Chess: Art Versus Science

While chess has been called both an art and a science, I can’t help but wonder if it’s losing its claim as an art. I was born into a generation who didn’t have cellphones, personal computers, tablets let alone the internet. To a typical teenager, this seems akin to having been born into the dark ages. My generation were explorers of our world which was our backyard and the surrounding neighborhood. When not in school, we were outside exploring the territory around us. Today, kids seem perfectly happy to sit with their faces glued to the screen of whatever technology they have at hand. Rather than feel the warm sands of a beach on their feet or feel the sun’s last glimmer of heat of their face as it sets over the mountains, they look at pictures of the beach and mountains instead. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology and use it in my chess teaching and coaching. However, I know that should I want to experience the beach or mountains, I actually have to go there. What do any of my rantings as an old man have to do with chess, art and science? Let me tell you a cautionary tale I tell all of my students.

Roughly one hundred and fifty years ago, the game of chess was vastly different than the form of the game we play today. While the rules and principles were the same as today, the style in which the game was played was different. It was a daring game played by those who truly wished to venture into the realm of the unexplored. My students will shrug at this last statement until the hear the rest of what I have to say. I always instruct my students to be seated before I make a statement that might drive some of them into having repeated nightmares for the rest of their lives. I loudly announce, “there once was a time in which there were no cellphones, tablets, personal computers or the internet.” Trust me when I say that at least a few kids gasp and recoil in horror.

Roughly one hundred and fifty years ago, if you wanted to learn the game of chess you did so through a family member or friend. Chess was a right of passage in some families, with the game being proudly handed down from father to son or daughter. Once, a game solely played by nobility and the rich, it became a game played by intellectuals and Bohemians (those smart tortured guys who sat around Paris Coffee Houses trying to eek out a living as philosophers or poets. No wonder they were tortured). It eventually found its way into the average household. In those days, the game was handed down from generation to generation the way in which traditions were once passed down around ancient campfires. To learn the game of chess you had to first find someone who knew the rules. This is a very romantic notion, one that I quite fancy, finding another human being to teach you something (as opposed to living life online)!

The reason learning the game required such human interaction, something in short supply today thanks to social media, was because there were very few accessible books on the game. People traveled by horse or train, so getting to a major metropolitan city to acquire a chess book might take three or four days. Because chess was handed down from generation to generation, person to person, combined with a lack of written information about the game, there was a vast expense of unexplored positional territory. Most people played simple e pawn openings because that’s what they were taught. Think of the huge (and I mean huge) number of possible positions within a single game of chess and combine that with the fact that most people played one type of opening and you can see that there was a great deal to explore in the way of opening theory, middle-game play, etc.

Players in the mid 1800’s, which was the romantic era of the game, played in a swashbuckling style. They played gambits and wildly sacrificed material. They took chances, seeing if making a move no one else considered might lead to a new way in which to gain an advantage. These players were truly explorers, a trait lacking in many of today’s younger players. Art on the chessboard was created greatly during this period as well as into the twentieth century. In some regards, art was more was more important to the players of this period. Let’s fast forward to today’s modern young player.

Today’s serious chess player has a plethora of training tools and options thanks to technology. When I first learned the game, we relied heavily on books since that’s all that was available (guys who play guitar in punk bands cannot afford real chess lessons). Thanks to technology, younger players have training partners and coaches in the form of software programs such as Houdini and Komodo. These are extremely sophisticated chess playing programs that can give players deep analysis regarding a single move they’re considering making. Technological advances in training software have allowed the world to produce the youngest Grandmasters in history (of course, it also requires natural talent). Technology and chess! Sounds like a winning combination, doesn’t it? Yes and no.

Technological advances have made a near exacting science out of the game we love so much. Yes, chess playing software has removed your chance of making bad moves but at a cost. Young up and coming, soon to be titled players, rely on their chess programs to tell them the merits of a move based on analysis of the best responses to that candidate move by the opposition, in this case a program with a 3000 plus chess rating. However, when you solely depend on your software program to decide whether a move is wrong or right, might you be missing out on the chance to explore uncharted territory on the chessboard.

Obviously, you don’t want to go on a wild chess exploration while playing for a national championship. However, what’s so wrong about exploring when not playing in tournaments? Some of you would answer that these software programs have explored all there is to explore. After all, if there was something new out there, wouldn’t the computer program have found it? To that I say this: Humans, using technology, have the entire planet mapped out. We have a map for every square inch of our home planet (and other planets as well). However, why is it that we discover new species nearly every single day? Think about that for a moment. If you think of the huge number of possible positions that can be reached within a single game of chess, a number with more zeros attached to it than you can comfortably count, doesn’t it reason that there’s more territory to explore? Might not we create some amazing art on the chessboard just by doing so?

By simply sticking to what our software programs tell us to do, we’re dulling a game that once sparkled with possibility to a flat monotone hue. There has to be a middle ground. Much of the great music created throughout history was flawed by a wrong note played, a mismatched tempo or even imperfections in the equipment. Glorious mistakes from which high art was born. Again, I’m not saying you should purposely makes moves that lead to disaster. However, a little positional chaos can turn an otherwise boring game into an artistic masterpiece. Chaos drives art. Chaos forces you to look at things in a different way. Many of today’s young players only listen to their chess software’s suggestions, never wondering what would happen if they simply said “no Houdini, I’m going to try something else.” If Houdini suddenly wrote “You need to jump off a bridge now” in the analysis window, I suspect a few overzealous players might ponder this idea for a moment or two.

When we try new things, we usual fail, often many times. However, there are those individuals who keep trying and just when it seems that they wasted their time, the solution to their problem reveals itself. I blame chess software for creating a rising number of drawn games at professional levels. I constantly hear about promoters who want to bring professional chess to the masses. It’s great idea but you have to make the game exciting to people with a marginal interest in chess. Drawn game after drawn game isn’t going to do it. We need another Paul Morphy whose games were exciting because he often played dangerously. People like excitement. I would like to see some young player throw chess theory upside down. I don’t know exactly how but with so many possible positions within a single game, human’s might have missed something. Here’s one of those games that is crazy but exciting. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).