The Showdown: Hikaru Nakamura and "The Invulnerable Chess Demon From Hell"

The U.S. Chess Champion takes on the world's best chess-playing software.

Derek Bridges

The fifth-best chess player in the world brought out his queen on the third move.

Today, on day two of a four-game chess exhibition between grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura and Komodo, the single strongest chess-playing entity on the planet, rooting for the American was easy. The best human players of this historic game hold a rating in the neighborhood of 2800, which is something like the “four-minute mile” of chess. Komodo, a software engine, has a rating of 3368. It doesn’t gloat, but its default setting might as well be “asshole.”

The question used to be “When will computers be powerful enough to beat humans at chess?” With computer victories being commonplace nowadays, the contemporary spin is to weaken the computer to give humanity a fighting chance. In order to make the exhibition more even, Nakamura receives different types of odds to his advantage in each game: Komodo plays with fewer pawns, or trades a rook for one of Nakamura’s less-powerful knights from the starting position, for example.

“Odds matches against a computer as a major chess event have really made the ‘man versus machine’ element exciting again,” explains Daniel Rensch, the VP of Chess.com. “Despite the enormous advantages a chess engine has—depth of calculation, not getting fatigued, never losing focus, having an openings book built into its memory—giving a strong grandmaster like Hikaru Nakamura a small material advantage can really balance things out.”

This exhibition is being played with “45 | 15” time controls—each player starts with 45 minutes on the clock and earns 15 more seconds for every move they complete. The three matches played so far have all ended in draws. You can view those games by getting the Portable Game Notation files from the Komodo website and pasting them into a PGN viewer. (Or you can take my word for it: They were cool.)

In the first two games, Nakamura’s strategy became one of bringing the queen out early and putting the computer under time pressure; the human made his moves more quickly and decisively while Komodo “took a think” to calculate billions of potential positions before deciding on an optimal move. Komodo overtook Nakamura on time in the third game, only to see that round also come to a draw due to repeated movements.

Draws don’t exactly inspire NFL-style fanfare, but they are common and expected at grandmaster-level play. The best chess players can simultaneously attack and defend so cohesively that exchanges in pieces are, more often than not, equal. By the time opponents are down to just a few key remaining pieces, it’s more difficult to leverage a decisively winning advantage. A draw in chess is not unlike two boxers beating the ever-loving shit out of each other, neither one too far ahead or behind, until a merciful ref blows the whistle—still exciting!

This is hardly the first time a grandmaster has publicly demonstrated his skills against a chess-playing machine. The clichéd example is Garry Kasparov’s match against IBM’s Deep Blue in the mid-1990s, but lately a new school of chess professionals has emerged online, augured by platforms like YouTube and Twitch. These players regularly battle Komodo in “man versus machine” matches, providing their own running commentary to an audience of live viewers. At its best, it is funny and entertaining. At its worst, it is a window with a sweeping view of human weakness.

British Grandmaster Simon Williams previously bea Komodo in a less-publicized odds match that took place on Twitch. Rensch put this victory in context: “[Williams] had enormous odds, and Komodo creator and founder GM Larry Kaufman said he would likely never give those odds to another GM again. For the record, their four-game match was still a 2-2 tie, even with Simon’s win[…] We’ve just never seen anything like this strength of play on Earth.”

The Twitch commentary mechanic is the same one in place for “broadcasting” the Nakamura-Komodo match. Nakamura is ostensibly too busy concentrating on his game to be narrating his strategies to internet viewers, so these duties fall to the staff of Chess.com.

“The depth of [a chess engine’s] calculation is such that it’s hard to even understand fully why they make the decisions they do, at least against other computers,” said Rensch. “It’s my job and others to help describe the fundamental elements governing their moves from a perspective of chess principles, to help people feel like they know what’s going on, and to have an outside shot at learning something. But it’s not easy to do nowadays with engine play.”

In this chess amateur’s opinion, the most exciting match of this exhibition will be the fourth and final one, taking place later today. Both players will have the same full set of pieces, but Nakamura will start as white by making four moves in a row before the game returns to conventional back-and-forth turns. You can stream that match online at 4 p.m. EST right here, and watch along with some wonderfully informed grandmaster commentary.

It might not be a draw.