Quantum chess puts new spin on old game

Stundent-created game combines quantum physics and chess to outsmart computers

Fourth-year computing student and quantum chess creator Alice Wismath, right, brought to life the ideas of her thesis supervisor Selim Akl, left.
Fourth-year computing student and quantum chess creator Alice Wismath, right, brought to life the ideas of her thesis supervisor Selim Akl, left.

A computer science professor and one of his students have collaborated to revolutionize a centuries old game.

Professor Selim Akl and fourth-year computing student Alice Wismath are the minds behind quantum chess, the latest talk of the online gaming world. The concept for the game is borrowed from quantum physics, which is also the source of its name.

“We are told by quantum physics that when the smallest particles are in quantum state they are more than one thing at one time,” he said. “The moment you make an observation they then settle on one of the states and they stay like that for the rest of their life.”

The idea began with Akl, who wrote a paper about the proposed game. Akl said he got the idea when he was teaching a course on natural computing.

“The issue of intelligence came up, human intelligence, and usually when intelligence comes up chess comes up,” he said. “Unfortunately chess is no longer the measure [of intelligence] because computers can beat most humans and my students were not very happy about this.”

Because of the nature of quantum chess, the game is not a runaway win for the computer as it usually is with standard chess.

“In conventional chess, a computer can essentially tell all future possibilities and make a very good move and therefore defeat most humans,” Akl said. “With quantum chess, the computer is faced with this uncertainty.” Computers create trees that map all possible outcomes. The trees for quantum chess are much more complicated due to the changeability of the game pieces, so the computer is put at less of an advantage.

The first ever quantum chess tournament was held in Kingston over the summer. The game was a challenge for players due to the unpredictability of the pieces, but Akl said the computer vs human success rate was about 50/50.

“This game places humans and computer on the same footing.” Akl said initially no one was interested in his paper, but when Wismath earned an NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) grant, she decided to pursue his idea.

“She wanted a supervisor to supervise her project so she came to me and I said ‘Alice, I wrote a paper on quantum chess and nobody paid attention, nobody cared, so I need you to bring it to life.’”

Wismath programmed the game, which puts a few major twists on classic chess.

“In the new version the piece can be more than one piece at a time and so you don’t know when you’re looking, what is what,” Akl said. “So what might be a pawn could be also, at the same time, might be a knight. And so when you touch the piece it reveals itself to you as one of its characters.”

Just as quantum physics states that the smallest particles stick to a state once observed, the chess pieces in quantum chess stick to their identity if they land on a white square. It is when they land on a black square that their identity can change.

Another twist in quantum chess is that players must capture the king, which never becomes another piece, rather than simply deliver a checkmate.

Wismath, CompSci ’11, said she was intrigued by the opportunity to make Akl’s idea a reality.

“I was looking for a summer in computing and I went to talk to Selim and he mentioned this as a project and I thought it sounded really cool,” she said. “I got to come up with rules to make it actually playable and to write the program to simulate the game to allow you to play and to come up with the computer strategy.”

Wismath said her involvement with continue into the future.

“I’m doing my … honours fourth-year project, so I’m going to be continuing on quantum chess,” she said, adding that Akl is her thesis supervisor. “I’ll be trying to add something like castling, maybe something with tanglements. … Obviously I just kind of want to make something that works as simple as possible.”

Castling is a special move in chess that uses the king and a rook of the same colour, while entanglement is a property of quantum physics.

Akl said he hopes to see quantum chess commercialized in the future, either as an online game, board game or both.

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