Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Fascination of Games of Skill

There are certain of us who are fascinated by such games, and that fascination and the availability of these games given our technology fascinate me, and are the subjects of this post.  By "games" I do not mean sports, which doubtless involve skill but are not my topic today.

I should acknowledge what expertise, or lack of expertise, I have in these games.  I can only pretend to a real knowledge of one of them in particular, and that is chess.  That knowledge is somewhat beyond that of a casual or recreational player, although I'm purely a recreational player at this time.  But in the past I've been a competitive scholastic and club player, which I think earns me a different status in some respects.

I'm not sure whether chess is typical of games of skill or whether it is peculiar.  I do know, however, sometimes from personal experience and sometimes not, that very good chess players can be very peculiar indeed.  Bobby Fischer is the best modern example of this peculiarity I can think of; arguably the best chess player ever, but also at times malicious and seemingly delusional.  Paul Morphy is a good example of chess' peculiar past.  But there are very good chess players who can be described as normal, more or less, but for their concern with chess, which can be their primary concern in life.

The complexity of chess in a sense requires such concern.  If one wants to be a very good chess player, a great deal of study is required, and much over-the-board experience is needed is well, particularly in tournaments.  That is quite time consuming.  But what is it about chess, or about a person, which motivates the desire to be a very good player?

To a certain extent, I think chess' complexity is fascinating in and of itself.  We are problem solvers by nature; that is what we must do to survive and thrive.  John Dewey claimed that we only really think when we encounter a problem and I think he was right in a sense.  Complex problems challenge us, and there is a very real satisfaction we feel when we solve such problems.

That satisfaction is increased, though, when in solving such problems we do so better than others and by doing so defeat them in what is considered a contest of skill.  So, our conceit and self-love is very much involved, and our desire for status in a community.  Fischer as I recall claimed to delight in psychologically crushing his opponents.  Perhaps there is a kind of malice or ruthlessness that is needed in order to be a predominate player of such games.

Do these considerations apply to other games of skill?  Assuming poker involves skill (and I think it does), are these factors relevant to good play?  Or is the monetary component primary?  They actually televise poker, for reasons I confess I don't understand, but that may be simply because poker doesn't really interest me.  That seems to indicate it is fascinating in a certain way, but is that fascination a fascination with poker itself, or a function of the fact that certain of us enjoy being spectators to people winning or losing large sums of money?  What about contract bridge?  What about wei chi, also known as go or goh?

Our technology now allows us to experience various games of skill, some of them which may be considered exotic.  There are applications, for example, by which those who download them may be challenged not merely in chess, but in wei chi, or senet (an ancient Egyptian game) or ludus lantrunculorum, a game played in ancient Rome and Greece.  There are also "games of skill" applications which seem to involve finding things, and running silly looking figures through mazes; the applications themselves are emblazoned by garish and cartoonish logos which I avoid instinctively, so I don't know whether or not skill is actually involved.

I know of wei chi through Edward Lasker's book on it (a chess player who became interested in it) and by reputation as a game requiring great skill indeed.  An enjoyment of history makes me interested in ancient games of skill.  As I result, I've downloaded applications for those games and others, those whose logos are subdued, and am enjoying them, though I don't know whether those applications are "good" in the sense I know certain chess applications are (the rules governing the ancient games are not known for certain, so those applications are to an extent speculative).

It seems wonderful that our technology now gives so many of us access to such games, which would not have been available even a short time ago.  But will this merely feed our fascination with these games, and result in more and more of us succumbing to that fascination to the exclusion of more pressing concerns?  More Bobby Fischers would not necessarily be "optimal" as our President would say.


  1. Dear ciceronianus,

    Board games is one of my passions, a truly fascinating subject between History, Psychology and Mathematics.

    I think you will like to read this classic little text:

    Go and the 'Three Games' -- A text by William Pinckard


    Go/Wei Qi is truly a magnificent game. Deeper and more challenging than Chess, with an established and a quite old culture in China, Japan and Korea. It is worthy to study it.


  2. Thanks for the reference. I've already been beaten by what I assume is a fairly simple Go program, so I've no doubt it is a remarkable game.