It was not Dr Albert Chess, we regret to inform you. We’ll probably never know the precise origin of this ancient game of strategy and funny horses. But we can try to find out! And that starts with asking a board game historian for some background on the noble game. Where did it come from? Was it always so stuffy? Did chess ever face competition from other ancient board games? We ask Ulrich Schädler of the Swiss Museum of Games to bring us up to speed on a multiplayer battle arena that hasn’t been patched since the 15th century.
With guest co-host Matt Cox!
Click “read more” for a full list of links and transcription.
The Swiss Museum of Games is where Ulrich works, and it looks pretty cool
The reconstructed rules of Latrunculi, the old Roman game
Matt plays on Chess.com
But Lichess is better, we have heard it said
Pippin the Hunchback by Kevin MacLeod
And drummy music from the menu screen in 5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel
Ulrich Schädler, historian: Of course, there are legends in Persian literature and there are legends in Indian literature, who tell us about Kings who were annoyed and asked their councilors to invent a game or something like that. But we do not know the name of the person. You never… hardly ever know the guy or the woman or whoever [that] invented this game.
Brendan Caldwell: Hi there and welcome to Hey Lesson, the podcast where we ask smart people stupid questions about video games. I’m Brendan Caldwell, your host. And I’m here to teach you things through the lens of popular games, without you even realizing that I’m doing that to you. Today, we are talking about chess. That’s right. Chess. It’s the big kahuna, the OG RTS. Uh, I don’t know how true that statement is but I’ve written it down, so I’ll say it. As ever, we will have an expert on to talk us through this. Keep listening and you’ll hear from a chess historian who is going to tell us why the game has lasted so long and might even answer this week’s question: who invented chess? But first I also have with me as usual, a guest co-host. This time it is journalist and internet philosophizer, Matt Cox. Hello, how are you doing?
Matt Cox, journalist: I’m very well, thank you. Especially after that grand introduction.
Brendan: What? But you are an internet philosophizer!
Matt: I technically am. I have philosophized on the internet. I’ve also played a lot of chess over the past several months.
Brendan: Oh, don’t worry. We’ll get into your chess habits, your unhealthy obsession. Normally, we cover video games on the show. Chess is a board game, but it also exists on any computer or phone and in fact that’s probably how most games of chess are played today. So it is technically a video game. But Matt, because we normally cover video games, this is the part of the show where we usually have to explain those video games. Now, we normally ask the guests to explain, you know, what is The Last Of Us? What is this new Star Wars game? So here’s one for you. It’s pretty easy… What is chess?
Matt: Chess is an abstract turn-based strategy game, uh, in which your objective is to capture one central piece of your opposing team’s while protecting your own. And there are a bunch of different units that can all move in different and special ways. And that’s essentially the game.
Brendan: Like you’ve basically just described Into The Breach or any number of video games that we know today.
Matt: It’s almost like they have taken some of their inspiration from chess.
Brendan: Almost. Like you’ve said, you’ve been playing a lot of the old chess yourself in recent weeks. I have a clumsy knowledge of the board myself, let’s say. So we’re going to talk a bit more about our experiences with it in a little bit, including maybe some chat about funny variants and stuff like that, such as 5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel, which we have played against one another at least once.
Matt: We, yeah, we did that once. You checkmated me from the future within four moves.
Brendan: If that sounds confusing to you, listener, please don’t worry too much. It’s actually fairly simple, very straightforward. We’ll get to it. But before we talk about the moves in a future version of chess, we should maybe get to know the past version of chess. So we wanted to know this week “who invented chess?” And has chess always been played the way that we enjoy it today? And some other questions as well. So to answer those, I spoke to Ulrich Schädler, who is a historian and archeologist at the Swiss Museum of Games. Uh, he’s somebody who knows a little bit, I dare say, about this old game’s past. So here is what he had to tell us.
Brendan: To begin with, could you please introduce yourself to our listeners? Who are you and what do you do?
Ulrich Schädler: My name is Ulrich Schädler. I am an archeologist and historian of games, of the history of games. I’m the director of the Swiss Museum of Games, which is practically the only museum in Europe dedicated to the cultural history of games.
Brendan: So you’re an expert in very, very old board games.
Ulrich Schädler: Yes, you can say so, oui.
Brendan: For now, I’m just going to talk about chess. Firstly, could you tell us: who invented chess?
Ulrich Schädler: That’s a… this is a good question. Nobody has an answer or several people have several answers, but we do not know definitely. We know roughly about the time when chess came into being, must be around 500 CE, so about 1,500 years ago. And we do not really know whether it was in Northwest India or Persia [but it was] at least in this region [that] it was invented.
Brendan: So we know that it was invented in that region, but we can’t really pinpoint any individual or group.
Ulrich Schädler: No, no, there are several… of course there are legends in Persian literature. And there are legends in Indian literature who tell us about Kings, who were annoyed and asked their councillors to invent a game or something like that. But we do not know the name of the person. It’s like this with most of the traditional games. We have… you never, hardly ever, know the guy or the woman or whoever invented this game.
Brendan: But do we have any idea about what chess was like in the beginning? Were the rules different? Were the pieces different? Were they called different things?
Ulrich Schädler: Yes. We know, we know quite well in the 7th century when the Arabs conquered Persia that they discovered the game. They were so fond of the game that several people worked on it, they developed it, played it. And as a matter of fact, it was there in the 9th and 10th century, famous players, such as al-Adli [and] as-Suli, wrote books about chess and invented chess problems. And from these manuscripts, we know quite well, the rules. The rules were slightly different from modern chess, concerning the move of the Bishop and the queen. The queen, as a matter of fact in the early times was not a queen, but it was the councillor of the King or the minister or the general or something like that. The Vizier of the King. And this piece moved exactly one square diagonally. The Bishop, which was not the Bishop at the time but a war elephant, moved exactly two squares diagonally and he could also jump over another piece. And the rook at that time was not a rook. As a matter of fact, “rook”, the term “rook” comes from the Arabian word “rukh”. This was a chariot, a war chariot.
Brendan: Were there any other board games around at the same time, contemporaries of chess that were being played? Were there other board games that people would have known at the same time?
Ulrich Schädler: Yes, of course. Well, we know of a lot of… several board games from ancient Egypt, Babylon, from Greece and Rome, China also. So there were several games around. But what chess introduced into the world of board games was the differentiation of pieces. To have six different pieces with different moves and powers. This was really new. This was a completely new.
Brendan: Or some of those other games called I’ve heard of one Roman one, Latrunculi? Can you tell us a bit about that?
Ulrich Schädler: This is the game of little soldiers, the Ludus latrunculorum. This is a strategic board game with the two opponents, with the same number of pieces, all the same pieces. For example, black one has black pieces, the other white, or blue and white, or blue and yellow. And the aim was to capture the enemy’s pieces. We know that… capture was made through enclosure from two sides. But we do not know the details, for example, no ancient source tells us about how the pieces moved. These are things that are subject to suggestions.
Brendan: Were these games popular? Where they played by common people or were they only played by the aristocracy or the powerful classes?
Ulrich Schädler: No, no. They were certainly played by many people. Um, we know that Latrunculi was played by senators or rich people, of course, in the Roman aristocracy. But, um, several boards for the game have been found, especially in Britain, for example, in military context. So the legionaries played this game also. And then we find game boards scratched into the marble floors in Roman cities, also in buildings, public buildings, such as theaters. Practically everybody played board games at that time.
Brendan: To return to chess for just a second. When did it take on the kind of classical form that we know today?
Ulrich Schädler: This is a development of the last 500 years, as a matter of fact. Medieval chess is very slow. That’s just one piece with a long move. This was the rook. All the other pieces moved just one square or two squares maximum. So it takes a lot of time to… get into contact with the opponent’s pieces. People only rarely would play a complete game because it takes so long. So already in the 13th century, people had the feeling that the game was slow and took a long time and they prefer to play faster. And so they played problems, just problems.
Brendan: These are like chess puzzles that you would find in the newspaper or something.
Ulrich Schädler: Exactly like this, you know, “white to move” and “checkmate in so-and-so many moves” or something like that unti,l in the end of the 15th century, obviously in Spain, perhaps in Valencia, the chess players there, they came up with the idea to just change the move of the queen and of the bishop. And these are the moves with which we still play today.
Brendan: Why did chess proliferate in a way that other contemporary games didn’t? Or why did that survive? Why is it the one with staying power?
Ulrich Schädler: Obviously poses a challenge, an intellectual challenge that people obviously like. They like playful challenges like this, and chess is one of the most intriguing. No chess match is identical to another match. You can improve, you can improve step-by-step, you can get better and you can get deeper into the… into the secrets of the game. Today, for example, in video games, you can reach a stage and then the next level, and then the next level, the next level. And this is something that chess also produces. So it isn’t… it is not never… you can never explore the game completely, as you can with the race games, such as Senet or others. Many people became interested… in such a challenge.
Brendan: A historian like yourself, or an archeologist, will find board game pieces or boards when they dig up a tomb or whatever, but that board might not look like any other board that you’ve seen before. So how do you know what the rules to that game would have been?
Ulrich Schädler: You can’t. Once the rules of a game are lost, you will never be able to reconstruct them. Definitely. There are so many details in rules of games that you can just get an idea of, a rough idea, of what it is, how it worked, and then you have to make a lot of assumptions. Very often we can do comparisons with games, with existing games. And when it comes to historical games, Roman games or other games, we do not have the rules anymore. We can look into the history of games and look around. Are there similar games that are still played that share certain characteristics? For example, concerning the rules of the Latrunculi game, the Roman Latrunculi game, there’s a very similar game still around today in Northern Africa, which is called “Kharbga” in Algeria and Tunisia or “Seega”, which is very, very similar. Shares several characteristics of Latrunculi. And so we can get a better idea of how Latrunculi might have worked, but of course we can never be sure.
Brendan: So… unless you find the rules written down somewhere, or some other writing that gives you a clue as to what the rules are, it’s very hard to reverse engineer those rules.
Ulrich Schädler: Yes. Imagine you find a Ludo board, for example. Even if it was complete with all the pieces, four times four pieces, and the die or two dies, but you don’t have the rules… you will never be able to reconstruct the rules for certain, you can just make a good guess.
Brendan: Because I know you’ve reverse engineered the rules of Latrunculi. How have games gone when you’ve played this reconstructed version with somebody? Is it an enjoyable game?
Ulrich Schädler: Yes. So the version of we reconstructed, we proposed… The rules we proposed, we worked on this for a long time. We played with a lot of people. It’s a good game in our… from our point of view. Now, in antiquity, what people considered to be a good game… might also have been different. Our criteria for a “good game” may not be the same as in other countries or in other historical periods.
Brendan: Because history never really stops, so to speak, we see that even chess can change. There are variants of chess, even today, blitz chess, bullet chess. We even have this video game that we’ve been playing called 5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel. Given that a board game like chess can be so fluid. What do you think the future of chess might look like?
Ulrich Schädler: Well, I think chess will continue and continue to be played. Of course, we know that nowadays, not even the world champion can beat the computer, but let’s say 90% of the players do not reach that level. For them this is not a problem. You know… for them it is still a challenge to play against another one, another player, or even a playing against a computer at a lower level. It is still… a challenge, an intellectual challenge. It will continue to be played. And of course, we also, in the history of chess, what we find is there are a lot of variants that have been invented or created. And I think this will also go on. Chess will inspire people to… introduce variants or even inspire game designers to create games based on the principles of chess. We do not need to fear that the game will die out soon.
Brendan: You must have a lot of board games in the museum. Do you think that future historians will be able to understand the board games that we play today? If they find only a box of, you know, a very complicated modern board game. If they find any of the pieces and none of the writing, how much of a challenge do you think that would be?
Ulrich Schädler: This would be a… this will be a big challenge… Today board games that come on the market very often are quite complex. They use a lot of different material. Pieces, cards, all kinds of material. So this is practically impossible to reconstruct the rules if you cannot find them. But this is a general problem of: what will we leave behind? What will archeologists in 2000 years find when they dig us up? So…
Brendan: A lot of plastic, probably.
Ulrich Schädler: Plastic, perhaps, you know, this is difficult to say. Will they be able to read our digital archives? Will they have machines to read what we… what we put on our computers now? You know, it’s already difficult now for people to read floppy disks. This poses problems about the storage of data and how to be sure that data will be available… in the future.
Brendan: So if someone comes across a copy of Carcassonne, they stand no chance.
Ulrich Schädler: Probably a box or a game of made of cardboard will not survive for such a long time. But what we produce today, we see that it is mainly produced for, for a short period of time. We do not produce games, with the aim that they may be played in 100 years time we play for today. We produce things for today and we do not care about what will be in a hundred years. But all these box games, they will not, they will not survive – materially, you know? Maybe there, there will be something about it on the internet, something like this, if it still exists.
Brendan: The legend might live on.
Ulrich Schädler: The legend might live on.
Brendan: Okay. Ulrich, thank you very much for joining us.
Ulrich Schädler: You’re welcome. It was a pleasure
Brendan: That was Ulrich Schädler of the Swiss games museum. If you want to hear a longer, more in-depth recording of that, you can subscribe to our podcast on Patreon. For $2 a month you will get unabridged interviews with all of the experts that we have on – the space diplomats, the cave divers, the parasite biologists. Yes, those are all guests we’ve had on in the past. You get longer versions of the talks with all of those people. So go to patreon.com/heylesson or click the link below in the show notes to find out how to support us making these episodes. There are also some bonus episodes at a higher tier. And if you subscribe to that, you’ll get more Matt Cox!
Matt: Loads of me. I am on most of those.
Brendan: He’s already been on the show twice and you just haven’t heard it maybe. There’s no experts in those chats. It’s just wild, casual chat. But anyway, like I say, follow the link in the description to find out how to listen to those. Matt!
Brendan: You play chess. You’re a chess player, a chessist. When you learned chess for the first time, how did that happen?
Matt: I think, like a lot of people, that would be my dad teaching me, teaching me the ways of chess. We did the thing where for a long time, he’d play with a big handicap. And then as I got older and wiser, I’d gradually, gradually start getting a little bit better until the first day where I beat him without a handicap. And I certainly remember that as a nice little milestone.
Brendan: Was it like a moment of high drama. Was it a really tough game? And you just got around him?
Matt: I can’t remember the game itself, but I imagine it was very tense indeed.
Brendan: If you were a chess prodigy, you would probably be able to remember where all the pieces were and replay the game on a board for someone as a demonstration.
Matt: Yes. As I do all the time on my ceiling every night. I’m one of the wave of people that got into chess, or back into chess, after watching The Queen’s Gambit. It did make chess seem very sexy and cool, which is an achievement.
Brendan: Yeah. You can be really into chess and also party hard and take tranquilizers.
Matt: Not right now, though. Nowadays there is only chess.
Brendan: Your dad, when he was teaching you chess, did he give you any rundown of the history or the origin of the game, the stuff the Ulrich told us about?
Matt: He didn’t, it was a big failing of his.
Matt: I am intrigued by it though. I love the old version of chess, where it was just intolerably slow and no one bothered playing it. And it took people many years before they fixed it.
Brendan: They patched chess 900 years after first appeared. Yeah. Pretty late patch.
Matt: It does make you wonder: What’s the future of chess now?
Brendan: They’ll buff the pawns.
Matt: Maybe one day they’ll nerf the queen and everyone will get really angry.
Brendan: Or just give her a completely new playstyle. Like, she spawns pawns. Like she can only move a couple of spaces, but she farts out little pawns as if she’s a horrible insect queen.
Matt: I love it.
Brendan: When you do play chess now, do you play against people online? Like, how do you play?
Matt: I do. I play on chess.com, which, um, I’m told it’s not as good as Lichess, but I think it’s where I started and now I have this stupid allegiance to it based on nothing. I… what it is, is I’ve already pushed my number, my ELO ranking, to a certain point on chess.com. And I don’t want to start again on Lichess.
Brendan: Your ELO ranking, for anyone who doesn’t know, what is that?
Matt: It’s… your worth as a human.
Matt: Or it seems that way nowadays. I haven’t cared as much about a number that is attached to my, to my skills since playing Dota 2 way back in the day, where it was all I’d do every evening.
Brendan: So it’s like a, it’s a number that says you should play against other people here ranked at this number, at 1000 or whatever.
Matt: Yes. And I am at “1000 and whatever”, and I have been there for a frustratingly long time. When I started playing, I kind of said to myself, all right, I’m going to play until I reach a thousand because I started at 800, which isn’t very good. It’s really any bad. Like your grand masters, uh, or your international masters, I think are 2,500. Yeah.
Brendan: Yeah. But come on Matt, let’s not compare ourselves to the grandmasters at 2,500, okay? There are people at zero!
Matt: That’s true. I’m infinitely better than them.
Brendan: Have you been studying it? Like, in quotes, “studying” chess, or have you just been sort of playing it for larks?
Matt: See, I have a bit. Chess.com gives you a free month trial, which gives you access to all of their lessons. They’ve got a whole sort of course, which I did, where it kind of teaches you basic concepts that you might or might not know. So pinning, in which you position a more valuable enemy piece behind one of their less valuable pieces. So say you’re attacking a Queen with your Bishop and there’s a Knight in the middle of the way. That means they can’t move the Knight now because otherwise the Queen is buggered. That sort of thing.
Brendan: It’s like training a laser sight of a sniper rifle on a man with a shield, knowing that he’s in the way of the president.
Matt: It is exactly like that.
Brendan: If shield-man moves, that’s it. It’s game over.
Matt: Imagine a Hitman level that was just a chess board, or a chess conference. They’ve missed a trick there.
Brendan: That is a good one. Yeah. Like a… like a – whatchcallit – Bobby Fisher versus Spassky style chess game.
Brendan: Where it’s like the Russian Grandmaster and the American Grandmaster are facing off against each other. And you’ve got to assassinate one or both of them.
Matt: Absolutely. There’d be some way of embedding an exploding Knight onto the board.
Brendan: And outside the hotel or conference center, wherever they’re doing this, in Reykjavik or somewhere, they would have one of those big chess sets that sits out in the garden, you know, like a garden set with novelty-sized Knights that go up to your knee. And there’ll be guests milling around and playing that. And, uh, you know, maybe one of the grandmasters will come to kind of ponder this large chess board and you can whack them in the head with the queen or something.
Matt: So many possibilities
Matt: Oh, this is a good section of the podcast for anyone that knows what Hitman is.
Brendan: So you’ve been like, kind of studying it with these chess.com lessons. You said you’ve got the pin down.
Matt: Yeah. There’s also, I mean, what marks the men from the boys would be the extent of your knowledge of openings, which is where it does cross into the off-putting realm of learning. So obviously what happens at the start of a game of chess is super important. Cause you know, you’re setting up your positions for the rest of the game. Who controls vital spaces at the start determines where the game flows out from there. You know, there are a lot of moves that you can make at the start, but there’s only so many that are going to be good. And so some people have… well, a lot of people… have those down. And I think at the stage I’m at, you don’t need an extensive knowledge of all the openings, but you do benefit from knowing the standard ones… that people often use on you. So, um, a stupidly popular one is the “Fried Liver Attack”.
Brendan: Go on.
Matt: Where white moves out their Bishop and their Knight in an aggressive way where the Knight covers the weak Kings square. And that’s… if you don’t know how to rebuff that attack in a particular way, chances are you wind up losing a Rook at the start the game, which is a big deal. And you also have to potentially move your King at the start, which is super important because if you move your King, you can’t castle, which is the special move (I do love that chess has special moves) where yeah… if there are no pieces between your castle and your King, or your Rook and your King… and if the King hasn’t moved, then the King can move two spaces to the left and the castle jumps over it.
Brendan: It’s like the King is burrowing away into this little hole.
Brendan: I have to describe chess in these terms… a) because this is a podcast. So we can’t just show people moving around the board and why it makes sense that way. But also because chess is very dry. It’s very dry. A lot of people will look at the title of this episode and they’ll just go “Chess!? No thank you.”
Matt: So this is the thing. So far we have made it sound quite dry. Like, the studying part of it, which, you know, you do benefit from but you don’t necessarily have to do. If you don’t study it, yeah, you’re going to lose a bunch of games to people that know certain openings, but then you’ll… you’ll just get ranked against the people who also don’t really care. But while it is dry, in some ways it’s also really sharp. So the main thing I think that differentiates it from everything else I play is just how, how deadly moves can be. Like, as you were just saying, with that opening, if you… make a wrong move, if your opponent has done a certain thing at that critical juncture, that’s it, the game’s over. You’ve, you know… either lost outright or… if you’re down a piece in chess against somebody that knows what they’re doing, you don’t really have a chance. And yeah, that does add a kind of… this undercurrent of tension that doesn’t run through all that many games, where, where everything can so suddenly go so wrong.
Brendan: It’s like breaking a limb or something in the apocalypse. You know, there’s, there’s no hope if you’ve lost the use of one hand… you know, that’s it. It’s game over.
Matt: It is so demoralizing. I mean, it doesn’t genuinely feel like being stabbed, but it does sort of feel like being stabbed
Brendan: In the brain. Do you play those chess puzzles? Ulrich mentioned that chess, when it was old and boring and not very fast and people hadn’t patched it yet, they hadn’t buffed the pieces, that players… they played basically chess puzzles, which are like, you know, white-to-move, figure something out… black needs to get out of this – how? They have been getting formed since like the 1500s and we still haven’t run out of them – or even since before then… Do you play those things?
Matt: I’ve played a few of them. I probably spent about 10 minutes in total doing that. For me, I think I need to be against somebody. I want to be pitting my mind against theirs, not some contraption. There’s also the bit in Queen’s Gambit, where Beth Harmon is all, “I don’t do puzzles, they don’t reflect real games!” And, uh, I guess that’s kind of true. They’re very unusual circumstances that you get in puzzles, where the things are kind of… the pieces are set up in quite unusual positions.
Brendan: I like chess puzzles, I think, more than a normal game of chess, because I can’t be trounced. It’s just a matter of time. I suppose I can be trounced if I never figure out what the puzzle is.
Brendan: You say you have to play against friends, against another person. Do you play against your actual mates? And if so, is that weird? Is it stressful or competitive or playful?
Matt: I’ve played one game against somebody I know. I just mentioned, “Oh yeah, I’ve been playing a bit of chess” and she was like, “Oh, I’ll play you at chess.” And yeah, it’s fun. But you do get the problem where I, you know, I’ve been playing so much chess and when you play against somebody that hasn’t played since they were a kid…
Brendan: It’s not fair.
Matt: It’s quite far from a… from a balanced experience. I mean, it’s very… it’s a very brutal, brutal game where there are so many opening traps that you can fumble into.
Brendan: I find it kind of stressful because… there’s something about chess that makes it feel like you’re comparing IQs with whoever you’re playing against. Like, it takes a very specific set of mental skills. Like… if you’ve played a lot, obviously it makes a big difference either way. Um, but it tests your logic, your planning, your forward-thinking, it’s really hard to come away from a loss in chess without feeling like: “Well, I’m very stupid”. Like, it’s very difficult to stop that kind of idea. How do you… when you lose a game, what’s the pick-me-up?
Matt: Going back over the game in chess.com with the analytical tools that you get, uh, when you’re either paying for it as I am now or on your free trial, Where it’ll… the chess engine will analyze your game… So it will, you know, every individual move it will go, “Yeah, that was a decent move.” Or “that was stupid, you really should have done this”… You can get it where it only… where it runs through the key moments of the game and says: “Wow, this is where everything went wrong”. Yeah. I don’t feel that bad when I lose when this tool is so easily accessible for me to learn from, I guess… I mean it sounds pat, right? But every loss is a lesson.
Brendan: You’re not new to it exactly. But you’re coming in off the Queen’s Gambit wave, and I love how there could be, you know, people who’ve been playing chess their entire lives or whatever, people who were in chess clubs when they were in school and just never stopped. And they’re seeing this influx of new players, or new people who are interested in it. And it’s like that moment when a game has a weekend free trial, you know, Hunt: Showdown or something like that has a free weekend on Steam and all the professional players or people who’ve been playing for years, are rubbing their hands together. You know, Tekken is free for the weekend. And then you just go in and mop up. That could be you in two years.
Matt: The newbies are sequestered away though. They’re only fighting each other with their baby ELOs.
Brendan: I suppose you could Smurf. You know, that… smurfing? This is when, uh, someone playing a video game basically resets their character to zero so that their skill ranking is very low… for anyone who doesn’t know what the term is. So it’s like, if you’re playing a fighting game, you just reset all your save data. You’re back to the normal, you know, white belt rank. And then you just feel good about mopping the floor with everyone you meet.
Matt: I’m sure it happens. Although it’s very much a thing were winning is so much more satisfying when it’s off the back of a good move you did, rather than a stupid move your opponent made.
Brendan: I see what you mean. Yeah.
Matt: I even have it now where a lot of the time I’m playing, I’m playing the Ponziani opening.
Brendan: I know it well, I know it very well.
Matt: Where basically, you move in such a way that… there’s an opportunity to get checkmate along the left. If your opponent kind of plays into it. Or not checkmate, but they wind up losing a Rook. But there’s also another part of it where if you sneakily move… the pawn that is to the left of your Queen forward, it opens up this little sneaky route so that it can then attack the King. And what so many players don’t realize is that if they put one of their units, like along the middle of the board, so it’s kind of on the same line that the Queen can move to, where it is simultaneously threatening the King. And that, that piece early on, which is usually a Knight, that just… you’re down a knight within the opening moves of the game.
Matt: It’s kind of stopped feeling good. It’s felt like I’ve just, I’m just relying on this cheap trick.
Brendan: No! I think that’s… you’ve, you’ve you figured out your tactic, you know? It’s like a low sweep and they need to learn to block it. You know, it’s like a move in Overwatch, you know? It’s, McCree’s stun grenade, you know, and they need to figure out how to stay a good distance away from it. I’m trying to put this in video games terms so that anyone who doesn’t bother with chess could understand it’s exciting and not actually dry as hell.
Matt: It is. And it can be, you also get into this interesting territory where I found myself… I’m counting on them not playing as well as they could. I never have as much fun in those games as when I’m in a position where, whether I win or lose, it’s all down to me. So like, if you’re a sniper, right? A sniper in any, any shooter. Yeah, your opponent can duck around and stuff, but really it’s all about: can you click on their head quickly enough? And whether that goes wrong or right, is, you know, a consequence of your ability. It does lose something when you’re relying on your opponents being stupid. But then again, the other side of it is: people are so ridiculously good at chess.
Brendan: No. You’re trying to snipe someone who has thought far enough ahead to put a helmet on
Matt: Exactly. And that helmet is a thorough understanding of the Stafford Gambit.
Brendan: It’s been around for millennia and a half, in one form or another. There are a lot of known tricks and openings, like you say… As a new player, or relatively new, what are your top three tips and tricks for any chess match? I want, like, a really brief YouTube video from you saying, “Hey guys, what’s up. It’s time for the Ponziani!”
Matt: Well, I do recommend the Ponziani because it is satisfying. It’s one of these, um, it’s… a lot of openings, they kind of branch off into so many variants that it’s very hard to keep track of. Whereas the Ponziani, there are three simple moves near the start of it that you do in nearly every situation. So I’d look into that or go for the Queen’s Gambit as I did at the start, because it’s spicy and you get a kick out of being like, “Hey, the Queen’s Gambit!”
Brendan: I have a friend who, every time they see a chess move, they just go, “Now that’s what I call a Queen’s Gambit.” And it’s… it’s never unfunny.
Matt: Yeah, well, do that. Watch for bishops. Those have tripped me up more than anything else. Oh my goodness. Sneaky bishops, lurking very far away on a diagonal that your brain is maybe not programmed to recognize.
Brendan: That’s it, you’ve done three tip three tips. Ponziani, Queen’s Gambit, bishops.
Matt: All right. I would also say, go back over the games you lose and just do the “key moment” thing in chess.com, where it whizzes you through everything. And then you also get to watch all the pieces scurry around like they do in the Queen’s Gambit. And that’s fun.
Brendan: That’s a fourth tip. I have to edit that out. Do you play any weird variants?
Matt: I haven’t. I haven’t. But I did watch a video of an international master called Eric Rosen. He does Twitch streams and various videos. He’s a big champion of the Ponziani, but he was playing “Fog of War” chess the other day.
Brendan: Oh, I’ve heard of this. Go on. Explain “Fog of War” chess.
Matt: I mean, it’s basically your… you can only see as far as your pieces can move into. Which yeah, I haven’t played, but sounds vaguely terrifying.
Brendan: That’s amazing because suddenly pinning, like you were talking about before – where you stop one piece from moving because the piece behind it will get into trouble – becomes a lot more complex. The guy with the shield is suddenly throwing up a smoke bomb at the same time.
Matt: Yeah. I do like the idea of adding layers of bluffing and psychology to an extremely logical and organized game, a game of complete information, as they call them, perfect information.
Brendan: There are some really good ones on mobile phones. Like on the app stores and stuff. There are some fun games. There’s one called Chesh.
Matt: It’s just normal chess, but you’re drunk.
Brendan: It’s Chesh. And every time you play it, it invents new pieces and new rules, the pieces look completely different. Like they’re all weird and garbled and pixely and colorful.
Matt: Oh, that’s great.
Brendan: There’s another one called Really Bad Chess, which gives the player, each player, a totally randomized mix of usual chess pieces. And each player’s are different, [they] get different chess pieces. So one person might get a whole army of Knights and their opponent is saddled with like a bunch of pawns, but three Queens.
Matt: Oh, these sound great.
Brendan: I would recommend those to anyone who enjoys chess. I’ll put links to those in the, uh, in the show notes. And then there’s also 5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel, which is a game you can buy on Steam and we’ve played at least one game against each other. I want you to… as best you can …
Brendan: [laughing] Please explain. We don’t need to necessarily explain the, you know, the ins and outs of every rule, but just give us a taste of what 5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel is…
Matt: So it’s like normal chess, except every piece can also travel either into a parallel dimension or back in time. So you can have a board set up in a certain way, and then you move your Knight back to how the board was two moves ago. And now you’re… now you’ve got your opponent in check and there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s a nightmare.
Brendan: It’s wonderful. It’s one of the funniest games on Steam. It’s marked on Steam… you know the way games have different tags? So there’ll be like “RTS” or “story-driven” or whatever, for different video games. 5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel is tagged as “psychological horror”, which I think is perfect.
Matt: You love it. Your approach is like, “Oh yeah, you just move stuff and see what happens.” I don’t think you found it anything like as stressful as I do. It’s just so far beyond what I can keep track of that it upsets me.
Brendan: But that’s why… that’s why you’ve got to play it with the mindset of someone who’s traveling through time, without any regard for the consequences or repercussions, because you know, you can just travel back more in time.
Matt: There are so many consequences.
Brendan: I enjoy it a lot. If you were to design a video game-themed chess board, Matt Cox, what game would you choose? And what characters would take the place of which pieces?
Matt: Oh wow, what a question. I mean, my mind has immediately leaped to Dota 2.
Brendan: But Dota 2 Autochess already exists, right?
Matt: Oh, Christ. Yes. But that is so far away from what chess is. Yeah. That’s what I do. I’d have, I’d have the Dota roster. The game would start with you, uh, drafting from Dota’s 130-whatever heroes and each of your units would be a different one. Oh God, this is sounding worse than 5D Chess now.
Brendan: All right. That’s all we have time for. I’m afraid. You’ve been listening to Hey Lesson – Hey Chesson – with me, Brendan Caldwell and my guest this week, Matt Cox. Thank you very much for joining us.
Matt: Thanks for having me.
Brendan: Uh, where can people find on the internet? If they enjoy Matt Cox?
Matt: you can find me at Twitter @coccyxx.
Brendan: If you have enjoyed Matt, please throw a dollar in our tin at Patreon. If you become a regular donor, you get extra goodies, like I’ve talked about, including those other episodes with him.
Matt: It’s the main benefit.
Brendan: It’s the main benefit of signing up. Just go to patreon.com/heylesson, or click the link in the show notes below. We don’t have any ads on this show. We don’t get it sponsored by anybody. So we rely totally on people who have rinsed through our episodes and thought, “Oh, you know what? I like these people. I like what they do. I like their chess chat.” People like Bok Choy, who helps us out every month. People like Horrendomonas, shouldout to you too. And let’s not forget Milk Is Gross And Bad For You, which is the alias of one of our supporters, I’m not just getting angry about dairy.
Matt: Please support my subscription to chess.com.
Brendan: Matt, thank you once again for coming on. Always good to have you here.
Matt: Always good to be here.
Brendan: Let’s say goodbye to everyone. Goodbye everyone. And thank you for lessoning.