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.