14 tips to finally beat chess computers

There was a moment in time where humans reign supreme in the domain of chess competence, no other entity can even come close. An average chess player could pretty much give a beatdown to the strongest chess computer at the time.

Those days are long gone, chess engines/computers dominate both advanced and professional players left and right. Even the best human chess player in the world right now doesn’t even compare to the might of chess computers.

That is what this article is going to be about, how to beat a chess computer. There is of course no guarantee to this but is just something that will increase the likelihood of you accomplishing it.

But first, let’s talk about what chess engines are in order to properly lay down the context. Let’s get to it.

Definition of chess engines and why they are hard to beat

A Chess engine/computer is a special program designed to analyze chess or similar-looking variants of the game, which is formulated to interpret moves or lines ranging from the weakest to the strongest at the given position.

Such chess engines vary in strength, where the depth is usually a good indication of its precision.

These chess computers are something you can challenge yourself in anything the light screen of your laptop, cellphone, or computer touches.

Generally, engines are better suited to deal with problems, which brings us to the next point, the problem with playing against machines.

Struggling against a modern chess computer is completely acceptable

Machines are created to do things we can or can’t accomplish in a more efficient and timely manner. It’s really hard to compete against a machine, seems well, their actual purpose is to be better than humans.

But then again, we have found patterns that can be exploited to significantly increase winning chances against such opponents.

Take note that there is no surefire way to guarantee a win against a chess computer, but is just a good guideline that will likely deliver favorable results.

Here are the following ideas to apply in order to beat a chess computer:

1.) Identify the horizon in order to beat a chess computer

The horizon of a chess computer can be defined by the number of moves the program can see ahead, which determines its decisions.

Basically, a higher horizon (ply) translates to more capabilities a chess computer can accomplish. And of course if we’re going to beat this thing then a proper identification of its strength will really help.

Fun fact: A chess engine ply is calculated as half a move, where 14 plies for example means the computer can see 7 moves ahead.

This is such a significant thing since computers with varying levels will require a different approach, aggressive (tactical) is best against lower to intermediate engines, while silent (strategic) is best for stronger ones.

2.) Go for tactics when trying to beat a chess computer

This is the first approach and is greatly applicable for engines of lower quality, the ones that is played by beginners via some numerous app names.

Such engines usually have lower ply count meaning that the computer is actually not able to process most tactics.

Slow maneuvering moves may work, but I’ve seen some lose to low-quality engines since the computer has an easier time calculating the moves. An engine that has a ply below 10 is usually the subject in question where tactics can work.

3.) Exploit material greediness in order to beat a chess computer

Chess computers are a greedy piece of work, if ever there’s an opportunity to be up in material, you bet that it will take it.

Now, this makes sense since being up in material directly translates to an advantage that is easier to calculate than long-term plans.

This greediness however is a huge weakness that can be taken advantage of positionally; chess after all is a battle of positions not just material.

Greedy players are usually beginners

This of course doesn’t apply to high-level engines like stockfish since they patched this one long ago.

4.) Utilize Gambits and traps when trying to beat the chess computer

This is to piggyback from the previous point regarding the computer’s nature to prefer material advantage over positional; means we can actually use gambit and traps!

Now, big alert that this only includes low to intermediate chess computers, high performance engines will crush you if you attempt this.

However gambits and traps are just irresistible to low-end computers, especially those that doesn’t have access to any opening theory.

Using gambits that have decent theoretical knowledge is a good idea, along with traps that offer material for some kind of winning combination.

Even gambits have well-known lines nowadays.

5.) Play the quiet game against the chess computer

This may be surprising to you, after all I just indicated previously that you should utilize gambit and traps, why would you want to go for a boring approach?

Gambit and traps will work against intermediate computers sure, but really good engines will just wipe you from the face of the earth!

These modern computers are specially programmed to exploit short term tactical gains over longer ones.

It’s really difficult to outplay a good computer tactically even for professionals, therefore a boring game might be the best game for you.

“Some consider that when I play I am excessively cautious, but it seems to me that the question may be a different one. I try to avoid chance. Those who rely on chance should play cards or roulette. Chess is something quite different.”

-Tigran Petrosian

6.) Close the position in order to beat a chess computer

This is probably the most useful advice when playing against renowned chess computers which are great at tactical shots.

You see, tactics thrive in open positions where the board is prone for possibilities, whereas a closed position forces a slow maneuvering game.

And positional skirmishes is to your best interest! Humans are great at formulating long term plans over short term than most engines (not always).

Case on point with the Kasparov (Former World Champion) game against x3d fritz (chess computer) back in 2003.

Man-Machine World Chess Championship

Garry Kasparov faced an elite chess computer during the time in a match said to determine the future of chess and computer programming.

Kasparov implemented this is very exact anti-chess computer strategy by closing the position all throughout the game.

Here’s that game:

White (Kasparov) just dominates black (x3D Fritz) by forcing a closed position that eventually suffocates fritz’s choices.

We could take something from here and use it on our terms against these formidable machines.

7.) Play for a draw when trying to beat a chess computer

This is another counterintuitive advice that you may find suspicious since we want to win, but I’m telling you to play for a draw?

You see, most high technological computers are not programmed to take draws, and therefore would do anything to keep playing even compromising their position.

This is another devilishly anti-computer strategy that will work most of the time, well, if you don’t blunder.

There is this really hilarious game between Hikaru Nakamura (Super Grandmaster) and Rybka (Computer), where the guy really demonstrates the flaw of Rybka.

ICCC Blitz 2008

Hikaru played Black while Rybka has White, in a game that will forever go down in history as the meme that contains a human trolling a chess computer.

Look at the interface below:

Nakamura just like Kasparov employed an anti chess computer strategy of closing the position, but also did another thing on top of that.

The guy also tried to go for a draw! triggering Rybka’s program to force an initiative even at the cost of its position.

This entertainingly allows Hikaru to bring an army of bishop and knights from the promoted pawns before checkmating white.

Take a lesson from this and apply it in your own games!

8.) Use your openings in order to beat a chess computer

Some variety of chess computers don’t have access to any opening theories, which is a
weakness that we can take advantage of.

Of course this doesn’t include every engine since some are just monsters even at the openings, but for those that don’t, this is a good strategy.

After all it doesn’t even require you to play, you just need to apply the moves from the theory to get some sort of initiative.

Even still, it is not a surefire way to win since you’re actually required to play on, but just helps in improving chances by acquiring a good position from the get-go.

9.) Unconventional moves wins against chess engines

But what if the computer actually knows some opening knowledge? Is there anything we can consider to have some edge against such opponents?

I’m really not sure, but one thing is true for this situation, you are highly unlikely to outplay an engine that knows theory at the start of the game.

Using unconventional moves in such scenarios may work not because of psychology like when playing with humans, but to avoid a theory that the computer knows well.

This is not the best advice to beat an engine, but I mean we’re talking about hard to beat computers, anything is worth much for this battle.

10.) Endgame is your friend against chess engines

This again it’s one of the best advice among all that I’ve discussed so far and something that you may have noticed yourself.

Endgames you see are more strategic and long term-based instead of short term tactical gains that most chess computers are programmed to be the best in.

In other words, they are highly unlikely to perform super precise moves that would deliver wins, since they are in the phase which doesn’t favor their nature.

Everyone’s obsessed with opening theories when it’s the endgame that wins the game.

Again, this doesn’t apply to every chess computer especially the stronger ones! they could still crush you since they’ve long worked on this flaw.

But it’s still a good strategy if it does work, so make sure you try in the least to see how it fair against the computer you’re competing with.

11.) Presence of mind is key when trying to beat a chess computer

Discussing all the strategies and positions to prefer is not the full story, the big question is can we actually survive long enough to see the results.

Closing the position, trying to go for draws, or even mastering the endgame can help, but blunders will ruin such plans altogether.

Hanging a piece, pawn, or similar mistakes that bring disadvantages are not acceptable against chess computers, if such, you’d probably be better of restarting.

Being mindful about the position of your pieces and the opponent’s is of utmost importance; focus is needed to defeat strong opponents which engines are.

12.) Repetition gives results when trying to beat a chess engine

Reading through my advice, you may have noticed that everything is not applicable for a single chess computer and actually vary depending on different factors.

Identifying which type of chess computer we’re dealing with is important for making an appropriate counter for such.

The best way to learn the opponent is by playing with them, again and again, which would naturally give you a grasp about the way they operate.

So play with the computer over and over again! You will be better each time and therefore have higher chances of success.

13.) The leveling program of engines can allow you to beat them

This may be obvious to you, but one way to beat a chess computer is by playing against a weaker one!

Now, this may seem as an ubiquitous useless advice, but it’s really not.

Most players are looking for the “silver bullet” which is the ultimate Chess strategy that would help them win in an “x” amount of moves.

That simply is not possible! Play your level, don’t expect to dismantle strong engines as a beginner, start with lower levels and work your way up.

You don’t play against Lebron when you’ve just learned how to shoot free throws.

14.) “Cheating” can make you win against the chees engine

Another way to beat a chess computer is to apply things that will be considered “cheating” and use it against them.

Such includes taking back moves, reading through opening theories, or even making it play against another computer.

Now before you hit me on this, it’s important to understand that the goal is to improve in chess, not beat chess engines, therefore we should find ways to utilize them.

Proper usage of chess engines is one of the best ways to improve in chess.

Instead of being so encroached about defeating them, we should consider them as a learning opportunity that would help us be better players.

Taking back moves for example can be a great exercise to sharpen analysis and practice avoiding blunders, plus you can beat the engine!

Final thoughts

Chess computers have long passed the point where most human can compete, not even beat the best of their kind.

They may be strong but they are still within the boundaries of our creation (programming), therefore still having weaknesses far from being perfect.

Applying all this may not guarantee a win, but is still a good try from your end as someone who is trying to overcome a bad matchup.

Sleep well and play chess.