Chess is in an odd place, critically speaking. It’s seen as the best game ever made by a general public that plays few other games and doesn’t see the medium as having any cultural significance and yet it’s barely acknowledged by those that do. But Chess…Chess is a game like any other and doesn’t gain from blind praise nor obscurantism. It should not be taken for granted, but talked about, contextualized and compared. How does it work? What makes it different from other strategy games? Why is it good? Chess is a game of principles. By nature, the number of possible moves is so huge that planning beyond a couple turns is impossible, forcing its players to rely on broad strategical generalizations to push the game foward. Controlling the centre of the board, deploying as many pieces as possible and keeping them mobile might not ensure a winning result, but they can ensure a good one across any number of possibilities and permutations, no matter how vast, making them the right tools to understand the game.
It’s tricky, though. Pure calculus provides results that are unquestionable but principles are open to interpretation. What is more important, a better position on the board or keeping a numerical advantage? Controlling the centre or the threat of capturing the queen? There’s no right answer and as players dig into the game, principles become more complex and nuanced. The basics give way to the fear of overextending, the need for tricky follow-ups and the pain of realizing that capturing pieces with pawns makes them block each other. Everything becomes more and more abstract, requiring analysis not just of little pieces on coloured squares but of quandaries and ideas and the endless possibilities of the game.
And yet, those little pieces are unavoidable. No matter how insightful the analysis; no amount of induction can solve a particular match. With so many possible moves there’s always a degree of doubt or an unorthodox line of play to prey on the ivory tower types.
One can easily get bogged down by big principles and not notice the possibility of a quick bishop jumping into the fray and casusing a checkmate before “piece advantage” or a “developed board” begin to matter or walk into an otherwise obvious trap because high-end analysis saw no worries in doing so. Chess might not be as deeply psychological as Poker, Cosmic Encounter, or Netrunner but it has a spark to that makes it lively and bold where so many games become dull and repetitive.
We are so used to it we might not notice, but Chess is a very modern game in some regards. Instead of fighting to the death or strangulation like in most abstracts, the win condition is the capture of a single, practically unarmed piece. This is huge! It enables a wide range of plays and the threat of the game ending in a single move introduces a lot of fun and tension. And the pieces? They are all a bit strange. The Bishops move diagonally despite the game being vertically-bound. The Knight can move through other pieces but doing so makes it alternate between white and black squares. Pawns form the backbone of the army yet are barely capable of harming each other. There are a lot of curve balls in Chess that makes it feel fresh and exciting.
Perhaps Chess’ biggest achivement is exactly that; that it has remained exciting and fresh while reaping the benefits of centuries of polish. The flow of the game is perfect, never stalling or snowballing and always entangling the players in difficult decisions. The “strange” pieces are deployed first, as they are the fittest to navigate the crowded board positions of the early game and, as the game clears, the powerful Rooks come out for the clean-up. By the end, when only a few pieces are left standing, the King himself has to participate in battle and aid in the capture. It’s smooth, simply because it’s the natural consequence of the way the game is played.
It’s no small feat, either, because Chess has no granulity. Pieces are either in one square or the other, with no in-between and the difference is, almost invariably, massive. This makes each move difficult, weightful and forces the player to commit to their decisions. There are no half-hearted movements in Chess, just mistakes, and this kind of games are very difficult to balance. Games with auctions, deal-making or both like Genoa are self-balancing. Chess isn’t. All it has is the limitation of moving one piece per turn and the disposition of the pieces on the board to reign itself in and yet that’s more than enough to keep it under control.
Of course, some argue that Chess is fundamentally flawed. Over the years dozens have proposed their own variants and fixes, ranging from bizarre additional pieces to randomized positions and the replacement of squares for hexes. The entire rasion d´être of Arimaa, a good game on its own right, was to make a game that was harder for computers to play than Chess. Game designer David Sirlin (Yomi, Puzzle Strike) devised an assimetrical variant that introduced a rock-paper-scissors system because, in his opinion, it gives the game an infinite amount of depth. In Boardgamegeek, where Chess is ranked in 353rd place, gamers bemoan the existence of opening plays and see the game as stale and “overstudied”.
I think that’s nonsense. Chess is fine like it is. Practically all games have standarized opening plays, and Chessmasters do not reduce my enjoyment of Chess anymore than speedrunners reduce my enjoyment of Mega Man. Were one to set that kind of standard nothing would be worth playing, much less Agricola, Street Fighter or any other geek favourite.
The same goes for Chess laureates. Playing Chess won’t make you smarter, nor is it the game to end all other games. It does not need to be a mandatory subject in school nor does the outcome of the Cold War hinge on its pieces: It’s just a game. A very good game, a truly fantastic one, but all in all a game and as deserving of praise.
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