There’s hope for Chess

Chess is the greatest game ever devised. It epitomises human ability. Any simpler and it would be reduced to pure calculation and computers would play a perfect game. Any more complicated and it would be complication for its own sake. It is no coincidence that all of the most successful strategic games sell themselves with a “minutes to learn, lifetime to master” style tag line. It has a history that can be traced back at least 1500 years. It has stood the test of time.

But not everyone shares our passion. Bernard Shaw despised it, most famously quoting “Chess is a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever when in fact, they are only wasting their time”, although if I’m perfectly honest – I don’t think much of his novels either.

Raymond Chandler said just as disparagingly “Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you will find anywhere outside of an advertising agency”. We should probably ask a Meerkat about that one.

Siegbert Tarrasch, the best player in the World in the 1890s but unfortunately for him, at a time before World Champions had been invented, said “Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy”, when presumably, he wasn’t referring to ‘Nell Gwynn’ or ‘The Sex Pistols’ … and before promptly dying three years later.

There was a sense of disappointment when Deep Blue managed to win the man versus machine battle over Gary Kasparov in 1997. Our hopes were with him. He let us down.


Although computers can play chess disappointingly well, they still haven’t got it completely figured out. Nowadays, you can buy a computer program off eBay for a tenner that could beat Carlsen or Anand with one of its quad-cores tied behind its back so we have learned to twist it around and instead remark how amazing it is that humans can hold their own for a while, and even occasionally win, against something that can make a quad-zillion calculations a second.

Tyler Cowen, a prominent American economist, academic, and writer said “In chess, computers show that what we call ‘strategy’ is reducible to tactics, ultimately. It only looks creative to us. They are still just glorified cash registers”. I like to console myself with that thought every time I get splatted by one.

So now I’m with Karpov, who enviably thought to say “A car can beat a human in a race, but we are still excited to watch the Olympic 100m final”.

Well said that man; there’s hope for chess yet.