Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and India’s Viswanathan Anand are duking it out in the world championship, apparently, without anyone else contesting their supremacy. But as insanely good as they are, they still can’t stand up to the best computers today. As a matter of fact, there is one theory which, if proven, could pretty much spoil chess forever.
“Everyone agrees that if a computer were given X number of years, it would be able to calculate the ultimate way to win at chess. Or at least the ultimate way of averting a loss,” says Kjetil Haugen. Hagen is vice-rector of Molde University College, a professor of logistics and sports management and an avid game theory enthusiast.
The claim is not new – as a matter of fact, it’s 100 years old. In 1913 the German mathematician Ernst Zermelo published what would later be known as the Zermelo theory; one of the things the Zermelo says is that in any game played by 2 players, which involves alternating moves and has a limited amount of moves, a winning strategy exists.
As time passed, the theory found applications in numerous fields and was interpreted in many ways, but so far, fortunately or not, no one was able to find THE winning strategy for chess.
“The main problem hindering the discovery of that formula involves the limits of computer power,” says Haugen.
The number of total moves in chess is so unfathomably large that with the world’s current processing capacity and taking into consideration predictable advancements, this won’t happen in the near future. But even if it would be possible… would such a thing be desirable?
In a way, chess is like a way more complex and complicated version of Tic-Tac-Toe – you move something, then the other player moves, and you have a clear objective. Of course, finding the winning strategy (in which you either win or draw, but can’t lose) in Tic-Tac-Toe is very simple.
“This is why they don’t organise a world championship in tic-tac-toe. Chess is an overgrown version of it. As a game it is structurally very similar, with two players taking alternating moves within a finite strategic space. But in reality they are far apart. The possible moves in chess are also finite, but the difference between them is an enormous order of magnitude.”
Chess is also something which isn’t simplifiable – it’s gonna take raw computer power, not some out of the box thinking. But if the secret formula for determining the outcome of any game of chess were to be found, that would virtually ruin the game forever. Rules would have to be changed and this fascinating, ancient game would be forever changed.
Professor Kjetil Haugen admits that he doesn’t play chess – he prefers to watch football – which for our American fans means ‘soccer’.
“That, too, is a thrilling game involving plenty of mathematics. Quite a lot about soccer has much in common with my work,” he says with a smile.