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Five Myths About Chess

By Jennifer Shahade

Jennifer Shahade is a chess champion, author, poker player and Women’s Program Director at U.S. Chess.November 20, 2020 at 8:54 a.m. EST

Chess is having a moment. Chess is also having a decade. The game has been on an upward trajectory in pop culture ever since the charismatic Magnus Carlsen, who has even worked as a model, won the World Chess Championship in 2013. That same year, Congress declared St. Louis the country’s “chess capital.” Now Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” has ratcheted interest up to new heights. As millions of converts download chess apps and buy boards, it’s time to dispel a few myths about this ancient game.

Myth No. 1

Chess is dull and unsexy.

“Does it seem to you like there just isn’t enough televised chesson these days?” David Letterman joked sarcastically in 1989. More recently, coverage of “The Queen’s Gambit” has expressed doubt about the visual and dramatic appeal of the game. Vanity Fair said that, to most people, the game seems “dull and buttoned-up.” And the Cut cried, “The Sexiest Show on Television Is About . . . Chess?”

The Netflix series plays up the royal game’s glamorous side and, yes, its sensual side. But the connection between chess and sex goes back centuries. Historian Marilyn Yalom writes that medieval artists — in manuscript illustrations, tapestries and stained-glass windows, among other art forms — treated the game as synonymous with seduction: “A chess scene between a man and a woman signified romance.” Yalom also describes a work of fiction from around 1400, called “The Book of Erotic Chess,” in which “each move on the board represented a decisive moment in the game of love” between the characters.

Today’s international chess competitions often feature just one game a day, in the midafternoon — leaving players with plenty of time to connect at drinks, long dinners and parties. Some enthusiasts have even compiled lists of the greatest “chess couples” to have “found romance over the 64 squares,” and who have a combined rating of over 5000 from the International Chess Federation (FIDE).

Myth No. 2

It takes genius to win at chess.

The public often associates chess with intelligence — and chess champions with preternatural brilliance. In the second episode of “The Queen’s Gambit,” a librarian tells the protagonist, Beth Harmon, that a grandmaster is a “genius player.” A Wired article about chess in pop culture cited the joy of “watching genius at work.” In 2009, Time asked Magnus Carlsen how he dealt with people “assuming you are 40,000 times more intelligent” than average: “You’re clearly not a normal intellect,” the interviewer declared.

Carlsen, the highest-rated grandmaster in history, has reiterated many times that he considers himself “a normal person.” In an interview with Rainn Wilson in 2013, he said that the first sentence of his autobiography would be: “I am not a genius.” What differentiated him from his competitors, he explained, was commitment; he didn’t treat chess as a “normal hobby.”

FIDE recognizes more than 1,700 grandmasters — and what they have in common is hard work. Chess playing is a skill more than a fixed trait; excellence takes dedication, time and a love for the process. Along with practice games and tournaments, and individual and group coaching sessions, a serious chess training regimen often includes the study of top players’ games, opening strategies, endgames and checkmating patterns. Serious players also use computers to deeply analyze their own games.  

Myth No. 3

Strong chess players see dozens of moves ahead.

It’s an old cliche that the best players plot long lines of future moves. In a 2010 profile, Time magazine described Carlsen’s “beautiful mind” and how he “often calculates 20 moves ahead.” A recent ESPN story about an 8-year-old chess prodigy similarly marveled at his “ability to think 20 moves ahead.”

In fact, great chess players use a combination of strategic intuition, pattern recognition and calculation to decide their moves; intuition alone is plenty to beat much weaker players. Chess players do think deeply about a position and its possible outcomes. But they look sideways as much as straight ahead, scanning the board to see any possible moves they are missing in their current position. If I look ahead three moves but check five different counters, that’s more total moves than looking down a 10-move tunnel. It’s much more useful, too: If you miss your opponent’s “reply” in the middle of your 10-move line, all the energy you spent looking beyond your error is wasted. Man plans, God laughs — or as we say in chess, “Long variation, wrong variation.”

Myth No. 4

Deep Blue’s win in 1997 meant the end of chess.

“What would it really mean if Deep Blue won?” Newsweek asked before the match between Garry Kasparov and IBM’s computer engine: “Some people have argued whether chess would be diminished by this upheaval.” I got a chance to visit the match in New York; I remember the audience’s simultaneous horror and awe at Kasparov’s loss — and the laments that the computer had “solved” chess. More recently, New Scientist claimed that computers had been “ruining” chess ever since Deep Blue and that AI was “conquering” the game.

It’s true that, in time, the top computers dismantled the top humans so easily it was no longer competitive enough to be fun, and the epic man vs. machine matches were discontinued. But the death knell was premature. The game’s popularity has soared, as players and viewers find new ways to connect online. According to the founder of Chess.com, the site’s traffic has grown up to 50-percent each year since its founding in 2007; it had a huge spike in registrations and site use in 2020, due to the pandemic and “The Queen’s Gambit.” And where, in 2015, a few dozen people watched streams of chess on Twitch at any given time, today the average viewership is over 4,000, according to Fast Company.

At any rate, chess has not been “solved.” Even the top computers don’t know the best sequence of moves in every position — they just play enough fantastic moves (and very few bad ones) that they beat humans over and over. Recent progress in artificial intelligence shows just how much more there is to explore: In 2018, Google’s AlphaZero achieved new levels of greatness when it defeated Stockfish, a traditional computer chess program, entrancing the chess world with sacrifices and pawn storms.

Myth No. 5

The king is the most important piece in chess.

Teachers and how-to guides often reiterate that, while the queen is the most powerful piece, the king is the most important — a principle repeated in online chess tutorials and enshrined on Wikipedia.

But eight foot-soldiers have something to say about that. The mighty pawn, the only piece that captures differently than it moves, trudges ahead one step at a time. Since it’s the only piece that cannot move backward, every push is final. Pawns form the bones of the game: Play would be a mushy mess without them.

Pawn power was sent to the lab for study when, this year, Alpha Zero played against itself in nine variations on chess. Five of the variants tweaked the rules governing pawns. In torpedo chess, in which pawns can move two squares at a time, tactical volatility was hugely increased. Another variant, in which pawns moved backward, led to fewer decisive games, since that rule allowed for the reversal of strategic errors. Change the pawn, and you shake the very essence of the game. In the words of 18th-century French chess champion Francois-Andre Danican Philidor, “The pawns are the soul of chess.”

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