Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Chess vs Go (and Shogi)

It’s funny how, when I was younger, I'd see pictures of chess on some article and would brim with pride at having skills in a game that was universally considered a symbol of strategy. I was, hyper-provincially speaking, decent at chess, and most people I met face to face (again, meaning weekend players, not the rated kind) I could dispatch without too much concern. [1]

Lately, however, I've come to the position that the symbol of chess as strategy needs to be retired. This isn’t to say there is no strategic component to chess, or that it’s some peasant’s game [2]. Rather, if one is to allude to a game with a strategic component, there are better choices. Even within the realm of chess, there’s shogi,[3] a game which requires more strategy than its western version. Shogi is the Japanese version of chess, and has a few elements which makes it less of a tactical game and requires more long term thinking [4]. 

But I digress. Back to chess. It’s been said that chess is 99% tactics. The best estimates would still have chess in the 90% range for tactics. See, if one goes down a piece in chess, it’s more or less game over. The position would have to be horrendously bad for the player with extra piece(s) not to come out on top (I’m not talking about a a short sacrifice that would soon yield more pieces or a checkmate for the person who just sacrificed). 

Now, when it comes to shogi, even if you gain a handful of pieces, the weakness inherent in most of the pieces, and the ability to drop pieces, makes it so that advantage isn’t as pronounced. Now, I’m not exactly proficient at shogi, my visit to Tokyo proved that, but there was a kind of flailing as I played the game that I knew wouldn’t be easily solved with the correction of a few tactical mistakes. 

And when it comes to go—especially the 19x19 version, but even in the 9x9 one (this one has more tactics involved)—there is something to the gameplay and the strategy that still has me enthralled with the complexity of the game. If one is to be generous and say that chess is 10% strategy, then go is usually about 90% strategy

As a chess player, I can sense my habits of getting tenacious in a tactical fight in the corner, working against me. It’s hard to fight it. The complexity is such that even if you win a tactical battle, you can easily lose the overall one.  [5] Go's complexity is such that professionals can still beat computers. While in chess, since the original Deep Blue games of the 90s, computers now easily dispatch grandmasters. [6] 

That is the least interesting variable when comparing these games. Again, we’re not computers. A game of seeing and deciphering blurry photos would have humans on top (well, for now), but that wouldn’t mean that the game is complex or interesting. What one can do is compare the two games and play them.

Again, the strategy component in go should be immediately obvious to anyone coming from Western chess, or even shogi. But enjoyment pulls from many different factors, and complexity is not necessarily the main one. One can easily fall in love with the battle aspect of chess, versus the multi front war aspect of go. One can also personify the pieces in chess; whereas go’s egalitarianism could drive people away (and even shogi’s pieces don’t inspire much, visually speaking). Design certainly matters, though I think my American side is showing its face here. 

So, give these other games a try if you haven’t already. They are surely interesting and worth your time, even if finding over the board opponents is too hard. As for me, I’ll keep working at improving my pathetic go game. As for shogi, I think it can catch on as a more strategic version of western chess. All such games only take a matter of time. What I think it lacks is some level of aesthetics, a beauty that could be corrected with 3-d pieces, still designed to point one way, to flip upon promotion that I will be working to solve soon.  And for those photos alluding to strategy, I hope that they will soon learn to replace chess pieces with go pieces, with a view of the full 19x19 game, in all its complexity.

Update 27Jan2016:  Aaand, that didn't take long. A Computer has now beaten a professional player
That changes a lot, though what's the most impressive is that it did so on a base AI program that simply learns (by playing itself and examining other games). In other words this wasn't exactly like deep blue which was solely dedicated to playing one game (and as it were, one man—Kasparov). Exciting times, indeed.

[1] Not that I didn’t know where I stood. The internet was just budding then, and online testing revealed at best a 1700 rating, though I was sure it would be much lower against those who knew what they're doing. 

[2] Though that has been hinted at in China where the intelligent people play go and the peasants chess

[3] Apparently, STEM toys are a thing, and it pops up for such games... 

[4] Though it has no end game, and thus lacks that beautiful ending that people enjoy in a long grueling chess game. Shogi is, if anything, an interesting ode to cultural differences and how those differences manifest themselves in the realm of games. Today with a worldwide board game culture that may seem a distant phenomenon, but allow me to dive into the details: shogi came to Japan, we can only assume, as the original chess game, or as a version of the Chinese game (though many say it originated in India, there is still some level of discussion as to whether or not it was there or China). The game in Japan took on many different variations. There’s chu-shogi with a large 13x13 game and and other, close to esoteric, versions with hundreds of games pieces to each side. A few hundred years ago there was a dwindling of all the different versions and the 9x9 game, with drop abilities, came into being. 

The drop ability is what makes Shogi so damn interesting. And it originates from the samurai habit of changing sides once one is captured so that they may live on. Hence, when one first sees a shogi game (coming from the Western version) one sees that there is only one color. The pieces are pointed, designed to be used for either side. When you capture the other side’s piece, it’s in your hand and thus can now be dropped anywhere on the board, with few limitations. 

Indeed, the promotional aspect of shogi also makes for an interesting game. In Western chess, the point is almost always to promote the pawn and get a queen. Usually that ends the game. A passed pawn can make for a lot of strategy in the endgame of chess. In shogi, one can promote all but two kinds of pieces, and the promotion ends up being an integral part of the game (last three ranks allow for promotion). 

I mentioned different pieces, and shogi has many different ones. Of course, it has the king, with the same objective as western chess (kill the opposing king). And a bishop and rook and weaker pawn (in some respects, the drop feature allows for one to remake the pawn as needed) and a weaker knight. It has other pieces such as  the lance, and the gold and silver generals. Outside of the one rook and bishop, the pieces are all very immobile. The generals, some of the stronger pieces, are really weaker kings. Only if they are in hand, about to be dropped are they even close to being worthwhile. One can ravage the opponent’s one side, but if the king is safe on the other side, that doesn’t even mean that the game is close to being over. 

I’ll leave the complete strategy for another time, not that I would do much but add a beginner’s view of the matter. Nonetheless, one cannot abide by the western chess tactic of gaining a slight advantage, then squeezing the opponent (trading/reducing works well in chess, at least at my level) until that advantage is more pronounced. You cannot get away with that in shogi. I’ve tried and failed miserably. 

Of course, being an American, there are many disadvantages to shogi, the largest one being that outside of Japan, few people play the game. One thing I don’t like are the pieces. They are merely flat, pointed, with the names written on them. To some extent, the kanji is beautiful to a foreigner, but one cannot help but think that representational pieces, like western chess, would work the best.

[5] Within reason, of course, one can simply take one of those shogi games with hundreds of pieces per side and say it’s more complex, but that doesn’t mean it’s a feasible game to play, or play well within a reasonable time, is it?

[6] They haven’t yet beaten the best in shoji—though that is a matter of mere time. Note that this is usually a matter of brute force (for chess, while pattern recognition is better for go... that being said I have no idea how Google's AI beat the master. 

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