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As much as people fear losing their jobs to machines that can do them better, Chess has seen the exact opposite take shape. There have been extremely strong chess bots since Kasparov's time, and more recently, the supremacy of chess engines has only been reinforced by neural network engines like AlphaZero.

Yet, people seem to have just accepted the fact that the skill gap between engines and human players is insurmountably vast, and chess has, in the face of human obsolescence, continued to grow even more popular. More people play the game, and more importantly, people continue to compete. Moreover, prize pools have only gone up as chess becomes an attractive eSport with some matches easily attracting tens of thousands of viewers.

My question is: how? How has human competition endured when even the best players perform at a level that's barely child's play for any run-of-the-mill engine? Now that we have "accepted" that we are worse, why do we still want to see who's better?

Chess isn't the only example of this happening either - spelling bees, certain eSports, and even weightlifting competitions are all fields where machines can do the task better, faster, and more reliably. What does this pattern tells us about how human society as a whole will adapt to increasingly powerful machines as they arrive?

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    I can't think of any sport (in the entire history of mankind) where humans and machines compete against one another. Chess among humans is still very competitive, maybe even more so now with the help of computers. Competion is exciting to watch when there is at least some uncertainty as to who will emerge victorious, otherwise it's really nothing but an exhibition (which may be fun to watch, but maybe not so exciting).
    – Scounged
    Mar 30 at 2:00
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    Machines can cover the 100m much faster than a human runner, why would that make competitive running obsolete? Mar 30 at 14:19
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    You could create a robot to jump higher, move faster, swim longer than any human, so why are the Olympics still around?
    – Issel
    Mar 30 at 16:50
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    Worth noting: in Go, a former champion did retire after losing to AlphaGo because he realised that even if he was the best human, he would still be inferior to computers theverge.com/2019/11/27/20985260/…
    – llama
    Mar 30 at 18:04
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    You've got to wonder how horse racing continued to exist after locomotives could outrun the fastest horses. Or how there were ever athletic competitions for human beings, seeing as many animals are faster and stronger than the fastest and strongest humans.
    – bof
    Mar 30 at 20:57
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For the same reason the Tour de France is still a thing even if you could perform much better on a motorbike. Most chess enthusiasts didn't stop playing chess after noticing there's some other person whose rating is 1000 points higher than theirs, and won't stop because there's a machine 1000 stronger than that person.

A good amount of chess players don't care at all about computer chess and will only use engines as an assistence to analysis.

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    Good motorbike analogy
    – user253751
    Mar 30 at 10:05
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An analogy often used here is to compare people to cars. Sure, cars can travel far faster than people like Usain Bolt, but that doesn't mean it's not entertaining to watch. When people watch players like Carlsen play chess, they're still watching the best humans in the world compete. Sure, being the best human no longer means much since there are stronger beings out there (engines), but this could already be the case for many things. There are probably aliens out there who are far superior to us in every way. Does that negate everything we do as pointless? Everyone has their role to play in this game of life.

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As much as people fear losing their jobs to machines that can do them better, Chess has seen the exact opposite take shape.

That's because chess is a game. People enjoy playing it, and they enjoy watching other people play it. You can't really compare it to something like tilling the fields on a farm, where most people only care about the result and not the process, and so are perfectly happy to let machines do it instead of people (except the people who lost their jobs when machines replaced them; but even they don't generally enjoy it enough to do it for free).

My question is: how? How has human competition endured when even the best players perform at a level that's barely child's play for any run-of-the-mill engine?

Because the humans don't need to compete with computers. This is because people care about who is the best chess player, but not about who is the best farmworker. Part of the reason they care is because many people who aren't professionals play chess for fun.

What does this pattern tells us about how human society as a whole will adapt to increasingly powerful machines as they arrive?

Not much, since you can't compare chess to most jobs. Maybe you could extrapolate that things people enjoy doing, or enjoy when other people do, will remain.

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    Generally people didn't lose a job at plowing. Back before machine did farming, it was the owner of the field that did it all, and they had small farms, only what they or their family could do themselves. Farming as a large business didn't really happen until machinery came about. And when that happened, the farmers got more land, so the people plowing still had jobs, just plowing more land in the same amount of time, but with less physical effort. So people plowing didn't go away, they actually did more of it. And there's always more work to do on a farm than people or time to do it all. Mar 30 at 17:56
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    @computercarguy Yes, in the case of ploughing machines didn't so much replace people as replace animals. Mar 31 at 13:21
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    @ruffle, people were less "thrown off their land" than sold it to someone else so they could work less hard. Farming can be a 24/7 job and is often 365 days, so if you can "only" work 12/6 and someone else makes all the decisions, that's a good deal and not longer hours or worse conditions. Plus you have money from the land sale and wages without having to wait for harvest. I know this from growing up on a farm and listening to my dad whose dad used horses instead of tractors. And present times are far different than 80-100 years ago. But this is all off-topic. Mar 31 at 15:55
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    @ruffle, I guess that's the difference between England and the US. And we were talking about the historical period of the mechanization of farming, not today. What happened 100 years ago is during a far different culture than today. Farming then took 16-20 hrs a day to do small plots with animals and lots of manual labor. Even in the 60's, my dad rotated 24 hrs with his brothers in the fields using tractors etc. and still did lots of manual labor besides. Even now, people spend +12 hrs a day in the fields 6-7 days a week and do manual labor. Mar 31 at 17:43
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Arguably, chess is more exciting today because of computers rather than despite computers.

Chess engines have had the side effect of eliminating adjournment from tournament play and generally led to faster time controls. Rapid (or even faster) games tend to be fairly exciting games, which has increased interest in the game.

Also, the same rise in computer technology which has led to unbeatable chess engines has also created a truly international playing field. One can go online and play chess against players from all over the world. This is in strong contrast to when I was learning to play in the 1980s. I would go to my school's chess club and play the same people week after week. For people outside of major cities with strong chess clubs, chess-playing tended to be somewhat parochial and thus somewhat boring. Nowadays you have strong players from all over the world. In the past, many of these people would have been too isolated to develop their chess-playing skills to their true potential.

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    Good observations. In other games like backgammon and poker as well is it much easier to find fellow players online. There is also another effect: Computer analysis improved our understanding of the game. In backgammon computers showed the rewards of riskier play, making games actually more exciting. I heard that chess openings have advanced. Even poker strategy may have changed. Instant move evaluation in online chess replays helps players learn much faster than previously, and again independently of the availability of a human teacher (what if there had been no Mr. Shaibel for Beth!?). Mar 30 at 15:25
  • +1 for your observations (e.g.: Internet made the playing field international) sure. This could be one reason people play more chess today (esp. in COVID situation). But, it should be noted that playing only online also kind of discourages you to keep playing (winning or losing doesn't feel as good as in playing OTB). Mar 31 at 5:54
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Now that we have "accepted" that we are worse, why do we still want to see who's better?

Computers aren't human beings. They can't compete with us for any of the important things of life as outlined in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Only other living beings can do that and, as we've ably demonstrated our dominance against other species, our main competitors are other human beings.

Jordan Peterson has famously described the importance of the dominance hierarchy dating all the way back to lobsters.

In the chess world, no less a figure than Bobby Fischer when asked what his greatest pleasure is in chess replied:

When you break his ego. This is where it is at.

A computer doesn't have an ego to break. It is not alive. How good they are at implementing a set of algorithms to play chess is completely irrelevant.

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    @Nelson I think they call that "weightlifting" and people watch that, too. Mar 30 at 14:33
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    Computers can't compete with humans at "having needs"? I don't see the relevance, especially since computers can absolutely compete with humans in the ways we express those needs. Also, we aren't lobsters.
    – JS Lavertu
    Mar 30 at 14:51
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    If humans and computers ever do end up competing for the basic necessities of life, chess would lose popularity. scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/169699/…
    – Foo Bar
    Mar 30 at 20:59
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    Man, Bobby Fischer was a terrible guy. But I guess that makes him a very human human :D Mar 31 at 2:22
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    @Fivesideddice well... name one sport that doesn't involve breaking someone else's ego
    – somebody
    Mar 31 at 12:33
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Sport is about human excellence, humans competing against one another and fun.

The fact that a computer can do something much better than a human might take a bit away from human achievement, but ultimately:

  • It's still impressive to see someone else doing something you can't do, or few others can do.

  • Getting better still gives a sense of achievement (which is true for the top player in the world as much as it is for any random person in the middle).

  • It's still as competitive as ever between humans (if not more so due to between-game assistance computers provide, which is, to a reasonable degree, available to anyone and can provide insights that may otherwise only have been available to very few players).

    It could be competitive even between amateurs that are much worse than the best players out there, which is at least somewhat comparable to competition between the best players in the world that are much worse than the best computers out there. Although it does add a little something to be the best human at some activity.

  • It's still fun to play and watch.

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Man is a competitive person by nature. The computer is a machine that is manufactured to perform one or more specific activities, but the number of tasks it can perform is limited. But who made them was man, there is a mind beyond that makes algorithms, and sequences so that it can do its assigned tasks in specific environments. The man can self-develop the tools to combat any type of task, in any circumstance, environment or environments. As a result, there is still so much activity in chess and in so many other areas in which man has a machine as a competence because that is the way in which he realizes that there are people or machines better than them, and that something extraordinary must be done. work daily to improve yourself. Something that characterizes outstanding humans is the growth mindset.Man is a competitive person by nature. The computer is a machine that is manufactured to perform one or more specific activities, but the number of tasks it can perform is limited. But who made them was man, there is a mind beyond that makes algorithms, and sequences so that it can do its assigned tasks in specific environments. The man can self-develop the tools to combat any type of task, in any circumstance, environment or environments. As a result, there is still so much activity in chess and in so many other areas in which man has a machine as a competence because that is the way in which he realizes that there are people or machines better than them, and that something extraordinary must be done. work daily to improve yourself. Something that characterizes outstanding humans is the growth mindset.

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An additional reason to what is already mentioned, from the eyes of a spectator/enjoyer of the game, is that computers play chess in a way that is either hard to understand for humans or very dry and boring. Computers tend to slowly grind for a slight advantage, preferring to not take "risks". A risk in chess is in essence not having calculated all possible replies to your move (and higher order replies). Seeing that computers check most moves, they will often find counterplay to a move that might seem like a terrifying attack to a human. If the computers would be given free reign, we would probably see mostly the same game being played all the time (computers are usually given a certain opening to start from to create some variation in their play).

Humans, however, make interesting choices based on chess principles, typical ideas, strategies, mistakes by their human opponent, and so on, and thus have more personal styles of play. There's also a psychological factor that is lacking with computers, which makes the game interesting to play and watch.

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We now have human chess and computer chess. Anybody who wishes for the strongest chess playing possible, head to the TCEC chess championship. Human chess is headed by Carlsen. There are two champions playing very different chess under very different playing conditions.

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  • Anybody who wishes for the strongest chess playing possible - should head to the ICCF world championship.
    – Allure
    Mar 30 at 10:51
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    -1 This does not answer the question. Mar 30 at 11:00
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    @Brian but it does? The answer implies that human chess is apples and machine chess is pears, and loving both is no contradiction. Mar 30 at 15:27
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    @BrianDrake I think my answer is valid. It's not the best, but it is a valid answer.
    – SmallChess
    Mar 30 at 15:39
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    @Peter "The answer implies..." - it might be implying the answer, but answers really should explicitly answer the question instead of relying on implication. Also, I might argue the implication in this answer exists in the basis of the question as well, which might not say much about it's validity as an answer, but does say a lot about its usefulness.
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 31 at 9:39

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