The Campbell Report

The following article was published in the January 1997 issue of Chess Mail magazine.
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Using Computers in CC Competition

By J. Franklin Campbell

I have invited comments from the readers of my USA column "The Campbell Report" in APCT News Bulletin on the use of computers in cc competition. I also conducted a survey on this topic on the Internet and have discussed this topic with members of other USA organizations. After many months of debate and discussion I have formed the conclusions that are presented here.

It is commonly felt that using computers for storing and searching databases is exactly analogous to using opening reference books. Most players agree that this is completely acceptable, and no USA organization has a rule against this use of computers. When computers are used to generate moves or evaluate positions, however, there is considerable difference of opinion. As far as rules of competition are concerned, all the major cc organizations in the USA consider this use of computers the same as receiving help from other players and it is specifically forbidden by the rules of play. The only exception is the tiny Transcendental Chess organization, which specifically allows unlimited use of computers.

What if the rules of play allowed the use of computers to evaluate positions and to generate moves? When confronted with this question there are widely varying viewpoints. A surprising number of correspondence players considered it unethical to use a computer in this fashion independent of the rules of play. Is chess essentially a one-on-one competition? If you consider it so, then help from third parties would be unacceptable, whether from other human players or from computer software. Of course, there are a number of counter examples to this one-on-one concept in OTB play, such as the use of a team of seconds in major matches, used not only to help prepare a competitor by joint study of the opposition's games but also to analyze adjourned positions.

When asked if the use of analyzing computers is "inherently unethical" many responded very clearly that they considered it so. Users of computers were labeled "cheaters." In some cases this was even extended to users of powerful database programs, such as the ChessBase Motiv program. Many competitors mentioned that they would personally gain no satisfaction from winning if they used computer assistance. Many also equated using computers to letting the computer totally generate the moves without any involvement from the player. Using computers has been labeled by many as unethical and unsatisfying without any further thought about more subtle and creative uses of using analyzing computers as tools.

When the use of computers to analyze positions is forbidden by the rules of play a number of difficulties arise in interpretation of the rules. Just as asking a single question of a human player would be illegal if the rules prohibited consulting humans, there are all sorts of minor infractions that can occur with computer use. Consider the Heumas algorithm used by ChessBase as a "move guessing" technique to speed entry of moves. When you click the mouse on a piece it guesses or "suggests" a move to make with that piece. As crude as this "move generating algorithm" may be, it is technically suggesting a possible move. I personally was entering a move into ChessBase that I intended to make in a postal game and this algorithm "suggested" a simple developing move that I hadn't considered before. I decided to look at this simple developing move before sending my reply and, in the end, I decided to make that move. Some would label my behavior as a clear case of computer cheating. Consider the case of recording proper chess notation. CC puts great emphasis on accurate record keeping techniques and punishes those guilty of making notation errors, either by making you accept a bad move (if your mistake results in recording a legal but unintended move) or awarding you with a time penalty for sending an illegal move. Using a chess database to record your moves (made with a mouse on a graphical board) allows the computer to generate absolutely correct chess notation, bypassing the possible notation errors you might have made on your own. Though you might consider this trivial it is still a case of being helped by computer software. How about using a computer to study openings, say by using it as a practice opponent or allowing it to suggest lines of play for you to consider? If you entered a specific opening in a tournament game when would you have to abandon using your computer in your studies to avoid violating a rule against using computers? When would you have to stop playing this opening at your local club to avoid picking up tips from your human opponents? The criminal justice system is surely no more complex than the interpretation of tournament rules against receiving help from humans or computers in cc events! If you consider these examples as trivial allow me to point out that such considerations have led to lengthy and heated debate by the readers of my regular column.

Here are my personal opinions on this subject. I see nothing "inherently" unethical about using computers. They are just one additional tool we can use to determine the move we wish to make. I wouldn't obtain personal satisfaction from plugging my positions into a computer and just accepting the generated moves but I'll allow that it is possible that some competitors would find this a fun way to play chess. There are also many competitors who want to play without either themselves or their opponents receiving any form of help from human or computer helpers. I have no complaint with these players, either. In fact, most of my competition is in the APCT organization, where the use of computers is clearly forbidden. The only thing I insist upon is that all competitors abide strictly by the rules of play. If the rules prohibit the use of analyzing computers, then all players must abide by these rules. If the rules allow such use, then all competitors should feel free to do so.

Chess is a magnificent activity. The art/sport/science of chess is great enough to encompass all competitors, whether they pursue correspondence, OTB, problem solving/composing, chess set collecting, chess-on-stamps collecting, chess forms designing, chess journalism, tournament directing, organizing, or the many other forms of chess activities. It would be grossly unfair for one set of chess enthusiasts to prohibit others from pursuing their preferred forms of the game. I would specifically propose that competitions be made available both for those who would allow unlimited use of computers and for those who would not allow the use of computers for analyzing or generating moves. I see no reason not to satisfy everyone. I also refuse to accept the tyranny of those who would force others to play only by their preferred rules. There is one peculiar approach that should be mentioned here. ICCF has considered this subject and has selected not to prohibit the use of computers in any way. However, I've heard numerous characterizations of the ICCF position, such as "ICCF discourages the use of computers." It is said that ICCF has decided not to prohibit the use of computers since such a rule could not be enforced. It is questionable whether or not this approach to rule-making is reasonable. However, it is LAUGHABLE that ICCF officials would claim to discourage the use of computers. If they wanted to discourage the use of computers they would make a rule against such use. Not having such a rule is not an oversight ... it is a choice. By not ruling against computer use you could say they are encouraging such use ... I hardly see how they could claim to be discouraging it. Assume they decided that a rule against computer use would favor those who would violate the rules. Then it would seem reasonable to avoid such a rule, since both types of competitors would be on equal footing and both could use computers freely. If they then announce that using computers is somehow unethical, how does this help the law-abiding competitor? Do you think such an illogical stand would result in fewer players using computers than if a rule were introduced making computer use illegal? I don't argue that using computers is somehow wrong. I do argue that ICCF makes itself sound ridiculous by saying it is legal to use computers but claiming they somehow discourage such use.

To summarize, many USA cc competitors feel it is unethical to use computers, independent of any rules. Almost all games played within USA organizations are played under rules not allowing the use of computers to generate moves or evaluate positions. Many competitors have such a limited understanding of computers in cc that they equate using computers to letting computers actually make all their moves. My personally judgment is that abiding strictly by the rules is essential to fair competition. If the rules allow unlimited use of computers then a competitor doing so must not be accused of being unethical. The intelligent application of computer software to determining the best move can be a challenging assignment. The best answer is to provide competition for both sets of competitors. At this time such competition is already available to the USA competitor. By playing in APCT, CCLA, ASPCC, NOST or USCF a competitor can play under rules prohibiting computer use. By playing in the eclectic Transcendental Chess organization or in ICCF a competitor can legally use his/her computer in unlimited fashion without violating any rules of play. Of course, if competitors wish to accuse their opponents of being unethical because "ICCF discourages the use of computers" no one can stop them, but is this a reasonable stance to take, considering that ICCF has considered the use of computers and has declined to make such use illegal?

copyright © 1998 by J. Franklin Campbell
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