From January 1st Chess.com – the main platform for playing chess online, very popular with both amateurs and professionals – introduced on the site five new chess engines that users can play against, each represented by a cat avatar. “Chess engines” is how the common artificial intelligence software that plays chess is called, often also called “bots”, i.e. those that are challenged when playing a game “against the computer”: Chess.com it has many, which usually differ according to the level of difficulty you want to play.
Among the new chess engines introduced by the site there is one that is attracting absolutely exceptional attentionand which apparently is bringing millions of people to the platform willing to compete with him: his creators called him Mittens and his avatar is a very harmless-looking kitten, but he is designed to beat his opponents in particularly wicked ways and was able to win against as well Grand masters (the most important award for chess players) and international champions competing for the world title.
In recent years, many new people have become passionate about chess, which is now a much more popular and followed sport than it was until not too long ago. Several factors have contributed to fueling this interest: starting from the very popular TV series The chess queenreleased on Netflix in 2020, up to the much discussed case involving the world champion Magnus Carlsen and 19-year-old chess player Hans Niemann, accused of cheating in a game in which he had beaten Carlsen himself.
– Read also: How can you cheat at chess
But nothing has worked as well as an attractive element as the Mittens bot: since it was introduced, Chess.com averaged 27.5 million games played per day, 40 percent more than the average day in any other month in the platform’s history. In December up Chess.com there had been a total of 609 million matches, and it had become by far the month with the most matches ever on the platform: in January it has already exceeded 850 million.
Every day millions of people enter the site just to challenge Mittens, almost always losing, and many talk about it in chess forums, on social networks and in dedicated videos on YouTube. A recent video by famed Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, titled “Bot Mittens Will Make You Quit Chess,” had 3.5 million views in just a few days.
Mittens is certainly not the first bot capable of beating the best chess champions in the world, indeed it has been for several decades now that human beings are no longer able to win against high-level chess engines: what is striking about him, if anything, is the way he wins and what he says in chats with his opponents, who in most cases only face him to see how they will be beaten, already taking into account what will happen.
The personality of a treacherous player that has been given to him then clashes in a mocking way with the harmless image of his avatar, effectively making him a perfect meme for the Internet: he is a kitten, that is the animal that, even in an ironic way, is now considered the most appreciated and shared onlinebut it is also a troll who provokes his opponents with what he says and what he does. Above all, it is a clear testimony of how chess has reached the general public in recent years, and how sport is no longer linked only to a small circle of extremely thoughtful and competent players.
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Whoever conceived and created Mittens did all this on purpose: initially Will Whalen, the student who had first had the idea, had simply thought of putting an incredibly strong robot behind the image of a harmless and cute being; it was then Sean Becker, who drove for Chess.com the group of people who took care of developing his personality, thinking of making him a provocative player without pity on his opponents.
— Mittens (@MittensChess) January 9, 2023
Unlike what usually happens with bots Chess.com, right from the start his level of play was deliberately kept hidden, to fuel the mystery and curiosity about him. The games against him have been described as exhausting: instead of just winning quickly, Mittens always chooses a game strategy that involves long positional battles, and for this he often ends up demoralizing the opponents who face him. For this reason, his style of play has been compared to that of the Russian Grandmaster Anatoly Karpov, world chess champion in the 1970s and 1980s.
Also when he wins, or other times during the game, Mittens writes to his opponents often speaking through quotes from historical figures, such as the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche or the theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimerconsidered the “father of the atomic bomb”.
Hikaru Nakamura, who managed to equalize against him, commented: “This cat is extremely patient: which, I’m not going to lie, is quite annoying.” The well-known youtuber and international Master (the most prestigious position after Grand Master) Levy Rozman ironically commented: «This bot is a psychopath».