This piece is about the current problem with games like chess and a possible way to fix it.
When asked why he hated chess, Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player of all time, replied: “Because I know what chess is all about. It’s about memorization [and] pre-arrangement… creativity is lower down on the list.”
One of the major developments in Chess during his time was the significant expansion and refinement of chess theory—the best set of tactics, strategies, and moves in any given position. Theory is inherently uncreative because its sole purpose is to be memorized. People and computers work to find the best way to play a certain position, and chess players memorize these lines so that they can win their next tournament.
Fischer described chess as “banging your head against the wall with theory, trying to find some little improvement on move 18 or 20.”
At the time, Fischer wasn’t in the best state of mind, but the underlying message was that chess had lost its romanticism. What used to be a game about finding a beautiful set of lines that ended with the opponent's king being backed into a corner, is now about memorizing hundreds of different games so that 15 moves in, computer analysis says that your position has a slight advantage.
I’ve been playing a lot of chess recently, and understand this perspective firsthand. It seems like the goal in chess is to make yourself play more like a computer, rather than improve your problem solving ability. When I watch chess games, the commenters always talk about how the player at hand has found/missed the right move. Why is there a right move? Why is it that the world's best chess minds are merely trying to figure out what the commentators already know?
There aren’t any inventive plays because computers have solved the game. They can tell you the winning moves to play in any position, which means that now it's just about who can remember all of the steps.
But computers weren’t the true cause of this change, they just accelerated the trend that was already progressing. There were chess books filled with lines and lines of optimal moves that chess grandmasters had researched and deliberated about long before computers were invented.
And this trend isn’t limited to chess alone. I’ve witnessed it across many games. When novelty wears off, creativity ceases. When enough of the game has been played, people figure out all of the strategies, and it becomes solely about mechanics (the execution).
In video games, if someone discovers a fun trick that gives them the upperhand, one of two things happens when people find out about it: it stops working so people stop doing it, or it finds its way into the optimal playstyle and everyone starts doing it.
Once every fun trick has been discovered, you’re left with an optimal playstyle that becomes the standard. Any type of creativity leaves you with worse odds. The consequence is that the game becomes less interesting and fun.
So what is the solution? How do you bring romanticism back to chess and other games? The answer is to disrupt the established patterns. Fischer tried to do this by creating his own variant of chess, aptly named Fischer Random Chess. In this version of the game, all of the pieces on the back ranks of the board are swapped around randomly (but are arranged the same for both players), ensuring that games have more variation, and that you have to rely more on strategy.
I think that this approach has some merit, but is ultimately just a stopgap. If Fischer Random Chess was as mainstream and popular as regular chess, people would devote their resources to finding all of the best lines in that variant as well. There would be a lot more positions to decipher, but it would ultimately still become a game about theory.
I think a more long term solution is demonstrated by games like Fortnite that have consistently scheduled updates that overhaul many different aspects of the game, while still leaving the core gameplay intact. Fortnite has seasons that last approximately 3 months, and every new season brings a new set of weapons, items, and a new environment to play in, though the core mechanics of building, running, looting and shooting all remain constant.
When a new season starts I witness a glimmer of ingenuity from the game. People find unique ways to use new items and environments to their advantage. Granted, it doesn’t last long, because once people learn about these techniques, they become mainstream and part of the dreaded optimal playstyle, but it's a proof of concept.
Continual innovation and scheduled updates, as seen in games like Fortnite, could be the key to reviving the creative spirit in chess and other strategy games. By introducing new elements that shift the dynamics of play, players are encouraged to think on their feet rather than rely solely on pre-learned patterns. This approach maintains the foundational mechanics, ensuring the game's integrity, while also injecting a dose of unpredictability that necessitates original thinking. Such changes, if applied judiciously, could prevent any one strategy from becoming too dominant and keep the game fresh and engaging for both players and spectators alike.