Chess: Genius can be good for you

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MY FORMER friend, David Norwood, recently bet me a bottle of champagne that a computer program would beat me in a game of five-minute chess. So I loaded the disk into my PC, took the white pieces, and exchanged queens at the first opportunity. I know that computers are only good when the position is either tactically very complex or so simple that it can be analysed exhaustively. Then I must have relaxed too much, because its minor pieces quickly moved into threatening positions. I blundered away a pawn and lost soon after.

I counted that as the practice game. The next one I took more seriously, patiently avoiding complications. It outplayed me in a knight and pawn endgame which had seemed to be heading for a certain draw before I ran short of time. In the third game, I played properly, built up an attack, won a piece and reahed an endgame a bishop for two pawns ahead. Giving a fine impersonation of an experienced hustler, the machine then started moving instantly and bamboozled its way to a draw.

After letting it win a couple of sharp, tactical games (I was just testing its abilities in that area, you understand), I was beginning to think it possible that this machine could, after all, give me a decent game.

The program I was playing is called Mephisto Genius 2.0. It was written by Richard Lang, who denies that it is a major breakthrough, rather a culmination of years of gradual improvements in programming techniques and computer speeds. Yet even grandmasters I have spoken to admit to having to work hard to make a level score against it in five- minute games.

I did finally beat Genius 2.0 in the seventh or eighth game, and I have since identified some of its drawbacks. It is significantly weaker in blocked positions, for example, and there are several opening variations it does not play well.

With some grandmasters using this program to help analyse their adjourned games, it is a remarkable toy and can be recommended to anyone seeking a very strong opponent.

Genius 2.0 runs on an IBM PC (386 processor or faster) and is available from the BCM Chess Shop (071-603 2877), Chess & Bridge Ltd (071-388 2404), CB Software (081-959 0670) and other specialist chess stockists for pounds 89.95.