Two of the crowning achievements in artificial intelligence’s rise to world dominance involved the elegant games of chess and go. The first step in the ladder was IBM’s Deep Blue victory over the legendary chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997. The next moment of triumph didn’t come for nearly another 10 years, when Google’s AlphaGo dominated over the world champion, Lee Sedol, 4 to 1.
Both of these games have somehow become a valuable marker of human capability, while simultaneously seen as a fringe marker of human awkwardness. Obsessing over little black and white pieces on a square board is an eccentric human quality that may seem an odd quirk. Yet, there is something fascinating about these games in their simplicity and complexity that give them a lasting legacy, serving as immense hurdles for testing intelligence, whether human or artificial.
Each of the games are built on beautifully simple rules. Each is contained within the space of a defined grid, have two players, and the pieces have defined moves that live or die on the board. It is a battle of the wits based on the fairest of conditions. Both sides have the same pieces, the same number of move, the same board. There is no luck involved. No shuffled deck of cards. No dice. It is pure skill and strategy that leads to victory here. With approximately 10⁵⁰ and 10¹⁷⁰ possible states in chess and go respectively, it is literally impossible to memorize all the moves. A combination of practice, memory, and intuition form the art of play.
Though they are similar, the games also have significant differences that closely reflect the societal philosophies of their most prominent regions. Chess, being a mainly Western game, contains a wide cast of characters and a hierarchy of power. Pawns lead the front line, charging blindly forward to make space for the specialized backline like the infantry charging into battle. The most capable piece is the queen, and, arguably the most powerful, is the king. The king controls the game. The game is not over until the king is indefinitely trapped. So, the game of chess ultimately focuses on targeting and defeating a single target in an army with a wide range of abilities. Go, on the other hand, has none of this.
In the game of go, a predominantly Eastern game, every piece is identical. No one stone is more capable than the next. Each one is part of a collective that helps to spread and capture territory across the much larger board. It is the placement of a given piece that gives it its role and importance, as opposed to its predefined abilities. Various fronts are spread throughout the board like the bird’s eye view of a general assessing the battlefront on a map. As each battle expands, they converge with one another. So, the focus is to anticipate how to coordinate your army to best position itself to hold the line.
Both games have some key opening moves. Mathematically, early moves heavily influence potential future board states, so the opening tends to be special. The way each game starts, however, is entirely different. For go, the board starts off completely empty, a blank slate. As stones are placed, the game grows along with the complexity. Chess, on the other hand, starts with all the pieces on the board. As play progresses, the number gets whittled down through attacks and sacrifices as it approaches the endgame. Chess is a bloody battle at the frontlines, while go is the war itself. The direct action versus the big picture. This reflects the differences in perception of scope between the East and West. In the West, the tendency is to focus on the subject over the context, like fish in a tank, but in the East, the whole picture is more important like the tank itself and everything in it.
The board itself also carries some distinct differences. The chess board is smaller, consisting of an 8x8 grid of 64 spaces. The spaces alternate in colour between dark and light, which is more of an aesthetic quirk given that chess originally had single coloured boards. Go has a board sized 19x19 with 361 points, not spaces. Go pieces live on the intersections of the lines instead of inside the squares like chess. This division and use of space are significant when it comes to the main mechanism of either game — the attack.
Chess pieces are captured or killed by having one piece invade the space of another. The black bishop will slide into the white knight, removing it from the board, and overtaking its space. The graceful stones of go however live on points of intersections between lines, each with four liberties of adjacent spaces that keep it alive. Only when a piece is completely surrounded will it be captured and removed from the board. However, the liberties chain together with adjoined pieces, forming the basis of go strategy. Chess has its own forms of defense where one piece covers the back of another, but even so there is nothing preventing the opposing team from capturing it anyway even if only to sacrifice their own piece. In chess, each piece stands on its own and hold significant power. In go, there is only strength in the group while individuals are the weak link.
Chess is a bloody battle at the frontlines, while go is the war itself
I find it fascinating how closely these games parallel their most prominent host regions. Both of these games have managed to accumulate a global reach, yet chess remains predominantly Western while the game of go is almost exclusively played in the East. I believe that every region is bound by the emergent properties of its citizens and its government. There are deeply rooted characteristics, an inherent personality, that define the population of a nation that bubble up through its inhabitants.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that these games live where they live. Chess carries with it a more aggressive nature that suits the West. Each attack is upfront and casualties are necessary. The battle happens up front, in direct view. Go, with its higher level view, abstracts away from the direct conflicts. It fits well with the Eastern tendency to save face by sweeping the messy details behind the veil of higher ideals.
One thing these games do share, though, are their allegory for intellectual and strategic dominance. Every society, no matter Eastern or Western in nature, has a strong sense of pride. They covet the need to display their prowess through symbolic means, whether that’s space travel, or their dominance in complex games. Being the best at something hard was a top priority for all the men that lead these nations, and with the on-going race of artificial intelligence, it still might be.
But I can’t help but wonder, with AI having dominated both of these games against humans, will they still carry any significance? Maybe the era of black and white is coming to an end.