Posts Tagged ‘Aristotle’

Old, slow, weak and stupid: playing chess again, 30 years on

April 1, 2019
chessphoto

Back view of the author after losing (picture from Lewisham Chess Club)

The experience of playing competitive (club) chess again after a break of 30 years gives rise to some interesting reflections.

Principles

It’s easy to decide that the whole thing is pointless.  Over the past three decades, computers have if not totally solved chess then reached the stage of being able to play better than any human player ever could.  In addition, while 30 years ago one merely weak, now one is weak old, slow and stupid.

In addition, it is certainly true that chess is a negative-sum game, in that the pain of defeat is greater than the joy of victory.  There are some rare cases where both sides get pleasure from a well-played draw and some very rare cases where even the loser feels he has played well and so is pleased with his efforts, but these hardly detract from the general point.

This is different from sports such as rugby (where you might not even know the score as the game progresses) and tennis, where you can have a healthy run around the court even in defeat.

So what is the point?  

A long time ago Aristotle asked of tragedy why people took pleasure in witnessing events that would be extremely distressing in real life.  His answer, which seems still to be the correct one, is that working out of these experiences in watching a play enabled one gto better deal with them or the threat of them in real life.

And the same thing happens when you play a game as when you watch a play.  The famous English virtue of character is reflected in how you react to defeat, and if (as you ought to be) you are playing people of the same approximate strength you will have an unfavourable outcome half of the time.  More specifically, chess does give you some insight into:

–whether you are inclined to take a decision (play a move) that makes you feel comfortable rather than one that is the best you can do,in the circumstances;

–how you react to unavoidably unfavourable situations (like playing a much stronger opponent)–of course, the only sensible thing to do is get your head down and do your best, but fantasising and cursing fate are both very popular;

–how you react to unfavourable situations that are due to your mistakes–not by flailing about is a good answer;

–how you make difficult decisions when there is no time to do a proper job.

Old, slow, weak and stupid

It is not clear how far what you learn here is easily transferable to real life, but the insights gained can hardly help.  Responding to the old, slow, weak and stupid point, the interesting thing here is that these learning experiences originate from the levels of conscious incompetence or conscious competence.  When you have reached the level of unconscious competence, so that you do as well as you’re going to without thinking about it, you don’t really get this kind of learning.  The same is true of foreign languages for instance–much of the educational value comes at the beginning when you realise that there really are different ways of doing things from those you take for granted.

Along the same lines, it is true that chess tends to be played by young males in the same way that they do maths homework–some do it better and more quickly because they are cleverer, but very few want to grapple with situations where there are many ways of tackling a complex problem.  Which approach leads to difficulties when they start doing maths tutorial problems at university.

Now the kind of insights to be gained from playing chess are much more useful to the the old, slow, weak and stupid fraternity and have actual lives and real decisions to take than to the young, fast, strong and clever who do not.