All serious chess players know that in order to improve at chess it’s important that we analyse our games. And all modern players know that analysing our games has become much easier in recent years due to the power and easy availability of chess engines such as Stockfish, Leela, Fritz and many others. So highly regarded are the powers of chess engines, that we commonly regard their output as “the truth” about a given position or indeed about a game, and will accept their conclusions in much the same way as a good Catholic is expected to accept the ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope. We enter the moves into the engine, it tells us what we did wrong and what we should have played, and there we have it … game analysed. Or perhaps not.
Talking with fellow chess player Sam Gaffney recently, I compared this use of chess engines to the Electric Monk. The Electric Monk is a creation of Douglas Adams and takes a major role in Adams’ wonderful book Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.1
The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.
Before we get to the Electric Monk, or its relevance to chess, we should ask ourselves whether the descriptions of the dishwasher and video recorder are apt. It’s hard to disagree with Adams in respect of the dishwasher. Washing the dishes does tend to be tedious, and saving ourselves that effort should certainly be regarded as “labour saving”. What about the video recorder? Here we might find ourselves struggling to accept the description.2 Surely the video recorder doesn’t watch the programmes to save us the bother. Rather it allows us to watch the programmes at a more convenient time. We still do the watching, only later. Except that sometimes we don’t. I’ve known people amass a huge collection of video recordings that they are clearly never going to get round to watching. And even if I do eventually watch what I’ve recorded, at the time when it was broadcast I evidently valued something else more highly than watching the programme. Relative to that other activity, didn’t I class that programme as “tedious” by comparison? So perhaps there is something in Adams’ amusing description of the video recorder after all. It’s not quite fair to such devices, but Adams was certainly onto something. However, the humour is really directed at us as the consumers of this technology. If we record the programmes and then don’t watch them later, what was the point in recording them? And if we do watch them, is that only because (unlike when it was broadcast) we now have nothing better to do?
How about the Electric Monk? If such a device existed, would we want to own one? Would Adams’ description be fair? It seems pretty clear to me that the Electric Monk is at the same time both desirable and absurd. Let’s take the desirability first. I think most of us have at some time found ourselves in the position of thinking: “And we’re supposed to believe that, are we?”. The less woke amongst us probably find ourselves thinking along such lines more often than others, but it doesn’t only happen in matters of social mores. There are vast tracts of science that bend the brain to an extent that accepting them seems like hard work. It would be much easier if we could simply get someone else to believe these things on our behalf.
The problem with the Electric Monk is that such duties to believe are “non-transferable”. With the dishwasher, the important thing was that the dishes were washed. It doesn’t matter whether it’s me or a machine that washes them. With the video recorder, it makes a difference “who” watches the recordings. If theres a point to the device, it’s to allow us to watch the programmes later. The thing we value isn’t that something was attending to the broadcast at the relevant time, we actually want to watch the programme not simply to have it “be watched”. And with those beliefs, it’s not enough that someone or something accepts the beliefs. It needs to be us that believes them. Dishes can be washed for us and the good we’re aiming for is still achieved. TV programmes can be “watched” for us but only if we still watch them later. Beliefs cannot be held for us.
Some readers will have already worked out where this is going. How does the Electric Monk compare with Stockfish and with chess engines more generally? Can the engines analyse the games on our behalf? Let’s suppose we say that they can. How does this relate to our improving at chess? It’s not enough to simply have the engine analyse your game. You need to engage with that analysis. And the deeper that engagement the better. A shallow engagement is akin to setting the video recorder, and labelling the recording once complete and then never watching the recording later. We’ve all been there. We casually enter the game into the engine and see what it makes of our moves. We typically look for our first mistake, see what the computer was recommending at that point and tell ourselves that that’s what we’ll do next time.
But how likely are we to reach that position again? And if we do, then how likely are we to remember the engine’s recommendation at that point? And if like me you want to answer “not very” to both of these questions, hasn’t getting the engine to do all the analytical work for us missed the point of analysing the game at all? That’s not to say that using the engine is pointless, but it needs to be used to support your analysis and not replace it. You should be looking for the “why” behind the moves, which the engine isn’t likely to make immediately obvious. Finding that out means at least digging into the alternative lines at the relevant junctures, and this immediately starts to be rather harder work than just looking at the engine’s “top line”. And we’ve barely scratched the surface. No doubt you’ll find many better advisers about how make best use of a chess engine when analysing your games or preparing for an upcoming match.
While I’m yet to get my hands on it, I’m going to guess that one good source of guidance is Matthew Sadler’s latest book, The Silicon Road to Chess Improvement.
1 Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (Simon Schuster, 1987). Adams is better known as the author of the brilliant Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. In my chat with Sam, I incorrectly referred to the Electric Monk as the “Robotic Priest”.
2 Younger readers may not be familiar with these devices. Before catch-up and on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer or Netflix, TV shows had to be watched at the time they were broadcast. The TV listings of what would be broadcast and when it would be broadcast were essential reading, and disturbances to the schedule were regarded as most inconvenient. So, you’d tune in to your favourite TV programme at the same time every week. And if you had other commitments, then you’d simply miss it … unless it was repeated later. But then came the video recorder, which you’d set to record your programme at the point of broadcast, and you’d then watch the recording later at your own convenience. Clever, eh?