Naftali Harris

Why I've Liked Chess So Much

November 22, 2020

I've liked chess off and on for twenty years. I don't remember learning to play but I do remember an after school class and losing repeatedly to my dad and cousin when I was little. When I taught myself to program my first real project was making a chess engine, though it could only search to depth two since I didn't know about recursion. In college I played casually and was arguably the third best player in my house. I learned more about programming there and made a better engine that was good enough to beat me consistently and even beat another weak engine once or twice. These days I occasionally play online, I usually do a few puzzles a day, and I watch Mato Jelic and John Bartholomew to relax.

Considering how long I've played chess I've never been very good at it. Today I'm arguably the second best in my office. I'm a little above 1500 on lichess 5+3 blitz, which I'm somewhat proud of because that's above the provisional rating you get when you join. I've never played on a team or in a tournament or even played a game under classical time controls. I play the Ruy Lopez and the Najdorf Sicilian but am usually out of book after six moves or so and don't have a response I love to d4. Most games I play have at least one blunder or missed opportunity from me. I'd probably still lose to my cousin but I'm pretty sure I'd beat my dad today. People say "oh I'm sure you're just being modest" when I say I'm not very good but I'm actually not being modest.

Chess is one of the few things that's been a part of my life for so long that I'm not good at. Though I've long enjoyed the game I've never devoted the time and focus to really improve. There have even been a few several year periods of my life when I wasn't thinking about chess at all. But sure enough I'd stumble across a board or see a game and get back into it.

So why have I liked this game so much? There are so many answers to that for me and in the rest of this post I try to scratch the surface of it. The common thread though is that chess is incredibly beautiful and I see many aspects of life as I've experienced it so far reflected in it. I haven't read "How Life Imitates Chess" yet but I greatly admire Kasparov's play and post-chess life and imagine I'd enjoy it a lot.

Knots and Gnarls

Chess is full of rules, exceptions, and exceptions to those exceptions. For example, each chess piece is unique and different, with its own very contextful strengths and weaknesses. Some of them move in unusual ways (pawns, knights, castling, or en-passant) and this makes chess somewhat complicated to learn. Kings are vulnerable and weak... until the endgame when they become fearless and aggressive. Queens are the most powerful piece, but run away a lot since they're usually too valuable to risk. Rooks can be a fearsome battering ram or an impenetrable laser, but are also surprisingly awkward to maneuver. Bishops are great in open positions but can only visit half the squares of the board and can be worse than useless if blocked in. Knights are proud (and on the fifth or six rank you could even call them arrogant), but miraculously generally about as valuable as the straight-laced bishop. The humble pawn is the weakest piece but nonetheless the "soul of chess" and very occasionally the star of a rags to riches story.

Some criticize chess for these quirks and compare it unfavorably to Go but I believe this makes chess reflect the knottiness and irregularity of human interaction, history, and society. Humans are not spheres, we use base ten rather than two, and the streets and buildings of our cities whisper stories of those who came before us. How fitting it is that chess has these quirks as well.

Life's Journey

When you make your first few moves in a game, you are embarking on the same highway that the greatest players of the game and millions of your ancestors have also walked. A couple moves later and you're on a quieter and more obscure road, with perhaps a few local experts but a lot less fanfare. And a few moves after that, despite the billions of games that have been played, you or your opponent will be the first person ever to make a particular move, and from that point on you'll be blazing your own path.

I think this reflects the same pull of history, culture, and tradition that influences all of us. As we grow up we learn to walk and talk and share many experiences that others have had before us, but we gradually grow into our own unique person and one day start leading our own lives. It's mind boggling, awe-inspiring, and almost sacrilegious that you can recreate this in a five minute blitz game. Some bemoan memorizing opening lines and promote variants like Fischer Random but I enjoy and am proud to learn from the wisdom of our predecessors and to join in the vast distributed discovery of the secrets of our shared game.

Above a certain level, you can't win games by playing solidly and simply waiting for your opponent to make a mistake. Rather, you must learn to formulate a plan and execute on it while either frustrating the plan of your opponent or executing yours faster and making them react. Chess, like life, rewards the person who knows what he or she wants and goes out and seizes it with initiative. Before I understood this I didn't mind playing with the black pieces, but now I always feel a small thrill to be assigned white. When you have the initiative you can feel it in your hands and your pulse, and as in life it feels good to be living your plan as opposed to somebody else's.

Part of that planning process involves understanding what's important now and what will be important in the future. Strong players fight over progressively more subtle advantages... open files, a well placed piece, better pawn structures, control of a square, many of which don't seem to be immediately relevant. To play at that level involves understanding what the future will hold and preparing for it today.

Unknown Objective Reality

Every possible chess position is either a win, loss, or a draw under perfect play. But with the very limited exception of certain endgames and "mate in n" positions, for almost any position (including of course the starting one) nobody knows with certainty which it is. This is despite the fact that every player intuitively knows the algorithm to solve chess and every chess engine, left to run infinitely on the opening position, would do so.

Similarly, I believe there is a single reality in life. Sometimes we have a pretty good sense of what that is, sometimes not, and sometimes reasonable people disagree on it. Unfortunately, except in certain limited situations (notably mathematics), this reality is usually impossible to know with near certainty.

Many people believe that chess is a draw. Although I wouldn't be surprised if it were, I think this reasoning generally extrapolates from the play of our best players or engines and implicitly assumes that perfect play would have similar characteristics, an assumption I don't think is warranted. With today's technology of course we'll never know.

The Human Spirit

Chess brings out some of the human characteristics I most admire. The best players are creative, confident, tough, clear-eyed, prepared. You can't watch the games of Mikhail Tal or Judit Polgar and not be moved by their will to win, their fearlessness, and their fighting spirit, or see their personalities come through their games. I'm proud to say that no matter who my opponent is I always play to win.

The struggle between two players pouring their soul into a game produces a piece of art. One player makes a threat, the other ignores it and makes a greater threat, the first parries it while simultaneously increasing the tension elsewhere. Each player's best ideas wrestle and produce a beautifully violent dance. The thing that pains me the most about not being good at chess isn't losing games (though this does significantly impact my mood) but rather ruining this work of art by hanging a piece or missing a combination. There's a debate about whether chess is a sport but I think a more apt description is a competitive art form.

What to make of the fact then that engines easily beat the best human players today? Are they closer to the "human ideal" than we are? I don't think so. When humans play they pour their personality and spirit into the game, regardless of their skill level. While Magnus Carlsen is a far better player than me he isn't any more human than I am. We anthropomorphize engines sometimes but they are not sentient. They cannot invest emotionally into their games and so their wins are without joy and their losses are without sorrow.

When Garry Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in the '90s some people thought the game would be over. But a few decades later it's clear that the existence of strong engines hasn't diminished the game, any more than cameras have diminished the art of painting. In fact, engines have made it easier to analyze games and improve your play, at the minor cost of the occasional cheating scandal. Chess is certainly not over for me or the millions of others around the world that love this game.

The Next Twenty Years

I don't know if I'll get any good at chess in the next twenty years. My only hope I get as much from it in the next two decades as I've gotten from it in the last two. What a beautiful game.

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