Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I'm No Pawn, I'm Donald Duck! (Championship Pool and Chessmaster)

If one were to make a chart of human activities based on degree of oversignification, one would first of all be ridiculously OCD, and would second of all find, high at the oversignified end of the scale, chess, and more or less on the opposite side, pool.

The heart of Chess's bizarre melange of signification is its status as the symbol of human intelligence. It is an odd status for it to have. As games go, chess is relatively young, evolving a mere 600 years ago, with its current set of rules not emerging until the 16th century (and arguably later the further into arcana one goes). Its ancestor games run back further to India. But on the other side of the world, in steady contemplation, Go reaches at least to the 6th century BCE, and in legend stretches back a full four thousand years. As an intellectual pursuit, let's be blunt, chess effectively ended in 1997 when it became clear that computer players were capable of beating even the best human players.

This apocalyptic moment has not affected other games, including Go. Furthermore, there are obscure games such as Arimaa, a recent game designed with the express purpose of taking a chess board and designing a simple game that computers would suck at. But these are mere facts that litter the metaphorical landscape of the world. In ideaspace, there's no avoiding the blunt truth - chess towers as a metaphorical brick on our landscape, standing in as the ultimate form of intellectualism.

Even Alan Moore, usually cleverer than this, writing four years after Deep Blue toppled Kasparov (and mere months before 9/11) identifies chess as part of the fundamental infrastructure of Hod, the intellectual realm, building off of the 8x8 Magic Square (Hod's numerological signifier being the number 8). It's a dead end Moore should have known better than.

Countless apocalypses have passed since 1997, and from the clear light of the present it is uncanny to stare back at 1989 and the NES's Chessmaster. Here a computer playing chess was a safe thing. The game box confirms it, showing an old wizard-like man, apparently the eponymous Chessmaster. Here chess is allied to wisdom and thus to magic, albeit subtly. Compare to the present edition of the game. On its cover, three glass chess pieces stand, their curves deforming the chessboard behind them. My how things change in 20 years.

As an experience there is little to say about playing chess on the NES. Unlike Battlechess, the game does not feature extensive pantomime theatrics to slow things down. This is a pure sort of chess. The experience translates reasonably well. In an era before the personal computer was wholly ubiquitous, this sort of thing made sense.

The defeat of Kasparov at the circuits of Deep Blue is fascinating in two regards. First are Kasparov's sour grapes - he accused the computer of having beautiful gameplay in spots, suggesting that this could only be the product of a human - which is a beautiful moment of clinging to delusion. Second, this moment amounts to the culmination of a technologically deterministic dystopian fantasy. Going back to Star Trek, with Kirk and Spock playing 3-D chess, chess had a status as the limit point that determined that humans were superior to machines. But in practice, the claim that Kirk could beat Spock by playing illogically is transparently false.

Which, actually, we really always knew. Chess is a solvable game - by which I mean that, because of a fixed initial position and a lack of randomness, there is an optimal strategy. From the first move, both white and black have an optimal set of moves. If both players play correctly, either white can necessarily win, black can necessarily win, or, more likely, the two sides can force a draw. The issue is that the decision tree is complex enough that it hasn't been computed yet. Checkers, on the other hand, has been computed - and indeed, checkers is a game where either player can force a draw.

This is true of Go and Arimaa as well, of course. It makes little sense to be surprised or alarmed that humanity can be outdone by brute force reason in a deterministic game. So why did chess, over all the other deterministic games, acquire its oversignified fetish status as the peak of intellectual pursuit?

Borges, the great Lovecraftian (this is true - his short story "There Are More Things" is dedicated to Lovecraft, and it is no great leap to see the Lovecraftian influences on Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius) wrote a poem, Chess, in which he notes: "It was in the East this war took fire. Today the whole earth is its theater. Like the game of love, this game goes on forever."

Like Moore, Borges is not a stupid man. Unlike Moore, he gets it right. He notes that the pieces, which he carefully personifies, are guided by what is, for them, an unseen hand. "They do not know an adamantine fate controlls their will and lays the battle plan." Borges continues. "God moves the player, he in turn the piece. But what god beyond God begins the round of dust and time and sleep and agonies?"

Chess, then, belongs not to the realm of logic but of story and metaphor. Its metaphor is war, of course - combat and battle. War is not deterministic - far from it. It is thus not something that man can ever lose dominion of completely. Except through that perverse weapon of metaphor, where the vicissitudes and chaos of war can be fixed, determined, and we can be beaten. Like most apocalypses, Deep Blue is a metaphoric one.

(When I was very young - five or so - I asked for a chess set for Christmas. My mother's friends implored her not to get me one, saying they were pushing me too hard. They were unaware of what my mother knew well - all I wanted to do was play war games with the board.)

Pool, then. A different game, to say the least. Non-deterministic, and based on a strange mixture of mind and body, it is much stranger to imagine the idea of computer domination here, requiring a combination of geometry (which a computer is likely good at) and precise physical action (which one is not - even allowing for robotics).

Perhaps because it models nothing, Pool is a metaphor for little. Indeed, pool halls and the social interactions within signify far more than mere colored balls. I am aware of but one major exception - the cartoon Donald in Mathmagic Land, which contains a lengthy section in which Donald is taught to play three-cushion billiards via the simple mathematics of the diamond system. I mention this because it has one of the most uncanny moments of any Disney cartoon I am aware of - as Donald is initiated into the secret society of the Pythagoreans via an extended meditation on the pentagram, which thus features what I am fairly sure is the longest occult sequence in any Disney cartoon. The end point is that pool, as with most things in life, can be modeled mathematically. Through mathematics, the mind can contemplate infinity.

But again, metaphor can be our undoing. Consider Championship Pool, a game where one plays pool against the NES. Except one is not playing pool - metaphor has snuck in on us, and converted our physicality to mere helpless binaries. Once again the game is deterministic, and in the most sadistic sense - we are allowed to win only if the system lets us. Donald in Mathmagic Land ends with the famed Galileo quote that mathematics is the language in which God wrote the universe. But this quote is short-sighted. Once again, the Lovecraftian/Borgesian axis rears its head. For if mathematics is the language in which God wrote, what is the language in which God is written? Whatever god behind God exists, this is certain - he too controls with symbol.


  1. I used to play Chessmaster ALL the time. I like what you're doing here too. Keep up the detailed and informative work.

  2. Hi Philip!
    I don't know you know the game Magic Jewelry, but I love it!
    And your blog is very intersting!