Chess

It’s the Great Game. I fell in love with it as a kid, and pursued it with energy and devotion. It made me suffer when things were difficult, and gave me overwhelming joys. When the latter clearly outweighs the former, you’re lucky in love. Otherwise, you’re a fool in love.

I think it’s foolish to love what you don’t know, and to want what you can’t have. People do it all the time.

I began to write that TV is one of the worst offenders in making vegetables out of ordinary people, whose pleasures become the worship of what they can’t achieve, and the cult of who they can’t be. I went looking for a song called ‘Slime’—it’s about the insidious nature of television, and the fact that it’s controlled by politics and big business, not necessarily in that order.

In so doing, I ended up listening to an interview with Frank Zappa, who died of prostate cancer when he was my age. Among other things, he said he had been checked numerous times due to urinary problems, but by the time the cancer was detected, it was inoperable. His advice? “Get checked. And then get re-checked.”

It’s been a week for deaths. Georges Moustaki, who nobody in the Anglo-Saxon sphere will know. A bit like the Portuguese discoveries. Ray Manzarek, who no one below the age of forty will know. So here’s a quick tribute to one of the greats of world music, a guy who raised his glass every time a dictatorship fell. And to the man who was the anchor of Jim Morrison in a little band called The Doors.

Several of the Doors’ tunes have endured, most notably ‘Light My Fire’, but I know their discography intimately, and the one I picked for you is called Blue Sunday. If you close your eyes and swap Robbie Krieger’s guitar for a string quartet, you could be listening to Sinatra.

My chess interest hasn’t waned, but I seldom play. The first thing you learn about chess is that it’s easy to lose and hard to win. Just like terrorism, the other guy only has to get lucky once.

I was in love. I read books. I learnt about the various openings, the Sicilian defence. About Alekhine, who my dad informed me had a thing for older women. I was twelve at the time, and I did too.

Salaam Alekhine. The great man was four moves away from victory. The gun consisted in a bombardment made by two rooks and a queen, aligned on one column.

Salaam Alekhine. The great man was four moves away from victory, in this first use of Alekhine’s gun. The gun consisted in a bombardment made by two rooks and a queen, aligned on one column.

One of his best quotes makes it clear he viewed chess as art, and that sometimes his traps were too wily for his opponent’s capacity.

Oh! this opponent, this collaborator against your will, whose notion of beauty always differs from yours and whose means are often too limited for active assistance to your intentions!

On occasion I play chess against my phone, and it’s easy to beat. However, any distraction and that’s it. Computers don’t get distracted. They never make that one mistake.

The search for computer chess engines leads rapidly to the history of Deep Blue, IBM’s offering that defeated the world chess champion.

You can easily download the computer code that allows the machine to beat you. I won’t list code, because it’s tedious, but I picked out a couple of comments, from a program written in a computer language called ‘C’.

1. This file contains all the functions for generating attack boards and threat stats.

2. Calculates total defence values for b&w, ignoring pinned pieces.

3. Generate a list of all pieces attacking this square.  Include friendly pieces.

4. Now we simply determine which capture moves will be actually played. If any move results in an overall worsening of the position for that side then it is not played.  We have to start from the back and work forward, only retaining the current score if it improves the score for the side to move.

Each of these comments is followed by the instructions, or algorithms, necessary to make those things come true. The computer always evaluates a cost function, and decides which is the most profitable way to play. Moves have penalties or rewards, and the trick is to step forward into the future, and use the computer crystal ball to look five or ten moves ahead. Our brain can’t deal with all those permutations, for the computer it’s just a numbers game.

Now imagine we’re not playing chess at all. We’re playing the game of life.

The game of jobs, the game of income, the game of banks, and feeding your family. As southern Europe has found out, and northern Europe is finding out, the economic reliance on market-driven loans has amazingly profound societal consequences. High interest rates close businesses down, low bond costs generate employment, and the performance of stockmarkets and currencies strongly affects nations and their peoples.

This is all part of a new book I’m working on, fictionalized, just like Atmos Fear, but looking at some very probable changes to the world we live in.

Trading these days is algorithmic. I wrote about that when on May 6th 2010, just after landing from Amsterdam, I was confronted with the flash crash, and the crazy comments on CNBC that shares in Sam Adams, the Boston beer, had collapsed because of Greek austerity. Since then, the Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a full report.

The role of algorithmic trading, including something called HFT, or High Frequency Trading, in our day-to-day is now pretty important. In fact, more than a third of stockmarket volume in the US and EU is now computerized. When I tell you that computers determine whether you work or not, I’m not kidding. Or exaggerating.

Chess is a model for life. I’ve always loved the combination of formality, quirkiness, and pragmatic reality. Formality in the established rules, a code of conduct for society, and the notion that life means opposition.

The quirky nature of the knight, or the castling move, which you can only make under certain conditions. And the occasional pawn who against all odds becomes a millionaire and turns into a queen. How gay.

And the practical world view that the queen is in charge, and the king is a figurehead. My father, who loved history, taught me that also. The long arm of the bishop, the idea that the pen is as powerful as the sword. And that army of pawns, cannon fodder in any age, since the beginning of time.

And now, in the great digital thrill, chess, the algorithmic wonder, is walking this brave new world with us.

Never elect a leader who can’t play chess.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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