Kind Acts of Randomness

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Randomness In Chess

Back in the day, Richard Garfield set up a folder for R&D to argue about game-related theory, and "Does chess have randomness?" was a popular topic. Since it seemed to apply to today's column but is slightly off-topic, I decided to write a short little extra section for those that are interested.

So is chess a game without randomness? I'm going to argue no, it is not. Before I begin my explanation, let me stress that I am not a chess player. (The best compliment I ever received for my chess playing was from a grandmaster who called me "the most aggressive bad player he had ever seen"—I took it as a compliment.) As such, I am not going to use specific chess terms, just general gaming terms. All good games have a "rock, paper, scissors" metagame. By "rock, paper, scissors," I mean to imply three or more strategies that work to defeat one another without any one being dominant. How do I know this? Because if one strategy could dominate, it would, and the game would collapse in on itself. Thus by the knowledge that a game has lasted the test of time, I know it has an inherent "rock, paper, scissors" metagame.

Let's take a fictional chess player I will call Anatoly (named after a character from the musical "Chess"—I may not know chess, but I do know musicals). Let's assume Anatoly is a Rock player. What I mean by that is that he is most proficient in a Rock style of playing. Yes, he can play Paper or Scissors, but his comfort zone is Rock. Now, for the first round of the tournament, he is going to be paired up against another player. The player is random. Even if the pairing is based on seeding, which players show up versus which players don't is unto itself random. Anatoly does not know until the tournament begins who he will be playing. If that person is a Scissors player, Anatoly has an advantage as his natural style of play will beat his opponent's natural style of play. If the opponent is a Paper player, the opposite is true.

Another way to think about it is this: Anatoly doesn't know his opponent when he begins. He has to choose an opening move. Certain moves are better against his opponent's natural style than others, but Anatoly does not know what they are. Thus, he has to make a decision based on unknown information. Multiple opening moves are viable. How does he decide one versus another without any outside information? He doesn't. Within the viable opening moves, his first move is essentially random.

A third way to look at it is this. Imagine you had a supercomputer that could look infinite turns ahead and rank every possible move by the number of outcomes which would lead to victory. The computer could then in theory rank the options in order. The problem is that the human brain is incapable of such precision. As such, chess players are often put into situations where they recognize that a certain subset of moves are the most likely to be successful, but that they don't have the means to identify which one in the grouping is actually better the way the supercomputer could. Thus, in these situations, the player has to choose from a group of choices that they cannot differentiate. How do they decide what to do? Maybe it's their gut, maybe they play to their area of comfort. Regardless, they make a decision that is ultimately a random one.

And that my faithful reader is the kind of thing that R&D sits around and debates (well, that and which Star Wars movie was better, A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back—the former if you want the correct answer). If any of you want to throw your two cents in the thread, please feel free.

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