Friday, October 19, 2007


chess set
Most of my young adult years, age 18 to 35, I spent in academia living under the poverty of student life. Ramen noodles. Ragged blue jeans. At one point I neither had nor could afford a bed, and so for a year I slept on a rubber mat on the floor. Once I finally bailed out into the real world, I was astonished to discover that I could actually purchase non-necessities. You know, more than just an ascetic budget of food, clothing, and shelter. I started buying items I called my gear. First piece of gear I ever bought, back in 1993, was a Swiss Army knife which I still have and use. Second item was my old Hudson's Bay point blanket. And my third piece of gear was a Chess set.

I've always been a fanatic about games. I got a big, solid wood chessboard, 21" on a side. I got ebony and boxwood chessmen, Staunton, lead weighted, leather pads underneath. That aweful Platonic light that burns at the heart of all games burns especially hard and bright from within the game of Chess. To see into Chess is to see deeply into a transcendent mystery. I wanted a Chess set that said all this eloquently. Chess set, Chess set, burning bright, in the forests of the night...

Chess and I go back a long way together. I learned the moves of the pieces at age three, enough to play a rough Chess game, more or less. I learned the finer details at age nine— castling queenside, capturing a pawn en passant, 50-move draw rule, etc.— to be honest, I was a little disappointed that there weren't more such irregular rules, I had imagined an endless cloud of little exceptions and irregularities. I played Chess whenever I could. For some reason I preferred to play black. My favorite chessman was the Knight.

In high school we organized a Chess Club, with Mr. Hansen as our advisor. We attended one Chess tournament, then the principal told us the school couldn't afford the gas money for the van. Hunh, I was on the cross-country team, which took the van to every away meet, and gas was no problem. We planned to hold a school Chess tournament, wondered if we could get a Chess trophy to be engraved and placed in one of the three huge ceiling-to-floor glass trophy cases in the lobby of the high school. The principal said a trophy would cost too much, never mind that they spent twice as much on the uniform of a single football player. We scheduled a meeting of the Chess club in the business room during homeroom, then after the regular announcements that morning the principal came on the intercom to announce that the meeting of the Chess club was canceled. He did this on his own say-so, since (if you hadn't figured it by now) he hated Chess and thought that pursuits of the mind were stupid.

There was a lot of petty anti-intellectualism like that in the culture back in those days; they called our high school the "Sports Academy," anything but sports could go hang.

But then Chess has often been something of a countercultural pursuit, hasn't it? Longhaired players in coffeehouses. Crazy Paul Morphy. Crazy Wilhelm Steinitz. Crazy Akiba Rubinstein. Crazy Bobby Fischer. Chess as a pursuit that absorbs all your energies and renders you unfit for any other serious pursuit in life. Alice, the Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass.

At one point there, late teens and early twenties, I was beginning to get middling good at Chess. Knew what I was up to when I made a move, not just a pawnpusher. I was even learning various chess openings, Ruy Lopez, Giuoco Piano, King's Gambit, Sicilian Defense, Caro-Kann, King's Indian Defense, Queen's Gambit. But I let it go, I could see that the only way to get really good at it was to let it become an endless sinkhole for my energy.

Chess is one of the deepest games ever devised. Only the Game of Go has a reasonable claim to be deeper, though the Game of Shogi or Japanese Chess also comes close.

If Chess has a shortcoming, in my eyes it's precisely that, in order to play well in today's world, you need to memorize an encyclopedic load of openings. A game like this should be more amenable to strategic analysis than to rote memorization. Plus, well, computers have made massive inroads into Chess, haven't they? I'm one of those reactionaries who, in the rivalry between Man and Machine, still root for Man. But it's a losing battle. In the end the Machine will win.

Still there's nothing quite like Chess. It's a beauty of a game, a piece of Platonic archetype trapped and imprisoned in board and boxwood and ebony, like a fly caught in amber.

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Anonymous Lucy said...

I adore Go! Its like waltzing, or watching waves, or ... anything else thats mesmerizing. Black and white shifting, swirling. I find it much more graceful than Chess. More alive, less rigid.

I had never played, but my husband loves strategy games. So I learned to play with him. I could never beat him. My own personal victory came when I quit trying to win and played to tie. I could do that more often than not. It made him nuts!

Sometimes I amuse myself by making up my own secret standards for "winning" if I'm bored. For example, the dictionary-game is MUCH more fun for me if I'm trying to guess my husband's answer instead of the "correct" answer.

When life gives you lemons, make Lemon Custard Ice-Cream :)

Friday, October 19, 2007 10:48:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

I love Go, though I haven't played it in years now. My old Go set is disintegrating (long story), I want to buy a new Go set one of these days, perhaps from Japan Go Imports. But not until I recover from buying the Hudson's Bay blanket and all those other items these past few months.

The wondrous thing about Go is how a game of such depth and subtlety flows from such simple principles. Whereas Chess is more like a Gothic cathedral, moves and rules finely balanced and counterbalanced like flying buttresses.

In fact I think it's no accident that modern Chess survived and prevailed while other medieval chess variations (such as Courier Chess) fell by the wayside. Way back in those high school Chess Club days I used to ponder this. It seemed to me that you could think of all possible chess variations as being like points on a manifold— points in an n-dimensional curved space. (Yes, I was already poking my nose into differential geometry at that age.) In fact, if there is no upper bound on the complexity of the rules of a chess variation, then we end up with a true mathematical continuum (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out exactly what I mean by that). Of all possible chess variations, many will be uninteresting, or not well balanced. But by adjusting and fine-tuning the rules, you may end up at a "saddle point" on the manifold (in this case, the "saddle point" is the Game of Chess) where maximizing this factor and minimizing that factor leads to a game which is optimally balanced, and wondrous beyond all expectation.

My thinking was proceeding by something of an abuse of the concepts involved. But I think I was on to something. Something in the Game of Chess is balanced and counterbalanced just right. In order to find another game that was just as optimally balanced, you would have to go to a game that was quite different and far removed from Chess. At least as different and far removed as, say, the Game of Shogi or Japanese Chess, which seems to me to be another "saddle point" on the manifold of all possible chesslike games.

Saturday, October 20, 2007 7:29:00 AM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

All these games where a computer can exhaust the possibilities. How about a game where at various points one or the other or both players can change a rule, add or remove a rule, etc. Or a game where, if players repeat certain patterns, the pattern becomes a rule. Maybe in stages.

Just a thought from an admitted game non-fanatic.

Saturday, October 20, 2007 8:07:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Yes, it seems to be only a matter of time for any game with fixed rules. Go and Shogi haven't succumbed to computers yet nearly as much as Chess has, in part because their game trees branch much more profusely than Chess. I remember reading a science fiction story many years ago, of a future world where game fanatics were in despair because any newly invented game could be exhaustively solved by computer in short order.

One way around that would be, as you mention, a game where the players could customize the rules on the fly. Another way would be a game which had some well-defined but open-ended way of encoding elements from human culture at large: I've had Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game sitting on my bookshelf for many, many years, I keep intending to read it one of these days. I have the impression that the game in that book was along those lines.

Or then again there could be a game with rules of such complexity that they made the rules of Chess seem like tic-tac-toe. This is really sort of what I'd hoped Chess would be, when I mastered some of its more marginal and arcane rules as a kid. I'll have to blog some time about the game I've been working on now for over 30 years, called the Quintuple Arcana (Hermetic: Mna Jondir-Pantho Zinisa). If Go is a game developed from a few very simple principles, the Quintuple Arcana is a game with rules of incredible complexity, though the rules all share a certain discernible "feel" or "style."

Come to think of it, at master level the scoring in the Quintuple Arcana depends in part on bonus points which your opponent "concedes" to you based on his judgment and knowledge of the collective corpus of all master games ever played. Sort of like, "That reminds me of a play in a game the Cubs played against the Dodgers in 1948, I'll award you an extra run." Not that I have, or ever will have, that collective corpus on hand. Unless, perhaps, it were artificially generated by computer... ;-)

Saturday, October 20, 2007 11:55:00 PM  
Blogger Francis W. Porretto said...

I must disagree about the need to memorize so much to play good chess. A player must have a repertoire, but if he's willing to stay within that repertoire, learning three openings with White and three with Black would render him entirely sufficient.

The Alekhine-style player who experiments with every opening under the Sun is quite rare, for an obvious reason.

Saturday, November 10, 2007 11:42:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Fran, the thing is that for us mere mortals, learning even a limited few Chess openings— if that means learning them thoroughly, and learning their variations in anything like detail— is an encyclopedic endeavor of memorization. Or at any rate, that's how I found it when I brushed up against the periphery of these matters back in the mid 1970s.

I suppose it depends in part on how good an individual is at memorizing. My ability here is (always has been) okay but not great.

I suspect it also depends on how profusely the game tree of a board game branches. Where the game tree branches much more profusely than Chess, memorization will be of less avail and the human mind will be driven to approaches which are, so to speak, less pointillistic and more impressionistic.

For instance, in the game of Shogi, or Japanese Chess, a player will on average have more than twice as many legal moves available to him as in Chess; Hence, though there is some scope for memorization in Shogi, the Shogi player relies more heavily on general principles such as "good shape"— adapted, evidently, from the (quite different) game of Go, whose game tree branches even more profusely yet. Shogi also lends itself to broad but quite concrete proverbs (kakugen): "a prematurely advanced knight (keima) falls easy prey to a pawn"; "don't put king and rook close together"; etc.

Interesting discussion of these matters, as they apply to the game of Go, here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007 9:36:00 AM  

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