Stockfish as Guide and Oracle

I thought I had been a witness to the “Chinese Immortal.” That had been played in 1978 at the Olympiad in Buenos Aires by Liu Wenzhe against the Dutch grandmaster Hein Donner. It was the first Olympiad in which China took part.

I was watching the game when Liu, quick as a flash, sacrificed his queen. His next moves came instantly also and as early as move 20, Donner had to resign because of unavoidable mate.

I went back to my own board and immediately made a mistake that led to a premature draw. I combined playing and reporting at that Olympiad, and for the Dutch Press Agency I wrote something like, “At his neighboring board, Hans Ree was so shocked by Donner’s demise that he immediately...” In fact, I’d had trouble not to burst out laughing.

Donner stayed about twenty minutes sitting behind his board in silent thought. Then he stood up and said proudly, “I am the Kieseritzky of China.”

So that was the Chinese Immortal for Dutch players of my generation. And not only for the Dutch. A few years later Donner received a postcard from Beijing, signed by the European participants of a tournament in that city.

I must admit that the game that was recently played in Tianjin by Ding Liren against Bai Jinshi is a more deserving candidate for immortality. The universal praise showered on that game is quite justified. It’s true that after Black’s queen sacrifice, White made a bad mistake, but so what? Without mistakes, there are no great spectacles.

About the graceful maneuvers of the black rook, a Russian commentator, borrowing the words of Muhammad Ali, wrote, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The game gives us a sequence of beautiful pictures and maybe the most beautiful is that of the final position, where all the black pieces have joined in the hunt of the king. Only the a7-pawn is idle, but that is as it should be, for every successful regiment does have an outsider, to foster the solidarity of the rest.

The young Ding Liren had reached the final of the World Cup and thereby qualified for the Candidates of next year. A few weeks, later he played the new Chinese Immortal. He was on top.

Then in November, as a part of the Champions Showdown in St. Louis, Ding played a match against Magnus Carlsen that consisted of games with 5, 10, 20 and 30 minutes thinking time.

Ding was tackled hard. There was a complicated scoring system, but even if you don’t fully understand it, the result, 67-25 for Carlsen, speaks clearly. Their game in the viewer, played with 10 minutes thinking time per person, was one of Ding’s few successes.

Actually, one shouldn’t really analyze a quick game, but I was curious to see what could happen in the position of the first diagram if White had played the standard sacrifice 14.Nd5.


Position after Black's 13th move

The program Stockfish produced a stunning variation where best play for White and Black – if you believe Stockfish, which I do – led to an endgame with an unusual material balance. It would reach this position:


Often the engines reveal unexpected treasures, such as in this case. Isn’t it amazing? On move 14, White might take, with eyes closed, a little jump into the unknown by playing 14.Nd5, and then according to Stockfish, the players would be carried in a maelstrom that would drop them by force in that strange endgame.

But who is better after that, White or Black? Stockfish says 0.00, complete equality.

What should we make of such an unlikely answer? It is a bit like the supercomputer Deep Thought from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which, after 7½ million years of calculating, says that the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything, is 42.

In human language, this 0.00 can be translated as, “There is a perpetual check at the horizon and White would be wise to take it.” The first part of that statement seems plausible; the second part seems unlikely to me. In my experience the computer’s 0.00 often expresses an evaluation that seems almost human. Then the computer wants to say, “I just don’t know.”

Click here to play through:
Bai-Din Liren, China 2017
Carlsen-Ding Liren, St. Louis 2017
Liu Wenzhe-Donner, Buenos Aires 1978