Saturday, November 11, 2006

Too stupid for chess

It's one thing to know that someone is smarter than you, it's quite another to be reminded of that fact week after week after week.

From my childhood onward, I used to play chess regularly with a friend of mine. He beat me a good majority of the time. This made the game a tiring experience for me. I could have viewed my losses as a challenge, an incentive to work harder. But these were times when all I wanted to do was relax. The mental effort needed to keep track of a chess game just didn't inspire me.

Occasionally, we played other games, where our skills were more even. We even invented a new game we called "losing chess." While we weren't the first to come up with either the idea or the name, our version was somewhat original. In the "standard" form of losing chess, the object is to force the opponent to capture all your pieces, and the king holds no special importance. But in our variant, the object was to force a checkmate on your own king--in other words, to expose your king to capture when the opponent is threatening no other piece. This game turned out to be rather interesting and unpredictable. I tended to win the game (or "lose," if you will) slightly more often than he did.

I still tried to improve my skills in regular chess. I read books about chess strategy. I downloaded a fairly decent chess program to examine the strategies of a computer player. That actually kept me busy for some time, but as with all other computer games played with myself, I grew bored of it. In any case, my friend continued to beat me.

Only in the last few years did my interest in checkers get revitalized. Windows XP comes with a game called Internet Checkers. The computer sets me up with another actual player. The only information I get about the other player is his language and skill level. Players get a choice of three skill levels: Beginner, Intermediate, and Expert. I am set up with a player of the same skill level as long as one is available. Since the program rarely takes much time in setting up a game, it seems that numerous people around the world are constantly using this software. The only other possibility is that I'm unknowingly being set up with a computer player at least part of the time, though the instructions give no indication that the program ever does such a thing, and I believe I can tell the difference between a computer player and a human.

I can send the other player a message from the following pre-set list: "Nice try," "Good job," "Good game," "Good luck," "It's your turn," "I'm thinking," "Play again?," "Yes," "No," "Hello," "Goodbye," "Thank you," "You're welcome," "It was luck," "Be right back," "Okay, I'm back," "Are you still there?," "Sorry, I have to go now," "I'm going to play at," ":-)," ":-(," "Uh-oh," "Oops!," "Ouch!," "Nice move," "Good jump," "Good double-jump," "King me!" I assume that the comments get translated into whatever language the other player speaks. While I'm usually set up with another English speaker, I have also frequently been set up with players who speak German, French, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Thai, and many other languages. No wonder there seem to be players available at all times of the day, and the night as well.

When I first started playing, I had very little knowledge of the game. I had played checkers before, and I was familiar with the rules. But I knew no strategies or techniques, except for a belief that I should avoid moving pieces in the back row. The first strategy I devised was a simple copycat routine: as long as I was the player who moved second, I could simply imitate the other player, doing a mirror image of his every move. Of course, the game always reached a point where I could no longer do this. Sometimes the opponent's opening move made it impossible for me to follow the copycat routine. But this routine usually got me to a point where I could find an advantage, and I did often win the game when playing as a Beginner.

I began to learn some tricks. One rule that casual checkers players frequently ignore is that when you can capture, you must capture. I think people avoid this rule because they feel that it limits their choices. But the computer versions of checkers require you to play by this rule. I began to discover that this rule is what makes the game so fascinating and unpredictable. Because you can force your opponent to capture a piece, you can make him do things he didn't expect to be doing, and then gain a sudden advantage. The simplest form of this technique is when you force your opponent to capture one of your pieces, and you end up taking two in return. I discovered this technique on my own, in a situation that frequently occurs toward the beginning of the game, at the side of the board. I became quite adept at making my opponent fall for this trick. But the opponent must be gullible enough to put himself into this vulnerable position. Moreover, I had to learn to avoid putting myself into this position. Because this is one of the simplest tricks, even players with modest experience usually know better than to allow it to happen. But they remain prepared should the opponent make himself vulnerable to this move. It's one of the litmus tests early in the game that makes it easy to tell the experienced players from the novices.

After I discovered that I was beating Beginner players the majority of the time, I decided to move up my skill level to Intermediate. Soon I moved it to Expert. Of course there was no guarantee that I was playing someone who actually was on that skill level. All it meant was that the player identified himself as being on that skill level. But I did beat Expert players less often than Beginner players, and while the challenge was intriguing me, I sometimes went back to the Beginner level, for relaxation purposes. I had given up the copycat routine and started to learn more sophisticated strategies.

Finally, I got a book out from the library on checkers techniques. Reading this book greatly refined my skills, teaching me techniques that I still use to this day. For one thing, I radically changed my opening strategy. I used to open the games most often by moving my side pieces first. Apparently, this is a common error that beginners make. They move the side pieces because the side pieces are less vulnerable. Unfortunately, this strategy is weak in the long run, because it doesn't help break through the opponent's defenses. It is best to start by moving the pieces in the center of the board, and to keep one's pieces close together. I also learned that moving the back row is not necessarily to be avoided. What I should avoid is moving the second and fourth pieces in the back row, but the first and third often can safely be moved early in the game. I also learned to keep my own double-corner well-protected, and to work on attacking the opponent's double-corner.

Getting used to these new techniques took some time. At first, I experienced some difficulties, and it appeared that I was getting worse, not better. But I soon realized that I was simply taking time to get accustomed to using the techniques properly. This new opening strategy made it easy for me to fall into a devastating trap, where the opponent would get a two-for-one and a king. But as I learned more caution, I began to see the great advantages of this strategy. I began to win games without using any tricks, simply by having a strong defense and by either making the opponent's back row vulnerable or putting him into a position where he couldn't move except by exposing his pieces to attack.

Of course, I also learned some more advanced tricks, not just from the book, but from a checkers program I downloaded where I got to examine a computer player's strategies. I learned complicated moves that involved making my opponent capture one piece, then another, and then finally launching a devastating attack that he had no idea was coming. To play checkers well, you have to be able to think four-dimensionally, to anticipate future moves by visualizing the board in other configurations.

The strategies for handling game endings are just as complex. For starters, if you have two pieces left and your opponent has only one, you can definitely beat him--but it requires some practice to learn how. If you have three pieces and your opponent has two, your best bet is to force him to take one of your pieces in exchange for one of his. It is possible for him to prevent you from doing this, using one or both of the double corners, and such a game will end in a draw even though you have more pieces.

I wanted a way to track my progress. Internet Checkers does not record wins or losses. So I created my own file where I kept track of that information. Next to each skill level, I wrote how many games on that level I won, how many I lost, and how many turned out as draws. Here are my current stats, which are still ever-changing:

Expert: 2697/964/365
Intermediate: 422/141/38
Beginner: 830/101/278

According to this record, I win approximately two-thirds of the time at any skill level. But I suspect my Beginner and Intermediate record would be much higher if not for the fact that most of the games I played at those levels occurred long ago, before I improved my skills. I regularly play the Expert level now, only rarely venturing to lower levels.

I have my own rules for determining whether I have won, because Internet Checkers has an annoying but understandable loophole: any player can abandon a game at any time. Thus, if a player is losing, he may simply quit without selecting the "resign" option. Sometimes this is not mere rudeness: computer and Internet glitches can cause a game to be ended prematurely. But I made a personal rule that if a player quits and I am clearly ahead, with more pieces, I record that in my personal file as a win. Similarly, if a computer glitch causes the game to be terminated and the opponent is ahead, I record it as a loss. If I'm at the end of the game and the opponent refuses to draw even though he clearly can establish no advantage, I quit the game and record it as a draw. I have recently adopted a 40-move rule used in official competitions, which says that if a player can gain no advantage in 40 moves, the game is automatically a draw.

These personal rules which I have concocted are relevant only to myself. The opponent doesn't know that I play by them, because I have no way of communicating them to him, given the limited pre-set list of comments we can pass between each other. I am somewhat amazed at the lame tricks that some of my opponents attempt to pull. For example, if they are losing, many of them will ask for a draw, hoping I will accidentally click "yes" when the pop-up window appears. On rare occasion I have even fallen for this trick, but so what? It makes no difference as to the truth of who won, and the truth is all that matters to me when I keep my personal record. I view these games as practice and recreation, and the recognition of having the computer say "You won!" means nothing to me.

Apparently, all this practice has paid off. After coaxing my friend to play checkers with me, I discovered that I was suddenly much better at the game than he is. He's still good--he has a strategic mind. But he's nowhere near my level, and he hasn't come close to reaching it. I've actually become a sort of tutor to him, showing him some of the techniques I've learned and giving him corny advice, like "The best offense is a good defense."

Why did I discover such skill at checkers, when I was always so hopelessly bad at chess? Part of the reason is that I stumbled upon the software that allowed me to compete with real players. This not only has kept me from growing bored of the game, but has been enormously good practice. Most of what I know now, I learned simply from the experience of playing, not from the strategy books. Perhaps if I were to start playing Internet versions of chess, my skill at that game would improve as well. But so far I lack the interest. Checkers just seems more suited to me than chess. It's a much simpler game, with far fewer rules. You have basically only two types of pieces, and you use only half of the board space that you use in chess. I'm the type of person who has trouble multitasking, processing many different things at once, and that may be the key to why I find checkers easier to deal with. I'm not going to admit that it's simply because I'm too stupid for chess.

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