Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Nettlesomeness and Humanity


Magnus Carlsen—just 22 years old—beat Viswanathan Anand (the reigning world chess champion) this week at the World Chess Championships in Chennai, India. There has been much excitement about Carlsen’s victory, and not simply because of his youth. As Joe Weisenthal writes, Carlsen’s win signifies the emergence of a new kind of chess. We can profitably speak of at least three eras.


First, what is often called the Romantic era of chess. Here is how Weisenthal describes it:

In the old days, high-level chess was a swashbuckling game filled with daring piece sacrifices and head-spinning multi-move combinations where the winner would pull off wins seemingly out of nowhere.

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, Weisenthal explains, chess became more methodical. New champions would still take chances, but they were studied risks, more considered, and often pre-tested in preparation games. Players would study all past games by opponents analyzed through computers. This meant that the spontaneous move was more often than not beaten back by the prepared answer.

As the study of chess became more rigorous, these wild games became more and more rare at the highest level, as daring (but theoretically weak) combinations became more easy to repel…. Modern chess champions have won by building crushing, airtight, positional superiorities against their opponents, grinding them down and forcing a resignation. The chess is amazing, although frequently less of a high-wire act.

The third era of recent chess might be called the computer age. It began, for better or worse, when IBM’s Deep Blue super computer beat the great chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. The current generation of players (like Carlsen) were raised playing chess against computers. This has changed the way the game is played.

In an essay a while back in the NYRB, Kasparov reflected on what the rise of chess-playing computers meant.

The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.

One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic. The romantic era of elegant and swashbuckling chess is over. But so too is the rational, calculated, grinding chess that Weisenthal describes as the style of the late 20th century. Since all players are trained by the logical rigidity of playing against computers, playing by pure logic will rarely give one side the ultimate advantage.

Which brings us to Carlsen and the buzz about his victory at the World Chess Championships. Behind Carlsen’s victories is what is being called his “nettlesomeness,” a concept apparently developed by the computer science professor Ken Regan. The idea has been described recently by Tyler Cowen:

Carlsen is demonstrating one of his most feared qualities, namely his “nettlesomeness,” to use a term coined for this purpose by Ken Regan. Using computer analysis, you can measure which players do the most to cause their opponents to make mistakes. Carlsen has the highest nettlesomeness score by this metric, because his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes. In contrast, a player such as Kramnik plays a high percentage of very accurate moves, and of course he is very strong, but those moves are in some way calmer and they are less likely to induce mistakes in response.

For Weisenthal, the rise of “nettlesomeness” signifies the "new era of post-modern chess. It's not about uncorking crazy, romantic brilliancies. And it's not about achieving crushing, positional victories. It's about being as cool as a computer while your opponent does things that are, well, human."

I am not sure Weisenthal gives full credit to Carlsen’s nettlesomeness. Yes, Carlsen does engage in a bit of emotional warfare—the getting up from the table, trying to throw off one’s opponent. But his nettlesomeness also involves “his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes.” This is important.


In Kasparov’s earlier essay, he also describes his experience of two matches played against the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, at the time the world's highest ranked Chess Master. When Kasparov played him in regular timed chess, he bested Topalov 3-1. But when he played him in a match when both were allowed to consult a computer for assistance, the match ended in a 3-3 draw. The lesson Kasparov drew from this is that computer-assisted chess magnifies the importance of human creativity:

The computer could project the consequences of each move we considered, pointing out possible outcomes and countermoves we might otherwise have missed. With that taken care of for us, we could concentrate on strategic planning instead of spending so much time on calculations. Human creativity was even more paramount under these conditions.

One may, however, question Kasparov’s conclusion. The computers did even out the match. As he admits, “My advantage in calculating tactics had been nullified by the machine.” More often than not, the result of computer-assisted chess is a draw.

What Carlsen’s victory may show, however, is that at a time when most players learn against machines and become technical wizards, it is those players who rise above the calculating game and are adept at finding the surprising or at least unsettling moves that will, at the very top of the sport, prove victorious. That is what Regan and Cowen mean by nettlesomeness. All of which suggests that, at least for the top chess player in the world, chess remains a human endeavor in which creativity can be enlisted to discombobulate human opponents playing increasingly like machines.

For your weekend read, take a long gander at Weisenthal’s essay. It includes simulated chess games to illustrate his point! Happy reading and playing.


Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

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