I can play chess but don’t. And by play I simply mean I’m generally clear on the rules. I know all the pieces, how they move about the board, check, check, check, check, check mate and that’s about it. And I know a vast world of chess expertise is beyond my grasp, both for lack of talent and hunger. Like I said, I don’t play the game.

Yet I’m kind of fascinated at the complexity of the ________ (game? sport? nobody knows) whatever category of human endeavor chess is. Maybe the way chess defies classification is what appeals to me.

So there you have it. Not a chess expert. I can provide no real insight into the game. But I have a few chess-related links I wanted to pass along:

“I’ve watched Quentin Moore play in these tournaments over the years,” Getty said. “He’s always been a strong player. And while I’ve seen him lose before, I’d never seen him take a beating like he was taking here. He was getting destroyed.”

And when he spotted something fishy about the way the player consulted his personal digital assistant, Getty moved in for a closer look. After Moore’s 28th move, Getty halted the match and asked Smiley to show him the PDA. Smiley pulled away and turned off his device, says Getty, but after several uncomfortable seconds he handed it over without saying a word.

Getty fired up the Dell again, and no score sheet appeared. Instead, a screen popped up for a program from the Fritz line of so-called “chess engines.” These are super-smart, user-friendly apps able to analyze the positions of all pieces on the chessboard and consider millions of possible outcomes in a matter of nanoseconds before suggesting the best next move. By pushing all the right buttons on a good chess engine, any Kardashian sister could conceivably checkmate Fischer.

The number of legal chess positions is 1040, the number of different possible games, 10120. Authors have attempted various ways to convey this immensity, usually based on one of the few fields to regularly employ such exponents, astronomy. In his book Chess Metaphors, Diego Rasskin-Gutman points out that a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy. Another staple, a variation of which is also used by Rasskin-Gutman, is to say there are more possible chess games than the number of atoms in the universe. All of these comparisons impress upon the casual observer why brute-force computer calculation can’t solve this ancient board game. They are also handy, and I am not above doing this myself, for impressing people with how complicated chess is, if only in a largely irrelevant mathematical way.

This astronomical scale is not at all irrelevant to chess programmers. They’ve known from the beginning that solving the game—creating a provably unbeatable program—was not possible with the computer power available, and that effective shortcuts would have to be found. In fact, the first chess program put into practice was designed by legendary British mathematician Alan Turing in 1952, and he didn’t even have a computer! He processed the algorithm on pieces of paper and this “paper machine” played a competent game.

Derek Bridges lives in New Orleans, trading in words and pictures. A carpetbagger of long standing, he grew up in the top right corner of IL and later went to college in the middle cornfield part. He has also lived in MS and FL, for educational purposes only, and was diasporized for a time in TX.

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