Updated: Apr 20
Do engines play chess in any style ? And if so, what difference does it make to a human or... another engine ? Does the style of chess play affect the results ?
On these and other questions I will lead the deliberations in this article.
Chess, like other fields such as painting or music, is recognized as an art. Of course, for many it can be something else: a challenge, a sport, a puzzle, a way to spend free time, etc.
However, there is no doubt that just like other arts, chess can also "be painted or played" like painting a picture or arranging a song with a specific style of play.
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are entirely subjective. Please approach them with a grain of salt :-)
Many established chess players are associated with a specific style of play.
For example, let's take two World Chess Champions of the time. Tigran Petrosjan – many of his games give us a picture of a chess player who was extremely effective at conducting defense, maintaining positions, and converting gains into victories. Mikhail Tal, on the other hand, very often impressed us with his extremely effective attack sense and spectacular victories after seemingly only one mistake of the opponent.
The same is the case for every human chess player and every chess engine (computer).
So how do chess engines play. For sure:
they make mistakes
they used to even lose to humans
play in different styles
there are weaker ones and slightly stronger ones
some play better on offense than defense, and vice versa
the best engines are much stronger than the strongest man.
they can play very, very fast
And they certainly don't get tired while playing - so chess engines play like... chess engines in their particular style :-)
What is this "style of play"? Generally, chess players say: how aggressive a given player is, and or whether he plays a "tactical" style or a slower, more methodical "positional" style. With these terms it's easy to characterize someone's chess game, and they are understandable for both beginners and advanced players.
Of course, the playing style of a given chess engine is actually determined by a set of many criteria that are included in the position evaluation function.
Sometimes the engine's creator decides to give access to setting its parameters, which sometimes makes it possible to change the engine's playing style by its user (e.g. TheKing engine in Chessmaster program).
It is worth mentioning that the more developed the engine's position evaluation function is, the more it increases its playing strength. In other words - the engine is "chess smarter"
A great example is one of the most powerful chess engine Komodo, whose one of the creators is Grandmaster Larry Kaufman working among other things on the position evaluation feature implemented in this engine.
Nowadays, more and more importance is given to the development of training capabilities of chess engines in conjunction with specialized software and the search for interesting ideas, for example in openings or further middle play.
The vast majority of chess players do not need for training a "chess monster" who plays with a strength much higher than any grandmaster and in a style completely misunderstood by humans.
Of course, such a monstrosity is useful for relatively fast game analysis or chess games at an -acceptable- level. Instead of waiting 15 minutes for a full analysis, today we can get it after 1, 2 or 3 minutes.
Chess engine table arranged by playing style.
It is worth mentioning on this occasion about group of enthusiasts who test chess engines, play matches and tournaments between them, and keep ranking lists (author of this article also belongs to this respectable group). If it weren't for the work they do, we wouldn't know how much power each engine plays with.
10-20 years ago, when the strongest engines played at the Masters level or at most at the Grandmaster level and when engines participated in matches and tournaments going up against people, their playing styles were known and their play understood.
Using a few such Classics as an example, I will describe their different playing styles.
The Hiarcs engine, which in 2021 has already lived to see its 15th release since the first versions over 30 years ago - has been recognized as an engine that plays chess in a very "human" style. But what does "human" style of play mean ? The author of this article, after playing dozens of games with Hiarcs, confirms that Hiarcs plays in a very "natural" way without being overly aggressive or making moves not understandable to humans. Hiarcs in the latest version plays with his maximum strength of about 3200 Elo, but as a coach or sparring partner this enormous playing strength is not overwhelming; Hiarcs can adapt himself with style and level of play.
Another chess engine is Fritz which, like Hiarcs, has a great history of several decades and is still being developed by various authors. In its first versions Fritz was a "tactical assassin" who did not hesitate to try to win at all costs (often losing games because of it). Today, after many years of development, when Fritz has reached its 18th edition, the engine has a great deal of tactical knowledge, as well as a lot of knowledge allowing for sophisticated positional play and supporting the training process.
Very interesting at one time was and still is the chess engine Junior. Multiple Computer World Champion who tied a match with Garry Kasparov himself. Known for his beautiful and non-standard play, with a very creative style of play that over the years has been used by chess players around the world to explore new chess ideas.
One of his moves 10.Bxh2+ even went down in history and it was executed during a match with the then World Chess Champion.
Shortly after the start of the game, in his 10th move Junior sacrificed a piece! The game finally ended in a draw.
It is a regret that Junior is no longer a developed engine. Surely his long-time fans would love to use his unique abilities again. The last version of Junior can boast a playing strength of about 3000 Elo - so it can still be a useful tool for e.g. analysis of chess games.
Shredder - multiple-time World Computer Chess Champion. An engine that basically has no major weaknesses. Incredibly solid positional play at a very high level, Strength of play around 3200 Elo. Never makes "stupid" moves, never takes unnecessary risks, plays in such a way that the opponent eventually loses and loses. Great as an analytical tool to check for errors in the game. Shredder is a kind of "Petrosjan" among chess engines.
According to my sources, 2022 could be the year in which the next version of this so great engine will be released!
The style of play of chess engines undoubtedly had and has an impact on the results achieved. Back in the 90's and at the beginning of this century, the engines mostly played very aggressively, their Creators strove for them to achieve the best results against other engines. The engine "ranking" machine began to unravel.
Modern engines and those already classic still under development (Hiarcs, Fritz, Shredder) have a great "knowledge" of positional play and "understanding" of chess positions.
For an average chess player who wants to train with a computer, or play an interesting and satisfying game with it, it doesn't matter whether the engine plays at 3500 Elo, 3200 Elo, or 2900 Elo. That's why it's good to see that the chess engine manufacturers pay more and more attention to further development of the training possibilities of chess engines - which can now play at different levels and in different styles for the benefit of us - the users.
Do the strongest chess engines play any particular style ?
Yes and no.
No, because for us humans, the game of an engine at the level of 3500 Elo against an engine of similar playing strength is basically incomprehensible. In 99.99% of the cases there are no spectacular sacrifices or tactical plays and attacks that bring success. Such situations are possible when engines with very different playing strengths or radically changed parameters meet. The strongest engines, except for a few, are programmed not to play in a certain style, but to achieve the highest possible playing strength measured in Elo points.
Yes, because from the "engine point of view" -> of a player at the 3500 Elo level, it will certainly see the different playing styles of his computer opponents ;-)
Of course, enthusiasts and fans of computer chess struggles can certainly perceive nuances in the play of certain engines. Similarly, this is the case when an art critic looks at paintings by world-famous painters and sees differences that are clear to him - to an ordinary viewer these paintings may be at best... pretty. The same principle applies to engines that "paint" chess through their movements.
You are welcome to discuss in the comments section and express your opinion :-)