Computers helped drive me away from chess. I don’t mean to imply that I was traumatized by Garry Kasparov’s loss to IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997. No, my downfall had come a decade earlier, and not to a high-powered chess machine, but to a slow, memory deficient Mac Plus. Losing to a Mac hurt my pride, and put me off the game for some time. But these many years later the bug has bit again. I play, and ironically the impact of computers is one of the things that keeps me curious about chess.
As for poker, backgammon, Scrabble and Go, the Internet provides a superb platform for chess. The Web functions, among other things, as a museum of major chess moments, a sort of Youtube of key moves. Do I want to revisit what’s known as “The Immortal Game,” played in 1851, and celebrated for its romantic flair, with Adolf Anderssen sacrificing piece after piece in his glamorous, hell-bent assault on Lionel Kieseritzky’s king? If I do, it’s available in on-line databases, with commentary and commendable chess engines to walk me through the moves.
It makes a sort of sense that computers have become fine hosts for chess. There’s a peculiar similarity between chess playing and programming, at least so it seems to this ex-programmer (of Macintoshes, no less). Chess is like coding but with evil intent. A chess game can be thought of as a contest between two software engineers out to infiltrate, bug, and ultimately crash each other’s code. Checkmate is a cool hack.
But there is also a way in which computation and chess are utterly dissimilar, and that computers can threaten the very soul of the game — its lore, literature and sense of history. By literature I mean not only masterpieces by great writers of fiction — Vladimir Nabokov and Paul Zweig to name but two of the more celebrated — but also writings by players themselves as they propose and propagandize for new paradigms of play.
Consider, for example, Aron Nimzowitsch’s claims apropos a game he won in 1923. He called it the “immortal zugzwang game,” more to contemporary tastes, he boasted, than Anderssen’s nineteenth century classic. Zugzwang is the situation that arises in chess when every move only brings you closer to disaster. It’s a sort of bedevilment; in zugzwang you are your own worst enemy. Nimzowitsch was an architect of zugzwang. For him, the age of romantic chess, of bloody frontal assaults, was over.
This distaste for gore — on the board and otherwise — might well have stemmed from Nimzowitsch’s having barely escaped the carnage of World War I. In any case, he strenuously maintained that in chess, something more subtle and sophisticated was being born, which he dubbed hypermodernism. A hypermodernist would not exclude sacrifices from his repertoire. However, he would employ them not to storm the gates, but to lure, coax and box his opponent into the self-destructive bind of zugzwang. Nimzowitsch wrote that hypermodernism, made “crude act[s] of aggression” passé. “The crude,” he concluded with aplomb, would thereby, at least in chess, be rendered “obsolete.”
You need little familiarity with chess or sympathy with the hypermodernist angle to appreciate Nimzowitsch’s sardonic edge. One thing I liked, and still like about chess, one thing that has drawn me and others like me to it, is that it has elicited and merited such polemical fervor. But you are not going to get that from Deep Blue, Rybka, Fritz, Chessbase, or any other piece of superhumanly good chess software. You’re not going to get a worldview, a new twist on chess history, which has always mirrored human history — that’s why it’s so easy to think of chess as an art. What you’ll get from the software is the right move, minus exactly the ingredient it takes to ferment lore.
The incontestable superiority of computer over human doesn’t mean chess is over — far from, not with the Internet being a gracious host and chess springing up in unpredictable corners of the culture. But it might mean that chess history as we’ve known and enjoyed it is over, that machine logic will clear the field of anything to argue about.
Think about it. I have a move to make, on-line, as it happens.