Mastery of Games

Chess is not a game I’ve ever been a big fan of. I played a little at school, but I never had the patience or concentration to really study the game or learn the moves. I’d often look at better players and have absolutely no idea what was going on or why they were making their particular moves. Reading this great post on Metafilter by three blind mice, about playing a ranked chess master, gave me a little insight into what it takes to cross the massive gulf between being merely good at a complex game, and becoming a true master:

“But let me again emphasize, to be good at chess, you need to study and read a bit.”

But you also have to have the talent.

I used to be, what I thought, was a pretty decent chess player. I easily beat most people I played and could defeat most of those hand-held computers that were coming out in the 1980s.

Then, one day, a friend invited me over for a smoke and a drink. Seeing that he had a chess table set-up, I asked him if he fancied a game. He beat me quickly. Twice.

So I figured I would see how good he was. During the third game, we’re about 30 moves into the game, and he steps out of the room, so I moved one of his pieces to my advantage. My friend Mark comes back in, sits down, and immediately moves the piece back. Somewhat surprised, I ask if he saw me move it.

Mark looked at me curiously, wiped all the pieces off the board, set them up from the beginning, and says to me “In Chess, you either see it or you do not.” He then makes my opening move, explaining “The standard opening for white,” pausing for effect and then adding “and also the opening move Spasky used in his third match against Fisher in the game I was studying last night.” “Boris is a ham and egger,” he tells me.

“I countered with Fischer’s move,” he says moving his piece. “Also very standard.”

“And then you did something very interesting. A very unconventional move, but I’ve seen it used a few times. When I was 13 someone did this to me and it really threw me off my tempo since it was not like any standard opening. I lost that game in 25 moves.”

Mark was 35 and he was telling me about a game he played when he was 13. At this point I began to understand that I was out of my league.

So he looks at me, and says, “I countered your move with the same move I used against the Israeli national champion at the Philadelphia Open when I was 15. He tried your same trick on me too, but by then I had figured out several defenses.”

He moves his piece, turning a gimlet eye to me, he says “And then you made a really stupid move so I knew you didn’t know what you were doing.”

And he goes on the explain each move up to where he left the room. “This was the position of the board when I left, you moved this pawn here while I was out.”

I was gobsmacked.

It is not enough to study the game, you have to have a photographic memory and a massive intellect to really be any good at it. Turns out my friend Mark Coles – who was one of the smartest people I have ever met – was a ranked Chess Master with a long list of merits and trophies. We were both playing chess, but he was playing another game. I never played much chess after that. I’ll play a game or two with a couple of ex-cons I know who learned to play in the joint, but I don’t really consider it as playing chess. I don’t know anything about the game.

I discovered this post while reading about a rather less intellectual, but nevertheless breathtaking, matchup in a tournament game of Street Fighter 2 (a game where I enjoyed mashing all the buttons as fast as I possibly could).

To understand why this is such an impressive game, skip to 2:40, and then read these two posts explaining what’s going on (first, second).

5 Replies to “Mastery of Games”

  1. Both of those stories are truly astounding. Also reminds me of reading Stefan Fatsis’ book Word Freak, about competitive Scrabble players, and the depth of their expertise compared to the usual living room player. Really crazy stuff. Anyways, keep up the great work!

  2. This made me wonder about the great stories that Go presumably has, what with its ridiculous history. It turns out famous Go games have the best names ever (“the blood-vomiting game”!)

    You might like the EarReddening Game, if you don’t know it. The story is that an up-and-coming 17-year-old was playing the 50-year-old head of one of the four great Go schools, both of them surrounded by the school’s students. The head of the school was playing well even for him, and his students, as they watched the game, were sure he would win.

    The one observer who doubted was a doctor who’d been watching the game as well, and who noticed that at one seemingly unimportant move from his opponent, the ears of the head of the school flushed red. The two players were playing at such a high level that nobody else in the room had any idea of the significance of the move, and it was only the ears that gave it away to anyone until the game was almost at an end.

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