Overlooked No More

Recently I learned a new Dutch chess word: semispatiebalkvariant. It means “semi-spacebar variation,” but in Dutch, where it is written as above, as one word, it’s more impressive. Dimitri Reinderman, who had used the word in a report about the Dutch championship, explained that while playing over a game in ChessBase with an engine running, hitting the spacebar would give you not the move actually played, but the first choice of the computer. So, hitting the spacebar several times, you would get a spacebar variation that represented best play from both sides according to the computer. “Semi” meant that once in a while the human operator would prod the engine to look at a move that was not its first choice. The engines have come a long way from humble beginnings.

The New York Times has a regular section “Overlooked No More” with obituaries of people who died some time ago, but were not found important enough at the time to be commemorated in the pages of that newspaper. To my great surprise, last June among all those people I had never heard of, there was also Alan Turing. He died in 1954 and had been overlooked then.

Alan Turing! The patriarch of artificial intelligence and the biggest brain of the British team that managed to break the German codes during the Second World War. It has been said that their efforts had been decisive for the victory on the Western front, or more modestly, that the road to victory by the Western Allies was shortened by one or two years. Anyway, for The New York Times, Alan Turing had not been important enough at the time he died.

Maybe it was because computers didn’t have much to offer yet in 1954 and the British codebreaker’s project was still a state secret at the time, but I suspect that it was also because Turing was a convicted homosexual. He had the misfortune to be homosexual and English, living in a country where homosexual acts between adults would only be decriminalized in 1967. The New York Times, always the voice of the American establishment, was at the time of Turing’s death heavily homophobic, as it would remain for many decades.

Nowadays there is a statue of Turing at Bletchly Park, near London, where the codebreakers had their offices, and his face will be on the new British 50-pound note. In life he was probably driven to suicide by the British judicial system.

Turing had many ties to chess. During the Ultra Project, in which the codebreakers from Bletchley Park managed to break the codes of the German enigma machine, the English chess masters Alexander, Golombek and Millner-Barry were his associates. Turing was not a strong chess player, but a good marathon runner, and maybe that’s why he invented “round the house chess,” in which the player who had made a move had to run around the house as fast as possible, and when he got back the opponent had to make his move. Or, that opponent might decide to make a move earlier and start running himself, and if he would overtake the other runner, he would gain the right to make a move again, thereby making two moves in a row.

Turing also arranged the first computer chess game. He had written a chess program in 1948, but then there was no hardware capable of handling it. Even a few years later, with pen, paper and a lot of patience, he had to calculate the moves that his algorithm would perform on the computer that wasn’t there yet.

The first game of Turochamp, against the wife of Turing’s collaborator David Champernowne, has been lost to posterity, but the second game, against Alick Glennie, another colleague of Turing at the University of Manchester, was recorded. By the way, the name of the algorithm was not meant to claim that it was a champion, or maybe only tongue-in-cheek. It was a combination of the names Turing and Champernowne.

Later Turing’s chess program was reconstructed by a team from ChessBase from his notes and, during a conference in Manchester in 2012, a hundred years after Turing’s birth, the reconstructed program played a game against Garry Kasparov.

In the game viewer you can see that the game against Glennie resembles a decent chess game until the final move, when Turochamp blundered its queen. However, the game against Kasparov is painful to our eyes from the start. Was it because Turochamp had been lying on the shelf for such a long time and had gathered dust?

As I have learned from Reinderman, nowadays we only have to hit the spacebar repeatedly to receive an impressive lesson from the chess computer. Still, the old Turochamp seems more interesting to me.

There is a ChessBase article from 2012 with a link to download the reconstructed Turochamp, but it seems that link doesn’t work anymore. I suppose there must be a way to download the program somewhere from the internet, but I haven’t been able to find it yet.

Click here to view Turochamp-Glennie and Turochamp-Kasparov.