Saving Chess From Itself

Computing power has ruined chess, but it can be saved–if players are willing to try something new.

By Ezra Palmer

Chess is a game of war. At the board, two armies enter battle for their king. A battle ensues that can only result in the triumphant victory of one. These phrases resemble some that I had once found on the back of an old broken chess board. You’d be pressed to find more dishonest marketing than this. In truth, chess is none of these things. The war of minds that chess is depicted as is dishonest. I had always wanted to learn chess, but this image of chess is far from the truth.

I started playing chess seven months ago. After being interested in chess for years I decided to give it a shot. Oddly enough in the middle of March I had some free time that was ripe for the taking. I quickly found that ‘chess’ was a sham. Computers rule this game. Every decision made is right or wrong. Every sequence wins or loses. Anyone with enough time on their hands could run every single move they might play past a computer. This type of preparation is not just required, but it is the sole characteristic of modern long-form chess.

Patterns and more patterns. Every game is determined by if you can correctly guess what computer line your opponent will take, so you can amply determine the correct computer line to counter said line. How boring. Chess of this kind quickly becomes a puzzle rather than a match. I hold this cynical (probably naive) view of chess to this day.

Yet despite my view of chess, I find myself to this day passionately playing the game.

With only one minute on the clock your immediate reaction to an opponent’s move is all you can play. This is the complete antithesis of cookie cutter chess.

My love of chess truly comes from timed chess. A clock is set at the beginning of any given chess match. If your clock reaches zero you lose. In faster time formats you are fighting not only an opponent, but a clock. These faster time formats last anywhere from ten minute blitz to one minute bullet. Naturally, I almost exclusively play the fastest format, one minute bullet. The scramble to move as quickly as humanly possible is the thrill of this format. With only one minute on the clock your immediate reaction to an opponent’s move is all you can play. This is the complete antithesis of cookie cutter chess. My complete contempt for boring, unoriginal chess brings me to the one place safe of tyrannical unoriginality: the utter terrifying panic that is bullet chess. In this new land of constant threat there are no solutions to the puzzle. Every single aspect of the game is designed to give you time to think, but this is thwarted by the clock.

Chess is ultimately an interaction between two people. Something as simple as an opening move is representative of how someone views the game. If you open with pawn to d4, you most likely enjoy a defensive playstyle that doesn’t result in immediate action. If you open with pawn to e4 you most likely enjoy a more offensive playstyle that results in immediate action. That interaction is lost on a completely sanitized game of long form chess in which computer prediction is used. The life of chess and my enjoyment of the game is simply the lack of stale positions. This can be achieved in long form chess through sheer effort. An opening so obscure that a given opponent would be caught off guard by it is the only way to achieve this dynamic interaction. These openings are bad. By nature, they must be bad to be unfamiliar. The computer deals with objective good moves, but how could a computer prediction be prepared for an objective ‘mistake’? The mistake is the only way to create a truly dynamic game.

Originality is the goal. If a match can become an actual battle, rather than a computer prep test, that’s originality. Fun can be found in winning alone, but I don’t value this over originality. This is especially true in a game where the most visually exciting thing to tangibly happen is a piece of wood knocking another piece of wood over.

Header Image: Chess with champagne! by Tristan Martin by Flickr