Dvorkovich and chess prodigy Arina Shtypel studying their positions. Dvorkovich managed to win the robot’s queen.
Playing alongside an international grandmaster and a 7-year-old prodigy, the smart money would not have been on Arkady Dvorkovich to score the only victory against Russia’s premier chess robot.
But it was President Dmitry Medvedev’s top economic adviser, who also happens to chair the Russian Chess Federation, that managed a win as a meter-high robotic arm swung among three boards to play simultaneous, five-minute “blitz” games.
The event, attended by some two dozen people Wednesday evening, was supposed to be a chance for Dvorkovich to shine.
The robot was to be feted as a Russian-designed engineering achievement, part of the Kremlin’s drive to modernize the economy.
And Dvorkovich would have a friendly environment to discuss his plans for the chess federation, which is up in arms over his support of Kalmyk President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to head FIDE, the sport’s world governing body.
But neither Dvorkovich nor the robot had a stellar night at the Dvorkovich Guesthouse. The three-story building in central Moscow is named for his father, Vladimir Dvorkovich, a well-known Soviet chess arbiter who oversaw dozens of tournaments.
Vladimir Dvorkovich, left
After brief comments to reporters, the humans — Dvorkovich, international grand master Igor Berdichevsky and 7-year-old chess whiz Arina Shtypel — took the white pieces to face off against the imposing mechanical arm, which was left with the slight disadvantage of playing black.
On Dvorkovich’s board, however, the robot’s king and queen were placed on the wrong squares before the game began — a blooper neither opponent seemed to notice.
As a result, Dvorkovich was able to snap up his opponent’s queen early on, giving him a major advantage. The robot eventually lost on time after forgetting to tap its clock.
“Formally, I won,” Dvorkovich later told spectators, referring to his first game. The machine had its vengeance in Round 2, punishing all three humans in the rapid-fire games.
“It is very difficult to play with a robot because it is hard to guess what he thinks,” Dvorkovich said.
The robot — which would not have looked out of place in a dentist’s office — was indeed a sight to behold.
The arm was built in 2006 by Kostantin Kostenyuk, a former Air Force engineer and the father of Alexandra Kostenyuk, the world’s top-ranked woman. Its design stripped the chess robot — a dream dating back to at least the 18th century — to the barest of essentials.
Perhaps best-known is the so-called Mechanical Turk, which was constructed in the late 1700s by Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen to amuse the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa. The machine, resembling a man in traditional Turkish garb, was a hoax operated by a skilled chess player inside.
While the Kostenyuk robot could hardly be blamed for overlooking its misplaced queen, the machine had some faults of its own. At one point it froze, mid-move, with a pawn in its iron fist, drawing laughter from Dvorkovich and fans.
“We wanted to show how fast the technical devices can go,” said Dvorkovich, adding that he planned to show off the machine at next week’s International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg.
Shtypel said she was impressed with her opponent. “It was nice,” she said after the match. “I wasn’t afraid of him.”
Russia could also host a first robot chess tournament next year, he said. There are a number of international chess tournaments every year that feature commercial chess software, but they currently use humans to move pieces for the contestants.
Dvorkovich also said his boss is a chess fan and keeps a board in his office, although he said they had never played.
Medvedev has used his clout to weigh in on sports in the past, including an order in October for federal officials to quit as the heads of Russia’s sports federations, saying professionals should take over from influential amateurs.
Nearly a dozen ministers and other officials were forced to step back from active management in their favorite pastimes. Among them were Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov — then the chess federation’s head — and Dvorkovich, his deputy at the federation.
Under the order, however, officials were allowed to be on federations’ supervisory boards, and Dvorkovich became chairman of the chess body’s oversight committee — a post that he has used to the fullest.
On May 21, Dvorkovich ordered security guards to take control of the federation’s Moscow office and prevent Alexander Bakh, its long-time managing director, from entering.
Bakh has openly challenged Dvorkovich’s support for Ilyumzhinov, the eccentric leader of Russia’s Buddhist republic, who is criticized by human rights groups for an authoritarian streak.
The federation — with Bakh’s support — voted to nominate former world champion and Soviet chess hero Anatoly Karpov as its nominee to head FIDE.
The vote will be held in the Siberian region of Khanty-Mansiisk in September, and some international chess federations have said they might nominate Karpov to challenge Ilyumzhinov’s 15-year tenure in the post.
Karpov has also won the support of his former archrival in chess, Garry Kasparov, who left the sport to become a leader of the Solidarity opposition movement.
“I think the best thing for [Bakh] would be to file his resignation voluntarily, without preconditions,” Dvorkovich told The Moscow Times.
Bakh and Zhukov
But Bakh, a prominent Soviet chess coach and longtime managing director of the federation, said Thursday that he had no intention of backing down.
“That’s the way he wants things to be, but that’s not the way they are,” he said in an interview.
Bakh’s supporters and Dvorkovich’s assistants are in talks on the standoff, he said. Third parities have also weighed in on the matter, he said, declining to elaborate.
Under the chess federation’s charter, the acting head can only be removed if voted out by its members.
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS