Friday, May 21, 2010

What Chess and “Game” have in common

Many years ago, the chess-bug had caught me for a while. I bought dozens of books, spent literally hours every day to study the game, and I got reasonably good. This means, I was good enough to grasp the fundamentals of the game, but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to hold a candle to a master. Nonetheless, my insights into this board game where profound enough to know when someone is talking out of his a** when it comes to chess. Yes, I’m going to do some community bashing, but please bear with me, there is something to be learnt here.

First of all, a beginner thinks he has to consider every move and wrongly believes that chess is all about thinking x moves ahead. But the contrary is much closer to the truth. While chess is a game of strategy that requires long-term thinking, mere powers of calculation won’t get you anywhere if you have no idea of basic principles such as pawn formations or open lines. Heck, a beginner doesn’t even see the “lines” and he can’t even evaluate the relative strength of various moves. The parallels to “structured game” as taught by some in the community are obvious.

Further, the in chess the number of possible moves is absurdly high. Some claim it’s higher than the number of elements in the universe. Of course, the vast majority of all possible moves is bad, but even if you focus on just the potentially good ones, you’ll quickly reach the limits of your mental capacity. What does that leave us with? Intuition.

I have recently read the somewhat dry book "Bobby Fischer goes to War", which recounts the famous 1972 world chess championship match between Fischer and Spassky, a contest that frequently got interpreted as a battle of Capitalism (US) and Communism (USSR). Apart from insights into cold war politics, it had some decent descriptions of the aspects of the game of chess as well, such as this one (p. 64):

The real explanation of what chess players do is less rational. It is closer to what we might think of as an artist’s vision and has to do with a kind of intuition. A chess player examining a position does not see an inanimate set of carved or moulded pieces waiting to be moved from square to square, but diagonals and ranks and latent possibilities; what Arthur Koestler described as ‘a magnetic field of forces charged with energy’.
The same is true when it comes to seduction. It is not a matter of rationality, as the proponents of “structured game” claim. You can surely have some success with it, but you will never get a real understanding of the deeper principles. It’s like with chess computers, who have tremendous powers of calculations. In this regard, they were hugely superior to human players, but could (until relatively recently) be beaten with certain anti-computer tactics that specifically addressed their weaknesses. In the meantime, though, grand masters and programmers teamed up and created beasts such as Hydra (which incidentally got beaten by a computer-assisted human player).

We don’t blindly calculate possible moves in our head, but we see the possibilities --- and we follow a strategy. That’s why a solid “game plan”, i.e. you know where you are going and you are not just fishing in the dark, is so important. The individual moves (“routines” and “techniques”) are far less important.

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