"When I started chess programming, I made a very simple engine that played randomly chosen legal moves” explains Anastasios. ”Then I added a fixed two-ply search and I was amazed by the result! That was it, chess programming got me! I like the competition in tournaments, the possibility of making a very strong engine that plays attractive chess. The only thing I don’t like is that maybe someday someone will solve chess!”
And why did Anastasios decide to enhance his chess engine AICE to support Chess960? “It was an easy addition, I just had to implement the new castling rules and all was set” explains Anastasios. “There is also a big chance that Chess960 will become popular, so I’ll be glad being the author of one of the pioneer engines in this field.”
AICE stands for Artificially Intelligent Chess Engine, explains Anastasios. But he adds: “This is probably not a good name, since the engine is not intelligent! But I am working on it…”
Anastasios has made his engine available to the public for free. It can be downloaded from his website at http://www.milix.net/aice/. The website offers plenty of information about the history of AICE. An earlier version of AICE, version 0.90, has played Chess960 test matches against other engines, namely against The Baron by Richard Pijl and Herrmann by Volker Annuss. On his website, Anastasios has made the notations of all test games available, together with the most recent version of AICE, version 0.93.
Anastasios Mikilas, author of AICE
Both Richard Pijl and Volker Annuss have confirmed their participation in the Chess960 Computer World Championship, so it will be quite some reunion when the authors of these chess engines meet at the Chess Classic Mainz. Isn’t Anastasios concerned about giving his opponents in the fight for the world title a chance to analyse the strength and weaknesses of his program – just before an important world championship tournament? Anastasios disagrees: “This is exactly the point of releasing an amateur chess engine. This could help others to develop their engines better. And someday, after the event they maybe tell me their findings. Also, when they release their engines, I will have the chance to improve mine.”
The evolution of The Baron
When we interviewed Richard Pijl last year, Richard explained his experience making his engine The Baron Chess960 compatible. “Since I use an opening book for traditional chess” Richard explained, “I had not really worked on simple things like piece development in the opening phase of the game. It may be easier to use an opening book, but it can make you lazy. That is why I decided to invest a lot of time in piece development during the opening and I learned a lot while doing this… This has caused quite an improvement in the playing strength of my program.” Did Anastasios have a similar experience when he extended AICE to Chess960, we ask.
“I have special evaluation terms for the opening from the early versions of AICE, so I didn’t change many things in the evaluation to support Chess960 better. Maybe I should but I didn’t.”
And the World Championship goes to…
Anastasios reckons that commercial programs such as Shredder from Stefan Meyer-Kahlen and Mark Uniacke’s Hiarcs are the favourites to win the Chess960 Computer World Championship in Mainz. At the same time, he points out that The Baron is always good for a surprise. When asked which programs he would be keen to beat, Anastasios mentions Shredder and Hiarcs, but adds that a draw would also be okay. And what personal goals does he pursue with his participation in the event? “Not finishing in the last place. To share thoughts and experiences with other people that love computer chess and Chess960. “
Many paths lead to Mainz
The Chess960 Computer World Championship is not the only reason that brings Anastasios to Mainz, however. He has friends in Germany and will use the opportunity to meet them again. But he also reveals another reason: “Besides computer chess I also love cars. I own a German car, it is a good opportunity to shop for some accessories for it.”
Anastasios, who is 32 years old and just got married, works as a teacher of Computer Science at a public school in Greece. His interests outside chess include music, cars, computers in general, and having fun. He used to play chess as a student, and participated in a few tournaments, but he does not consider himself to be a strong player, adding “I know chess in the required areas to put good chess knowledge in my engine. And I also have friends who are super strong chess players, including GMs.”
Anastasios has been following the recent man vs machine contests with great interest and is looking forward to the Chess960 exhibition matches between The Baron and Peter Svidler, as well as the match between Zoltan Almasi and Shredder. Both exhibition matches will be played on August 10 as part of the Chess Classic Mainz 2005.
“There are rumours that some of the past man machine matches were fixed for commercial reasons. I don’t have an opinion of my own on this since I am not a strong enough player to understand why for example Kasparov didn’t win against Deep Blue or why Adams lost in such a way against Hydra. I saw that relatively weak players can draw or win against strong engines, so I expect that if grandmasters ‘really’ prepare for a match against a computer, things will be better for them. Only alpha-beta and null-move is not enough to win against a well prepared grandmaster.” says Anastasios, referring to two common techniques in computer chess programming.
But will it be easier for human players to beat the machine in Chess960 than in traditional chess? Anastasios does not think so: “The highly asymmetrical positions of Chess960 leave humans without known patterns and make them lose their main advantage over computers.” As a result, Anastasios predicts that it will be difficult for Peter Svidler and Zoltan Almasi to withstand The Baron and Shredder. He forecasts victories for the machines. In less than four weeks, we will know for sure…
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