Chess, Chaos, and Creation

    An occasional subject for debate among chess players is whether great players of the past, if they were to come back today would be able to hold their own against or even beat the great players of today.  The reason the question is interesting is because knowledge about chess has increased over the hundreds of years the game has been around, in particular from the late 1800s to the present day.  Therefore, the greatest players of the past, if they were to play top modern players without learning the new developments, would probably have little success.

    On the other hand, because of their aptitude for the game, they might be able to learn the new developments quickly or even introduce new ideas.  But there is more to the debate.  By its very nature, chess is a game with fixed rules and a finite (though enormous) number of possibilities.  This means that over time as more is learned, new ideas become more difficult to find because they build on old ideas.  The simple concepts have already been learned, so the new ideas will be more complex.

    Furthermore, even though the number of possibilities is enormous, some moves just are better than others, so a skilled player can beat someone who makes a mistake (or even a less than optimal move) if he knows how to take advantage of it.  So, after a period of time, there is less opportunity for creativity.  

    So, as a thought experiment, I wondered, what about a different kind of game?  A game with an unbounded number of possibilities where at every move creativity is possible.  The opposite of tic-tac-toe, so to speak.  Imagine a game with an infinite number of playing cards, where each player plays a card in sequence and each card influences others in the sequence.  In such a game anything could happen.  

    In this type of game, it would be quite disruptive to play with a player of genius who was reinventing the game at every move.  Without being a genius oneself, you couldn't keep up.  In a game like this, even preparation would be difficult.  One could learn from past games but the victory would go to the more creative and intelligent almost every time.  A game like this would be analogous to the mythological stories where human beings must share the world with gods who can reshape reality at a whim, for instance, changing themselves and human beings into animals.  

    I would call this active chaos.  It is "too much" creativity in the sense that those who are most creative dominate entirely and the rest can't find a footing.  This would be in contrast to passive chaos.  Imagine a chessboard and pieces, but no rules.  In that case, nothing can happen because there are no rules to get anything started.  

    I find this helpful to think about our situation on Earth.  Passive chaos would be the chaos before creation.  Just like a set of pieces with no rules, there are endless possibilities.  Any set of rules can be imposed, but before they are, nothing can happen.  On the other hand, total open-ended creation does not allow for the less creative (in the sense of power to create as well as creativity in thinking) to learn.  They are powerless before those who can sweep away everything that has gone before.  
    The best situation is some rules that allow for creativity, but not too much so there can be both learning and invention.  Both active and passive chaos need to be kept under control.  And this is the situation that we do see on Earth.


  1. I like this analogy very much, and I agree with its content as well.

  2. I think a deep problem is introduced by using a game like chess as a metaphor for life and creativity. Then you find that there is really no need for creativity since the game can be won by sheer computation (plus speed). It is a closed system, and there is no space for the genuinely creative - except insofar as the game is not actually being played by rules (but instead by some kind of gestalt/ holistic imagination).

    If, then, you try to make the closed-system game have space for creativity by removing the rules - then you do indeed get chaos.

    So you get the common (Dungeons and Dragons type) opposition of law and chaos.

    But in reality, living and conscious beings (with capability of creativity) are what they are - and there is no reason that the essence of creativity can be captured when reducing them to abstract systems.

    This was, for me, a trap I was stuck in for a log time in trying to understand creativity - the metaphors I was using (unwittingly) excluded everything but direct linear causality or pure randomness - neither of which is creativity.

  3. "But in reality, living and conscious beings (with capability of creativity) are what they are - and there is no reason that the essence of creativity can be captured when reducing them to abstract systems."

    I agree. A metaphor using a closed system cannot express creativity absolute, but I find that if the limitations of the analogy are accepted, then it can be helpful towards thinking.

    What made this metaphor work for me was that even though in an absolute sense chess is a closed system, in practice, players frequently describe their experience of playing games or going over the games of others in terms of creativity.

    Somewhat like how a novel can be conceptualized as a sequence of words that might in principal be randomly generated. As in Borges's story "The Library of Babel." The intentional construction of the novel is what makes it meaningful.

    Similarly, a move in chess is is just an abstract member of a set of possibilities until a player finds the move in a game and plays it, when it gains significance from then intentional choice.

    It is the experience of conscious beings playing chess (as well as inventing the rules) where the creativity takes place, but not in the game conceptualized as an abstract system.

    1. Absolutely.

      What you find interesting is when the 'model' breaks down!

      The thing about chess is that it apparently used to be far more creative than it is now. Much as the early IQ tests were far better at measuring 'g' than IQ tests now are.

      The element of thinking in action used to be greater in both cases, and the specific application from a repertoire of pre-learned routines and techniques was less. More analytic and less scholarly, in the past.

      I suppose the creativity in chess was in devising new strategies, new sets of moves, new ways of thinking about the game.

      Yet, because chess is a closed system, it eventually reached the point when computers became better at the game than grand masters.

      In a deep sense, top level chess is now obsolete; in a similar sense that classical music (in the Western Tradition) is a finished, completed art form. First rate creative work is no longer possible.


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