And I am enjoying the ancient game more than I ever have
I am about to turn seventy years old. I started playing video games in the mid-1970s on a coin-op Pong game in Circus Circus Casino in Las Vegas where I was working a summer job while going to college. I liked Pong and went on to play every major video game produced in the last four and a half decades. I have owned a lot of video game systems and played a lot of great games, but today, as I approach Christmas of 2020, my current favorite video game is chess.
I’m a Boomer Gamer, and a Child of Gamers.
I have relatives who wonder how a retired lawyer, a writer, and a person known for intellectual pretentiousness can spend his time playing video games. The answer is heritage. My father played cards — pinochle, whist, and bridge. My mother was a demon at Scrabble, Anagrams, and the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. Everybody in my family played games, so when video games came along, I was predestined to be a fan.
I went to college at a time when the electric typewriter was the height of technology available to college students and ten-key calculators (the size of a hardcover novel) could be accessed only in a special room at the university. At college I played all the games my parents played, and I took up chess.
Chess the Traditional Way
I learned chess to fit in with a group of young coffee-shop intellectuals I admired, and I played the game only within that social group until I graduated. After college, the coffee-shop crowd dispersed, and I never found regular chess partners again. But I remained fascinated by the game. I continued to own a chess set and a few chess books. Sometimes I set up the board and worked on openings by playing against myself.
I didn’t work hard at finding chess partners after college because playing chess over a board against another person can be grueling. Chess games between players of my modest skill level are most often decided by blunders. Chess strategy is fascinating. Battle tactics on the board can be beautiful. But the games I played were won, not because of brilliant strategy or clever tactics, but because the losing player blundered. He put his queen where it could be taken by a pawn because, in the moment, he just didn’t see it. The player who loses a game by blundering feels demoralized, and the winner knows that his victory had little to do with his own play. Chess played primarily trying to avoid blunders is poor entertainment.
When the first chess-playing calculator came on the market, I plunked down my money. Here was a non-human I could play against. “Practice against,” I called it, but it was practicing for a match that I would never play. The early chess machines available to the public were bad at the game, but playing against a bad mechanical opponent was fun. I won a lot of games, and if I blundered and lost, there were no witnesses to my humiliation. Losing a game was no more soul crushing than failure to finish the morning crossword.
Technology advanced quickly in the years that followed. Deep Blue, IBM’s chess-playing computer, beat Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion. Personal computers became a thing and as soon as I owned a computer I could buy a program that could beat me as easily as I had been able to beat my first mechanical opponent. Then came cell phones with their always-on connection to powerful chess engines. No human could beat the computers, and I despaired that the game would be crushed by technology and forgotten. I used to tell people that I quit playing chess when I could no longer win against my phone.
From Board Games to Video Games.
While my time with the chessboard decreased, my time playing video games increased. There was Intellivision, Nintendo, the personal computer, Playstation, and Xbox. Video games became more than just shooting waves of space invaders. They had plots, dialogue, and stunning graphics. When cell phones became ubiquitous, people could carry video games in their pockets and I did.
Whether displayed on my fifty-five-inch flatscreen from a gaming console or on the six-inch screen I carry in my pocket, the structure of video games are all similar. I am presented with a series of puzzles. In the first-person shooters I enjoy, the puzzle might be how to wipe out that wave of zombies coming after me, but, despite the violence, it is still just a puzzle. After I solve one puzzle, I move to a more difficult one. At various points in the game I may be rewarded with additional tools to solve the puzzles — leveling up — but the puzzles become correspondingly more difficult. In the big-screen games, the creators embed the puzzles in plots and fantastic worlds. In the small-screen games, the graphics are simple and there is no plot, just a series of challenges, each slightly more difficult than the previous one.
To be satisfying the puzzles posed by the video game must challenge me enough to make me work for the reward, but not be so difficult that the rewards aren’t worth the effort. Recognizing this, game designers make the difficulty adjustable by the player. At my advanced age, I don’t have the energy, mental acuity or the hand-eye coordination to keep up with a twenty-year-old, so I adjust the difficulty of the game downward to match my fading abilities.
Video games also allow players to vary the amount of social interaction associated with play. Depending on the game, I can play solo, against another player, in cooperation with another player, or become a spectator while others play. I am a solo guy, but that doesn’t mean there is no social element to my video gaming. With all those puzzles to solve, I often get stuck. If I can’t solve one of the puzzles, I go to YouTube or Reddit, where there are solutions, reviews, commentaries, and walkthroughs — a universe of social support.
Chess — The Video Game.
Like millions of other people around the world, I watched Netflicks’ Queen’s Gambit, enjoyed the hell out of it, and took another look at chess. The chess set was still in my closet. The free chess app was still on my phone. I wasn’t in the middle of any good video games, so why not.
It turned out that a lot had changed in chess since I had been off doing other things. While I had been away, chess had transformed from a grim exercise for intellectuals, to an online carnival of entertainment. I dropped my antiquated free phone app in favor of Chess.com, for both my phone and my computer. Chess.com was a one-stop shopping center for everything chess, complete with avatars, lessons, human opponents, computer opponents, games to watch and chess news from around the world. This chess world was welcoming and fun.
The default online game allows each player ten minutes, not requiring a major time commitment to play. If you don’t like the ten-minute game, change it. If you don’t like the rules of chess, you can change those too. Chess960, where the back line of pieces are randomly placed by the computer, is a delightful thought experiment. Would you like to watch a game? You can watch real time games in progress or visit games played by the grandmasters yesterday or a hundred years ago. You can take lessons, do chess puzzles, get better, level up, or get the gossip from the latest chess tournaments around the world.
Chess has embraced the computer. The chess engines are no longer the enemy, but an integral part of the chess experience. After you play a human, with the touch of a button, you can have the computer analyze your game, pointing out mistakes, blunders and instances in which you were brilliant. You can play against the computer, setting its ability to match your own, and watch the analysis in real time as you play. In commentary, there are discussions of moves that “only a computer could have seen.” The computer has made chess better.
The other day Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, turned thirty years old and made a joke about his age-related loss of skill. Chess, like most sports, is a young person’s game. However, because of its migration to the online universe, it is currently this seventy-year-old’s favorite video game.