Sunday 25 February 2018

Chess memories

Although we played chess as kids, it was initially nothing more but another diversion among Monopoly, Rubik's Cube and the Finnish evergreen board game Africa's Star. But the longevity and richness of chess became evident quite soon. For some time in the early 1980s, we loaned chess books from the library, my father built chess sets, we played chess against friends, family and against the computer.

Some memories about children playing chess:

-We played a few games with the assumption that a player can 'eat' the enemy king if the other player does not notice it is under threat, winning the game.

-Castling was initially unknown, and even then it was quite long misunderstood. We probably used it as a means to escape with a threatened king, which is not a legal move.

-The en passant move was unknown to us. Also, for a long while a misinterpretation of a book illustration made me think the move is only doable on the edge of the board.

-The checkmate was pretty difficult to plan so it usually involved locking the king with two towers or the queen after the board had become suitably empty.

-The endgame was pretty often reached by bashing together all the high ranking pieces on some contested square, turn by turn, until the forces were exhausted.

-There was a sadistic tendency to eliminate all enemy pieces and pawns before attempting checkmate, something that was prone to result in a stalemate instead!

-Sometimes it was fashionable to build a "cannon" by lining the two towers and the queen, then "launched" against the enemy lines. This was possible because both players were trying to do the same thing with little regard to what was happening on the other side.

-Similarly, one of the earliest notions of a fixed opening defensive strategy was to lay out all pawns in an annoying zig-zag pattern. Combined with the other quirk of mirroring other player's movements, this could lead to some very silly openings:

Now, the proper game can begin.
Later I nurtured a misperception that I might be a good chess player, despite never really winning more than low level computer opponents. When I got my ass handed to me by a human player I could never beat even by accident, I realized in a concrete way there were skill levels far above my play.

Recently I've benefited from annotated chess puzzles and reading more about chess strategies, such as the reasoning behind evaluating board conditions - it's not only about counting your piece values. Sacrifices are no longer just exchanges in a desperate bid towards a checkmate, but justifiable from different angles, such as improving positions, breaking the enemy lines, and gaining 'tempo'. Still, it seems my ability is fluctuating quite a lot, possibly depending on time of day, tiredness, stress level etc. 

I've also read a tiny bit of the history and the development of the openings and play styles. I'm glad to see there are varieties and schools of thought, so I might not have been too wrong in not concentrating overtly on classical openings or failing to grab the board center.

Chess connections

Although I never became a proper chess player it somehow connects to many things:

PSION's Chess on the ZX Spectrum
Retro-computing: Chess was among the first games I played on a ZX Spectrum computer. Chess computer devices were also one item among the early electric landscape of hand-held games, video games, pong TV games and toys etc. I never had a chess computer, though, as we leaped directly from non-electronic games to computer and video games. An old chess video game has a certain retro appeal, but the CPU thinks so slowly it's not too interesting to play against them. Later, the visuals in Amiga Battlechess was one memorable moment, but not as interesting as a game. I also played a version of Chessmaster on the PC for a while.

Making stuff: From craft and design point of view, it is fun to see how the appearance of chessmen have changed over times, depending on times and culture, eventually narrowing down to the Staunton and variants. A good set takes into account readability (color contrast and piece separation), handlability (those grooves and ridges), balance (weighted won't tip over) and sturdiness (so the chess pieces won't break when they fall).

There are also other constraints, such as the needs of a travelling set or a low-res computer display. Devising a chess set might be interesting too, but so far I've only doodled and worked on a PETSCII chess set with Marq.

Could get a bit confusing in a real game.
Games: Chess is a prototypical example of a game. Although it is themed as a war-game, the war theme is more of a learning device for showing the purpose of the game, the individual chessmen and how they move. Notably the later chess pieces became styled after the royal court rather than a battlefield as such, so the chess board might be also seen as a metaphor for political plotting and subterfuge.

Films and popular culture: Chess is shown in films and stories often as a kind of indicator of super intelligence, such as with Mr. Spock's 3D variant in Star Trek, or the few moves mentioned in Blade Runner.  More points if the players can play without the actual board, such as Holmes - Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes : A Game of Shadows. The "chess played with live chessmen" cliché goes also at least as back as Alice through the Looking Glass and variants come up regularly, as seen in Harry Potter, Twin Peaks and Kurt Vonnegut's All the King's Horses.

Recent computer versions

For a while I played some version of chess on an Apple iPad, but sadly I can't remember the title. As the novelty of touchscreens wore off for me I barely bother with installing 'apps', even though board games work rather well on them. Chess on Android is pretty ok, I've tried to beat level 7 without success.

Recently, I also installed gnome-chess on Linux which has extremely clear graphics, and excellent for reviewing pgn files. But apparently the difficulty level cannot be trusted to be equal across different computer setups. Edit: I now understand this depends on what kind of chess-engines have been installed on your computer, and this may vary depending on the install. HoiChess was easier than GnuChess, although it is not obvious why GnuChess is so damn hard on "easy".

Further edit: At end of March, the Android 8th level was beaten, and also GnuChess "easy" was beaten. But it did raise questions about the stability of the gnu engine play level.

Online, lichess is good for on-line head-to-head games and for editing the board. I also tried, but it seems to have all kinds of superfluous and confusing things on top of the actual game.