Let’s start this off with some well-deserved humility: Assuming that my Android chess program is correctly configured, and that its psuedo-ELO ratings have some correspondence to reality, then this is a list of approximately thirty-five children, aged 7 or younger, who could beat me in chess. My rating in AI Factory’s version of the game, which I have been playing a few times a week for the past six months, has never crested 1210 and currently hovers at 1195. Of course, I have the luxury of contemplating my moves while I sit on an airplane and eat snacks; in the crucible of sanctioned competition against seven-year-olds, I would almost certainly underperform that rating.
Until a year and a half ago, when my son started thinking about chess a bit, I’d never paid much attention to the game. You will laugh, because you should, but I had just a little contempt for it. I thought of chess as a plodder’s hobby, the sort of thing that attracts SAT-test-preppers and tiger-mom spawn and other people whose brilliance is best suited towards refining the quantum-leap insights of others. You can’t be much good at it unless you have spent obscene amounts of time learning the appropriate theory and practice, otherwise you’ll just wind up making the same mistakes made by other lazy players before you. I like to say that the first person to paint a blank white square was an artist, and everybody after that was a square-painter; in much the same way, the first fellow to play a Ruy Lopez or the Slav Defense was a genius and everybody after that merely has a decent memory. It’s not for me. I like to speak, and write, and think, in the sprezzatura of the moment, not with the dogged calculation of an autism-spectrum pedant.
The best chess players of 2019 aren’t even people — they are racks of multi-core processors grinding through all possible permutations of a vast but mathematically comprehensible future. What’s the point of competing against them? Imagine spending your whole life learning to do something as well as a human can possibly do it, only to be supplanted effortlessly by $10,000 worth of white-box computers. Look at it this way: it is apparently beyond the grasp of modern technology to fix broken toilet or drive a cab through any borough of New York City, but when it comes to chess I’m afraid humanity is yesterday’s news. Why bother?
A few things happened to change my mind. The first was that I saw the potential chess would have as a developmental tool for a little bit of needed extra rigor in my son’s developing intellect. The second was that I got fired from a job I hadn’t even started yet.
At some point in the near future I should tell the bizarre tale of how I almost became a full-time employee of a Real Big Bank last year, only to have the offer withdrawn before my first day at work. It has all the usual hallmarks of a great Baruth yarn, up to and including the part where I had a formerly-undocumented South American immigrant throw a rock at the glass of my patio door, only to have it promptly bounce off and hit him in the face. Good stuff.
For now, however, the important part was that I found myself completely and unexpectedly jobless last October. I knew that my new gig at Hagerty was likely to start in the first quarter of 2019, but in the meantime I needed to Make! Money! Now! So I applied for, and was subsequently offered, two different jobs. The first one was a sysadmin gig at Wendy’s, working for two brilliant and charming fellows who wanted to completely re-design the point-of-sale system used by their counter-service people. That’s the kind of challenge I would just about undertake for free — but the quoted rate on the gig, when it came back from the recruiting firm, was in fact a little bit too close to free and not quite enough to pay my bills. So I took the other position for which I’d interviewed, as a “DevOps” something-or-other at a major educational-software firm.
There were two people in my department when I got there; I was to be the third wheel so they could have the occasional night or weekend off. The senior of the two was a grumpy but charming old fellow who had managed, over the course of the previous year, to get down from 350 pounds to about 300. In this day and age, an employed 53-year-old man who only scales at three bills is a bit of a catch, so he’d promptly divorced his wife and taken up with some thirtysomething Goth girl. I liked him well enough and he had a pleasant, logical approach to the work.
The other fellow, however, was quite a bit more interesting, being a furious-looking, leather-jacketed, Mohawk-coiffed Aspie with a hair-trigger temper and a sense of perpetual persecution. I’ve worked with plenty of people “on the spectrum” — you can’t exist in tech without doing so, and were it not for my involvement in various half-assed combat sports and BMX during my teens I think that I would probably present with many spectrum symptoms even today — but he was definitely an extreme example. When he was not excessively agitated, he was absolutely and unquestionably brilliant, with that ability to quickly apprehend and evaluate complex patterns of information which is simply beyond about ninety-nine-and-a-half percent of the population. When we both worked a problem, to use the old phrase, all bugs were shallow, and we rarely needed to finish a sentence for the other person to either grasp the situation or suggest a solution.
Having this dude — let’s call him “Tyler” — as my co-worker greatly improved my willingness to get up every morning and actually go to work. I hadn’t worked with anyone of his quality for at least a decade. Which is not to say that we got along perfectly; he was extremely liberal and his usual tack-sharp logic seemed to take a vacation whenever we discussed anything outside of the GNU/Linux operating system. He’d bring up immigration or income tax and I would try to have the same kind of step-by-step talk with him that we’d frequently have about something like strongly-typed variables or Turing tests, only to have him become extremely flustered and say something like, “I care too much about this to discuss it like it’s a technical issue.” To which I’d reply,
“My friend, treating social issues like technical issues is the only way to have a reasonable discussion.” At which point he would sulk for the rest of the day. After about five days I learned to treat his political outbursts as simple statements requiring neither affirmation nor contradiction, and we were fine.
Around that same time, I realized that Tyler was an absolute chess obsessive. He had a separate monitor that he dedicated to watching international matches live, usually with a few windows containing real-time computer analyses of said matches. When it came to the intersection of technology and chess, Tyler was passionate. From him I learned that the game has been solved for all possible situations where seven or fewer pieces remain on the board, so once a chess match gets down to seven pieces the ending is effectively pre-determined. It was Tyler’s great pleasure to watch grandmasters fail in the endgame, and he would occasionally scream “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” at his screen, causing fifty heads to prairie-dog up all around our open workspace.
After a week or so of fruitful discussions where I learned just how much more there was to learn, Tyler suggested that he bring a board in and place it between our workstations. At first we played slowly, each making the occasional move between phone calls or support incidents, but before long we were spending at least an hour a day crouched over the board, playing in real time.
Needless to say, I took perhaps thirty losses in a row, often with Tyler narrating the mechanics of my defeat after I lost a critical piece. In one particularly fascinating match, where we were nearly even in terms of pieces but in which I was clearly losing, he cackled, “You’re what we call ‘down a King’. You can’t get the offensive potential out of the piece, because it’s blocked by your pawn.” In that moment, I was reminded of the book Dune and the strict definition of “human” used by various characters within said book. Tyler was human; he could think for himself, he was quick to recognize patterns, and he never bothered to affect the mask of stupidity used by so many high-IQ types, self included, to face the world on equal terms.
I, too, was becoming more human, or perhaps less, often taking five or ten minutes of uninterrupted thought to evaluate a position. Our boss would come over with an assignment, see that we were absolutely captivated by the contest in front of us, and retreat back to his desk to handle the matter via e-mail. About two months into the gig, Tyler offered, and I accepted, a draw in a particularly hard-fought afternoon contest. The next match would see us begin on equal terms — and it was my turn to play white, which has the advantage.
You would think that I would have spent my off-hours thinking about and studying chess, but in truth I was too busy catching up on freelance work and laying the groundwork for my final negotiations with the wonderful people at Hagerty. I bought a Kindle book about common openings but fell asleep reading it. I played against my Android phone during flights, but the computer didn’t think like Tyler and it lacked his daring, his willingness to lose a queen in order that he might better position a rook for mate in six moves to come.
The holidays came and went, with me unwilling to start the game and Tyler unwilling to demand its commencement. Finally, in the second week of January, after I’d signed an offer letter and made plans to leave my current job, I moved a pawn at about 10:30 on a Tuesday morning. Without taking his eyes off the screen ahead of him, on which a furious European battle for supremacy was raging, Tyler reached over and made the conventional defense, and our game was on.
I forced myself to pay rapt attention and to think each move through at least three future iterations: I will do this and Tyler will do this and then I will do this and Tyler will do that. Roughly two hours in, down one pawn but with a slight position advantage on the board, I experienced the beginnings of an idea. It wasn’t anything I could perfectly quantify, but it felt like the first stirrings of a great story or a serviceable piece of music. There was a move to be made. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew how to get there. It was the first time I’d had anything like intuition while playing chess.
About five moves later, Tyler and I stepped through a five-piece exchange. His knight for my bishop, my queen for his queen, his knight for… nothing. It was the thing I’d foreseen but couldn’t quite explain to myself. Tyler’s hands froze above the board as his eyes flickered back and forth and his eyebrows twitched involuntarily. For a moment I thought he might strike me. Then he said, very slowly, as if to a child, “We… have… to… play… this… out.”
Which we did, until I pressed my advantage to its limit and snagged his second rook ten moves or so later. Tyler toppled his king, mumbled something about needing to go outside, and then stumbled out towards the exit stairs with his omnipresent vape pen in hand. When he came back about half an hour later, he set the board back up, but he did not move a white pawn.
The charitable, and proper, thing to do would have been for us to continue the games, but I am not certain either of us truly wanted to. Having discovered that the middle-aged dad with bad knees sitting next to him had a chance of winning, Tyler decided it was perhaps not a good idea to keep playing. And I was too pleased with myself to offer him an immediate chance of redress. More importantly, I didn’t think that I’d get another flash of subconscious-driven insight again, at least not on demand.
Two weeks later I left that job, preceded by my 300-pound friend who had taken a considerably higher offer from JPMorgan Chase just before I’d tendered my own notice. Which left Tyler to do the work of three men, but he confided in me that he did not mind: “I knew they couldn’t replace me in a hurry under any circumstances, and this is too hard of a gig to outsource, so I demanded that they upgrade me to full-time and bump my salary to the max for the position.”
“Once a pawn, promoted in the end rank to a piece,” I suggested, by way of response. I pitied whatever nonentity from HR they’d tasked with negotiating Tyler’s deal, but more than that I pitied Tyler. My intuition for people is just slightly stronger than my intuition for chess and I could see his future writ large on the widescreen of my interior skull. He would spend the rest of his life being the smartest person in the room, but always crippled to some degree by the emotional baggage which attended that fearsome intellectual power. In that moment I felt like a particular coward for not giving him another game. “Best of luck,” I said, and shook his hand.
“Luck,” he repeated, in the flat Aspie tone, and we shared a brief moment of arrogant kinship, because we both know that there is no such thing as luck. If you can pull your lens back far enough, and if you have the courage to look, you’ll see that your life is just a chess board with seven pieces left. The solution has already been calculated. All you need is the mental horsepower to drive things to their natural conclusion. Last week, sitting next to my son on the flight home from his BMX race, I fired up the AI Factory Chess app on my Android. I won two games and lost one. What bothered me was that there was no true mind on the other side of the board. What I need is a live opponent. Someone as least as good as Tyler, but not as good as Rohan Rajaram, the 1704-rated seven-year-old at the top of the US Chess rankings. In that respect, at least, I already have all the humility I need.