Today I’m going to do something a little bit unusual. Really unusual.
As long-time readers of this blog know, a few years ago I played my chess masterpiece. It came in the last round of a tournament in Reno, against International Master David Pruess. I played a little-known opening variation, called the Bryntse Gambit, that involves a queen sacrifice on move 6. To my knowledge, the sacrifice had never been played in an over-the-board game before that weekend, although it had been played in correspondence chess.
I eventually won Pruess’s queen back 30 moves later, and won the game. Subsequently the game was published in Chess Life and in Chess Informant, and perhaps the greatest compliment of all is that it was named as a “Game of the Day” at chessgames.com. (Search for Mackenzie vs. Pruess and you’ll find it.)
I don’t mention this too often in my blog because I don’t want to bore people with the story. But it occurred to me recently that a lot of people come and go on this blog, perhaps visiting only once, and they might not even know the story. And it’s an interesting story, so even if it’s a little bit immodest, I should tell it.
A few months after the game, I took a stab at writing the story in a way that non-chess players could understand, because I think it touches on some universal themes of why we play games and how machines both help us and hurt us. I made a couple of half-hearted attempts to sell the story to literary magazines, but either it was too far out of their element, or I was too far out of mine. Anyway, it has sat around unpublished for five years.
It just occurred to me, literally a couple of days ago, “What the heck is a blog for, if not to publish things that are too personal or unmarketable to publish otherwise?” Right?
So here it is, my attempt to explain to the whole world just why chess players get so excited about something like moving a queen to g4. I’m going to serialize it in three parts. Read it and let me know what you think!
© Dana Mackenzie
I listen to chess pieces. Don’t look at me that way—it’s quite normal. In fact, it’s even recommended. Ask Jonathan Rowson, the chess champion of the United Kingdom: “This sounds wacky, I know, but try it,” he writes in his book, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. In Rowson’s view, a “conversation” with each piece can point out defects or strengths in a position that the player might otherwise overlook.
The trouble is, when I listen to my pieces, I hear lots of other things. I hear the hammering of my heart when I am about to play a risky move. I hear the incessant chorus of self-doubt. Sometimes I hear the repeating strains of a song, like an unwanted soundtrack. Rarely can the pieces make themselves heard above all the other commotion in my mind.
The game I will tell you about now is different. It’s the only game I ever played when the pieces spoke through me. It began as an open-ended experiment with a computer named Fritz. Two years and a hundred computer games later, I had the opportunity to try the same experiment against a thoroughly bewildered human, an international master named David Pruess.
Here is how the game starts: White advances his king’s pawn two squares, from e2 to e4. It is the move that is truest to the medieval origins of the game. The goal is checkmate, or shah mat—“the King is dead.” To slay the opponent’s King, White marches his nearest foot soldier directly towards it. This is the move that Bobby Fischer, the American world champion turned Icelandic exile, played throughout his career.
Black moves his pawn from c7 to c5: the Sicilian Defense. It is a sly move, seldom played by beginners, but by far the most popular reply of experienced players to White’s e-pawn opening.
White advances his f-pawn two spaces, from f2 to f4. Unpopular since the mid-1980s, this move is nevertheless based on a classical principle of warfare: the phalanx. Pawns fight best when they are side by side.
Black moves his d-pawn from d7 to d5, creating a phalanx of his own. An innovation of Mikhail Tal, a former world champion, this vigorous reply challenges White’s second move. To a chess player, the board now looks violently lopsided. The pieces are speaking in dissonance; the oompah band is practicing at the same time as the string orchestra. Who will prevail?
White plays his knight to f3. A startling development, a gauntlet thrown at Black’s feet. White does not even deign to defend against Black’s threat, but instead continues to mobilize for an assault against Black’s king.
Black captures White’s e-pawn with his d-pawn. He picks up the glove and slaps White’s face with it. White moves his knight to g5 in response—attacking the attacker. Thrust and parry. Black brings his knight to f6, defending his usurping pawn on e4.
White is a pawn behind, but the fight has just begun. He posts his bishop on c4, where it eyes Black’s pawn on f7. That pawn is the Achilles heel of the starting chess position, the unlocked door to the fortress wherein resides Black’s king.
Most humans would fear this attack, and would hasten to bar the door. But the Middle Ages are over, and a computer now guards the fortress. It is a computer that knows nothing of fear, nothing of danger, nothing of beauty. It knows only one commandment: play the best move in any given position. The calculation is not even close. It leaves the door to the fortress open, and instead plays its bishop to g4, attacking White’s queen.
It is a collision of principles. Which is more important: the White queen who has nowhere to go, or the Black king who is about to be chased unprepared into the middle of the battlefield? And who is going to prevail, the computer chess player that can calculate more variations in a minute than the human can in a lifetime? Or the human, whose only weapon is his intuition, plus a quixotic sense of beauty?
This is where the experiment gets personal. I play a move that makes no sense to any computer program currently in existence. It is my attempt to prove that the soul of chess is yet unfathomable by computers. My queen asks to give her life for the cause. I slide her diagonally to g4, taking the Black bishop off the board. The queen’s life is forfeit: Black’s knight will take her on its next move. But the spirit of the departed queen will linger for the rest of the game.
To be continued …