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The human defence

Computers can now easily beat grandmasters. But as the World Chess Championship approaches, fans still want to see flawed humans battling it out on the board

What is the difference between “almost” and “nearly”? What rules dictate the selection of one word in a sentence rather than the other? You’re unlikely to know. And yet if you’re a native English speaker, you’ll almost certainly (as opposed to “nearly certainly”) be able to use the two words correctly. You might say: “I am not nearly as good at chess as I am at backgammon.” You wouldn’t say: “I am not almost as good at chess as I am at backgammon.”

Humans are unable to articulate fully many things that we manage to do quite well. The rules of language are one such thing. The game of chess is another. Some people play chess well, but don’t really understand how they do it. What makes Magnus Carlsen the best player in the world? Obviously, the 27-year-old Norwegian grandmaster possesses a superb memory, an ability to calculate ahead and highly-developed pattern recognition skills. But that is true of all the top players. His real edge remains a mystery—even to himself.

On 9th November, Carlsen, the current world chess champion, will face the 26-year-old Italian-American Fabiano Caruana in London. Twelve games over three weeks decide who will become the next world champion. It will be the first time since Bobby Fischer’s 1972 “Match of the Century” against the Russian Boris Spassky that an American-born player has the chance to take the title—something US chess fans are getting very excited about. The Carlsen-Caruana match will be followed avidly by millions of others globally on the internet, or in person for those lucky enough to get a ticket to the Holborn venue. Chess is in rude health.

And that may be surprising to you. Twenty years ago, the continued longevity of the game was in question because of the arrival of an all-conquering machine interloper. Computers threatened to take the element of mystery out of the game, to reduce the flash of inspired brilliance to the whirring of an algorithm— and, as it seemed then, to render human players redundant.

In the annals of chess a watershed game took place in New York in 1997. Garry Kasparov had been world champion for 12 years. But this time he wasn’t playing a human. On the other side of the 64 squares was a computer. Even non-chess fans were enthralled. Kasparov began in a cocky mood. No human had posed him a serious challenge for a decade and he had developed an aura of invincibility. Nor, initially, was he fazed by the IBM-created Deep Blue, which he had beaten a year earlier 4-2. Ever since the invention of modern computers, programmers had tried to see how good at the game they could make them. But reaching a high standard had proved difficult. Chess, with its near bottomless complexity, was regarded as the ultimate reflection of human intelligence—a challenge too far for any silicon wannabe.

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In Prospect's November issue: Paul Collier explains how major cities in the UK will always be in the shadow of London unless capitalism is overhauled and suggests ways that we might be able to improve the situation in those communities that capitalism has left behind. Meanwhile, Steve Bloomfield asks what is going at the Foreign Office. The once great institution that was a symbol of Britain’s global power now seems to be lost and unable to explains its role. Also, Samira Shackle explores a Pakistani protest movement that is unnerving the country’s military. Elsewhere in the issue: Dahlia Lithwick suggests that the Supreme Court will struggle to retain its authority now that Brett Kavanaugh is on the bench. Philip Ball argues that DNA doesn’t define destiny as he reviews a new book by Robert Plomin. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Simon Heffer debate political correctness.