What’s the point of chess?

Somebody asked this question, saying that he had stopped playing chess when Deep Blue beat Kasparov.

It is foolish in my opinion to ask “What is the point of chess if you cannot beat everybody (and everything)?” and not worth answering that question.
However, the questioner was presumably smart enough to know that he was still enjoying chess while he was REALLY unlikely to ever beat everyone in the world, even before Deep Blue demonstrated super-human capability. So what was the real question? Perhaps the question was, “Why did I really stop playing chess?” and perhaps more specifically, “How has (this supposed) computer superiority changed our view of chess?”

Though we try so hard to “calculate” strong moves, the beauty of chess lies precisely there, in the very impossibility of the calculation. Engrossed though we are in rapidly examining options and consequences, the excitement and beauty of chess starts where these mechanics end. We quickly find ourselves leaving the cold world of logic and entering a warmer world of intuition and experiment. The competition becomes a battle of nerve, creativity, and a challenge to balance our aggression and prudence. We see each other’s mind, and heart, in the game.

To play chess, one must learn some book openings, and some heuristics of play, and some set pieces for passing pawns, and end games with only knights or bishops. And there is real pleasure in “out-calculating” one’s opponent. But like counting cards, that’s not the joy of the game. The real game is about doing something intuitive and creative in a situation where calculation becomes impossible.

I worked for IBM for 25 years, and I was privileged to host some events in the UK where people came to see Deep Blue play against a chess master and learn about the technology and the development team. I greatly respect the developers and feel proud to have known them. However I now think that all concerned missed the greatest learning opportunity of the enterprise. We learned a bit more about how to make computers super-human, but we should have learned more about what make humans merely human.

It was a great achievement to make a computer out-do us at the computational game; but all “Artificial Intelligence” should be seen as “Studies in humanity using a process of elimination”. The stupid computer did not know who it was playing. It did not know it was playing chess.

I have been playing chess for 3 years every day. My rating has gone down from 1500 to 1100 over that time. I am NOT getting better at calculating good moves, but I am enjoying chess, and enjoying the relationship with my opponents.

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