Why you might HATE chess!

Oct 25, 2007, 7:27 PM |
Why you might hate chess.
Despite what some would say, there are very few board games that are deep rooted into our social fabric. Monopoly is one. Cluedo (or Clue in the US) is another. Various card games such as Bridge and Poker. Be honest, can you think of many others? Games which, when you mention them in conversation, no one says “What’s that?”. Great as Settlers is, great as Puerto Rico is, I had never heard of them till I came to this site. I am glad I did, because these games have provided many hours of excellent and thrilling entertainment. But even so, and I admit that this is close to sacrilegious, they are just games.

So what makes Chess more than these giants of board game geek? The question is complex, and I won’t try to convert anyone who hates this game and thinks it broken. I am going to try and explain why you may hate Chess, so that you can understand why we love it so much.

1. Chess as a sport.

In a way, Chess should not be on this site. Chess is not a game. Chess is a sport. In sport, any sport, people train and practice for month’s even years to become the best they can be, pushing themselves to their very limit, and then trying to go further, to go faster, to go higher, not only than their peers but more than anyone has ever done before. Professional, competitive sport is one of the pinnacles of human achievement. When people get beat by Tiger Woods, or Michael Schumacher, they don’t whinge and say “This game is broken, I don’t want to play anymore!” they shake their hands, say well played, and then go back and work harder to make sure that next time, they will be better prepared to push all the way. It doesn’t just apply to the greats. At all sports, at all levels, people push themselves to be the best they can. Those that work hardest, win the most.

Chess, just like other great sports like football (either type) rugby, tennis, basketball, is also played in a game setting; teams of friends play together just for the sake of it. It may be a game, but if you want to be good, you go home and practice first, so you can beat the guys that didn’t. Just think about that feeling. The feeling that you prepared your plays, you studied your opponents for weaknesses, you worked out how to exploit them. And then when you played your game, you won, not because of luck, but through hard work. There is no feeling quite like it. That is a sport. If you want to be really good at a sport you have to work hard, and when you get good you have to work even harder. Sport is unforgiving, unrelenting and will challenge you to your core. That is why those who can succeed where most fail are held up as champions.

Does that mean that Chess cannot be played casually between friends? Only if Basketball, Baseball, Football, Darts, Pool or any other sport cannot be, which of course they are. The best players will almost always win these casual games. When you pick teams, you fight over who gets first pick so you can get all the best players so you can win. Those with natural talent and those who have practised before hand usually win, but I doubt you will find anyone to say that these sports are broken or unfair.

2. Chess as art

We all get given them as kids, those water colour paint boxes, all bright, with two or three pristine paintbrushes. We go off, we paint a while. We show our parents the fruits of our labours and they exclaim “Oh what a lovely dog!” You star back in disbelief “It’s a tractor, mummy.” You spent hours painting hard, you covered the old shirt you were wearing backwards as an apron in brightly coloured spots. Yet no-one could tell what it was. Sound familiar? Is the paint box broken? What about the brushes? Is painting unfair?
With the same tools, paints and brushes, Van Gogh created Sunflowers. Does that mean that painting is broken and unfair because Picasso created a masterpiece, while I created what may or may not be a farmyard animal given exactly the same tools? Of course not. They are geniuses. I am not. What they created, along with Da Vinci and Raphael and Boticelli are beautiful works of art. My cow is pretty good, but not in the same league.

The only thing that really matters is how I react to this. I could give up painting, declare it broken, and declare the art world suffers from ‘analysis paralysis’ as each brushstroke of every painting is examined over and over by art scholars. Or I could accept that I will never be that good, that there will always be someone better than me. In fact I really enjoy painting, even so, and I take great pleasure in creating something from very simple tools.

In Chess, both sides start with sixteen identical men. Their starting points are identical, the only, (Very very very VERY) slight advantage is that white moves first. With these tools I can probably create the Chess equivalent of a reasonable cow. And I feel pretty good when its eyes aren’t too close together and all the legs are the same length. Yet with the EXACT same sixteen men, with EXACTLY the same rules, Fischer could create a Mona Lisa, Kasparov a Last Supper, Morphy a Sunflowers. Chess games that are played well are so achingly beautiful they are like ballet, a dance of intricate steps that goes to a simple beat. Just as with a painting, if you know where to look, there are subtleties and brilliancies that are almost beyond description.

No one looks at the Chapel roof in Vatican and thinks, I could do that given the same tools. Yet gamers often feel that they should be able to play brilliant games of chess from the off. In painting, the rules are simple, just apply paint, I can create a masterpiece in no time. Doesn’t that sound just a little bit ridiculous to you?

3. Chess as a conflict

Chess is a war game. The court room setting of Knights, Kings, Queens and Bishops was applied to appeal to medieval courtiers in Europe as they brought the game from the Middle East during the crusades. At that time, Kings, Bishops, Knights and yes even Queens took to the battle field. Pawns are foot soldiers. Rooks (probably a derivation from a Germanic word Ruque meaning castle) are defensive towers or fortifications. When the game was first introduced, the queens movement was very different, she could only limp around one square diagonally.

As in real war, there are no ‘hit points’, one blow and your down, from anybody. A pawn can kill a queen. Doesn’t matter who you are, a sword is a sword and they tend to be fatal. There is no rolling of dice to determine range, armour, attack value or any other attribute. You have one life. If a bishop comes running up the board you cannot dodge, he kills you and takes your position on the battle field.

This feels about as close to a real medieval battle ground as you can get, brutal, savage and unforgiving. I admit that it is abstract, but so is every other game on this site. All games are an abstraction of real life, that is what they are designed to be. In most games, two counters move together, both players roll dice, the highest wins. While a simplification, the same principle applies to every board game. Roll dice, highest wins. The fact that the tokens maybe called Trolls, Jet Fighters, Zombies, Gladiators or Barbie’s makes no difference to the concept. To argue that Chess is an abstract based on the fact that the pieces can be substituted for any other theme if correct, means that all other games are abstracts. I can think of about 20 different themes for Twilight Imperium right now of the top of my head that would use exactly the same rules and settings, just different pictures and pieces.

Chess has also evolved as warfare has since the game began. The queens and rooks expanded their movement to represent the power and range of cannon and artillery, the pawns gained the ability to take two steps on their first move to increase the speed of battle. En-passent to prevent pawns taking two steps forward to avoid capture. The act of castling signifies the act of the king moving into his castle for defence.

Chess is a game of war.

4. Chess vs. Poker.

There is a big debate in the UK at the moment. Due to a surge in the popularity of Poker, many bars and clubs have sprung up offering gambling poker nights. Unfortunately this falls foul of gambling legislation that states that premises must be licensed to run games of luck. Not many would argue about roulette or craps, but Poker? Surely there is some skill there? One landlord went to court and argued that since the top players won all the time, surely Poker was a game of skill and not luck, and I would tend to agree. Playing Poker without money is a dull game. Really dull. And pure luck, the best hand wins every time. But introduce money and it morphs into a game of skill. Bluff and counter bluff. However, there is still luck involved as to what cards you are dealt. What you do with those cards is the skill. So, luck and skill combined. But still a game based on luck. Even the most skilled Poker player cannot beat a Royal Flush. The Judge thought along similar lines and closed the landlords club down.

In Chess there is no luck. None. There is no hidden information. You and your opponent can see EVERYTHING. There are no dice rolls, no cards to be dealt, no last minute special powers. You cannot deceive you opponent in any way, you can do nothing in secret except your own plans in your head. If you set a trap (s)he will see it on the board if (s)he looks hard enough. And so will you. People will always ask themselves in Chess “What am I not seeing?” The answer is nothing. You can see everything that relates to the game. You know exactly what your opponent can do. He knows exactly what you can do. Apart from draughts (checkers) I know of no other major game like that. No dice, just pieces. If you wanted you can bet as much as you like on Chess games in the UK. Pure skill. Your skill matched against your opponents. If you loose it won’t be because (s)he got better cards, or got a string of 6’s. You lost because (s)he is better. That hurts. No referee to blame for a poor decision, no weather conditions to blame. Nothing but your own shortcomings.

If you don’t like losing, stick to games like Poker. If you loose you can say things like, the cards were against you, or the ref missed that foul on me or they were probably cheating. There is no hiding place in Chess. I admit that I am not always comfortable with that thought, but look at the other extreme, Snakes and Ladders. Pure luck. It is about who rolls the right number at the right time. How do you feel if you win Snakes and Ladders? You feel good, right, but it feels very hollow.

Now imagine how it feels to win a game of pure skill. �

5. The Social Impact of Chess

There are many milestones in life. The first time you crawl, the first time you walk, the first time you ride your bike without stabilisers, the first time you score a goal or hit a home run. Maybe this will resonate more with the guys than the girls, but what about the first time you beat your Dad at Chess? Not beat him because he let you win, or let you take back moves or let you switch sides halfway through (and even then he usually still won!) but actually beat him. He taught you the game, he bought you your first set for Christmas and he used to pound you all day long. He showed you tricks and tactics and then he knew you would use them so he would avoid them and pound you again. You hated him for it, maybe you would cry and say the game is broken, you would vow never to play again. Yet you still would. It’s a right of passage to beat your Dad at Chess. Not Puerto Rico, not Shadow Over Camelot and not Arkham Horror, three of the greatest games on geek.

When you play these games you gain an insight into your friends. Some hoard. They hoard resources, they hoard gold or they hoard cards. Some are aggressive. They always attack regardless. When you play Chess you are playing against every aspect of that person. How aggressive they are, what they are afraid of, what they are willing to sacrifice and what they desperately will hang onto at all costs. Chess is the only game that holds a mirror to you and says “This is the type of person you are.” You cannot pretend to be more aggressive or more cautious than you are. You can learn how to overcome your natural game, but that is not the same thing. Are you patient or lethargic? Are you aggressive or reckless? What do you value; possessions or position? Every player will play each game in different way but his fundamental personality will shine through like a beacon. Each style is unique in the same way that a sportsmen and artists are unique

So, why might you hate Chess?

Perhaps because it is a game of pure skill, that if you loose, there is nothing to blame but yourself.
Perhaps because you feel that the rules are so simple, anyone can understand. That anybody should be able to create fantastic games and that it is unfair that some can while others can’t.
Perhaps because if you want to be good, you have to work at your strategy and tactics, you must analyse your opponents beforehand to look for weaknesses and exploit them. Perhaps because better players almost always beat weaker players because Chess is not a game, but a sport.
Perhaps because the strategy runs deep, that every time you make a move you could be falling into an unseen trap, or making a blunder from which you will never recover.
Perhaps because you feel it is unfair that someone can win if they have less pieces on the board that numbers alone do not give victory.
Perhaps because there is no resource gathering or re-enforcement, or you think it unfair that a lowly pawn has an attack strength great enough to kill the queen.
Perhaps because Chess is the fairest game of all; your skill against hers, your personality against hers, your style against hers, your preparation, practice and tactics against hers.
Perhaps because a game of Chess will show you who you are at your most fundamental level.

And why should you love chess?

See Above List

A Footnote:
I have used many other games as examples in this text. I have played, and continued to play every one of them. They are all great games and I am sure I will play them many times in the future. I am not saying Chess is better, or worse than any of them, I merely use them to illustrate my points.
Courtesy of Frantictadpole: Andrew Stratton - Blogger