Solitary Soundings

Musings of a solitary gamer. "The advantage of conversation is such that, for want of company, a man had better talk to a post than let his thoughts lie smoking and smothering." (Jeremy Collier) Comments welcome.
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From Chess to Go, and Back Again

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The first "grown-up" board game I ever learned was Checkers. I got a set for Christmas or a birthday when I was a kid, and my dad taught me to play. He gave me some tips on how to play better too, but I found the learning very tough.

Dad didn't know how to play Chess; I got another kid in the neighborhood to teach that to me. I think I was twelve then. That would have been 1967, just about when Bobby Fischer was becoming a superstar and inspiring a new generation of Chess players. I probably read about him in Boys' Life magazine.

Five years later (it seems much longer than that, looking back, but time moved a lot slower then), I saw the game of Go being played at a little wargaming convention. I was instantly intrigued, but it wasn't until a couple years later that I bought a set. Then it was about fifteen more years before I learned to play properly. When I did, I fell in love with the game and played all the time, studying it when I wasn't playing.

But I haven't played Go in a long time, and now I'm getting into Chess again. Why? And why am I writing about games like these in a solitaire blog?

Sometimes, when I'm in a certain frame of mind, this type of game seems to me like the only kind really worth playing. From this viewpoint, games are essentially all about mental exercise--working out problems--and games like Chess and Go have the player focusing squarely on that and nothing else.

Bridge players and others sometimes like to argue that randomness can add another strategic dimension to gaming, as it forces a player to adjust to events he couldn't predict or map out in his mind. Be that as it may, I get fed up with randomness sometimes, especially when I get to where I'm willing to work at a game for a change instead of just fooling around with it for fun. I want to see the same starting setup each time so that I can learn to trace effective lines of play from there. I suppose that if I were a master of the game, rather than the novice I am, I might welcome randomness to mix things up a bit (this is what's behind Chess 960). But at my age, considering where I am now, I'm never going to get anywhere near that level of expertise.

That's also part of the reason I don't care which game is the deepest. I've heard gamers complain that Checkers is too simple and Chess too tactical; they prefer Go due to its vast depth and breadth. Well, I don't need to argue about that; it is what it is. In any case, standard 8x8 Checkers most definitely affords all the depth and challenge I'll ever be able to use in the rest of this lifetime.

I admire all three games; I believe they're three of the best in the world. Most of what I could say about them here has already been said by Bob Newell in the article "Chess, Checkers, and Go: A Short Comparison."

Besides what Mr. Newell says, I also find that a couple features of Go tend to rub me the wrong way. For one thing, there's the point-based scoring system. I used to love it, because even when I lost a game I felt satisfied that I had at least secured some territory--i.e., earned a perhaps respectable number of points. The downside, however, is that those points have to be counted up; and once they're counted, it can turn out that the score is very close--some wins are very close to having been draws (and might have been, if not for komi). All that seems a little fussy and potentially disappointing to me. (Draws in Chess and Checkers seem different somehow--just one move away from a decisive win by one side or the other.)

Another minor irritation of Go (and these are all minor; remember, I used to love this game and play it exclusively) is the mechanical matter of placing stones. Maybe it's just my childhood conditioning, but it seems very normal and satisfying to pick up a game piece and move it to another space on the board. This business of taking a stone out of a pot and placing it on a grid point is alien to me; it feels a little unnatural, and it bothers me that the piece, once placed, can never move.

Also, there are a lot of those stones. With 361 points on the game board, it can take a long while and a lot of moves (placements, rather) for players to claim all the territory. Go, especially on the standard 19x19 board, is generally a longer game than Chess or Checkers.

Go is a very deep, rich, challenging, fascinating, and wonderful game, my little quibbles notwithstanding. These days, though, it's not the game for me. If I'm going to do any more than just lightly dabble, I don't have time for more than one game of this kind (i.e., a heavy abstract), and Go doesn't fit my lifestyle quite as well as the others.

Between Chess and Checkers it's a toss-up. Some (such as Mr. Newell, in the afore-mentioned article) say there's too much study and memorization involved in Chess. But from what I've seen, that's true of Checkers too. As a novice (a seemingly perpetual novice), that doesn't matter much to me in any case. I've enjoyed what study I've done, and I even like memorizing openings and learning their names. If I ever became a tournament player, maybe I'd start to resent all the time I had to spend memorizing lines of play, transpositions, and all that. But I'm not there yet, and I'll be surprised if I ever get there at the rate I'm going.

So, what in the world is a solitary guy like me doing with two-player games like Chess and Checkers anyway?

Basically, I'm treating them as the wonderfully replayable puzzles they are. I'm playing them against AI opponents on the computer, working through all the board problems that arise. And I'm studying the games in books as well, learning how they work. In doing so, I'm satisfying my interest in the games and getting some good mental exercise--opportunities to use my creative imagination and reasoning power.

Players who are much better than I am often point out that the game really shines only when there's a capable human mind controlling the other side's pieces. I'm sure that's important for many players, but to me it's not. In the first place, I don't much like "playing the player" even in the sense of just trying to outwit an opponent who knows what he's in for. In the second place, I'm nowhere near good enough to pull off swindles or concern myself with the subtleties of different playing styles anyway. A so-so computer AI is all the competition I'll ever likely need or want.

If I could find an equally challenging and interesting game that's designed for solitaire play, I might switch to that. But most solitaire games I've seen have some kind of AI opponent, whether manual or automated. There's also usually some randomness, which obscures the cause-and-effect relationships. And where there's neither an AI opponent nor randomness (e.g., in Solitaire), the so-called game turns out to be obviously just a puzzle--and not even a replayable one.

There may be something worthwhile among modern abstracts, but I never look there. I'm very partial to traditional games. For one thing, I want a game I can read about, not one that somebody just invented and people are experimenting with. As far behind as I am, I can use all the help I can get. The last thing I want to do is learn just by trial and error.

And that's what tips me a little toward Chess rather than Checkers. There are books and software programs for Checkers; they're just not as plentiful or interesting overall. Checkers software in particular is pretty bare-bones (though the AI can be quite powerful). Chess offers a lot more options. A good, inexpensive Chess software package is brimming over with features, including tutorials, exercises, and all the famous games I'd ever care to study. In contrast, Checkers software usually just plays a strong game of Checkers; it might not even track win-loss statistics.

If I were going to play a lot of games against other people, online or over the board, I'd probably lean toward Checkers. It's easier to teach and faster to play, so I'd be able to get in more games. But since I'm just doing it all solo, Chess ends up being a better friend. As a bonus, Chess feels right to this old wargamer: I get to coordinate units of different types toward the capture of a specific objective. (There's an interesting little article on this: "Is Chess a Wargame?")

The downside of a game like this, though, is that all the books and software and articles and everything point toward tournament play. I'll pick a game and happily launch into a solitary study of it, but everything I come across prods me into playing against other people, and I don't want to. I'll resist the pressure as much as I can, but sometimes it gets to a point where I'm driven away from Chess (or whichever game I'm into). I start looking for something more natural to do as a solitary hobby.
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