Thursday, December 21, 2006

Zugzwang

To begin with, it's obvious that I play a lot of games.

No, really. I'm involved with a lot of diversions of the card and board persuasion, up to the point that I can work off of these interests. Not only do I actively play these games, I also seek to understand the psychologies of their respective fans and apply a rigorous mathematical analysis to their respective systems. I believe that card and board games aid the development of the human thinking process, and I therefore treat them as both educational and intellectual stimulations.

There are some games that I don't touch, though. You'll probably be surprised to find out that chess is one of them.

I have a lot of respect for chess. It's an old game that has retained enough charm to be playable across centuries and generations, it transcends cultural boundaries despite the presence of an obvious western-medieval theme, and it's somehow managed to get recognized as a sport by various international entities. It has a lot of players and adherents, it's been translated into practically every computer platform ever released, and it's inspired its own litter of descendants in turn. There's not much more you can find in a game, really.

Unfortunately, that's probably where I've gotten jaded and ignorant. I feel that chess has been around for so long that it doesn't hold much of a sense of wonder for me anymore. You can be enthusiastic enough about the game, I suppose, but when everyone is carrying around the same black-and-white board, when every newspaper carries columns about its tournaments and championships, and when every bookstore has at least one entire shelf devoted to its many aspects and foibles... then everything gets tiresome far more quickly that you expect.

And I think that that's weird, actually. I used to play the game a lot during my high school days, for one. I spent entire evenings trying to find a way to beat my dad (an endeavor in which I never succeeded). I picked up books on strategy and proper gameplay. I solved a few chess puzzles. Heck, one of the first things I did on my first day in college involved walking across the street and buying a small chessboard for use between classes.

Nowadays, all I do is solve the puzzles when I find them. I still have the chessboard packed away in my room somewhere; I haven't used it in the last six years.

As you can see, I'm still trying to figure out why I avoid virtually all mention of chess nowadays.

I think that part of it is due to the way the gameplay has turned out. It's remarkably easy to learn how to play chess, yes, but the game takes a veritable lifetime to master. While that may sound like an excellent quality to have at first, I feel that it takes on a darker aspect when you have chess in mind.

The rules of chess have been around for an extremely long time... so long that the game can safely depend on a word-of-mouth teaching of the rules instead of having to enclose a small manual inside every manufactured set. The knights still move in an L-shape pattern, the pawns still move forward and capture diagonally, and the kings still move only one space at a time. Because these rules have remained unaltered for so long, people have had ample time to come up with strategies for the game. The problem, however, is that we've maintained these same strategies for so long that they've evolved into far more complex forms.

As a result, I'm not certain if I see chess as much of a game anymore. To me, it involves far more memorization of established tactical plans and tested countermoves than it does actual play. When people observe a common opening play and then note the twenty-nine different variations that can follow it up, then you get the feeling that something's wrong.

Whenever somebody publishes the transcript of a particularly interesting game, I raise an eyebrow whenever they make mention of things like "the Nimzo-Indian Defense", or "the Reti Opening", or whatnot. Whatever happened to simpler, edgier descriptions that compliment a sudden check, debate the timing of a castle, or bewail the loss of a pawn? It makes everything sound as though the game became an elitist pastime overnight, to be honest.

To be fair, however, I can just admit that I've been spoiled by the inclusion of a random element in most modern games. Many games nowadays ask you to roll a die or shuffle a deck of cards at some point, and this little bit of unpredictability helps their popularity -- because you can never play the same game twice. Thus every sequence of play tends to be a unique experience.

Chess, unfortunately, does not have any inherent random elements. That means that every game is a product of all the games that were played before it, and that every game will be used as reference for all the games that will be played after it. Considering that our minds will automatically look for patterns in this massive field of historical chaos, it's not surprising that we would inevitably come up with all these chess-based resources. It's also not surprising that we'd end up referring to them whenever we can.

I may not be much of a chess-playing man at the moment, but in a sense, it's not the fault of the game. You can't blame something for the consequences of its being long-lived, after all.

You won't see much of chess in this blog, I'm afraid. I just happen to like and play other games right now. It's as simple as that, I think.

Maybe the enthusiasm will come back someday. If there's anything about enthusiasm, I suppose, it's in how quickly it comes back on the heels of nostalgia. If I stay away from chess for long enough, I'll probably end up actively playing it when the time finally comes.

Till then, however, I'll be waiting right here.

Shah Mat.

4 comments:

kat said...

Here's to more opportunities to play games. Happy Christmas Sean!

Sean said...

Kat: Here's to more fulfillment from our occupations, mind you. Thanks, Kat. :)

Dominique said...

Merry Christmas, Sean!

Sean said...

Dominique: Merry Christmas, too. :)