Posts Tagged ‘how to play chess’

I inherited this book from my father who also taught me the rudiments of chess. The rest I learned from Fred Reinfeld. He does it in a friendly and amusing way, without reference to so-called book moves – those things with names like “The Sicilian Defence”, the “English opening” or “The Queen’s Gambit”. The book assumes you know the basic rules, the names of the pieces and how they move. Then it teaches you logical strategies for playing a competent game.

More recently I’ve enjoyed watching the Netflix series, “The Queen’s Gambit”. This is the fictional story of Beth Harmon, an orphan girl who aims at becoming World Chess Champion, while battling various demons, and addictions along the way. The series was unashamedly stylish, the chess set-pieces highly dramatic, even if you didn’t understand chess. Its popularity has led to a renewed enthusiasm for the game, but it speaks perhaps more to those who would ape the elite players in their arcane and highly technical knowledge. This is understandable, given that the story gravitates towards the International chess circuit. But sit yourself down in front of any one of those characters as a newcomer, and you’ll be pushed off the board in a couple of moves. You need to ground yourself first in some basics.

Reinfeld’s book is perfect for beginning chess, speaking as it does to the ordinary man and woman who wants to learn how to be a stronger player, while not forgetting the main thing is to enjoy playing the game. Dedicated to his wife who, he tells us, wanted him to write a book on chess she could actually read, its popularity is attested to by the fact it’s still in print. Unlike my copy from the 50s, modern editions have been edited to replace the older, descriptive notation with its algebraic form, but otherwise the humour and the engaging plainness of language are intact.

Fair enough, if you want to be a champion at chess, like Beth Harmon, you’ll need more than this book. But if it’s friends and family you’re up against, it’ll help make you a winner, and perhaps whet your appetite for the next step, to club or competition chess.

The Elephant Gambit, Pirc Defence, Ruy Lopez,… such names speak of the infinite complexity, depth and beauty of the game, but you needn’t have them off pat to play. Indeed, for a beginner these are pointless distractions. Reinfeld makes no mention of them as such, but on the subject of how to get started, he begins in this book with what chess buffs would recognize as the Kings Pawn opening, and from there the King’s Pawn game, which is what I realize I’ve always played, and mainly because it was my father who got it first from Fred.

I’m not immune to the renewed popularity of chess, thanks to Beth Harmon and “The Queen’s Gambit”. That’s why I’ve turned to this book again in order to sharpen up my game a bit, and to stave off defeat at the hands of my off-springs’ keener minds. There are plenty of other openings to explore from other sources, and maybe that’s where my game should go next, but for now, I’m still trusting in Fred Reinfeld’s wit and logic to help me be at least an occasional winner at chess. I’m sure he could help make you an occasional winner too.

I leave you with Borgov v Harmon (1968) Warning: BIG SPOILER.

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mariaMy father taught me how to play chess. It was one of those rites of passage things – the master teaches the pupil, and then the pupil tries to beat the master. I think I managed it once or twice by fluke, but my father was always a better player than me in the long run. Likewise, I taught my own boys to play, but chess has a lot of competition these days, all of it computer based; games of great complexity, games that require quick thinking, fast reflexes, and which are often, sadly, very violent simulations of the game-master’s vision of the “real world”.

Occasionally, my boys will try to beat me at chess, but it’s no longer a burning priority, not as much as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and of course the ever pressing demands of social media. And does it really matter anyway, that we develop our game as human players, when computers are obviously so much better at games than us?

The code used in computer chess programs is actually quite simple, rule-based, and often vanishingly small, at least by the standards of other computer games. The strength of the computer lies in its speed and its ability to evaluate combinations of moves far in advance of the human player. If we followed the same rules as the machine, the moves we’d make would be equally good ones – it’s just that it would take us years to work them out. It took a while for computers to routinely beat the best human players, but that they do so now throws up some interesting questions, not only about chess, but games in general and, on a deeper level, the existential meaning of machines themselves, and our relationships with them.

A game between human beings is a meeting of minds. You get to know a person better and more quickly if you play with them. Since computers do not “think”, or “play”, or take pleasure in anything, there is something ultimately sterile in a person playing against a computer. As for two computers playing one another that’s only of interest to a human being comparing the effectiveness of their respective artificial intelligence programs.

Artificial intelligence is the thing, and of course much in the news these days, with both Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates cautioning us against the rise of “super intelligent machines”. This is not about whether machines will ever be capable of achieving consciousness and becoming rogue monsters, like in those scary sci-fi movies, but more the extent to which the world we are building is starting to resemble a huge interconnected machine, one that does not really serve us any more, and to which the vast majority of us risk becoming subservient to a monolithic and amoral rule-based system, a computer system that controls everything, one that no one person can ever fully understand and therefore challenge.

An illustration of how close we are to sleepwalking into this dystopian vision comes from news of a company now injecting computer-chips into the hands of its employees. Known as RFID tags, about the size of a grain of rice, these things are already used to ID our pets. Chipping humans was an inevitable next step, and only a matter of time. Chipped humans can gain access through computer controlled doors, they can use secure photocopiers and log onto their PC’s, all by merely offering up their hand. It’s a voluntary system at the moment, and one I would personally decline, robustly and with expletives, but in the near future, as machines dictate ever more efficient systems, it may become a condition of employment that we subject ourselves to it, that indeed anyone aspiring to a proper living wage in a hi-tech, super-efficient, super-intelligent economy, will need to forsake first their name in exchange for a subcutaneous number known only to the machine itself. And who can argue with the convenience of such a scheme being extended to the public transport, the banking and the retail systems? No more coppering up to pay the parking meter; you simply wave your hand over it.

So why resist? Well, the objection is of course a philosophical one, that when we begin embedding bits of the machine into our bodies, it is the first step in the invasion of human physiology by the mechanisms we have invented – invented with the purpose of serving us, and on the pretext of enabling them to serve us better. But the stage after that is to implant processors and sensors, first to monitor the body’s functions, and later, to modify them. Human beings will not dictate this step; the machines will merely point out the logical necessity, and we will offer ourselves willingly. At this stage we will have become more properly biological proxies of the machines themselves; robots with an ever more alienated psyche dragged along for the ride.

Machines, not being capable of sentience, will always operate from a rule based, mechanistic set of algorithms – complex yes, but literally inhuman. To a machine there will only ever be a two way gate: yes or no. There is never, as so often in human affairs, a “definite maybe”. To the scientistic, the materialistic, and the terminally simplistic, there is nothing more annoying than a system that cannot be modelled through the logic gates of a computer program yet much of the real world defies algorithmic analysis, and computer models of it are by necessity always simplifications. While our most powerful computers do nowadays deliver more accurate forecasts of the weather, they cannot tell us how even an ant is created from nothing. We are not therefore achieving a greater understanding of life by our mimicking of it, rather we are creating autonomous entities of great power, but which serve no existential purpose, and by plugging ourselves into them, we risk negating the existential purpose of our selves.

To a machine there is no point to anything, no point to an ant or a human being, for the point of a thing is a very human thing; it is ambiguous, and highly subjective – terms which do not compute. So you turn up for work one day and you can’t even get into the building, because the machine has calculated there is no further benefit to having you on the payrole. Thus you are deleted with an amoral efficiency, and without redress, and all you have to show for twenty five years of service is that defunct chip under your skin, and which you can still feel lurking there every time you clench your fist.

I do not play chess very well, but I do enjoy playing it. I play against machines too but only for the practice, being careful not to lose sight of the fact that victory over a machine, while an indication of my own skill and mental focus is, in other terms, meaningless. People used to play chess long distance, by letter. We might nowadays do the same by email, but the temptation to cheat by responding with a computer generated move erases trust and has eliminated the pleasure of it, so we don’t do it. Do the machines then bring us closer together, or alienate us from one another? Do they enhance our abilities, or do they merely highlight our shortcomings?

What are all our great machines for? Do they serve us, or are they already well along the road to becoming a separate, entirely self-serving and eternally unconscious species, one in which the simulation has become the reality, and in which the creators find themselves trapped, unable to escape back into the real world? Think of that next time you feed your card into an ATM, and ask the question: who is serving whom?

Can computers really play chess? No; we just allow ourselves to think they do.

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