I’m not a chess player.
While I like the idea of the game, I’ve never invested the time into the game. But time and again, it’s used as trope, well, everywhere, and I’ve been wondering if it’s a lack of sophistication on my part, so I sought out to understand the game a little more. Maybe my lack of skill in the game is because I’m not thinking about it in the right away.
In a cursory Google search, I did encounter some interesting ideas. One person talks about knowing the right questions to ask and understanding the arena. Beyond the squares and the abilities of individual pieces, there’s a language to describe gameplay. I ended up watching an analysis of a game by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley, and it soon became clear that I didn’t even know the basics of chess.
But then I did pursued another avenue more directly related to the idea of chess as an abstraction for conflict. Did you know that it can be traced back to the ancient Indian game Chaturanga? That was interesting to me because I immediately recognized it as a pose in yoga. It means “divided into four parts,” but I guess it was also used to describe the Indian army. Brings new context to a rather peaceful exercise. Anyway, I quickly found someone who debunks the whole “chess is war” metaphor since it’s an information perfect game, where as in war, one is faced with information uncertainty. That was 2012.
It turns out that researchers have been on top of this for a long time. In a Guardian article from 2004, they describe Swedish and Australian scientists who were, at the time, figuring out how to leverage it to inform military strategy. Not the game as it is, but variations on the game:
But neither group is studying standard games. By modifying key variables, such as the number of moves allowed each turn, or whether one player can see all of the other’s pieces, they are investigating the relative importance of a host of factors that translate to the battlefield, such as numerical superiority, a quick advance and the use of stealth.
One major difference between chess and war is that chess does not contain what the military terms “information uncertainty”. Unlike a battle commander, who may have incomplete intelligence about his opponent’s level of weaponry or location of munitions depots, one chess player can always see the other’s pieces, and note their every move. So Kuylenstierna and his colleagues asked players to compete with a board each and an opaque screen between them. A game leader transferred each player’s moves to the other’s board – but not always instantaneously. For instance, one game modification resulted in a player being prevented from seeing their opponent’s latest two moves.
These games, and other variations on regular play, led the team to a clear conclusion: being stronger and having more “battlespace information” than your opponent are both less valuable when there is little information available overall to both sides – but the advantage of a fast pace remains. “The value of information superiority is strongly tempered by uncertainty, whereas the value of superior tempo is much less affected,” says Kuylenstierna.
You can read more about how they rewrote the chess software and virtual player agents to play thousands of games for statistical analysis, but I had a little thought experiment for what one of these “information imperfect” variations might look like between two players. In their description of the simulation, the board was updated every turn or sometimes every two turns. I have changed that rule in my version.
Need to Know Chess
# of Players
2, and a 3rd to be an intermediary
2 full chess sets
a physical divide
a pair of dice
Each player takes their turn like normal. At the beginning of each turn, player rolls a die. If they roll a 4 or higher, they’re allowed to take two moves instead of one.
A person, or I suppose it could be a software program that both players input their moves (just their own), monitors both boards.
At the end of each round, the position of the piece (or pieces) would only be revealed when two opposing pieces are within two spaces of each other (one space in between, including diagonally), and only the type of piece and a range of three squares is revealed. If the piece lands on another, regardless of intention, the same rules as in regular chess applies. The passive piece is removed.
When the King is captured (not checkmated)
As I was writing out these rules, it occurred to me that the complete opposite of chess might be Battleship, in which you have absolutely no information until you actually make contact with a ship. In some of the articles and pop culture references I saw, people seem to like to think of poker as the more accurate analogy. In any case, if someone plays this (or a version of this), let me know!