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8 November 2021

Against Chess

by Florian

This isn’t meant to be a polemic. It’s not a deep seated hatred, more just a jumble of thoughts, primarily:

What’s the deal with Chess?

Chess is a pretty cool game. It’s an abstract strategy game where you move certain pieces according to certain rules in the hopes of pining the opponent’s King in such a way that it can no longer move freely. It’s modeled on military battles where you move certain types of units in certain ways with certain speeds in the hopes of flanking the enemy and winning.

Chess is a fine game. I’m not a huge fan of playing it, but it’s a decent board game. My real issue is everything else about chess.

Connotational Chess

My biggest gripe is that chess a terrible analogy to the real world. You’re operating in a world of perfect information where every move is known to you. If you have the time & the memory, you can map out the entire game move-by-move. The rules cannot be broken and every piece always follows them.

In what way, at all, is this similar to an actual battle or any real situation?

Wars are literally won or lost on knowing the position and quantity of forces in the area. The American Civil War was lost early on when Lee faked the number of troops he had to scare McClellan off. Chess simply can’t emulate this.

What’s more, Chess is a solo game. You don’t play with other people, you play against them. Each of your troops is a perfectly loyal and mute automaton. Which we all know generals to be.

Finally, it’s totally deterministic. There’s no randomness or element of chance, which makes this a, uh, slightly less than perfect simulacrum of the world.

This is all summarized pretty well, oddly enough, in “The Witcher 3” by the Mad King Radovid.

I think these attributes - determinism, solo play, and perfect information - make it a fantastic game, especially for people who have deep, analytical minds, but at the end of the day it’s a game.

And that’s totally fine! Games are fun and interesting sandboxes for challenging problems.

But, if we want to shorthand an intelligent character in a book or a movie, what are they doing?

They’re wearing glasses and playing chess.

It’s so bizarre to me the way we’ve intertwined brilliance at what’s fundamentally a game with genius or general intelligence. That’s my real beef here: Our cultural obsession with generalizing chess to some holier-than-thou thing.

I mean, at the end of the day, how many movies do we really need about Bobby Fischer?

Let’s paint two portraits of two similar college students: One is obsessed with chess. After classes, he goes to chess club each evening and plays 4 to 6 hours of chess. He’s a middling student, but a brilliant chess player and goes on to win the state chess championship.

The other is obsessed with Starcraft 2. After classes, he goes back to his dorm room and plays 4 to 6 hours of Starcraft. He’s a middling student, but a brilliant Starcraft player and goes on to win the state Starcraft championship.

Which of these two would you bet on? Why?

The Halo Effect

I think chess is benefitting from a massive halo effect. Basically, we assume that people who are good at chess must be good at other things, even though nothing about the game suggests this. I feel like I’ve belabored this point enough, but chess really is not a good correlate to the real world, so it’s a pretty dumb thing to do.

A master chess player is not going to be a master tactician or leader of men, they’re going to be a master chess player.

I think what’s really happening here is that chess correlates pretty well to skills that we do actually value like strategic and analytical thinking. Chess requires those skills in a very narrow way, but it’s not fair to generalize that to all aspects of a chess player’s life.

Put another way: There are many genius chess players, but that doesn’t mean playing chess will make you a genius.

To return to my college student chess player analogy, we shouldn’t give the chess player the benefit of the doubt that he’s going places just because it’s chess not some other game.

Lindy’s Chess Club

Has chess just been around for so damn long that we can’t stop it? I kind of think so.

It’s the lingua franca of the game world and it’s basically impossible to make a game that doesn’t draw some comparison to chess.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, per-se, but the implication of these statements is always that chess is somehow… better. It’s not, it’s just a totally different game that’s been around a lot longer. This means that it benefits from the fact that literally everybody knows what chess is. Your grandmother understands it just as well as your eleven year old cousin and that means it’s a more “generalizable” achievement to be good at chess than to be good at some other game.

Even if X other game is more challenging, a better parallel to the real world, and more enjoyable, if nobody else has heard of it, it doesn’t matter.

The chess club college student gets the edge again, because you don’t have to explain chess to people. It’s a “real” achievement because it’s a yardstick we’re used to measuring against and other games just aren’t.

Maybe chess just benefits from all the effects?

Personal Biases & Final Thoughts

Like I said, I don’t love playing chess, but it’s a fine game. Maybe I’ve just had bad experiences with it.

Chess wells up in me such a strong association with those kids who would schmuck you at the game and then sort of wink-and-nudge that they’re smarter as they condescendingly explain where you “went wrong.”

Or the college professors who would roll their eyes at CS1001 students for not immediately grepping how a for loop works.

Or the professional Software Engineers who use asinine, overly complicated design patterns that are actually simple if you just “think the way I want you to,” but can’t be bothered to write a line of documentation because it’s just so obvious.

Point being: Actual intelligence is a multivariate and complex thing, and it’s frustrating to see it reduced to an old board game all the time.

tags: posts