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How much chess engine progress is about adapting to bigger computers?

i) To pick a reference year, it seems reasonable to take the mid/late 1990s:
- Almost all chess engines before ~1996 lacked (or had serious inefficiencies) using multi-cores (very lengthy discussion here).
- Chess protocols became available, so that the engine and the GUI separated. That makes it straightforward to automate games for benchmarking.
- Modern engines should work on machines of that age, considering RAM constraints.
- The most famous human-computer games took place in 1997: Kasparov-Deep Blue. That's almost a quarter of a century ago (nice round number...). Also, at the time, commercial algorithms were considerably below human-level play.

ii) Sounds good

iii) The influence of endgames tables and opening books is typically small. It is reasonable to neglect it in our experiments.

iv) Yes, the 4-case-test is a good idea:
- 1997 PC with 1997 engine: ELO XXXX
- 1997 PC with 2021 engine: ELO XXXX
- 2021 PC with 1997 engine: ELO XXXX
- 2021 PC with 2021 engine: ELO XXXX

One main result of these experiments will be the split: Where does the ELO gain come from? Is it the compute, or the algo improvement? And the answer will be about 70% compute, 30% algo (give or take 10 percentage points) over the last 25 years. Without serious experiments, have a look at the Stockfish evolution at constant compute. That's a gain of +700 ELO points over ~8 years (on the high side, historically). For comparison, you gain ~70 ELO per double compute. Over 8 years one has on average gained ~400x compute, yielding +375 ELO. That's 700:375 ELO for compute:algo, or a rounded 70%-30% (SF has improved rather fast).

To baseline the old machine, we don't need to boot up old hardware. There is plenty of trustworthy old benchmarking still available that has these numbers.

As the modern baseline, I would certainly recommend Stockfish:
-
It is the best (or amongst the very top) for the last decade or so
- It is open source and has a very large dev community. Steps in improvements can be explained.
- Open source means it can be compiled on any machine that has a C++ compiler

Other modern engines will perform similarly, because they use similar methods. After all, SF is open source.

As a bonus, one could benchmark a Neural Network-based engine like LC0. There will be issues when using it without a GPU, however.

As for the old engine, it is more difficult to choose. Most engines were commercial programs, not open source. There is an old version of Fritz 5 (from 1998) freely available that supports protocols. I got it installed on a modern Windows with some headache. Perhaps that could be used. Fritz was, at the time of the Kasparov-Deep Blue match, the strongest commercial engine.

How much chess engine progress is about adapting to bigger computers?

Thank you for your interest: It's good to see people asking similar questions! Also thank-you for incentivizing research with rewards. Yes, I think closing the gaps will be straightforward. I still have the raw data, scripts, etc. to pick it up.

i) old engines on new hardware - can be done; needs definition of which engines/hardware

ii) raw data + reproduction - perhaps everything can be scripted and put on GitHub

iii) controls for memory + endgame tables - can be done, needs definition of requirements

iv) Perhaps the community can already agree on a set of experiments before they are performed, e.g. memory? I mean, I can look up "typical" values of past years, but I'm open for other values.

Measuring hardware overhang

Right. My experiment used 1 GB for Stockfish, which would also work on a 486 machine (although at the time, it was almost unheard of...)

Measuring hardware overhang

(a) The most recent data points are from CCRL. They use an i7-4770k and the listed tournament conditions. With this setup, SF11 has about 3500 ELOs. That's what I used as the baseline to calibrate my own machine (an i7-7700k).

(b) I used the SF8 default which is 1 GB.

(c) Yes. However, the hardware details (RAM, memory bandwidth) are not all that important. You can use these SF9 benchmarks on various CPUs. For example, the AMD Ryzen 1800 is listed with 304,510 MIPS and gets 14,377,000 nodes/sec on Stockfish (i.e., 19.9 nodes per MIPS). The oldest CPU in the list, the Pentium-150 has 282 MIPS and reaches 5,626 nodes/sec (i.e., 47.2 nodes per MIPS). That's about a factor of two difference, due to memory and related advantages. As we're getting that much every 18 months due to Moore's law, it's a small (but relevant) detail, and decreases the hardware overhang slightly. Thanks for bringing that up!

Giving Stockfish more memory also helps, but not a lot. Also, you can't give 128 GB of RAM to a 486 CPU. The 1 GB is probably already stretching it. Another small detail which reduces the overhang by likely less than one year.

There are a few more subtle details like endgame databases. Back then, these were small, constrained by disk space limitations. Today, we have 7-stone endgame databases through the cloud (they weigh in at 140 TB). That seems to be worth about 50 ELO.