Pawn Hub:\u2009How the web is boosting every chess player’s game

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You don’t need more than a 64-square board and your armies of black and white pieces for a game of chess. But no serious player today can afford to ignore the internet.

On the professional circuit, where roughly 10,000 games are played every day, every move made by every player in every match around the world is now logged into virtual databases. The largest of these, Megabase, contained more than 6.8 million games from 333,000 players in its 2017 edition, accessible on customised software.

So you could be up against an opponent you’ve never met, and still view every move he or she has ever made (with your moves up for scrutiny too).

“Earlier, you’d finish a game and wonder how you could have done better,” says Durga Nagesh Guttula, who runs the South Mumbai Chess Academy (SMCA). “Today, algorithms can point to exactly which move tipped the scales in your disfavour, so you can work on your weakness.”

R Vaishali, 16-year-old Woman International Master, enjoys this access to information. “When new tournaments go live I discuss them with my friends, and learn from them at home,” she says. “When my brother [R Praggnannanda, the world’s youngest IM] and I follow a match, we’re always fighting over which move will be played next.”

Chess now has LED boards that light up squares to offer hints to beginners. Smartboards work out the best moves to play against an evolving user. Coaches use Skype. Mobile apps like Follow Chess transmit top live games. Mobile Stockfish lets you analyse your positions and makes recommendations on the go. You could even face-off a simulation of the world’s top chess player, Magnus Carlsen, on Play Magnus.

At the very top, where the best grandmasters battle as the world watches, chess pieces carry magnetic sensors that record every new location as the pieces are moved. As audiences “watch” the bout unfold live, dedicated servers track every move calculating the outcome for viewers in seconds, even as the players take time to work it out.

For some coaches, this is good news. Balaji Guttula, Durga’s brother and chief coach at the SMCA, says the data helps preparation for world championships.

“We no longer coach kids for national matches but international ones,” he says. This means studying a decade’s worth of trends, examining possible openings, a competitor’s arc and weaknesses. “This sort of study is new to the way chess is being taught in the country. We are using the data well.”

RB Ramesh, Grand Master and coach to some of India’s rising stars, takes another view. “With the web, there’s too much information,” he says. “You can’t sort out which data is good or bad specifically for you.”

Computers have been beating world champions since 1997, when the Deep Blue programme outplayed Garry Kasparov. But no computer has been able to solve chess (work out a win from every possible set of moves). And Durga Guttula says that playing against a machine alone will never improve your game.

A machine can, however, help you finish better, which explains the sharp rise in cheating cases, in which participants consult computers on their breaks.