Is Chess a Solved Game?

Robot moving chess pieces

Have you ever wondered if chess is a solved game? For many years software developers have worked hard to improve the ability of chess computers. Especially during the last few years artificial intelligence has evolved at lightening speed. This begs the question – Is chess by now a solved game?

Chess is not a solved game and will not be for many years to come. For each move the number of possible positions increases exponentially and calculating every possible continuation of each move in any position to perfection is simply a task too big even for modern computers.

Not too long ago the best human chess player in the world could actually still beat the best chess computer. This has changed with the rise of machine learning and the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI). Now we as humans no longer have the upper hand.

Why Computers Can’t Solve Chess Yet

Chess computers have come a very long way in recent years. The emergence of machine learning has led computers getting much better than humans at chess. If we go back some years the very best chess computer (Deep Blue) was still not able to beat the best human chess player (Gary Kasparov) at the time.

Chess is a game of perfect information. This means that all information is available to both players. This is unlike a game like poker, where each players has his own cards, that the opponent can’t see. So, why is chess not solved yet?

The reason chess is not a solved game yet is because of the sheer amount of possible positions that can arise in a chess game. Keep in mind that to solve a game we need to take into account all possible moves – not just the ones that seem to make sense as good moves.

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Let’s take a look at the amount possible positions just a few moves in. White has 20 possible moves on his first turn. Each of White’s 8 pawns can move one or two squares. That’s 16 possible pawn moves. Apart from that each of White’s Knights has two possible moves. That gives White 20 options. Black has the same options, so the number of possible positions after both players have made their first move is 20 * 20 = 400.

Look at that. 400 possibilities after just one move from each player. First move usually opens up for more possible moves. That is if it is a pawn move. Just to get an idea, let’s assume each players continues to have 20 options on each move.

If we just go to move 5 were get an almost astronomical amount of possible positions: 400 * 400 * 400 * 400 * 400 = 10,240,000,000,000. That is already such an incredibly large number. Imagine a 50 move game. Beyond that a chess game can last for much more than 50 moves.

What Is a Solved Game?

A solved game is a game where all possible situations has been calculated to perfection. In other words when there is a known perfect solution to any situation that might arise in the game – Then the game can be said to have been solved.

As shown in the example above it just does not seem likely that chess will ever really be solved. Even if it will at some point in the future it will not make a difference in real games. Since you are not allowed help from computers when you play there is zero chance that any human will ever know the perfect move in any situation.

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Chess computers are continually improving at rapid speed, but will not solve chess in the near future. Probably never.

Why Does Chess Seem Like a Solved Game When It’s Not?

At first glance chess seems like a simple enough game. There are only two players and not that many pieces. We know that supercomputers work at incredible speeds. Also, as mentioned above, chess is a game of perfect information. It seems like chess has all the prerequisites to be a solvable game. As we have just seen demonstrated – there are just so many possible situations that might arise making chess extremely hard to solve.

The other reason why chess might seem like a solve game is that chess engines are so good now. Almost in an instant they can show which move is the best, and you can be sure that any human will not be able to find a better move. In fact, if you let a computer engine like Stockfish work on a position for some minutes you can be pretty sure that it finds the best move in the position.

Now that chess computers are as good as they are all Grandmasters use computers in their preparation. With the help of computers anyone can load their games into the engine and see were they went wrong or made inaccurate moves. In opening preparation it is also much easier to find traps that you would not otherwise have found yourself without a computer.

In the end, chess is not a solved game. It may seem like it because computers have been able to beat humans at this game for some time now, but that does not mean there are no more unexplored possibilities or strategies left in chess.

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The best thing anyone can do if they want to be successful at chess is spend as much of their free time learning and practicing new moves and playing against people who are better. This way you improve by learning from your own and others’ mistakes.

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