Monday, April 24, 2017

Why would I want you to play good chess?

Perhaps because I am a colossal nerd? Perhaps this condition is necessary, but not sufficient. ;-)
Perhaps because I want more competition? No, the internet solves this problem nicely. Easy-peasy.
Perhaps to share the joy of the game? Sure, there's joy in the game, but there's lots of joy in this world, and much of it is more accessible. YouTube solves this by searching for kittens and babies and Richard Feynman videos.
Kittens < Feynman ≤ Babies
Perhaps to imitate Ben Franklin? Ben Franklin has already done a far better Ben Franklin impression than I ever could. The same goes for other people who had a famous love of chess.
Most chess players don't end up on US currency, but it couldn't hurt.
Perhaps chess is for brainiacs and if more people get into it than I can look cool by comparison? For the love of God, no. In fact, people suffer from the myth that chess is only for the smarty-pants. You've got it backwards: you're not a chess player because you're a smarty-pants, playing chess helps boost the way you think about other things in life. More on that later.

Another non-reason for me to suggest the game to you: Increase the chance that humankind produces a chess mind to rival the machines and stave off the Terminator revolution. This would make about as much sense as encouraging people to get into weightlifting so that mankind can compete with cranes.

So what reasons do I have for recommending the game? How am I convinced of its broad appeal? Why would I assume that more chess players in the world would be good for the world, and not just good for the chess world? (The chess world can fend for itself, that's not my concern either.) Enough suspense, here are my reasons.

Chess exercises the brains of its human players by letting well-matched opponents present puzzles to one another. It illustrates a certain way of solving problems in that while there are lots of tips to help you evaluate moves, there is a ground truth of what can actually help you find checkmate. You see both how generalizations are helpful and also how they can be undone by specific circumstances.

The mental pressure presented by a tense position helps illustrate reacting emotionally versus solving the problem the board has actually presented. Is this a "ghost threat?" Is it better to block or better to counterpunch? Have I considered the in-between move? There is a difference between the instinct you feel when you are attacked and your actual option of moves. The Jack Sparrow line about "what a man can do" vs. what he can't applies heavily.

You cannot become good at chess without expecting your opponent to play good moves. You can't get good at chess without learning to see your opponent's threats, plans, and options. You aren't the only force in the world. Other people have plans, too, and these plans interact.

You learn to take advantage of the opportunities presented, rather than clinging to secondary concerns. "I really hoped he would let me win in four moves." "I need my queen." "He's not playing the opening right." "Endgames are boring." "Material determines everything." Fiddlesticks. A win is a win, and chess is a field wherein to grapple with the difference between a heuristic and a prejudice. A field which, after all, is still just a game.

Playing a lot of chess lets you experiment with ideas--provided your goal is to become a better player over time, and not never to risk a lost game by challenging your own understanding. A game between players of an intermediate range and up is almost a wager of ideas: "I'll bet it's worth giving you this pawn because of the key squares or the attack that I get in return. Do you accept?"

Such wagers are possible in spite of neither player controlling hidden information and in spite of overt chance such as dice rolls or cards because of another lesson the game teaches: The human mind is amazing, but also finite, with very real limitations. There is a duality to the game, where your challenge is both to find the best move, but also to recognize that both you and your opponent tire. You both have limited short-term memory. You each have certain patterns of play which you individually prefer. So in addition to finding the "best" move--perhaps you can't decide. Perhaps you see a choice between two, or even three variations which don't have a clear advantage to one side or the other, so what do you do then? You can play to confound your opponent's preferences: open the center in a game that started as a French Defense, close up a position that started as an Italian Game. Or, over the board, if there is a position where you can give the opponent more calculating to deal with than you have to do, let him burn the calories. He might be more exhausted or more invested in the game's outcome, and accepting that lots of calculation might still not yield a clear winner can let you save for a moment in the game that does matter. Of course, whether the present position actually is such a critical moment or not is another sort of wager between players.

So after reading these points about the sort of lessons that chess can teach, does it really make sense for you to go to the trouble of learning yourself? Isn't it enough to take the present article as a Cliff's Notes or spoilers for the game? The reason you should still play yourself is because I might be wrong. At most generous, my description of the game's benefits is incomplete. Without playing yourself, you're trusting both my interpretation of the game's lessons and my ability to pass on these lessons in writing. There's no reason to take that chance when the game is out there, free to enjoy, and more approachable than ever before. The way you experience these truths through play is more complete than I could efficiently express in words. Moreover, you're guaranteed to discover insights of your own. The game is easily large enough for that.

For the sake of argument, let's say I've convinced you. You're ready to strike off on your own and explore the game. How can you go about it? If it's so obviously an enriching part of one's life, why isn't everybody into the game?

Historically, there have been far more barriers to approaching the game. Playing against a much stronger player is very demotivating, and only since online chess became common has there been such a convenient source of well-matched human opponents. Online play also allows you to fit chess into your life in a way that was not possible in the past, where the only way to play a game was to sit down with somebody else who was free to devote a block of time to completing a chess game. With online play, you can spread a game (or many games) over several days, examining positions and making moves when it's convenient to your schedule. This level of convenience is still very young, and it will only improve with time.

Another barrier to entry is that chess does have a learning curve, and it is not always easy to humble oneself to a new hobby. I've felt this myself through exploring Go and Xiàngqí, other games in the chess family. It's hard to be a beginner again when you already have so much else that makes you feel good or that you are already good at. Here are some words of encouragement: Everyone is terrible at first. Everyone struggles to adapt. Like biking uphill, more progress is made than is felt, but it is the same for all riders. Proficiency at chess is not a measure of general intelligence or one's worth as a human being. Losing is the natural risk of playing against a mutually beneficial opponent.

With a game as overtly objective as chess, players pressure themselves to find "the right move." This is a worthy struggle, but it can also be paralyzing. As finite beings, we all roll the dice at some point, and learning to get better at that process requires experimentation and a willingness to make instructive mistakes.

When you feel a game has nothing left to play for--you're down a few pieces without compensation and your opponent is wise to your shenanigans to win the pieces back or draw--feel free to resign. Note the critical moment from that game and move on to the next. What's lovely about games generally is that we can always play another, and each loss carries with it a lesson.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Fun with Fractals

Here's a fun thing to click on:

Scalene triangle


If you had the tiniest bit of fun clicking on that, you should be able to have much, much more fun downloading the code and fiddling with it. The most direct way is to save this web page to your computer and then edit the code directly. There's lots more to play with than what was simple to put in the UI. The real fun is hidden in the code!

Code is available on GitHub at Your git client should also work just fine:
git clone
Unsurprisingly, you can learn more about Koch Snowflakes on Wikipedia.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Happy Birthday!

Marking one's circumnavigation of our closest star bears some reflection and introspection. Because the human being is not a creature built for contentment, one could just as easily acquiesce to thoughts of dreams not realized, hopes unmet, and the measure of regret one can hardly help but accumulate as we traverse our mortal plane.

"Happy birthday" invites us back to the present. Beyond mere greeting and social protocol, it reminds the recipient to count his blessings. Good health, good friends, general prosperity, accomplished achieved, and years more...many more. It restores the perspective otherwise robbed by our risk-averse problem-solving nature.

And so, to all who wished me a happy birthday in-person, over the phone, via text, over email, through Facebook, or in the quiet of your own heart, I thank you.