Some of the most interesting inventions spark new ways for people and machines to interact. One of the best examples I’ve seen of this, lately, is the iOS game Really Bad Chess.
Conventional chess programs come with adjustable difficulty meters controlling the prowess of your computer opponent. At some difficulty levels, you can easily win. But when you ramp up the computer’s smartness to a certain level, you’re consistently defeated.
For a game to be pleasurable, there needs to be the right amount of tension. When facing a computer opponent, you can play a competitive game by setting its ability to a level similar to your own. But this feels like fake tension, like playing against someone you know isn’t trying hard. A win doesn’t feel like a true victory.
For me, the superiority of computers over humans in chess has a deflating effect that even makes it less fun to play against other humans. What’s the point of getting better at chess when the involved mental processes would be better delegated to a computer program, like long division or spell checking?
Really Bad Chess alters the stale dynamic between people and chess AI through a novel handicapping mechanism. In the app, the AI never gets smarter. Instead, the variable is the relative strength of your starting pieces. This subtle change makes a transformative difference in the experience of playing chess against a computer.
When you play your first game, your randomly generated starting pieces are way stronger than the AI’s, like this.
Here, your job is to not blow your advantage, which itself provokes an interesting mindset. With each win against the computer, it’s starting pieces get stronger, until you’re staring at a disadvantage, like this.
Having played a lot of chess against computers, my demise felt inevitable when I first played from behind against the AI. How could I beat the sharp precision of a computer program when it simply didn’t have to mess up to win? But then I realized that the AI in Really Bad Chess is prone to egregious blunders.
Here we have the paradigm shift! Really Bad Chess jostled me out of the habit of comparing my intelligence to the machine. In this case, it’s no contest: I’m smarter than the machine. So instead of feeling like I need to match the calculating ability of a computer, Really Bad Chess motivates me to use my creativity to win as an underdog. The challenge is not to play perfect chess: it’s to exploit mistakes, like a hacker finding vulnerabilities in a system.
But how much smarter than the machine am I? It’s unclear. Part of the beauty of Really Bad Chess is that there’s no clear wall. The more you win, the more severe your disadvantage becomes. But you could always discover new ways to leverage the AI’s weaknesses, making the impossible possible. Assuming the fallibility of one’s opponent leads to a growth mindset where there’s always hope of winning, regardless of the apparent odds.
Winning as a big underdog requires breaking with the orthodoxy of “good chess.” When playing against a conventional opponent, human or machine, one avoids making moves that lead to a clear negative consequence. E.g., you don’t knowingly move a piece to a square where it can be captured, unless it’s an intentional sacrifice for a larger strategic gain.
When facing a large disadvantage, however, your only shot at winning is when your opponent misses obvious opportunities. If you limit yourself to traditionally good moves, your range of options will be too limited to mount a comeback. In this sense, Really Bad Chess demands “bad” moves. There’s risk of getting punished, but this added freedom is what you need to tip the scale.
I love Really Bad Chess because it cultivates a mindset of innovation. Breakthroughs happen when you recognize that the standard playbook for a situation is not optimal for the actual world we’re in. Really Bad Chess takes you through an evolution of shedding the conventional chess playbook to make large adaptions to a subtly different reality.
Thanks to Tom Schmidt for sharing Really Bad Chess with me.