Monday, November 13, 2006
This holiday season, three new video game systems will no doubt lure many gamers to replace their old gaming consoles.
Though their predecessors were introduced as cutting edge technology just a few years back, the Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, and Xbox 360 usher in the latest and greatest technology, rendering current consoles obsolete.
Better graphics, processing power and online capabilities will lure countless gamers to drop several hundred dollars in a quest to have the very latest in gaming. And odds are, they'll do it all over again in a few years, just as gamers have done every time a new console has been released since the first one in 1972.
In the midst of such technological fanaticism, Lawrence chess players stand in sharp contrast.
Afterall, their fanaticism is focused on a game that's pretty much unchanged after some 15 centuries.
By most accounts, chess as it's played today was conceived in 6th-century India. Played on a standard checker board with just six unique pieces, the game is fairly simple on its surface, especially when compared to the on-screen chaos of video games circa 2007.
Little hand-eye coordination is needed, Jedi-like reflexes don't help, no batteries are required, and it costs just a few dollars to get started.
And yet to those whose imaginations are captured by chess, the game is infinitely more complex and engaging than any video game could hope to be.
Countless hours can be spent studying just the opening moves of the game, and it can take years of focused study to master minute refinements in strategy. To reach Grand Master status, the better part of a chess player's life must be devoted to the smallest details of the game.
And despite modern life, despite technology, chess doesn't change.
James Fouche-Schack, president of the Lawrence Chess Club, sees the game as a dividing line between new- and old-line gamers.
- Aimee's Coffee House, 1025 Mass., Lawrence
- All ages / Free
"Our society is rapidly becoming over-stimulated in a lot of ways," he says. "Younger players, they can be very good. But sometimes there's a tendency to miss the bigger picture, or to miss the longer-range strategic thing. They're very good in the moment-to-moment stuff."
In its traditional mode, chess isn't in the moment, like a video game anyway. It's a drawn-out game. Just one move can take 10 minutes or more, and matches tend to last hours.
That said, while old-guard chess players mentally anticipate dozens of moves and methodically plot strategies, Fouche-Schack says many newer chess players prefer faster "blitz" games that are sometimes finished in five minutes.
A sign of the times? Perhaps.
Lawrence chess players on the game
Matt Miller, a local chess player who has competed in many traditional chess tournaments-including national ones in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Chicago-says he plays online blitz games every day just to save time.
But Miller also meets friends at coffee shops for longer games. Played this way, the game offers social time as much as sheer gaming competition. Usually, the winner stays on the board and takes on challengers. The others drink coffee, watch, and hang out.
Miller, who also plays video games, says that he doesn't think chess will lose its relevance just because of the fast pace of society or new technology.
"Some people are just drawn to chess. It's not like now that there are video games, people aren't going to be interested in chess anymore," Miller says.
Unlike most games, particularly video games-which offer little replay value after the gamer beats them-chess can't be mastered.
Even, seemingly, by computers.
The last time the top-ranked human chess master played a computer-Garry Kasparov vs. IBM's Deep Blue in 1996-Kasparov won 3-1, with two draws. (Deep Blue beat Kasparov in a rematch but some controversy surrounds the match. Since then, Kasparov has not played against the latest technology.)
Chess experts attribute the ability of humans to beat even the most advanced computers to the game's fundamental characteristic-there is zero chance in chess, and intuition plays a crucial role.
Though each piece is restricted by finite moves, the permutations for a given game are infinite. The objective is to seize your opponent's king, which is protected by the placement of the other pieces-rooks, knights, bishops, pawns and the queen.
Minor rules have changed over the centuries but, for the most part, the game has stood the test of time.
As Fouche-Schack explains, the rules that have changed were shaped by culture. Pawn movement was adapted to facilitate a faster-paced game. And the queen's mobility was expanded to make her more powerful.
"The queen, which is now the most powerful piece on the board, actually her powers increased at a time," he says, "when the culture was valuing women a little bit more."
Expanding your mind, or whatever
The chess scene in Lawrence varies from week to week. Sometimes at the Lawrence Chess Club, which meets at Borders, there are eight to 10 people battling it out. Other nights, there are two or three.
Many people, like Miller, prefer public venues. Others play at home.
A handful of frat brothers have organized a chess night on Thursdays. The occasion doesn't exactly fit the greek stereotype. In a basement room of the Phi Gamma Delta mansion near the KU campus, eight guys sit on wooden benches, huddled around dimly lit black-and-white chessboards.
Relaxed in navy blue blazers or button-down shirts, classical music floating in from another room, the concentration here is thick, and the competition is thicker.
Spencer Hinrichs, who is dryly introduced by his fraternity brother as the best chess player at the house, crouches over his game.
"No, I'm horrible," he says. Hinrichs says he's just learned the rules and is starting to hone his strategy. As he squints at the board, it appears as though he's losing. Until:
"Checkmate, you just lost," Hinrichs yells at his opponent, who is visibly shocked.
Most of these fraternity brothers are freshmen. The older guys usually go out on Thursday nights to bars or parties.
"It's expanding our minds, or whatever:it's like getting out of study hall," one fraternity brother says.
Massacres are no fun
Brady McGlasson, a 25-year-old chess fanatic, is organizing chess nights in venues downtown. Henry's Upstairs and Aimee's Coffee House are two of his favorite chess hangouts.
McGlasson says he's played chess since he was a kid. But it wasn't till he spent a couple years locked up (for concealing a handgun when he was 14) that McGlasson began to get good.
Playing chess in prison is a lot different than playing chess at Aimee's.
McGlasson says that, in prison, "people tend to take it kind of seriously." Which means that once you touch a piece, you have to move it. Putting it down and moving another is not an option.
"You're not going to find many people in prison that are like, 'Well, that's fine. Go ahead and take that move back':it's a different world altogether," McGlasson says. He says fights broke out over much lesser games, even Connect Four.
"There's a lot of really, really good chess players in prison. Guys that have been playing practically every day for 10, 15 years since they've been in there. That's how I got a lot better, playing with people that were a lot better than me," he says. "There was a period of time for about four months:I would close my eyes at night and I would see chess pieces. It would piss me off because I couldn't sleep. All I could think about was chess:I was playing 10, 15 games a day."
He says the chess nights in Lawrence are much more relaxed though.
"Anybody who's interested is welcome, even if they don't really know how to play," McGlasson says.
"Usually when we play, if someone makes a stupid move, we'll say 'Hey, you want to take that one back?'" he says. "Because it's not fun if the game's just a massacre."
-Additional reporting contributed by Phil Cauthon