Dixit Magister (part 3)

by admin on September 16, 2012

This is the third part of a three-part series. To make things more convenient, here are links to the first part and the second part.

As one commenter observed after Part 1, the story is about the man-versus-machine battle. True, that’s a big part of the story, but there’s more to it. For one thing, it’s about a real game that happened between flesh-and-blood humans. I think that the story would have been vastly less interesting if that game had never happened.

But hush! I must not give away too much. On we go to the conclusion…

DIXIT MAGISTER (continued)

© Dana Mackenzie


Back in Reno, David Pruess is stewing. Emory Tate, many times Armed Forces chess champion, will say later, “David Pruess is as unflappable a player as you’ll ever see at the chessboard. He’s like Tom Cruise in Top Gun. But when Mackenzie played that queen sacrifice, I swear I saw a tremor pass over him—just the slightest ripple of concern.” Ripple or no ripple, Pruess’s big problem is that he is using vast quantities of time. He has taken an hour to play the first 11 moves, while I have used just two minutes. This will give him less time to play the remaining moves of the game.

Gradually, the game takes on a life of its own. Friedel comes over and watches Pruess squirm. Pruess departs eventually from the move order preferred by Fritz, but the overall character of the position does not change. For once in my life, I know exactly what my pieces are saying. Keep the vertical files closed, so that Black’s rooks have nothing to do. Organize the White army so that my two extra small pieces—a bishop and knight—do more work than Black’s extra queen. Sweep aside Black’s center pawns, the last obstacle to the White army. And then let the White pieces creep forward like an incoming tide. The details are different, but the strategy has all been worked out in my hundred practice games against Fritz.

Above it all, the departed queen weaves her magic spell. No one has ever seen such an early queen sacrifice, or one where it took so long for the attack to come to fruition. Every spectator, from the thoroughly distracted Tate (paying more attention to my game than his own) to the Russian grandmaster Victor Mikhalevski, is wondering the same thing. Could this sacrifice possibly be sound? Why is White’s position getting sweeter and sweeter, while Black’s shrivels up like a prune?

On move 36, thirty moves after the sacrifice, Black’s extra queen finally falls, like a giant being swarmed over by ants. The rest is easy. Finally, ten moves later, Pruess stops the clock and extends his hand, the universal gesture of resignation.


An hour after my game with David Pruess ends, I wander into the skittles room, a side room where the players go to blow off steam after four hours of intense concentration. There is bedlam in the room. Nothing unusual about that. Then I realize it is my game that they are arguing about. A circle of ten or twelve players is analyzing a position from around move 17. Mikhalevski is saying that I should have grabbed a pawn. Pruess is sitting at the table, too, looking somewhat bemused, daring anyone to show him where he made a mistake. Then one of the gathered players, international master Jesse Kraai, spots me and says to the assembled crowd, “Why don’t you ask the man himself? Here he is!”

I tell them about my two-year quest. Giving up my queen on move six started as a crazy idea, but like lots of crazy ideas, it seemed right enough that I couldn’t give up on it. I played it against Fritz over and over. I have to be honest: Most of the time I lost, but never did I feel that the computer was getting anywhere close to the truth. It was winning only because of mistakes I made later in the game.

Gradually, as I understood what the pieces were saying, the queen sacrifice turned into a complete concept, not just an opening variation. The concept was that you could win with two smaller pieces against a queen. You just had to be patient enough, keep the position closed, and let the initiative gather momentum over a period of ten or twenty moves—too long for a computer to calculate. In this way, I could beat a computer program that was supposed to be better than any human alive, and the computer would never understand why.

Kraai’s voice rises above the hubbub as he proclaims to all who are listening that this was the greatest game of all time. (It’s not, but I appreciate the compliment.) Tate, the former Air Force sergeant, has been helping himself to the casino’s free cocktails. He is in fine form, witty and self-assured, every utterance an oration. Mikhalevski, sitting next to me, is all dour skepticism. Kraai chortles as I correct Mikhalevski, explaining the strategy I had developed over two years of study: the pawn talking back to the grandmaster. “Listen to the man!” Kraai scolds Mikhalevski. “Let the master speak!”

As for Pruess, he accepts the defeat with impeccable sportsmanship and good humor. I tell him that his only mistake was being too brave. He was the first person I had ever played who had enough courage to play the “computer move,” bishop to g4, and leave his king’s fortress unguarded.

One game against a human proves ever so much more than a hundred against a computer. And yet at the same time, it proves almost nothing. The queen sacrifice will have to be played by other players before we can be sure whether it is justified, or only a glittering illusion. My greatest hope is that the debate will go on forever. The circle of players in the skittles room will argue late into the night, and then they will come back the next day and argue some more. The computers will continue to think they are winning, and yet will continue to lose. The departed queen will still weave her web of fascination and mystery, and hold her secrets close.


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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Schmidt September 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm

I liked this a lot in general, with one caveat: if you’re writing for a general audience, I think the first part, with the specification and annotation of each move, is too technical. It’s kind of a worst of both worlds – chess players will see it and wonder why you’re not just annotating a game normally, non-chess players will see it and their eyes will glaze over (even though you’re trying to make it accessible to them). My suggestion would be to cut it radically and get to the queen sacrifice really fast. Even non-chess players know that’s a big deal. I think that Parts II and III, on the other hand, are well written and compelling to chess player and non-chess player alike.


admin September 16, 2012 at 6:44 pm

I think this is a good comment. It’s a case of trying to have my cake and eat it too — aiming for a general audience but telling the chess-savvy precisely what the moves are. Probably at a minimum I could just delete the references to specific squares and it would not lose anything important.

Thanks for the feedback!


Willy September 17, 2012 at 9:39 am

It is not easy to write for both audiences (chess and non-chess audience). I enjoyed it since I am a chess fan. I usually end up dissapointed when a book or t.v. program offers a shallow example of chess. I feel like your story is best suited for the chess world. Your game against Pruess is a historical event that may end up changing the way we use computers. Your game will probably end up in chess books. The drama you added to the story made the book readable to players of most levels. I tend to gravitate towards Jeremy Silman when I study chess because I believe he has the gift to teach and I always enjoy his humor. You have accomplished Jeremy Silman type of writing in my opinion. As far as the non-chess readers are concerned…smaller segments may be more fitting. Maybe it would be more attractive if it was part of a larger story they can relate to. I recently wrote a song that mixes chess concepts with life principles. I had some good responses. I even through in a tad of chess annotation..just enough that it was not overwhelming for non-chess players. Your story has points were people. An relate without understanding chess. I sometimes joke about being replace by machines at work. Of course, the general public always loves a good story about the under dog winning! Your 2 years of prep is like Rocky beating on frozen meat and then beating Drago, who was trained with all the latest equipment and science. In conclusion, an unedited version should be on every chess website and in chess books. An alternative version may be plausible for the general public. Sorry if there are typos. Sent from my phone. Thanks for sharing your story!


Rob September 17, 2012 at 10:46 am

Hi Dana.
I have to agree with Dan Schmidt’s observation about the first part. Your detailing your opening moves…kind made my eyes glaze over. As a reader I was not sure if I would continue with the second part if it was to be more in the nature of the first part.

My interest began to pick up with the second part and by the end you had my full attention. I especially liked the part in the skittles room. Perhaps that would have been an even more interesting introduction to your story…showing us the action (a bit) around the table as you entered the room…and then telling the story of how this all came about.

I give you four stars for effort.



admin September 17, 2012 at 11:54 am

Great ideas from all of you! Thanks so much!


tolyakarpov September 17, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Hello dana
its a revolution in writing chess,and at the same a hard task.i enjoyed reading it,combining chess game,history behind it and science.i felt that i was watching movie while reading it.great job..i feel the same way for preparation you did for queen sac..you know i wrote you before about this 1.c3 move ,and i also used computer to invistigate it.and now i enjoy the fruit of my research.i use computer as a tool to improve my game.like what you said in dana opening philosopy,you can never be a great writer copying shakespear work..more power and thumbs up for quality chess blog that you post for free,.


Cortiano September 18, 2012 at 5:28 am

Having attempted myself to write about chess to the lay public, I know very well where the shoe pinches. You did, overall, a superb job of it. Your piece is thoroughly enjoyable to read, plus informative, insightful and plain fun. I agree with everybody who pointed out the inadequacy of the move transcription in part I, but that’s moot now for you yourself have recognized it. And Rob really has a good idea there, when he says the piece would start with an oomph if you opened with the skittles scene. Anyway, any writing can use a little tweaking here and there, and kibtzers always see better than those playing, right (write)? All in all, kudos for the piece. If not anything else, it is truly inspiring!


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