebrum, and has no need for other muscles — to those who can pore over databases and design the best patterns of play?

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Sure, the question of what move to make at what time is still very human and personal. But a sport at which a player could get better by reading books — and not marginally better but significantly, career-definingly better — was always going to set itself apart in exclusion and exceptionalism.

Beyond the moralising over cheating and the unfair assistance that Niemann might or might not have received, lies the fundamental question: What cynical joy can be derived from winning at a sport by cheating with the use of technology and gadgetry, where the player’s only effort is in exerting the eight carpal bones of the hand to move pieces on the board? What is the thrill in winning this way, by outsourcing the only thing needed to win — the sheer power of thinking — by allowing your play to be remote controlled, just to prove you are smarter?

If all of chess exists in a giant database, and can effectively be memorised, has it turned into just a memory game and lost the brilliance of human improvisation and reflex? Technology is inevitable. It is also irreversible. But beyond threatening the integrity of the sport, has it also finished the intuitive thrill of chess? A “sport” that can be seamlessly played online is already enslaved to machines and their unoriginality. It’s no wonder that Carlsen’s mode of protest in this hyper-communicative social media world, was to use the unsilenceable Jose Mourinho’s rare words on keeping silent. Can chess not even talk anymore?

shivani.naik@expressindia.com

First published on: 27-09-2022 at 06:32:29 pm
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