With many people wondering about the future of chess after the IBM computer Big Blue beat Garry Kasparov earlier this year, Fischer's statement that computers would be at a considerable disadvantage in Fischerandom Chess received a great deal of attention. He stated that without access to databases of the millions of opening variations in traditional chess, computers do not really play chess all that well.
As an aside, don't read too much into the sentence that 'IBM computer Big Blue beat Garry Kasparov earlier this year'. The press conference took place in June 1996, so the Kasparov - IBM match would have been the first, played in February 1996. Kasparov suffered his only loss in the first game, but won the match by winning the last two games. It wasn't until the following year that Deep Blue beat Kasparov in a match (see a page on my World Championship site, Kasparov vs. IBM's Deep Blue, for a few details about the two matches).
Fischer's thoughts on computers drew attention from the experts. In The birth of Fischer Random Chess by Eric van Reem, which first appeared in 2001, the well known chess journalist wrote,
Fischer stated, that without access to databases of the millions of opening variations in traditional chess, computers do not really play chess all that well. However, Matthias Wüllenweber, one of the founders of ChessBase, has a completely dífferent opinion on that subject. Last year, when "Fritz on Primergy" played two Shuffle Chess games against German number 1 Artur Jusupov [Yusupov], the software specialist said: "When playing F.R Chess unusual patterns come up on the board. Knowledge of these patterns, however, is one of the main weapons for humans in their battle against computers.
Wüllenweber refers to a test his partner Frederic Friedel did with Hungarian Grandmaster Andras Adorjan. Friedel showed Adorjan several positions for a period of ten seconds. The Hungarian could recall those "normal" postions far better than amateur players did. Humans remember so-called "chunks" e.g. they do not remember pawn on f2, g2 and h2, King on g1 and Rook on f1, they remember the chunk "Castling Kingside".
If you build up a position without those patterns, but try to put up a position that really doesn´t make sense, with pawns on the first and eigth rank for example, there is hardly any difference in memorization between amateurs and grandmasters. According to Wüllenweber this 'thinking in chunks' is the main difference between humans and computers and the difference in ELO is some hundreds of points. A computer can play with 3 knights or 5 rooks, no problem.
This last point is in accordance with a sentiment I reported in A Few Novel Ideas (with links to the ICCF.com forum for the context of the discussion).
"For serious correspondence chess, as opposed to casual correspondence chess, playing chess960 games is a step in the WRONG direction. The reason is simple : the human knowledge effect in the games will be further reduced since the engines that are already affecting classic correspondence chess have zero problems adapting to chess960."
So who is right, Fischer or his critics? Since Fischer's heyday occurred when computer chess was still in its infancy (the first World Championship for Computer Chess took place in 1974), it's easy to conclude that the experts who came later were far more knowledgeable. Fischer, however, surprised us many times in the past and he might well surprise us in the future, long after his death.