On Mastery of Systems

by berv

This morning, anbrewk sent around a link to the Wikipedia article on Chess960, a chess variant that randomizes the starting positions of the back row of pieces. Much as in those days of yore when we all lived under the same roof, a conversation started up.

berv: OH GOOD

anbrewk: I think this actually looks really exciting and eliminates the frustrations presented with playing someone who simply memorized opening moves (something I think you, berv (or maybe Frange?) had expressed as a negative component of the game).

“The random setup (if it did not equate to the classic starting position) renders the opportunity of obtaining an advantage through the memorization of opening moves impracticable, compelling players to rely instead on their talent and creativity.”

berv: Yeah! It was me. I hadn’t thought about it that way. That would indeed solve some of my issues with chess (which were some of the same issues I had with the original Starcraft) while retaining the mind-fuck ten-moves-in-advance challenge of the game. I’m still not sure if it’s for me, but it’s a step in the right direction, IMO.

Upon further reflection, I think this actually makes the game a degree harder. Across multiple plays, one can’t get used to where pieces begin, and so would be forced to better understand the pieces in multiple contexts. No longer could you rely on bishops to guard your king; you’d have to adapt and find your new and alternate guard. I wonder if there are setups that would make for faster games (i.e. king in a particularly vulnerable position)? Hm.  A knight in a corner has only one legal move at the beginning of the game. Interesting.

I certainly like it in principle, but think that much more of the game is dependent on general board and piece awareness than memorization of opening moves. I would imagine that someone who had mastered various openings would be frustrated by someone who didn’t respond optimally (like playing good poker against someone who doesn’t), but would still be able to win if they had more general chess experience.

My aversion to the game is probably just an aversion to abstracts. There’s a system to learn and a number of relationships to understand that have never really come naturally to me. Perhaps it’s a visual/spatial awareness thing, as the heart of every game is its system and the relationships contained within.

So Chess960, to me, looks like a step in the right direction, but I’m still stuck by my limited ability to see the potentialities of a chess board. I’m sure I could get over this given enough practice, but it’s not something that has a ton of appeal for me.

Frangibility: That’s funny… I guess we both independently voiced the same critique of the game!

anbrewk: To be fair, it’s not a particularly compelling “critique” as it’s true of any game we play that those who have played a game a large amount (and are thus familiar with combos and strats, as we might put them) are at a much greater advantage than those who are only familiar with the mechanics but not experientially so. Using as examples two games that are very familiar to us, Agricola and Race for The Galaxy, those “opening moves” are characterized more by overall strategies given an understanding of all (or most) possible strategies and reasonable moves other players can take, but that’s probably what memorizing opening moves in chess is much more akin to than the possibly over-simplified conception we may have of what Grand-master chess players do, or even simply “good” chess players (those who are familiar enough with strategies in the game to not only be familiar with opening moves but understand how to implement them – compare saying to someone in Agricola “go for a room strat, just max out points in stone rooms” and imagine their vacant understanding of what entails with whatever we would understand by someone saying to us, “start with 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4. and then you’ve really got them!”  and imagine the WTF expression that would ensue).

Frangibility: I agree with you. In fact, I think that – for better or worse – the games that we tend to play and enjoy are actually much simpler than chess, in terms of the overall number of viable moves possible. They aren’t lifestyle games (like Go or Chess) that can accommodate years of study and that have a vast number of discrete skill levels. On the other hand, this means that it is possible to play and enjoy them with considerably smaller investment of time. Since I like learning new rules and systems, the prospect of learning and playing a variety of games 10-30 times is innately more appealing than spending years gradually learning to intuitively perceive the optimal positions / lines-of-force on a Chess or Go board. This is not a critique of those games, but rather a statement about my own preferences.