Growing up I never really got chess. Go – widely considered chess’ Eastern counterpart – caught my attention for some time in college.
In Go, unlike chess, all pieces have equal value and the board begins empty. Players take turn placing pieces on the board, with the goal of capturing territory (and enemy pieces) by surrounding spaces.
The board is a 19 x 19 grid, and each piece is placed on an intersection, which gives you 361 spots for a piece. This accounts for much of its appeal – at the start of the game, the board is overwhelming and abstract, full of possibility. Go is also notorious for giving computer programmers a hard time – its open possibilities make it impossible to program a computer engine comparable to the best Go players.
Nonetheless, beyond the basics, learning Go was deceptively hard, and coupled with a determined friend who was also a beginner, we spent a lot of time making no progress.
Chess, by contrast, has recently struck me as full of personality and intrigue. Pieces take on their own persona, and it’s your job to make them collaborate. Rooks are bulky stabilizers of sorts, while bishops have a strong up-field attack. Both pieces have long-range control, as does the queen – yet her absolute power makes her overly prone to enemy attack. Most aspects of the game I’m still stumped on. Knights in particular have a whimsy movement, which makes them fun to watch until they’re suddenly staring you down.
Yet the strength of each individual piece is conferred mostly by their overall arrangement - their sum inevitably much greater than the total of their parts. In this sense, pawns are like football's offensive (or defensive) linemen - unglamorous and overlooked, yet providing a structure for success.
The fun perhaps comes from going back and forth between attack and analysis. Each move by your opponent requires pause to try to figure out what it accomplishes. Analyzing his potential lines of attack requires an almost Zen-like state of scanning opened lines and spaces. Similar to a geometric proof, the best moves are utilitarian, accomplishing multiple objectives at once. Not unlike life, you need a plan, coupled with knowledge of general principles, and flexibility to respond to the unexpected. You face intriguing interplay between ideas and reality, theory and application.
When stuck it can sometimes help to change your view. It’s not unreasonable to personify the pieces, especially the king – it can help to stand in his shoes and ask what sort of defense he might lobby for. Make no mistake, we're talking about a competition of intellectual prowess which calls for excruciating patience bordering mental torture, not a town-square with Dickensian chatter. But where Go is impenetrably cold and abstract, there is a warm center to chess.