I love chess.
It might feel like a predictable game with a limited amount of choice. An average game is only about 40 moves. But thanks to math (and mainly to factorial function) there are more possible chess games than atoms in the known Universe.
I had to check that. Apparently there is this thing called Shannon number, saying there are at least 10 to the power of 120 possible games. And that’s a conservative estimation.
It is also not a game of luck. There’s really nothing random about it - all the moves are deliberate, and every outcome is a consequence of your previous moves. Everything happens on the board, there is nothing random. This is a game of skill - and a lot of creativity too.
Every chess game is like a drama - or sometimes a comedy - with beginning, midgame and - always - an end. It can last for hours and days, or it can be done in mere minutes. Shortest bullet chess time is 1 min for each player - and it is art on its own.
I’m also bad at chess. I don’t have computer brain. I can totally loose my queen or have a fool’s mate while plotting my own tactics. I’m not great by a mile. But I love the game more than an outcome.
Garry Kasparov once said that knowing endgames is infinitely more important than the openings. If you care about things like your online rating. When playing online, you are generally paired with the players of a roughly same level, so it’s not brutal for one and boring for the other. Having your rating go up can be fun, but if you are playing every day, there will be good and bad days.
In many ways a game of chess reflects life, and the whole thing is a massive meta reflection.
You can play the game by building a massive defence where nothing can get through. This will also mean you are locked inside of the defense, unable to attack or progress in any meaningful way. Eventually an opponent will devise a breakthrough, and with pieces more mobile than yours will devour your defence.
You can play on an offence, neglecting your defences and going YOLO. This can produce results, especially if your opponent was planning to slowly build a massive defence and doesn’t know how to react to aggression. More likely though you will have a blunder, loose some pieces and let the opponent pressure you into loss.
Sometimes you have to sacrifice the queen. Ideally exchanging it to either opponent’s queen, or as many other pieces as possible. Sometimes a game is in a deadlock and to unblock you have to clear up the board. To make way for the rest of the pieces, and for a lucky pawn that will make all the way to the other side and become a new queen.
Pawns are so important you have no idea. A rare game is won without direct help of a pawn.
You can play the game or be played. Sure, there is a lot of freedom to pick your next move. But when there’s a check, or a direct treat to the queen, you have to react. By building chains of treats, you can lead your opponent into acting the way you need. The game is not won by having the most pieces, and a checkmate can be performed even when the queen is lost. Make a sacrifice, but win the game, that’s the name.
The game is a lot about psychology. This is of course true when playing IRL, but even online psychology has a lot to say. Is your opponent taking time to think, or are they moving pieces almost immediately, almost effortlessly? Are they much smarter than you? (probably not but maybe they slept better today). A typical chess game is a lot about mind games, trying to guess the plot of the opponent, trying to let them believe you are going one way while the plan was complete opposite. This is especially true in longer games, when you are not restricted so much by the ticking clock.
Oh yes, the ticking clock is how most of the games are played. Unless you are playing at home with friends, on a real board, there’s likely going to be a time limit. Once it is up, you loose. This creates a whole new aspect to the game. It’s known that a better idea requires more time to think. If you’ve got all the time in the world, you can play the best possible chess game. But no one does, hence the ticking clock. Now it is about striking a balance between the perfect move, and saving time for when you really need to think.
Thinking about moves is also unusual. I’m a software developer by day, and chess is unlike any of that. If I have to put this into words there are a few game aspects that are totally fascinating.
- Time. Chess is turn based, so only one thing can happen at a time. Sure, you can plot chains of events, but it will have to be implemented one turn at a time. You are however always thinking about the future, and how to get there. Failing that you will play a game of reaction to opponent’s moves, without a particular plan to win. This almost never works against advanced opponents.
- Geometry. Oh my god, so much geometry. We are talking about a two-dimensional flat board with 8x8=64 tiles. Pieces can move in a variety of directions. This is more so about a possibility of a move - this is how you create treats and dominate the board. However all powerful pieces are locked away at the beginning of the game, the board is free and the world is your oyster. Keeping geometry of movements in mind will help you avoid loosing your pieces, but also position your pieces in the most advantageous way. And beware of bishops - they are by far the most sneaky piece on the board.
- Larger picture. Sure, you have to get to the checkmate. Unless you were lucky with a fool’s mate, the game will require some actual playing. This means investing into your team, I mean, pieces - developing them into positions they are best at, using this to implement a tactic, and eventually winning the game. There is a balance between short and long term goals (every project manager should play chess), and your role is to keep this balance in your head at all times. Keep an eye on the world picture, use the opportunity to win when it presents itself, but meanwhile reinforce your position, develop the pieces and build a plan to win.
Is this all because I was born in Soviet Union and we had no Nintendo only chess? Maybe. I have a massive respect for people playing chess well. When hiring engineers a game of chess is likely all you need to gauge how good they are at creative thinking under pressure. Also how well they are at human skills - since you’ll have to communicate throughout the whole game.