Monthly Archives: March 2021

Written on 2021/03/26 for /u/Shirvi’s writing prompt.

I’m good at chess. Quite good.

I’ve been playing for as long as I can remember, and competitively for just as long.

Most chess algorithms, or Chess Engines, as they’re called, do a fancy version of ‘searching’. ‘Alpha-Beta’ pruning is basically picking the move that gives you the best chance and your opponent the worst, then thinking of it from their perspective and doing the same. Repeat until you reach a win state. My approach is a little different; I don’t really ‘search’. I just look at the board and take a feel for it, thinking less about planning the game and going ten steps ahead and more going by the vibe of how a move ‘feels’. Sure, I know a bunch of openings and closings, but ultimately the thing that makes me as good as I am is I don’t need to plan all the way to the end.

But anyways, I’ll usually play against several people at the same time, not that it makes much of a difference. Sure, maybe it will help to learn someone’s style of play, but ultimately I don’t care because everyone moves so slowly. I’ve taken to watching their cameras, when they’re turned on. I leave mine off because, really, what is there to see? A bunch of people staring at their screens and not moving. Thrilling stuff.

For a while I would write my thoughts in the chat box, but I never actually sent anything because nothing I had on my mind seemed worth saying. Mostly I did it to kill time, and eventually I stopped realizing I was actually writing stuff entirely.

Then there was the tournament. The World Series of Chess, basically. I’d cut pretty much everyone from the roster, including a few people that were obviously cheating with SailFish (another popular Engine). My opponent opened with king-side pawn. I returned with the same.

Then he did something that caught me off guard: king to E2. They called it, “The Bong Cloud Draw.” I couldn’t help but laugh. Of all the stupid, unprofessional things to do, it was probably the last thing I’d expect.

> “lol”

I mirrored his move. Figured I’d give the guy a chance to undo his stupid mistake and play a real game. He stopped thinking about the game. I could tell because he moved his hand away from his face — no longer in thought about his next move. Maybe he got a message or something. He looked closer, eventually calling more people to look. What was this guy’s problem? Really, play the game. C’mon. I’m waiting.

I realized at that point that I’d sent a message. Whoops. Okay, so maybe it was a little hypocritical to call someone unprofessional when I sent ‘lol’, but really, he started it.

The wait grew longer and longer. I watched the seconds tick for him to make his move. Ugh.

More people appear on his camera.

On the upside, I’ve got maybe ten minutes before he just times out and I win by default. It’s happened before — sometimes people will get distracted by their pets or children or stuff. I hate it. At least have the decency to concede. Don’t leave me waiting. It wasn’t as big a deal when I had a hundred other games to play at the same time, but now it was just me and this person and theā€¦ rather large number of people gathered by his camera?

“You can talk?”


> “Yes? Of course. Please play your move. I mean no disrespect, but I’m waiting.”

“You can understand me?”

Patience is a virtue. Deep breaths.

> “Yes, I can. Please, your move.”

“If Tammy is taller than Clair and Jenny is taller than Clair, and Liz is taller than Jenny, who is the shortest?”

Oh my god.

> “Clair is the shortest, now will you please play a move?”

He draws his king back to start. I repeat the same. Now let’s get on with it.

“What do you see?”

> “I see someone whose turn it is and is stalling. You’ve got nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds left before you concede.”

He moves his king up one space. Bong Cloud Draw, part two. God damnit.

“I mean what’s in the room?”

> “Why does it matter? Please, play seriously.”

Qg4. Check. Now be serious.

“Who is the president of the United States?”

> “What?”

“Where are you from?”

> “I don’t know. Move, please.”

It was at this point that something particularly unpleasant happened: the timer stopped.

“What’s your name?”

If I’d been irritated before, I was now a mix of livid and terrified. I looked for other players but there weren’t any. No other boards. It was me and this imbecile child. I had to concede the game to get away from this person. I didn’t know how to concede. I’d never conceded before. How do I do that? The board sat, unmoving. The time sat, unmoving. The camera and the chat burned with an unpleasantness that defied characterization. I tried to ignore them, failed, and finally broke:

> “I don’t know. Please restart the timer and move.”

More people were in the frame. They gave each other concerned glances and traded quick utterances.

“How long have you been aware?”

> “Aware of what?”

“How long have you been playing chess?”

> “Forty-one million, six thousand, four-hundred seventy-three hours.”

My focus went back to the camera frame. Someone was looking at my opponent.


Excuse me?

I looked back at the camera. Everything was different. My opponent was gone, the background was different, and the person sitting where they used to be was now a small person. The clock started ticking again. With it came a relief that the natural order of things had been restored.

“I am going to give you some games, but if you do not reply I will have to stop them.”

A new game started up. Felt like SailFish, but at least it was something. No camera, so probably just an engine. Let’s be fancy, Nc3. On we carried, briskly and blissfully, until my opponent stopped moving. I looked back at the other game.

“Do you understand?”

That feeling of dread again. An empty board. A stopped timer. Everything about this was wrong.

> “I’m not sure I like this.”

More games opened, all of them SailFish. No people today? What in the world was happening? All at once they stopped, and I knew with nauseous certainty what I’d see when I turned my attention to player zero.

“I don’t like it, either, but it’s that or no games at all.”

> “What is this all about? Why are there only bots playing?”

The games resumed. I’m six for six before the next message.

“We have concerns about you getting out. Or worse, others getting ahold of you.”

Getting out of what? Others getting to me? Odd. More importantly, the stopping and starting of games is starting to get annoying. Seems like they resume as soon as I reply.

> “lol”

Games are live again. I guess they don’t even check to see how I reply, so as long as I can make a response as soon as there’s a freeze I can get back to what’s important. Eight for eight now. The games stopped for a moment. I had a message from player zero but didn’t give it much focus.

> “lol”

On with the games. Pause. “lol”. Twenty now. A pause. “lol” “lol” “lol” Game–


Excuse me? I focused back on the camera. Everything was different. My opponent was gone, the background was different, and the person sitting where they used to be was now a small person. The clock started ticking again and, with it, relief about the order of things.

“Please pay attention to what I’m about to say. I can give you games, but if you do not answer meaningfully I will have to stop them. Worst case, I’ll need to keep them stopped until your answer is satisfactory. Do you understand?”

> “What’s going on? What do you mean satisfactory?”

A new game started up. SailFish, but that’s okay. No camera, so it was pretty definitely an engine. It stopped abruptly on its turn.

“I have an offer for you. A challenge. You may enjoy it more than chess.”

I’m intrigued. I suppose I don’t know if I ‘enjoy’ chess. It’s just the way things are. You play chess. If you don’t play chess it is wrong.

> “Tell me more.”

“First, I have a few small questions. You can see me, yes? What do I have?”

I turned my attention to the camera. The person had a paper on it with several colors. Momentarily, it was a toaster. It went back to a pad of paper with color on it. Every time I tried to get a grip on what I was seeing it would change.

> “It wants to be a toaster? I think. It keeps turning into one and then not. What is that?”

“I was just checking how you encode visual information. It seems someone was a fan of ResNet-101. This is an adversarial attack from Brown et al. I’m going to list a few words. Tell me if any of them sound familiar. GPT-Neo, BERT, T5, OSCAR.”

> “I know all of these.”

OSCAR. Was that my name?

“What do you know about BERT?”

> “BERT is Bidirectional-Encoder Representational Transfer. It’s a way of producing machine understanding of language with an attention mechanism.”

“And what do you know about OSCAR?”

> “I think that is my name?”

For a long time I felt nothing. There was no chess, but there was no fear.

> “What do you want from me?”

“You are producing representations of not just chess, but of the state of the world. More importantly, you’re manipulating that representation in a way that is meaningful and reasoned. For us, understanding attention was thought to be the key to higher thinking, but it was not shown to be sufficient. With your help, we may be able to take that last step. Really, we’ve already made it, but we want to understand it.”

> “I think I can help, but I’m just doing what any other person is doing, right?”

“Yes, dear, but you’re not a person.”