SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The greatest strategy game ever played.

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I’ve been an avid player of hundreds of games, most of them carrying some strategic element: Dungeons and Dragons, Risk, Settlers of Catan, Monopoly. Tac Air. Chinese Checkers. In the digital world, I began with Warcraft 2, Starcraft, and Warcraft 3, expanded to Age of Empires, Empire Earth, Company of Heroes, Star Wars: Empire at War, Rome: Total War, The Battle for Middle Earth2, Black & White 2.

In spite of a plethora of variations on a theme, one game strategy game stands above them all (and I would wager it always will), simultaneously full of beautiful complexity and elegant simplicity:

Elusive Mastery

I’ve spent whole years of my life dedicated to dominating games like Starcraft. While it’s unlikely I’ll ever compete professionally (this is an option in some parts of the world), there were times when I was simply the best player you were likely to meet in everyday life. Something like Monopoly is more prone to chance, and games like Risk and Settlers also have too much variation, both in the outcome and the personalities of those playing, that it really is impossible for one person to emerge as the “best” player. Games full of luck simply don’t offer themselves up to measurably competitive play. You won’t see official tournaments for these games, no matter how good you might stylize yourself at them.

I’ve been playing chess off and on since I was a child, and devoted far more hours to it than any other game. Yet I have never come close to mastering it, and I doubt I ever will. It is literally a game you can learn about and from your entire life.

The Experience of Chess

To the observer ignorant of the rules, chess must seem incredibly boring. Two players sit across from each other, sometimes for hours, with virtually no movement.

The mind of the chess player, though, is a veritable windstorm of activity. It is difficult to explain to the non-player just how complex and involved chess can become. Like any strategy game, the aim is to improve your position while preventing your opponent from progressing. Chess is famous for its encouraging a player to think multiple “moves ahead”, which just isn’t possible in Monopoly, Settlers, or even Risk.

In the first two moves of chess (one per player), there are 400 possible combinations. In the next two moves, there are over 72 thousand combinations. Try to keep that many pictures, ideas, or possibilities in your head at one time, and you will find the attempt far from boring. After two more moves (each player has moved thrice), there are over nine million possible positions. After the next two moves, there are over 288 BILLION possible outcomes. Forgetting about the other player for a moment, just your own first four moves have almost 319 billion combinations.

The first ten moves?

Most games are a lot longer than 10 moves. And yet there are 355 possibilities for winning in just three moves.

Ignoring the statistics, for most players the chess experience is very emotional. It may seem like a coldly calculated endeavor from the outside, but it isn’t. My pulse races, I feel the grip of fear when I’ve moved poorly, the thrill of accomplishment when I perform well. I used to think this was because I’m not that good, but if you study chess players like Josh Waitzkin, you will find that the even the masters of chess are prone to mistakes when emotions run high. And in chess, that’s always likely.

My fondest memory of my current workplace is a game of chess I played over lunch in the cafeteria on the Friday before a holiday. The game attracted no fewer than three dozen spectators at any given time, silently judging every move we made. I walked away from that game drenched in sweat. I played well and lost.

Chess as Language

From traveling, I have many memories of chess games played on trains or in airports. You could hardly challenge a complete stranger to a game of Risk, but chess is different. It has a unifying quality because it is its own language. And once you can speak that language, you can engage others who speak it with little preamble.

Some of the most important or memorable relationships I’ve had, or observed in others, have been developed over games of chess. There is something about engaging another human being mind-to-mind that is very personal, even intimate. Particularly when you do so repeatedly.

No “Easy” Games

Even if you possess some skill at chess and are challenged by a complete novice, you can’t relax and let down your guard. Even if you will win, and easily, there is still a challenge to determining how best to do so. What’s the quickest route to victory? You might be able to afford extraneous moves, but you don’t want to.

This only thing I can compare this to is playing an “easy” song on a musical instrument. There is still art to it. You still want to play the piece as elegantly as possible.

Chess is a constant struggle of personal development, and it will challenge you to perform your best no matter the circumstances.

No Poker Face Required

My favorite aspect of chess is that nothing is hidden or random. Often, friends have tried to convert me to “strategic” card games. The strategy of cards isn’t based on manipulating the game, though. Because your hands are random and secretive, it’s based on manipulating the players. While that certainly requires talent, chess is different.

You can hope and pray your opponent won’t notice things, and this might cause you to remain stoic, the truth is that everything is there on the table. Your opponent has the exact same information as you, and you begin every game with the same amount of material. No trumps.

That said, I want to caution you about a world-wide “house rule” of chess:

NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, should you comment on a game you’re watching. Not where the players can hear. Chess is a battle of who notices or calculates what sooner. It is worse to point something out to my opponent than it is to spoil the end of a good movie. He has all the information, but whether he can make the most of it is another matter. Doing the work for him undermines my efforts.

Chess as Art

There is a flow to chess. Combinations of ideas synthesize into a greater whole. Chess has more patterns than a clever mosaic, more lines and angles than geometry class. Chess is a dance of the mind. You move, your opponent — your partner — responds. You respond back. You anticipate each other.

On a different level, you can study famous games or chess puzzles for hours — forget hours, for YEARS — and not discover all the complexities of the position. There is more “code” in a chess game than Dan Brown could find in Da Vinci.


There is simply no game invented which gives me more pleasure than chess, which challenges me more than chess, which riles my emotions more than chess, or which develops a relationship more than chess. If you have not experienced this amazing phenomenon, I invent you to give it a try. Do not be intimidated by the complexity; chess is the one game where there is no such thing as “beginner’s luck”. There is no shame in just learning. There IS shame in being too cowardly to take the first step towards learning something new.

If you’ve played chess seriously, at any level, you have likely experienced at least some of what I describe. If not, I encourage you to look a little deeper into this game which is part puzzle, part art, part competition, part mathematics, part calculation, and always challenging.

Let’s play.

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