April 29, 2011 7:58 pm

The chess app that’s my new best mate

The satisfaction derived from besting a computer game on the iPad is immense

I have spent a significant amount of spare time this week besting the computer chess game on my iPad. That’s right baby; I’ve been kicking electronic butt. Frankly it’s been a slaughter and my rating has been rising steadily. I can feel the device wilting in my hand under the strain of my unforgiving intellect. The satisfaction derived from beating a machine is immense. No matter that I had to set my ability in advance and that many of the early matches were at gibbon level, I feel as if I have outwitted an intellectual Terminator.

Oh yes, I am storming ahead. I’ve sailed through the primate stages, left beginner in my wake and am now officially competent. That may not sound like much, but I’m talking about a computer designation. For a computer to declare me competent; that’s like Mr Spock admitting you’ve been logical. This is real praise and I’m looking forward to rubbing its grubby microchipped nose into the dust as I advance to proficient.

I should admit that there are some aspects of the games that could take the sheen off my ascendancy. One of the unattractive features of this particular app is that it attempts to play at whatever level it assesses to be yours. This does mean the games last longer than they might were I up against a machine playing as Garry Kasparov. On the other hand, I’ve noticed what can only be described as a hint of condescension creeping into the computer’s play. For part of playing at my level – or a level only slightly higher than mine – is making the kind of mistakes a player like me would make. Almost at random, the machine suddenly stops its remorseless march to victory and places its queen diagonally in front of one of my pawns. This produces three stages of somewhat conflicting emotion. The first, of course, is triumph. “Ha, you’ve blundered, you desiccated, calculating machine. Your cold logic is no match for the hectic genius of my human mind.” This, then, is followed by a more sober reflection that, like a father playing his child, the machine has made a deliberate mistake to even up the odds; that like a zen master, my chess guru is helping me to get better. Lastly, comes the indignation: “You thought I was that bad a player; that’s how low you feel you have to stoop to play at my level. You patronising lump of circuitry; I’ll touch your screen in a way you won’t forget.”

Actually there’s one more stage, when I pounce leopard-like – and that’s not a phrase often applied to me – on the mistake and storm on to victory, at which point I forget the computer-aided recovery and recall that this man once again triumphed over the machine.

I do, of course, still have the upper hand in the bizarre psychological games that surround tournaments in all the most celebrated chess locations: Reykjavik, my sitting room, the 8.10 from Waterloo. I can see the machine lives in fear of my trademark gambit – the one where I knock over my king, yell “screw this” and hurl it against the wall. But I know that as I progress through the ranks to master, grandmaster and, finally, living heir of Bobby Fischer, that the machine will start to play mental games, too. It is already insisting on its own chair, arguing that sitting in my lap places it at a disadvantage. Apparently Vladimir Kramnik pulled the same stunt with Viswanathan Anand in 2008. It’s also demanding its own carafe of water.

What’s more, I understand that when we reach the higher levels, it will insist on changes to the lighting so that I am dazzled by the reflection in the glass screen. Apparently, occasional messages will pop-up with phrases such as: “Have you thought of switching to backgammon?”

Friends point out that I should end these delusions of battling the machine and recognise that, in duelling with a chess app that calibrates itself to my level, I am in effect playing myself. But frankly, where’s the pleasure to be had in beating me? I know what a weak opponent I am. No, far better to think of myself pitted against the overwhelming odds of technological terminators; standing tall like Horatius at the gate against an army of Arnies intoning menacingly: “I’ll be black.”

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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