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August 08, 2004

Chess, Go, and a Chess Solitaire Freeware Program

I recently downloaded a solitaire chess program that I like, Winboard-GNU Chess (download the Winboard program, which includes GNU chess). I did not like chess as a boy. It made my head spin, and I was annoyed by the arbitrary nature of the rules. Why, in particular, should knights exist, with their peculiar leaps? Why should pawns attack diagonally even though they move forward? Why is Castling an allowed move? And I seem to recall a crazy exception for pawn capture called "en passant". The game completely lacks elegance.

What I liked better was Go, or Barduk (in Korean). Go is simple and elegant in its rules. All of the pieces move the same way, and capture is achieved simply by surrounding the opposing pieces (with the edge of the board counting as part of the surrounding). The game continues for finite time-- until all the territory on the board is divided between the players-- with no chance of a draw and with degrees of victory based on the extent of territory controlled rather than just Win/Lose/Draw. Because of this simplicity, the game is much more intuitive, and more related to the real world; the Chinese have seriously compared Go to war, but nobody pretends that chess is really like war. Go has a much bigger board than chess, and uses handicapping that throws off the advanced player from standard openings (rather than the stronger player surrendering a piece as in chess, the weaker player is given one or more pieces on the board as a head start). This means that the mere memorization of openings and attempts to look a few moves ahead are less important than in chess.

But I now like chess better than I used to. I see that the intricate rules do at least make for a balanced and challenging game that is interesting from start to finish. The knight's move, for example, is useful at the start of the game, when the pawns (and other pieces) impede normal movement. The rook's ability to go across the entire board in two directions is nullified at the start by its position in the corner and by blockage from all the other pieces, but once lots of other pieces have been taken and once the rook has moved to the middle, it becomes very valuable. I'm still dubious about castling, which is not used in every game, but perhaps there is some good purpose for it too.

So, although I see that chess might still be a pernicious activity, entertainment without edification, I at least find it entertaining. If it can provide relaxation, that is enough. And I find it more relaxing in solitaire, playing against the computer, perhaps because I don't feel guilty about playing a thoughtless game against an unthinking opponent, perhaps because I don't feel guilty about imposing on a better player who always beats me, perhaps because I can choose the moment when I want to take ten minutes to play.

Posted by erasmuse at August 8, 2004 11:15 PM

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