Rook No Compromise: Fishy rules change has Kaufman rethinking computer tourney.
Rook No Compromise: Fishy rules change has Kaufman rethinking computer tourney. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Larry Kaufman’s good at chess. In November, he won the world senior chess championship in Germany. That’s his first world title.

His kid’s good, too. At another tournament in Germany last fall, Ray Kaufman, 26, was named an international master. That’s coveted status among the pawns-and-rooks crowd.

Larry got to that level 30 years ago.

The Kaufmans are believed to be the only father-son pairing anywhere to ever reach the international master rank.

But the family’s top contribution to chess comes in a fleshless and bloodless variety of the game. The elder Kaufman is an author of Rybka, a computer chess program. A really, really good program.

Only in recent years did computers even catch up to the best humans in chess. Now it’s a rout.

Plainly, Larry’s brainchild can kick his child’s ass. And his. In fact, there ain’t an ass Rybka can’t kick at the chessboard.

“No human has any chance against Rybka,” says Kaufman, 60, who grew up in Silver Spring and now lives in Potomac. “The best you can hope for is maybe a tie against Rybka, unless you dumb it down.”

No computer program can make Rybka tip over its king, either: Rybka is the two-time winner and defending champ of the World Computer Chess Championships.

That title’s on the line next month in Pamplona, Spain.

But Kaufman and others on Team Rybka might not show up to pummel lesser software from around the globe. Turns out tournament organizers from the International Computer Games Association tinkered with the rules for this year’s competition. For the first time in the 37-year history of the event, programs that use multiple motherboards and more than eight “logical cores” are no longer welcome.

Rybka, in its late-model configuration, would be ineligible to compete. Kaufman says Team Rybka could adjust its program to fall within the new rules and still whup up on the world.

But there’s a feeling among the squad that the ICGA changed its code to mess specifically with Rybka’s designers. So the defending champ’s handlers are thinking about sitting out the tournament on principle.

Vasik Rajlich, a Cleveland native of Czech extraction and himself an international grandmaster, started the Rybka project. Rajlich’s program was already world-class by 2006, when he brought in Kaufman, whom he found from postings about Rybka on computer chess message boards.

Kaufman, who retired from a long and prosperous career as a commodities trader in the mid-1990s, has a history in computer chess like nobody else. He first worked on chess programs 40 years ago, when he was an undergrad studying economics at MIT.

Kaufman helped write “Mac Hack,” recognized as the first chess program that ever competed in human tournaments. On that project, the computer students at MIT wanted Kaufman to concentrate on the chess angles, and they’d take care of translating his board game brains into 1’s and 0’s.

He had the same role with Rybka.

“I’m not a programmer. I’m the chess guy,” he says. “Because even though [Rajlich is] a very strong chess player, as well as a great programmer, he wasn’t that good at explaining to his computer why he was good at chess. He recognized that I was much better at it, so my job was to teach the program how to judge the chess position.”

Coincidence or not, Rybka won its first World Computer Chess Championship in 2006, its first outing using Kaufman’s digitized intuition.

The advent of supra-human computer programs has led to cheating scandals, even at the highest levels of the game. Just weeks ago in Moscow, in fact, Igor Kurnosov, a 21-year-old international grandmaster, was officially accused by a vanquished fellow grandmaster of using Rybka at a major tournament.

The accuser, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, theorized that after each move Kurnosov, the top seed in the tournament, would go somewhere to consult Rybka. The only evidence Mamedyarov presented to make his case was that Kurnosov did indeed get up from his chair a lot during the match, and that he used 14 consecutive moves, in a rout that lasted only 21 moves, that corresponded with Rybka’s first choice. Kurnosov said he was merely smoking a lot.

Tournament organizers denied Mamedyarov’s petition.

Kaufman doubts that his wares are being used nefariously in live matches.

“The cheating part isn’t hard,” says Kaufman. “Getting away with it is. Those are two different skills. You’d have to get up and go to the bathroom every move, or wear an earpiece or headphones under a hat. I don’t think chess players are good enough to get away with it.” (Similarly, Kaufman says he learned long ago how to count cards in blackjack, but not how to do it subtly enough not to get caught.)

Chess is a young man’s game. Most top-flight players begin to lose their skills at around 30 years old.

Kaufman says he probably peaked “just before my 50th birthday.”

“That’s really unusual, that late,” he says. “I’ve had big dropoffs since, but in the last few years I turned it around.” (More evidence of Kaufman’s late blooming: He is also the father of a 3-year-old child.)

The work he’s done on the computer program has kept him sharper than a guy his age should be, Kaufman theorizes.

“For my work on Rybka,” he says. “I had to quantify everything, to figure it all out, to think about all these questions of how you judge a chess match. I believe that this work has really improved my chess. I haven’t dropped off as much as the average 60-year-old, and, to be honest, that’s probably why I was able to win the World Senior Open. I played a lot of grandmasters who don’t play like grandmasters anymore.”

The software market is loaded with programs designed to help average chess players get better. Those sell much better than Rybka, which retails for about $100.

Kaufman guesses that Rybka, for all its laurels, has sold only “about 10,000 to maybe 15,000” copies the world over. So, if he were looking to make money, Kaufman would have been better off spending all the hours he put into computer chess programs “working at McDonald’s.”

He admits his program has little value to recreational players, who want their computer to serve as both an opponent and a tutor.

“Rybka won’t give you a lecture,” he says. “It will just beat you.”