Towards the end of 2018, I was listening to an episode of Shut Up and Sit Down’s podcast and they were discussing the question, ‘If chess were released today, would it be successful?’ I think the conclusion they came to was a resounding, ‘No!’
Chess is also (arguably) claimed to be the most skilful of all board games, especially by those who are good at it!
Do I agree with these statements? One of them I do, the other, I think, is debatable; let’s see which is which…
Imagine visiting your local game store, with their plethora of new releases. You step inside and cast an inquiring eye around the room; the latest thematic horror game is set out on a bench to your right, miniatures abound, along with beautifully illustrated cards and a modular board to die for. Looking left you see a hot new Euro game, sprawling across the tabletop in a delightful array of colours, tiny pieces representing resources are piled to the side, and a huge mountain of cards awaits to be sorted. Finally, to your front sits a small board covered in 64 alternating, black and white squares. On these squares sit 32 little wooden playing pieces, 16 white and 16 black. Both sides are identical other than their colour – there are no cards, there are no dice, just these two opposing ‘armies’.
What do you do? The thematic game has been hyped for months, and you’ve seen all the pre-release reviews; you’re just itching to give it a go. The Euro game looks weighty, and though it’s not your thing, you appreciate it as a master of design and a thing of beauty. The little game to your front is apparently called Chess, and though you’ve seen it advertised you haven’t given it much attention. It’s a no luck abstract game, the pieces are bland, as is the board, and well, it comes across as a bit boring!
As you must admit, chess as an object of desire is pretty close to being the ‘last fish in the sea,’ and though it can be purchased with beautifully carved playing pieces, pieces often in the image of the latest hit movie or some long past military battle, the soaring cost makes it even more unattractive for what you actually get – a board and thirty two pieces!
But do looks alone mean it wouldn’t do well if it were released for the first time tomorrow? It would certainly be a draw back; todays gamer has a whole host of titles to choose from, unlike say, forty years ago when things were much more limited, and the visual impact of many of them is enough to turn someone away from something as bland looking as chess.
But there are games released today, which don’t feature magnificent artwork or beautiful components, and many of them do sell well in the current market, so maybe it isn’t such a draw back after all? But the thing that stands these games aside, is that they offer something quite different to chess in terms of game play – they tend to be fun!
When I was at school in the late 70’s early 80’s, a high proportion of children knew how to play chess, and it wasn’t limited to the boys either. The main reason for this? We were all taught to play by our parents, and they by there parents, and so on.
Going back a little further – to the early to mid 20th Century, and chess was a popular past time along with cards and dominoes, and could often be seen played in the pub or even the street.
Things have changed. The majority of people under the age of 25, who I’ve encountered over the last 10-15 years, have no idea how to play the game. I guess they all had something much more entertaining to be doing during their childhood (Xbox and PlayStation would be on that list!), and of course, how many parents have the time and patience to teach a child a game like chess these days, because it’s not a game that can be taught easily.
And here lies its fundamental problem. You’d think a game, which contains only 6 unique pieces (pawn, rook, knight, bishop, king, and queen) would be a doddle to teach…it’s not! Oh, you could teach how each piece moves and takes other pieces in a matter of minutes, but to actually teach them how to play the game, well, that can take a lifetime! Things like, not opening at the sides, using your knights to gain the centre of the board, not to bring your queen out too early, it’s better to castle on the queens side (debatable)…etc. but it’s no good just saying these things, you have to go into the reasoning behind them, and before you know it you’ve spent the last 3hours explaining why it’s better to open kings pawn than queens pawn (again debatable)!
Of course, there are an abundance of books out there to teach you the ways of a grandmaster, but the subject matter is so dry that it takes a lot of dedication to stick with it.
So, easy to teach the moves, but difficult to teach to play – I think that sums it up.
Chess tournaments have been a common occurrence since way back in time, and the first competitive game was probably carried out 15 minutes after the rules were nailed down! With a history spanning back centuries – the game is believed to have originated prior to the 7th Century – it also has a long tradition of tournaments, and the Chess World Championship as it is known to day was formally created in 1886. The title is now competed for every two years, and personally I believe this is the reason why chess still holds its own in retail sales. It is a purely competitive game, one that instils people with the want to prove they’re better than the next person at a game highly regarded for its skill. Take this history away and try to introduce the game into modern society exactly as it is, and I think it would ultimately fail!
A game of skill?
“…A game highly regarded for its skill.” Chess is a game of skill, that is undoubtable; there is no luck, no hidden information, it is one player pitting their wits against another. But maybe I can convince you that it may not be as skilful as some would make you believe!
Chess in analytical. You analyse the current position of the pieces and project what moves could be made; you then continue this projection for what further moves could be made after that, and so on. Once you have done this to the point where your brain wants to explode, you decide upon which move gives you the strongest advantage and make that move.
At least that’s how it is for most everyday players, but it’s not necessarily how a grandmaster would do it. For the majority of a game they look at the board, with all its pieces laid out, and pretty much make a decision on the best move straight away. How do they do it?
In concept it’s simple – memory. Whether subconsciously or through dedicated research and learning, memory plays an important part in chess. The subconscious memory is built up with constant play, recognising patterns and positions and knowing straight away which move is tactically the strongest. Research and committing to memory such things as opening moves also helps to make a person a better player. Consider the opening moves of a game between two good players; there will often be a frenzy of action, move after move, as they both know the best moves to combat their opponents opening, and this continues to the point where one of them breaks away from a traditional opening or makes a move their opponent doesn’t recognise.
A game of chess can be broken into three segments – Opening, Middle game, and End game. During the opening, the number of moves a player can make is limited – there are only 20 moves to choose from for the very first move, and of these, probably only about six are really viable. With each further move though, the number of options grows exponentially, but again, it is possible to narrow these down to a smaller amount of viable moves. The Middle game is the heart of the game, and is entered into when the players have built up their pieces and have to consider sacrifices and piece exchange in order to gain an advantage. This is where the difference between an average to good player and a grandmaster really begins to tell. A grandmaster can look at the board and pretty much instantly relate it to a previous experience – something known as ‘chunking’.
Chunking Theory in Chess by Bill Wall
A chunk in chess is a unit of information in long-term memory containing a meaningful grouping of some of the chess pieces on squares (POSs) that appear on a chessboard, plus associated moves and ideas. It is a patterned cluster of chess pieces…
Now, you need to bear in mind that a grandmaster has committed to memory an estimated 300,000! (source: Bill Wall – though other estimates range from 50,000 to 500,000, I suppose it depends upon your grandmaster!)
Compare that to the average player who will be lucky if they subconsciously know a dozen chunks – I know this is roughly what I consider myself to know, those moments during a game when you recognise you’ve been here before and can remember how the play went. Most commonly, an average player would have to analyse every move, thinking each move through to a number of moves in advance, for me about 5 or 6, occasionally more, and then I only choose the more obvious paths to consider.
But what has all this got to do with whether chess is a game of skill or not? Well, It depends upon how you view the use of memory – for example: A person with an exceptional memory, but has never played chess, could pick up a book on how to play, read the rules and main principles, memorise various openings and examples taken from highlighted games, and then give a good account of themselves against a modest player. Is this something you expect from a game of skill?
Okay, that’s an extreme example, but let’s also consider Blitz chess. Blitz chess is basically high-speed chess with each player allowed around 3 minutes +2 sec per move, to complete the game. The top level, and the top 50 ranked players are pretty much the same top 50 as ranked in classic (2hrs) and rapid (10 to 60mins) chess, play the game using chunking, in other words making moves based upon their memory of the best move to make. Again, would you regard this as a game of skill? Even the players themselves don’t take this kind of chess seriously…
“Rapid and blitz chess are first of all for enjoyment.” — Magnus Carlsen
“I play way too much blitz chess. It rots the brain just as surely as alcohol.” — Nigel Short
“[Blitz] is just getting positions where you can move fast. I mean, it’s not chess.” — Hikaru Nakamura
Firstly I have to point out that these are most definitely all my own personal thoughts on the subject. I’m no chess expert, though I used to be a moderately proficient player (highly debatable!), and though I’ve conducted research into this post, I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to the massive amounts of research that has been conducted into chess memory…
Chess has had a long and successful reign as the number one competitive board game, and I’m pretty sure it’s set to continue, certainly at the top level. For the up and coming youth of today though, I think it will slowly become an even more niche game than it could be considered today.
With its dry, abstract nature it’s hard to see the appeal for youngsters, especially with so much choice within todays gaming sector, even more so when one considers the digital gaming market. But it will continue to appeal to some – those who have parents who play it themselves, who harbour hopes of seeing their siblings become far more proficient at it than they are. And the curious, who wish to see what all the fuss is about, and why it took so long to build a computer capable of beating a grandmaster!
In terms of it being the ultimate game of skill? I think from beginners up to even very good player, those who have to resort to analysing every move, thinking ahead, and still having to mentally keep tabs on the basic principles of pinning, bad bishops, and En Passant; then yes, it is the ultimate game of skill. But something changes as you enter the realms of the grandmasters, where memory starts to take precedence over analysis. Don’t get me wrong; they didn’t get to where they are to day solely on memory. They all go through the learning stages, and are all highly skilled players of the game, after-all, it’s through playing the game that enables them to build up all those ‘chunks’. But once they are at the top of their game, and memory takes over, then when grandmaster meets grandmaster, is it the most skilful who reigns supreme, or merely the one with a better memory?