The Allure of Chess Is Not In Its Gameplay

This article will examine some of chess’ design flaws and why the game is worth following anyway. This is part of a series examining the design of games that have strongly influenced my own game, Legacy’s Allure, which one could call a “chess-inspired fantasy wargame”.

I recently watched The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix with my wife. It is one of the best shows I’ve seen in years, and others seem to agree, given its high viewership and awards. Yet I noticed something odd — you could watch the entire show, enjoy it thoroughly, and yet still know almost nothing about chess rules and strategy by the end. This is because, simply, chess isn’t interesting. Beth Harmon and the chess world she battles within is interesting.

Well, I do find chess interesting, I just don’t find it interesting enough to learn to play it well. This is not because it requires memorization. All games require memorization to reach a certain skill level. Rather, the lack of theme and the simplicity of the interactions do not interest me. This is why Magic: the Gathering became my tabletop game of choice: it is highly thematic, full of interesting interactions, and allows for tremendous creativity. Performing well in tournaments with a deck of my own creation proved quite satisfying, much more so than winning games of chess.

Yes, it’s possible to play chess creatively, but the standard for “creative chess player” is quite different than the standard for a creative customizable card game player. Moreover, as chess moves closer and closer to being solved, we will see increasingly less room for creativity among top players. This lack of creativity in the future of chess (which great players like Capablanca and Fischer warned about long ago) means that the world has increasingly less reason to enjoy chess from a gameplay perspective.

Lack of creativity might be a more subjective criticism. A more objective criticism is that chess allows players to draw, which is effectively a “tolerated non-conclusion” in a game. In chess, draws are neither the inevitable consequence of symmetry nor the tradeoff of a simpler ruleset. Any number of rules could have been introduced to prevent draws, and these rules would have added no more complexity than the current rules regarding draws.1 Since a game of chess can fail to reach a conclusion and since this contradicts the game’s theme (two kings warring for control of a territory), I cannot consider chess an elegant game, since an elegant game is one in which the desired core experience is consistently delivered to the player in a simple way.

At the top level of competitive chess, the ability to draw, combined with the lack of creativity, and lax time controls (which reduce the number of blunders), has produced a phenomenon known as “draw death”, in which top players consistently draw against one another.2 This was realized most notably in the 2018 World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruano, which included twelve draws in twelve games, tiebreakers being decided by games with much shorter time controls (rapid games). Such an anti-climactic finish to so many games in what ought to be the most scintillating of all chess competitions leads me to believe that professional chess will have to move toward rapid formats to retain interest and respectability.

What, then, is the allure of chess? For me, and many others, it is the drama, the rivalries, the history. The stories of Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer dominating their competition as underdogs and prodigies excite me. As someone who is fascinating by feats of skill, it is astounding to see someone like Kasparov wear the title of world champion for decades at a time. As a lover history, I love playing a game that has been part of the fabric of society for hundreds of years. Consequently, I find much in the larger world of chess to hold my attention, even if I find little in the game itself to hold my attention.

Footnotes

  1. For example: “White wins if it captures black’s king within 50 moves, otherwise black wins.” Whether this is a good victory condition is beside the point. The point is that a symmetric, deterministic wargame need not result in draw if the victory condition is asymmetric. This may mean that, between two equally skilled players, the game’s outcome is determined simply by who goes first or second, but this drawback can be mitigated if the game is complex enough.
  2. 55% of FIDE matches end in draws. At the elite level (2750 Elo or higher), over 70% end in draws. (source)