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.


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What was the first variant game of chess played by a computer — a simplified version of the game scaled down so the earliest number-crunching systems could actually handle the analytical demands?

The answer is Los Alamos Chess (sometimes called anti-clerical chess), played on a six-by-six chessboard, rather than eight-by-eight. Named for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, this version excludes bishops.

In 1956, scientists at Los Alamos used this chess variant as the basis for the world’s first chess computer program, written for the MANIAC I computer. To completely scale back the game for the benefit of MANIAC I, the game excluded en passant capture, two-position pawn openings, and castling as possible moves.

The Los Alamos Chess program, written by computer scientists Paul Stein and Mark Wells, apocryphally ran only three times. On the first run, the computer played itself. On the second, the computer played an unnamed but supposedly skilled human opponent, who defeated the machine. On the third run, a chess novice faced off against MANIAC and lost.

The program was largely a proof of concept, validating the theoretical possibility of a chess-playing program as proposed by such visionaries as Norbert Wiener and Alan Turing. It wasn’t until 1958 that someone wrote computer programs to play full, true games of chess, though precisely who wrote the first such program is a matter of some debate.

In 1967, the Mac Hack Six computer program became the first to defeat a human being in tournament play. In 1970, the ACM North American Computer Chess Championships formed, as there were enough competing chess software efforts to face them off in a traditional chess tournament. Four years later, an international equivalent tournament formed.

Thus, for more than 30 years, computers have been just as busily playing chess as their human adversaries, and in the last 10 years — starting with Deep Blue’s 1997 six-game defeat of Gary Kasparov — computer grandmasters have proven the equal or better of reigning human champions. That’s not just some game-changing computational power – it’s also a great gambit of Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble — which comes from the June 27 edition of Geek Trivia, “Tale of the tape (player)” — is a bit tongue-in-cheek. TechRepublic member dturner had a snarky response for a rhetorical question about the grammatically correct way to pluralize the product name iPod nano.

“My Greek is limited, but both the words in iPod nano are of Greek origin. It seems to me then that the plural should follow Greek, in which case both the noun and adjective should be plural. Thus, I believe the plural of iPod nano should be iPodes nanoi.”

You’ve got to love a bilingual punch line. Nice job, folks, so keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

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