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Geek Trivia: Check(sum), mate, and match

What was the first variant version of chess ever played by a computer?

This Friday -- July 20 -- is International Chess Day, which should appeal to the computer scientists in the audience, as chess has been the historical standard bearer of human pastimes used to test the efficacy of the world's most advanced hardware-software combinations (Deep Blue, anyone?). Until recently, Turing's technical descendants haven't faired so well against us flesh units, but to be fair, we have had several centuries' head start on our mechanistic adversaries.

No one knows the exact origins of chess or even how old the game is -- the earliest literary reference to chess appeared in a Middle Persian book that dates back to at least the seventh century -- but it's a fair bet that the game we now call chess can trace its ancestry to Asia.

That doesn't exactly narrow it down much, but the Indian game chaturanga, the Arabic game shatranj, and the Chinese game xiangqi all bear striking resemblances to chess. Determining which of these three candidates was the most direct inspirational ancestor of contemporary chess spurs an ongoing debate in academic circles.

Muslims brought chess to the West via the conquest of Spain and Portugal, taking its Eastern heritage along for the ride. As such, many English chess terms can trace their etymologies to Persian phrasing. For example, checkmate is a derivative of shah mat for "the king is finished," and rook comes from rukh, which is Persian for "chariot."

Thus, it's worth noting that chess terminology, at least, shares a very general geographic ancestry with a fundamental school of mathematics -- algebra, which comes from the Arabic al-jabr, meaning "reunion of broken parts." The oldest surviving algebraic notation of chess occurred in 1173. About a century later, Castilian monarch Alfonso X documented more than 100 chess problems and chess variant games in his Libro de los juegos, or Book of Games.

So there's pretty sound evidence that math, logic, and chess have been intertwined for more than eight centuries. It also demonstrates that, even as we remain unsure of which games evolved into chess, chess itself has been and continues to transform into variations of itself -- with new alternate chess games introduced every year.

It's a good thing, too, as so-called orthodox or traditional chess was far too complicated for the earliest computers to comprehend. In fact, the first game of chess played by a computer was actually a simplified chess variant, used specifically so the computer could handle it.

WHAT WAS THE FIRST CHESS VARIANT PLAYED BY A COMPUTER?

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About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

8 comments
kkroon_ftb
kkroon_ftb

I had a quibble, but this darned feedback form doesn't seem to work on Firefox -- or is it something more sinister?

kkroon_ftb
kkroon_ftb

Now, my quibbles ---- First: those academics who so heartily contest the origins of chess concede the Indian game Chaturanga is considered the earliest documented ancestor of chess, so obviously it should bear "striking resemblance". In his magnum opus "The Oxford History of Board Games" (pages 278-283) David Parlett documents the heck out of the matter, including an impressive number of references in Persian, Palawi, and Arabic. The derivation of the modern game is then: Chaturanga (Indian) introduced to Persia as Chatrang, who then introduced it to Arabia as Shatranj. By the turn of the first millennium, the Arabs had introduced it to Christians on Crusade, who brought it back to their homelands in a form now called Medieval Chess. Second quibble: Shatranj is a Persian loanword into Arabic -- it doesn't have a triliteral root -- or even one of the rather rare tetraliteral roots -- which otherwise dominate word-formation in Hamitic languages like Arabic. Third: there are enough differences between Chaturanga and Xiang-qi to suggest divergent development of both from an even earlier common ancestor -- but unfortunately, Mr. Parlett (who completed "The Oxford History of Board Games in 1999) wasn't able to dig up any additional documentation to support this conjecture. So, Xiang-qi's "striking resemblance" to Chess is due to its relationship with Chess's ancestor, Chaturanga. Okay, I'm done now.

MonkeyPushButton
MonkeyPushButton

El Ajedrecista c1912 played rook+king vs rook endgames. It was an automaton, not a computer though...

jramos077
jramos077

THE " EL AJEDRECISTA" CHESS PLAYER WAS NOT EALLY A MACHINE, BUT A HUMAN BEING HIDDEN INSIDE, AT LEAST THAT IS WHAT SPECIALIST OF THE TIME SAID. WE WILL ALWAYS HAVE THE DOUBT. I AGREE THAT KASPAROV WOULD DEFEAT DEEP BLUE WITH CHESS CHAMPIONSHIP RULES. I CAN IMAGINE ALL THAT WAS A TREAK TO PUBLISH IBM.

bittoo_m
bittoo_m

I do not know a lot of Persian, but I do know some Urdu - which is an adaptation of Persian used in the Indian subcontinent. The word 'shah' translates to Check, and 'mat' (by itself) translates to Checkmate. If you check out http://www.chesscentral.com/chess-pieces.htm you'll immediately notice how Persian names resemble those in Indian languages. Now which of those came first?

The Pro from Dover
The Pro from Dover

There are many people who will contend that Deep Blue did not actually defeat Gary Kasparov. The rules were bent and broken to enable Deep Blue to win, There were considerable delays in Deep Blue's responses, some that were so long that a human in tournament play would have been declared a forfeit. In one of the games Deep Blue had the functional equivalent of a nervous breakdown. The operators were allowed to debug it and reprogram portions of the machine, which then (and only then) came back to defeat Kasparov. There were so many rules of chess and chess competition broken, circumvented and ignored during the matches against Deep Blue that it is surprising that Gary Kasparov did not have a nervous breakdown, or at least a major temper tantrum. If you exclude all of the "do overs" that Deep Blue was allowed, Kasparov defeated the machine handily.

Zeppo9191
Zeppo9191

Jay, you stated that we humans have several centuries' head start on computers and thus could be expected to be the victors in chess tournaments against them, but I don't completely agree. First and foremost, humans 'taught' (in the form of coding for various strategy possibilities) computers how to play, just as we, as individuals, were taught to play by another human. Each human individual has but a few decades' worth of experience, at most. Also, computers can access what they've 'learned' much faster and easier than our own feeble, organic circuits. I still find it amazing that chessmasters can so often defeat programs created for the sole purpose of defeating that master. It shows the true ingenuity of we humans. Another, though feeble, quibble - shouldn't 'faired,' as it's used in your first paragraph, have been 'fared?'

Deltoid
Deltoid

You spelled Garry Kasparov's name incorrectly.