You probably remember the rules of chess, but what’s actually happening there on the board? How many moves are Grandmasters really thinking ahead? Why do they never actually checkmate the opponent? Is my life just like a game of chess?
How to play: a very quick recap
You probably learned the rules of chess somewhere along the line, and whether you did or didn’t you can find a good refresher here. As you’ll (probably) remember, chess is a game built on themes of war, with two opponents attacking each other with their chess armies. Players take turns to move their pieces around an 8x8 board in order to attack and capture enemy soldiers, develop a coordinated battlefield position, and ultimately checkmate the opponent’s king by placing him under an attack from which there is no legal escape.
Each player starts the game with sixteen pieces with different movement capabilities:
- Eight pawns, which move forward but capture diagonally, which may advance two squares on their first move but otherwise only one at a time, and which never move backwards.
- Two knights, which move in an ‘L’ shape—two squares North/South and one square East/West or vice-versa—and are the only pieces that can jump over others.
- Two bishops, which move diagonally, one being tethered permanently to light squares and one to dark squares.
- Two rooks, which move in straight lines either forward/backward or side-to-side.
- One queen, which combines the mobility of the bishops and rooks to move both straight and diagonally.
- One king, which can move one square in any direction.
Before we move on, let’s quickly discuss three moves that are different from the others. First, castling is where a player moves their king two squares toward a rook, with that rook moving to the square that the king passed over. Castling is only legal if it is the king’s and rook’s first move, there are no pieces between them, and if the king does not move out of, through, or into, a square attacked by the enemy. Castling is the only move where the king moves more than one square, and where two pieces move. The second one is even more abstract: a pawn that moves forward two squares from its starting position may be captured en passant (French for “in passing”) by an enemy pawn as if the captured pawn had only moved forward one square. This is only allowed on the move immediately following the captured pawn’s advance or the opportunity vanishes, making it a somewhat infrequently-occurring move. It is the only move where a capture is made on a vacant square. Thirdly, when a pawn makes it all the way to the far end of the board, it is promoted to either a queen, rook, bishop, or knight, at the player’s choice. A pawn does not need to be promoted to a piece that has previously been captured, so it’s theoretically possible for a player to end up with nine queens.
The queen, rook, bishop, and knight are all referred to as pieces, and so a player has both pieces and pawns to protect their king, although, somewhat confusingly, the collective term for all the characters on the board is also “pieces.” The queen and rook—the two pieces that can deliver checkmate with the aid only of their king—are the major pieces, while the bishop and knight are the minor pieces.
The board and algebraic notation
The board is an 8x8 grid of alternating light and dark squares. The left-to-right rows are known as ranks, and the up-and-down columns as files. The rank closest to the player with white pieces is the 1st rank, progressing forward to the 8th rank, while white’s left-most file is the a-file, progressing across to the h-file. Accordingly, each square is referred to by its coordinates—a letter and number denoting its rank and file position. White’s lower-left square is a1, while black’s lower-left square is h8.
The white and black pawns begin on the second and seventh ranks respectively, with their armies behind them: rooks in the corners, knights on the next squares in and then bishops, with queens on the d-file, and the kings on the e-file (giving us the terms kingside and queenside for the two halves of the board). If you remember one thing from this article, make it this: set up the board so that the bottom-right square from each player’s point of view is a light square, or else you’re doing it wrong, dummy.
(This doesn’t seem too much to ask, but getting the board set up correctly seems to be a difficult task. Here’s an incomplete list of famous persons Doing Chess Wrong: Hugh Hefner, Conor McGregor, Woody Allen, Leonard Nimoy, Luciano Pavarotti, Madonna, Jay-Z, Austin Powers and Ivana Humpalot, Bill Cosby, Marcel Duchamp, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, Sir Alec Guinness, Lorna Simpson, Frasier Crane and Norm Peterson, Ja Rule, Gerard Butler, Lady Gaga, the Wu-Tang Clan, John Safran, Andy Dufresne, Aladdin’s Genie and Magic Carpet, Matt Bonner, Wilt Chamberlain, Salvador Dali, Bart Simpson and Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, Bart Simpson again, Zoidberg, Peter Griffin, Brian and Stewie Griffin, Paul Heyman, Sachin Tendulkar, Kim Kardashian, Frank Sinatra, Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, and Richard Branson. Feel free to post any others you can find in the comments!)
Each move in a chess game is recorded using algebraic notation, which allows games from all over the world to be recorded for posterity. There’s no video footage of games from hundreds of years ago or from small tournaments halfway across the globe, but the recording of moves allows chess players and fans to review, recreate, and analyze tens of millions of games from throughout the sport’s history. These days, games are entered into online databases such as that at ChessGames.com; before the computer era they were circulated by post, published in newspaper columns, and compiled in books of notable games. Then as now, they all matter; chess players study past games in the same way that other competitors break down tape.
Chess notation is easy to learn. All pieces except the pawns are given an identifying initial: K for king, Q for queen, R for rook, B for bishop, and N for knight. A move is identified by combining the piece’s initial with its destination square, so the move of a bishop to the c4 square is therefore simply “Bc4”, and verbally stated as “Bishop to c4,” whereas a pawn moving to d6 is just “d6.” If a piece makes a capture, an ‘x’ is inserted between the initial and the square coordinates, so “Qxc1” is “Queen takes on c1.” If a capture is made by a pawn, the letter of the file of its departure precedes the ‘x’: “exd4” is “e takes on d4.” At the end of the game, “1-0” denotes a win for white, “0-1” a win for black, and “½-½” a draw (the only three possible outcomes). That’s 95 percent of what you need to know about that, and you can learn the rest here.
In addition to recording your own games and following those from elite contests across the world, you can relive the oldest chess game ever recorded, played between Francesco di Castellvi and Narciso Vinyoles in Valencia in 1475. Or the first game of the first official World Championship in 1886. Or how about a game between Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer? Or Napoléon Bonaparte getting pantsed by the first chess computer?
Elements and tactics
This seems like the right time to have a look at some of the building blocks of chess: some of the basic elements, and some common tactics.
Naturally, each piece’s different movement capabilities mean that some are more useful than others. Over the years, chess folks have developed a point system which gauges each piece’s value relative to the others—that is, their material value. To wit: a pawn is said to be worth 1 point, bishops and knights 3 points each, a rook 5 points, and a queen 9 points. This scale is used as a guide by novices and Grandmasters alike, though it is more or less universally accepted that, in a vacuum, a bishop is more valuable than a knight, because it can cover a greater distance with each move. A sequence in which pieces of equal values are captured in succession is known as an exchange (e.g., to exchange queens), and to allow one of your pieces to be captured for free or for lesser compensation is known as a sacrifice. Giving up one of your rooks for an opponent knight or bishop is specifically known as “sacrificing the exchange.”
Players alternate moves throughout a game of chess, and if you are one of those players you should try to make each one count. Each move essentially represents one unit of chess time, known as a tempo (plural: tempi). If you take two moves to achieve what you could achieve with one, you are said to lose a tempo, while you might gain a tempo with a move that forces your opponent to spend their next move retreating one of their pieces.
A chess board is comprised of a finite number of squares, and both players are competing for control over those squares so that they may overcome the opposition. A player has a space advantage if they control a greater number of squares than their opponent. If you have a greater number of pieces attacking a square than your opponent does, you are said to control it. To this end, players fight for control of the center of the board—that’s the most valuable real estate in chess, because pieces stationed in or attacking the middle (principally, the d4, e4, d5, and e5 squares) can control a larger area than those stuck near the edges.
The strength of a player’s pawns goes far beyond merely how many they have, and each side’s pawn structure is one of the most important elements in any game of chess. A pawn chain is a strong line of attack in which pawns are connected in a diagonal line, defending one another and forming a formidable barrier. Two pawns on the same file are doubled, which is generally a bad thing, as the hindmost pawn is blockaded by its teammate. An isolated pawn that does not have any friendly pawns on adjacent files is ripe for being captured by the enemy, as it does not have any one-point comrades to defend it. A passed pawn—having no enemy pawns in front of it on the same or an adjacent file—is worth its weight in gold, as it is a prime candidate to stomp to the end of the board and earn that hard-earned quantum leap of promotion.
It is not legal to make a move that would leave your own king under attack from an enemy piece, or in check. (Here seems like a good place to clarify a common misunderstanding: there is no rule requiring you to announce “check” when you make a move that attacks the enemy king.) A piece that blockades an enemy piece from attacking its king is said to be pinned, in that it may not legally move out of the way. A pin can therefore be a powerful tactic, as it may cause a piece to be unable to otherwise fulfill a defensive assignment, or doom a valuable piece to being captured.
A piece that is simultaneously attacking two or more enemy pieces is said to be forking them. A fork is a powerful tactic as the opposition player will usually not be able to save both pieces. A fork attacking the enemy king may be especially devastating as the check must be resolved immediately.
A discovered attack is unleashed when the movement of one of your pieces uncovers an attack on the enemy by one of your other pieces. If the moving piece attacks a valuable piece or delivers a check, your opponent will likely be unable to satisfactorily answer both threats.
While we’re here, let’s throw in a few more foreign-language chess vocab words. A piece that is under attack and not defended is en prise (French for “within grasp”). A player repositioning a piece on its square in an over-the-board game should announce “j’adoube” (French for “I adjust”) to affirm that they are correcting the position of the piece and not moving it. A zwischenzug (or intermezzo, German and Italian respectively for “intermediate move”) is an unexpected move interposed into an apparently forced sequence that requires an immediate response from the opponent. Finally, zugzwang (German for “Ahhh, shit”) is an endgame situation where the player to move has only bad options and is losing by virtue of the fact that they may not pass their turn.
Openings, Middlegame, and Endgame
Here is another bit that you already know: chess games are notionally divided into three phases. These are the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame. There is no clear demarcation between these, although the opening generally refers to the initial period in which players are activating their pieces, the middlegame is generally the period during which players are competing for position and material in the middle of the board, and the endgame begins when many of the major pieces have been captured and each player competes to advance a pawn to promotion and mate the enemy king.
There are several general aims each player is trying to achieve in the opening. The fight for the center of the board is all-important. Castling is essential, as the king is exposed in his starting position and is safest in the opening and middlegame when hidden behind a wall of pawns toward a corner of the board. Players also need to develop their pieces—to activate them from the back rank into positions where they can more fully contribute to the game. Very generally, your knights are often best stationed on c3 and f3 for white and c6 and f6 for black; your bishops will ideally want to seize control over long diagonals; your queen will want a moderately active role before she springs into life in the middlegame; and you will want to “connect” your rooks on the back rank such that there are no pieces between them. You will in short want to fully mobilize your army as efficiently and effectively as possible. The general rule is to not move the same piece twice in an opening.
About that opening: Over time, a hugely dense body of theory has developed on this topic. Since the starting set-up of the board is fixed, it is possible for players to brute-force memorize optimal responses for variations that might be encountered in common openings. Chess players study theory on a huge array of openings, so that on gameday they can draw on their preparation to choose moves that they know to be theoretically sound and that will push the game in a direction that will support their overall strategy. The most common openings are catalogued and coded in the Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings (ECO).
The moves 1. e4 and 1. d4 are by far the most popular initial moves for white, as they strike boldly into the center and open diagonals for white’s bishops and queen. The English Opening 1. c4 is currently very trendy, and 1. Nf3 is also a good option. Those four are pretty much the only widely-played first moves, although the World Champ busted out the surprise Bird Opening 1. f4 earlier this year and went on to win that game. This is because any other initial move will not capitalise in the center as efficiently as other options and therefore risks wasting white’s first-mover advantage.
Common openings and defences are given names, so, for example, a game that begins 1. e4 c5 (denoting white pushing its e-pawn two squares forward, followed by black doing the same with its c-pawn) would be said to be exhibiting the Sicilian Defense. Depending on the next moves, the game might become an Open or Closed Sicilian, which can then splinter off into different variations (such as the Dragon or the Scheveningen, to name just two). The variations of the Sicilian are in particular extremely well-traversed paths, and so every chess player would know that a Najdorf Sicilian game refers to one that opened with 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6, and would know a range of sound continuations from there. (It’s often said that there have been more books dedicated to chess than to any other game on Earth, and you can find entire books dedicated to Najdorf continuations beginning with 6. Bg5, and on literally thousands of similarly-specific chess topics). Each opening has its positives and negatives according to the specifics and nuances of the position, and some are more solid than others. Theory on the most well-known openings can extend 25 or 30 moves deep. It’s a strange game that way.
As a competitive chess player, you’d need to know theory of many different openings. You might be booked up to the eyeballs on many variations of the Grünfeld Defense (1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5), but if your opponent opens with 1. e4 (or responds to your 1. d4 with 1. … d5), you’d need wider preparation to draw on. Indeed, chess players will sometimes try to surprise their opponent by playing an unexpected move from the fringes of theory that the opponent is unlikely to have studied, in the hope that taking the opponent out of book will pay dividends with an error down the line.
In the middlegame, players fight for material, for tactical and strategic advantages, and to prepare for the endgame. The middlegame is far less susceptible to theoretical standardization than the opening and the endgame.
Once you have mobilized your army in the opening, you can start to formulate your middlegame plan based upon an evaluation of the position. You will want to continually improve the position of your pieces, search for combinations that win material, and protect your king. Opportunities might open up on the queenside; that window might quickly close while another opens on the kingside.
Think hard about how to best employ your pieces based on their characteristics. A knight’s strange movements make it versatile, as it can attack any piece (aside from another knight) without that piece attacking it back, and its eight-tentacled reach gives it deadly range. A bishop placed on an important diagonal is a valuable attacker and defender, especially when employed in tandem with its sibling bishop (forming a bishop pair). Rooks are most valuable on open or semi-open files, and are lethal when they invade the seventh rank of the opponent. The queen is the quarterback, facilitating attacking opportunities all over the board, as she is mobile in all different directions and at long distances. Pawns should be used to defend teammates and key squares, prevent enemy pieces from invading your territory, and, at the right moment, to swarm in numbers on your opponent’s defenses in an attack known as a pawnstorm.
The endgame sees the last few remaining pieces duke it out to deliver checkmate to the enemy king. While there are many famous endgame scenarios which may be “solved” according to the exact arrangement of the pieces on the board, endgame theory largely revolves around recognizing types of positions that should be winning, losing, or drawing according to theory, and then converting accordingly with principled play. In the endgame, strategy takes precedence over tactics, and each move is precious—one loose move can entirely undo an entire game’s worth of winning play.
The most common aim of the endgame is to usher one of your pawns to the far end of the board in order to promote it to a queen, from which point mating the enemy king should be a formality. Your play will usually be targeted toward this aim, and you will need to take your cue from your and your opponent’s pawn structure, the importance of which is exploited in the endgame but which should be considered right from the opening.
With most of the powerful pieces exchanged off the board, your king is unlikely to be mated before a pawn can be promoted. Therefore, he should be brought to the middle of the board in the endgame, as his omnidirectional attacking capability makes him a valuable weapon. The player who centralizes his or her king first will usually be at an advantage. You will want your king to seize the opposition—facing the enemy king on a rank or file with only one square between them when it is your opponent’s turn to move. Any side-to-side move can be mirrored by your own king, keeping his enemy at bay while you shuffle your pieces around to get your pawn into the endzone.
Thinking like a Grandmaster: Evaluation and calculation
So, what’s the answer to the age-old question: how many moves are chess players thinking ahead? Every Grandmaster will tell you that there’s no fixed number, and also that it’s not really the right question. At each moment, a player is simply trying to make the best move in order to increase their chances of winning. The more relevant question, then, is to ask what an increased chance of winning looks like.
I might be able to calculate what the position would be along a range of different variations, but then what? Is that good? Do I even want to reach that position? What is my best path to winning the game? To answer these questions, chess players must be able to evaluate a position on the chess board.
Evaluation is an incredibly complex art, and one that even super Grandmasters never stop learning. There are no progress scores in chess, and no one-size-fits-all method for securing victory, and so it is not always clear which moves will cause a player to be “winning.” Identifying those moves is what chess is all about.
There’s no definitive list of what needs to be considered in evaluating a position, but the main elements include the following. The easiest to evaluate is material—the collective strength of each side’s army, taking into account the point scale referred to above. (The rule of thumb is that you should aim to exchange pieces when ahead in material, and to exchange pawns when behind.) The king’s safety is paramount, and you’ll almost always want to castle during the opening, to refrain from advancing his protecting pawns unless necessary (to avoid opening up the squares around him to invasion), and defend any potential lines of attack. The activity and coordination of the pieces refers to their position on the board and how effectively they can contribute to the cause—a piece stuck on the back rank or in a far-flung corner of the board may not be as valuable as a piece controlling the center, and well-coordinated pieces will defend each other and key squares while not impeding each other’s movement. Each side’s pawn structure can foreshadow who will have the upper hand in the endgame.
A proper evaluation of a position should lead you toward developing your winning strategy and making the best move. The relative importance of each factor will depend on the totality of the situation, and understanding the dynamics of a position is a fundamental chess skill. Material is certainly important, but a deficit in material may be offset by some compensation in development, position, or danger to the opponent’s king. You can follow an excellent example of a fulsome evaluation of a position here.
Once you’ve evaluated a position and understand where your winning chances lie, you can calculate where your next move might take the game.
There are more potential sequences of moves in a game of chess than atoms in the known universe. The game-tree of possible variations spreads so broadly that it’s a near-certainty that the next chess game you play will not match a single game in any chess database; I’d wager, though it would obviously be impossible to prove, that it will be totally unique compared to any game played since the beginning of time. Supercomputers have yet to solve chess, though they may do so one day. In other words, brute force calculation of all possible variations is out of the question.
At each position in a game of chess, a player will have a finite number of legal moves available. Many can be immediately dismissed out of hand, because they would forfeit material, achieve a bad position, or simply not achieve anything useful. Players therefore identify candidate moves (a term coined by GM Alexander Kotov in his famous 1971 book Think Like A Grandmaster), which are those that appear to have some merit and that deserve fulsome scrutiny. (The fundamental rule is that at a minimum all possible checks and captures should always be considered.) Each candidate move, in turn, would provide the opponent with an array of legal responses, most of which will again be dismissed out of hand, leaving a field of responses that may be realistically anticipated, and so on. All-encompassing calculations are therefore inefficient and unnecessary; rather, the decision tree is pruned significantly, right from the root.
Chess players therefore look at the board and envision the pieces moving around, calculating possibilities and then evaluating the positions that arise—if I do this, they can do that or that, and then the board would look like this, that’s no good, what about something else. A position might require nearly no calculation—the recapture of a queen, the resolution of a check, staving off mate-in-one—and moves in these situations are said to be forced. In more complex positions, you might have a large number of potential options, to which there might be a number of good responses for your opponent, and so on. The purpose of the exercise isn’t to calculate zillions of moves ahead just for the sake of it, it’s to identify which of your current available moves improves your chances of winning, and which ones don’t. Ideally, you will consider all relevant variations before making your move. In real life, that’s even tougher than it sounds. You’ll hear chess players say things like “I missed that he/she had Qh4 following that combination” after a loss.
So: let’s think about a move in a position.
It’s our move, with white pieces. Let’s do a quick evaluation of the position. Material is equal. Both kings are relatively safe, and there’s no immediate threat to ours nor obvious attack on theirs. Both sides’ pieces are relatively active, with our e-rook sitting on a nice semi-open file. Black’s bishop is somewhat cramped and immobile. Overall, white looks to have a somewhat better position.
Can we find a combination to win some material? Look at black’s pawn on d5. White has three pieces attacking it (pawn, knight, queen), and black has only two defenders (bishop, queen)—a fairly clear indication that we should be able to make a profit out of a combo. Can we take the pawn? Visualize in your mind what might happen next if we do.
If we take the d-pawn with our e-pawn, black’s bishop is under attack and should move—it can’t take our pawn or we’ll gobble up its queen. So, the black bishop takes our bishop, and we recapture with our knight. We’ve won a pawn and a bishop, and lost only a bishop—a handy profit. If the black queen continues by capturing our knight (now on b5), we take the knight on g4 with our own queen and we’re still ahead, with no apparent adequate compensation for black.
However, we’ve also got a better and cooler combination. Let’s capture the d5 pawn with our knight. Now our bishop is undefended and black may capture it with its bishop. But check this out: then our queen captures the knight on g4! Is that a blunder? Can’t the black queen take ours for free? Nope. Queen takes queen, and then we move our knight to f6 and check. Knight-fork, baby! Our knight is attacking both the black king on g8 and the black queen on g4. The king must move to escape check, and we capture the queen, with the result that we netted a pawn (pawn + knight + queen versus bishop + queen), with no obvious compensation for black. A material advantage is greater when there are fewer pieces on the board, so the fact that this exchange removes the queens is more advantageous, and it’s far more fun.
Note that this combination wouldn’t have worked if our rook was still on f1, because it would now be under attack by the black bishop—the little things matter.
Most elite players will say that trusting their instincts is just as important as trusting their calculations. Experienced players can look at the board and feel the best move—the coup d’œil—and rely on intuition as much as calculation, searching for familiar patterns in each position. This produces more creative and original play, and leads to positions which are themselves more intuitive. Plus, in short-format games there is no time for lengthy calculation and playing by feel is essential. It’s far more fun to play quickly and by instinct, anyway!
So, calculation is an incredibly important tool in ultimately deciding on your next move, but it’s a means to an end, not the end itself. You might only need to calculate one move ahead in a position, or you might end up calculating 15 or 20 moves ahead. It all depends on the circumstances—it’s not like Grandmasters have enough RAM to calculate exactly n moves ahead, but not n + 1. (Hey, if we had a magic chessboard with an infinite number of ranks, and you and I both had 1,000 rooks each facing each other on one file, we could both realistically claim to be able to calculate 1,000 moves ahead.)
Here’s an awesome clip of the GOAT talking through his calculations and evaluations from Game 20 of the 1990 World Championship match:
White always moves first in chess, and from there the players alternate moves throughout the game (there is no passing or moving twice in a row). This rule gives white an inherent advantage, as it can develop its pieces faster via its starting tempo and therefore has a greater ability to push the game in the direction that it wants. In the 23,000-plus games in Chessgames’ database from so far in 2017, white has scored about 54.5 percent, winning approximately 37.7 percent of games, drawing 33.7 percent, and losing only 28.6 percent.
Chess games can be played under different time controls. There’s the classical format for quintessential sit-and-think contests—for example, in the 2017 World Cup, each player has 90 minutes for their first 40 moves, and then 30 minutes for the rest of the game, plus an additional 30 seconds per move starting from move 1. (The exact intervals differ from tournament to tournament.) Then, there are much shorter formats—a rapid game might give each player 25 minutes with a 10 second delay each move, and a blitz game might grant five minutes with a three-second delay. If players are even after a series of games, they might showdown in a single knockout Armageddon game, in which the parameters are prescribed so as to give each side the closest thing to a 50 percent chance of emerging victorious—white might receive five minutes to black’s four, with white needing to win and black only requiring a draw.
In each format, players press a button on a chess clock after making their move, which stops their time running and automatically starts their opponent’s.
It goes without saying that the shorter contests are chalk-and-cheese compared to classical games—it’s common for players to spend 20, 30, or even 40 minutes on a single move under classical time controls—players get up and have a look at the other nearby games in progress while their opponent is pondering their next move, which I find to be an endlessly amusing quirk—but the compressed formats require players to blitz out their moves without allowing much time for thought, resulting in exciting attacking play, inexcusable blunders, and thrilling races against the clock. (Former World Champion Vishy Anand spent an are-you-crazy 1 minute 43 seconds of his available 5 minutes on the fourth move of the 1994 World Blitz Championship semi-final, and went on to win.)
Mating the king
Unlike in every TV show or movie ever to involve chess, checkmates do not come out of the blue as a surprise to an opponent. Elite players invariably resign when a clearly losing position is reached, and over-the-board mates in competition are very rare. Between Grandmasters, a player losing a piece would usually resign on the spot, because unless they have significant compensation in position or initiative there is no realistic likelihood that their opponent will do anything but inevitably cruise to victory. In endgame situations, the difference of a single pawn can be enough to precipitate a handshake. Similarly, a significant positional advantage or an imminent mate will invariably result in resignation. It is seen as disrespectful to play on in a clearly lost position, and most elite players aren’t interested in suffering through a humiliating forced march to checkmate.
In fact, I can only identify mate being delivered over the board once in World Championship history—chess author and player Jimmy Adams alerted me to Alexander Alekhine’s mate of Efim Bogoljubov in Game 8 of their 1929 World Championship match. However, in an interesting quirk pointed out to me by chess author and player Stewart Reuben, three of the most famous and celebrated games in history did indeed end in mate over the board: The Game of the Century, The Immortal Game, and The Evergreen Game.
By the way, the quickest-possible checkmate can be achieved in just two moves, the so-called Fool’s Mate:
Call it a draw
A game can end in a draw in several ways. It could be a stalemate, where a player with the move has no legal move and his/her king is not in check; or threefold repetition (if a position appears on the board for the third time); by the fifty-move rule (if each player has made 50 moves since the last capture or movement of any pawn); by perpetual check (technically a draw by agreement, occurring if one player can perpetually place the enemy king in check without actually being able to deliver mate); or through insufficient mating material, which is when neither player has enough firepower to checkmate the other, for example if the forces are reduced to a king versus a king and knight.
Most commonly, though, games end in a draw by agreement, where players simply shake hands and agree to split the points based on their evaluation of the position on the board. This makes sense in a lot of endgame positions, for example where material and position are equal; between elite players a final result of a draw for one of the above reasons is inevitable. Far more controversial are early agreed draws. The laws of chess permit agreed draws any time after move 1, while some tournaments may prohibit them before a certain point is reached; in the World Championship, for instance, a draw cannot be agreed before move 30. Often, both players are happy to earn a draw, perhaps for rating purposes or to ensure a solid finish in a tournament, and so might go into a game ready to jump at a draw at the first opportunity, especially if the game follows a well-known line in the opening. Some games end in agreed draws after as few as five effing moves. This tends to raise eyebrows, and also to raise questions as to whether the players are truly giving it their all.
Chess as a metaphor
Chess is often referenced in politics, the arts, sports, and elsewhere as a metaphor demonstrating deep intelligence or intellectual superiority. “I’m playing chess while everyone else plays checkers! I’m thinking two whole moves ahead of everyone else! You’re all pawns in my game! Checkmate!”
As often as not, the most common chess metaphors are off the mark. The laziest trope is that chess skills signify intelligence, and vice versa. You do need to be intelligent to become an elite chess player, but that also goes for just about anything worth being good at. A smart person who has never played chess before will be very bad at chess. Similarly, a person who is triumphantly claiming that they stroll through life like a chess Grandmaster, thinking multiple moves ahead of everyone else, is generally just showing us the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.
To make a good analogy, the objects being compared actually need to be analogous. In chess, there are only two actors, they start with equal firepower, and the circumstances that constitute winning and losing are clearly defined. The rules are fixed, there is no hidden information, and everything unfolds within a closed system with no outside interference. These parameters are rarely perfectly replicated in real-life scenarios. They are rarely imperfectly replicated in real-life scenarios.
It’s not to say that chess metaphors can’t be made, or that only Super Grandmasters should make them. It’s the exact opposite—elements of chess show themselves in the real world all the time, and even casual players will know the lizard sensation of recognizing elements of chess in real-life scenarios. Chess teaches how to think strategically, to map out all available options, to anticipate the consequences of your actions, to plan for contingencies, and to choose when to attack and when to defend. Chess themes show up in every sport, in politics, in business, and in every competition or ecosystem with multiple moving parts. Anybody can learn chess, and anybody can learn from chess. I suspect the issue is that non-chess folks see issues from the real world and are tempted to clumsily try to make them fit into how they think chess operates. That’s doing it in reverse—if you take the time to learn the game of chess, you’ll be amazed at how often you see its themes materialize in front of you.
The Global Context and Chess at the Elite Level
The World Championship
The World Championship is decided every two years in a 12-game-plus-tiebreaks match between the reigning champ and one contender, who is the winner of the traditional eight-person Candidates Tournament. That tournament is just as cool as the World Championship match itself, and the race to qualify—the Candidates field is made up of the previous World Championship runner-up, the two highest finishers in two major tournaments, the two otherwise highest-rated players, and one wildcard—is the most enthralling ongoing storyline of each World Championship cycle. Norway’s Magnus Carlsen has been World Champion since 2013, and most recently defeated Russian Sergey Karjakin in tiebreaks in 2016 to retain his title and take home more than half a million Euros in prize money.
Chess is universal, and there are tournaments held all over the world all year round for players of all strengths and ages. The elite players compete in tournaments ranging from the biennial national-team Chess Olympiad, to the single-elimination World Cup, to the big-money events on the new Grand Chess Tour. There are always tournaments happening all around the world, whether age-limited or open, individual or team, knockout or round-robin or Swiss-system.
Players earn ratings according to how strongly they perform in tournaments. Chess’s international governing body FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs, pronounced “fee-day”) bases ratings on the Elo rating system, a complex mathematical scheme also employed in other sports and in the algorithm underpinning the predecessor to Facebook. A rating is simply a number that represents a player’s chess ability—the larger the rating the better the player—and which fluctuates up and down after every game according to the player’s results relative to their opponents’ ratings. Players are ranked by their ratings: as of the December 2017 list, Carlsen is currently ranked No. 1 with a rating of 2837 (his May 2014 rating of 2882 is the highest ever recorded), six others are rated just above or below 2800, and the world No. 100 clocks in at 2652. A beginner who understands the rules but not much else would probably be rated lower than 600.
FIDE awards titles to elite players based on their performance in classical tournament play. In order of increasing prestige, players can become a Candidate Master (carrying the honorific ‘CM’), FIDE Master (FM), International Master (IM), or a Grandmaster (GM). There are separate women-only titles corresponding to each. All titles are granted for life. The byzantine technical criteria which must be fulfilled to achieve Grandmaster status essentially boil down to two requirements: achieving a minimum rating of 2500, and achieving three norms, which are 2600-level results—say, a tournament score of 7/9 against a field of average 2380 rating—in tournaments against diverse and highly-rated opponents, where the field features players from several different nations, at least one-third GMs, and no player rated lower than 2200. Got all that? There are currently 1,570 Grandmasters in the world, although many are now retired or inactive. The countries with the most Grandmasters are Russia (220), Germany (90), USA (89), and Ukraine (86).
Just like all sportspeople have coaches and training staff, elite chess players hire other chexperts (chessperts?) to act as seconds—essentially, coaches and assistants to help them prepare for important matches and tournaments. Seconds usually have a particular expertise in certain areas, and may be either active players or semi- or fully-retired. They might be tasked with studying particular opening lines, coming up with novel attacking themes, addressing their player’s weaknesses, or studying a future opponent’s past games, all with a view to briefing their player so that they are fully prepared on game day. Seconds might be engaged on a permanent or ad hoc basis, and many players don’t like disclosing who they’ve got on their team for fear that their seconds’ profiles will hint at what they have prepared.
You knew this one was coming. The advent of chess engines—supercomputers that calculate millions of possible variations stretching many moves ahead—has fundamentally changed the game of chess, in the same way that the three-point line fundamentally changed basketball. Chess engines are orders of magnitude more powerful and less susceptible to error than even the strongest Grandmasters, and have broadened analysis and research beyond what was ever thought possible. Magnus Carlsen’s ascension to World Champion marked the dawn of a new era in chess, as he is the first champ to have forged his playing career entirely in the age of supercomputers.
At each position in a game, chess engines calculate the best continuations, spitting out recommended moves in order of their strength, and listing the first few moves in the strongest continuation thereafter. Their evaluation functions estimate the chess equivalent of a progress score based on all the factors described above. If an engine evaluates that, all things considered, black has an advantage worth the equivalent of exactly one and a half pawns, the evaluation of the position will yield a “score” of -1.50, with negative numbers indicating an advantage for black and positive an advantage for white.
The open source engine Stockfish, for instance, evaluates the starting position at +0.23 because of white’s first-mover advantage. Chess fans can follow chess games from around the world live on websites such as Chess24, which reports the moves accompanied by Stockfish’s evaluations and calculations, which adds a cool layer of context and analysis (follow the calculations and evaluations of the final game of the 2016 World Championship match here). It’s a lot of fun when a game reaches an extremely complex position, and while the players calculate with furrowed brows we at home can yell things like “I can’t believe he/she hasn’t seen Bxg4 already! It’s so obvious!”
The advent of supercomputers has had an immeasurable impact on chess. It one sense, it has somewhat levelled the field between players, because a player with lesser inherent chess instinct can paper over that gap to a degree with extensive research and preparation. Supercomputers have advanced opening theory by light years, and some variations have fallen out of favor amongst elite players because computer analysis has shown them to be susceptible to a certain attack or defense.
Of course, players have to make the moves on the board based on their own brainpower, and an over-reliance on computer study at the expense of understanding the game of chess can be a player’s undoing. The computer’s recommended move might not always be the best one for a human to make, because it might be reliant on a 35-move combination that a human simply can’t calculate. One challenge for elite Grandmasters is to figure out how best to use engines in their preparation; that is, as a tool to make them better and not as the endpoint of chess itself. One challenge for the chess authorities is to ensure that players aren’t clandestinely using engines during matches—in big tournaments, players are required to walk through airport-style metal detectors before and after games to make sure there’s no funny business.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour around the black and white of chess. More than that, I hope you dust off that old chess board you’ve got lying around, play some rapid games against other players online, or download one of the millions of available chess apps. If you’ve got kids, teaching them chess has enormous educational benefits, and it’s never too late for you and them to get started. Spend 10 minutes learning the main lines of some cool openings, like the King’s Indian and the Dragon, and while you’re at it, pick an opening to play just because it has a cool name, like the Pterodactyl, or the Hippopotamus Defense. Try some chess puzzles, borrow a beginner’s strategy book from the library, and attack the enemy king like you’re Mikhail Tal, even if it won’t always come off. Talk some trash, win and lose a few games, have some fun.
Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes chess.