The Image Collector (farbel) wrote,
The Image Collector

Chess And Other Games.

I had my ego handed to me three times this afternoon over a chess board. There is something especially humbling about being beaten at a game which involves no luck.

Most popular games involve at least some luck, so that, regardless of ability, anyone has a chance of winning. As kids we learn games which are almost completely luck, requiring no input from the player at all, other than recognizing the cards in one's hand, for example. Any game wherein one rolls the dice and moves around the board to a fixed end is pure luck. It's fun, frustrating, and exhilarating without reflecting positively or negatively on the players. The game of War, in which a deck of cards is divided evenly and each player flips cards one at a time with the high card winning, is another good example.

As we get older, we are introduced to games which involve memory, like Concentration or Go Fish, but even then there is no strategy involved, and luck plays a dominant role.

At some point, maybe at age 5 or 7, we start playing games where we actually have to make decisions which affect the outcome. These games are still dependent upon luck, whether it be the roll of the dice in Backgammon or the cards dealt in hearts or spades. Usually we are introduced to simple skill based games at this point, like Checkers or Othello. These games are still relatively quick and fun, and since most young kids don't focus, the possibility of one's opponent making a mistake adds the illusion of an element of luck.

It is the introduction of more serious, complex skill based games such as Chess, or Go which narrows the field considerably, not so much by intelligence or aptitude as by persistence and attitude. My dad taught me to play chess when I was seven. I first beat him when I was 15. That is an eight year losing streak. Many children simply move on to other things, because they don't find the seemingly unbeatable challenge entertaining. My dad stopped playing me much after I beat him, and I had a hard time finding many opponents until I moved to Tucson in 1983.

One of my first roommates was married to an Irani, and he and his friends were among the best players I have ever met. We would meet on the weekend, and all eight of us would each play all of the others. I was soundly beaten by all of them at first, but over time was able to hold my own and even occasionally beat the best of them. To this day, I prefer to play someone who beats me, because I learn when I lose.

Now, a bit about the game of Go. I find this game particularly fascinating and challenging because it is at once so very simple – players place black and white M&M sized pieces on a grid, removing their opponent's pieces when they can surround them, vying for territory – and baffling. I find my ability growing the more I play, but, unlike chess, I am unable to pinpoint the reasons why I win or lose a game. I can't even adequately describe it here. It is as if the mode of thinking required is so alien – the game originated in Japan – that my Western brain cannot grok it. There is a system of handicaps in Go. For every ten points that one loses by, one can place one piece on the board in advance of the next game, up to 9. I have been severely trounced by someone even though I had nine handicap points up front. He told me that, in the Go club he belongs to, there is another player who beats him with 25 handicap points! This is unfathomable to me. That many pieces on the board at the beginning seems unstoppable, as if, in a game of chess, one could make 10 moves before the other person started.

How can a game with such a simple premise encompass such a wide range of ability? How can there be so much more to learn about a game which, unlike chess, only has one type of piece, and one way to play it?

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