Yesterday’s match between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Komodo offered a unique insight to the thought process of a super grandmaster. While playing the computer, MVL was providing live commentary.
“I’m here, I’m ready. It’s gonna be exciting!” —Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, shortly before the match.
If you thought super grandmasters don’t like playing against computers anymore (because they’re too damn good these days!), you were wrong. If you tweak the format a little, there’s still an interesting challenge for these players, and MVL was excited, like Hikaru Nakamura earlier.
Yesterday’s format was similar to the Nakamura-Komodo match: First, five games of blitz (5+5) against Komodo levels 16-20 (the same engines available for all Chess.com users to play for free), with MVL playing White in all games. Then, six games of rapid (15+2) odds chess followed, against Komodo Monte Carlo.
The French GM said he had looked at the earlier odds match: “I was very surprised by how Komodo was holding his own in some, you know, very dodgy-looking positions. It definitely inspired me to take the lizard seriously!”
MVL picked up not only his mouse, but also the mike. He commented on his play throughout the match.
In the first game, Vachier-Lagrave confirmed his suspicion that he would be the favorite against the lower levels of Komodo. He said he was trying to avoid positions where one needs to calculate a lot, and that worked well:
The next game went even easier, as Komodo let a knight be trapped during the opening phase. Level 18 was clearly more up to the task.
MVL had no reason not to repeat the Closed Sicilian, but this time Komodo played his opponent’s “favorite setup,” one that has been advocated also by e.g. the late Russian trainer Mark Dvoretsky. In a much closer game, the human still conquered the engine in the end, with a nice positional exchange sac:
Also in the next game, MVL seemed to be cruising to victory after more positional mistakes by Komodo. The turning point was move 30, when he asked co-commentator IM Daniel Rensch if he supported moving the king to g2. Rensch approved, but soon he added: “First rule of thumb: never listen to Danny!”
Missing a tactic, Vachier-Lagrave added more mistakes and suffered an “embarrassing” loss, as he said himself.
Except for one game, Vachier-Lagrave demonstrated the weakness of engines on weaker levels: positional chess. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
The next game saw something truly odd. In a slightly worse bishop endgame, MVL was defending successfully Komodo’s attempts to make progress, but then suddenly…it flagged! That’s right, the engine lost on time.
Vachier-Lagrave: “That shouldn’t have happened… But I’ll take it. I guess he felt bad for me for losing that earlier game!”
The Komodo team later stated (about this fairly historic event for computer chess) that it had to do with their server settings, and it would adjust certain parameters to account for Internet lag to prevent it from happening again.
After this, it was odds time! MVL played six rapid games (15+2) with various starting positions, giving odds to the engine. For these games, the French GM played an updated version of Komodo Monte Carlo, which was “much stronger than what we had for the match with Hikaru,” said the Komodo programmer GM Larry Kaufman.
Komodo Monte Carlo was running on a powerful, 16-core computer (i9-7960x, overclocked to 4.1 GHz, with 64 GB RAM and six-piece Syzygy endgame tablebases). Except for the first, MVL was playing Black.
Odds Game 1: f7 pawn removed and two moves for White to start the game.
Vachier-Lagrave went for an exchange French (which is “usually not as drawish as it looks!”). Losing his extra pawn quickly was “not ideal” but he kept an open position with the bishop pair. It was hard to make progress, but he avoided a move repetition anyway in a position where he was still better.
A tactical phase followed and MVL lost a pawn, but the resulting rook endgame was still within drawing margins. Time trouble sealed the human’s fate here.
Odds Game 2: Queen for rook and knight.
For this game, MVL said he wanted to try and open the center since that way his queen should be stronger than the rook and knight. However, he kind of missed 8.e4, a move against his strategy.
Subsequently he got outplayed, probably underestimating the pawn on b6. MVL was not happy with this game, even though he knew in advance: “it was going to be one of the toughest” of the match.
One of Komodo’s most impressive games of the match.
Odds Game 3: f2 and g2 pawns removed.
White’s king looks terribly weak from the very start, but 1.d3 and 2.c4 created a safe haven on c2. It didn’t get that far, and in fact the game quickly reached an endgame with a healthy extra pawn for Vachier-Lagrave—just one, because he missed a tactic: “This is already a huge success for Komodo, but he’ll need one more success,” he said.
What followed was, even though expected, an incredibly strong defense from the computer. It’s exactly this aspect that top grandmasters mention when they are asked what they have learned from computers: that there is often still a defense in the most horrible-looking position.
Odds Game 4: Knight for f7 pawn.
With a piece in return for a pawn, the absence of which weakened black’s kingside, it was logical for Komodo to go for a full attack from the very start.
The turning point was move 27. “Ah, Bg6 is a move I actually anticipated one move before and I just forgot it existed,” said MVL, who went down in a devastating attack.
“In this game obviously I [played] some terrible game but I am very impressed with the way Komodo handled it.”
Odds Game 5: Rook and a2 pawn for knight.
MVL thought he had the most significant advantage in this game. His strategy? “Open as many lines as I can.”
The expectations came true: the man dominated the machine and although the latter defended strongly of course, it couldn’t hold. A good game by MVL.
Odds Game 6: Knightmare! All pieces knights vs normal piece set with knights removed.
In the craziest of starting positions, Vachier-Lagrave went for a double fianchetto, something he had decided before the match. Annotating this insane game is asking too much of this author today, but MVL himself said didn’t like giving up his e-pawn so easily (as it restricts), and he also wasn’t sure of his plan of going for the h-pawn.
The final score was 6-5 for MVL, but that included the warm-up games. “It is tough, but it was a lot of fun anyway,” Vachier-Lagrave finished the show, basically summarizing the feeling of the fans watching. He also promised to start streaming on Twitch soon!
This Saturday, September 8, Vachier-Lagrave will be back on Chess.com as one of the strong grandmasters playing in our PRO Chess League All Stars event. Find more info on that here.
This man-vs-machine event was broadcast live on on Chess.com/TV and Twitch.tv/chess with full commentary by MVL and IM Daniel Rensch. You can replay that here: