Mais c’est quoi ce jeu?

Chess is a product of a complex interplay between chessmen. This complex system is different than sum of isolated pieces that collectively make it up. Through interactions of pieces, entirely new qualities emerge (hence, emergent system). From a relatively small number of pieces and simple interactions between them, based on few basic rules, a surprising complexity is generated and a rich and beautiful world of chess rises up.

However, knowing the basic laws of the emergent system is insufficient for us to fully understand its functioning. Yet, mastering the basic set of rules in any domain (chess, music, literature, etc.) is the first, indispensable step for us if we really want to get beyond the boundaries of the ordinary and into the realm of creativity. This is what Prof. Csikszentmihalyi is considering as a necessary precondition for any creative enterprise.

So what is the basic set of rules in chess? If you ask someone about it, you may have very different answers.

In fact, the core rules of chess are contained in:

1) piece properties (power and body effect)

2) elementary piece contacts (representing four functions or duties pieces have: attack, protection, restriction, and blocking)

Surprisingly, that’s all. That’s the foundation upon which the entire edifice of chess resides.

Aside from these basic rules, there is a set of arbitrary chess rules that really don’t change the essential nature of the game (for example, en-passant, castling, stalemate rule, and so on.)

What is this game, anyway? Chess art by Miss Boll

As an emergent system, chess has to be studied as a whole and as a nested network of elementary relationships. It’s top-down and bottom-up at the same time.

Now, when you’re thinking for your next move, some mental functions are at work:

First, by observing the position, you break things down into elementary relationships mentioned above (you “read” the position by help of the four letters of the chess alphabet: A, P, R, B). This should come before anything else. You should analyze these elementary contacts for every piece on the board. We may call this contacts examination, or piece status examination. For example, you want to see whether a piece is under attack, how restricted it is in its movements, is it protected or hanging, etc.

If you don’t see all this basic information, it’s like flying your jet with eyes closed.

Next, out of these separate elements you begin building up the big picture to form a coherent whole. It’s bottom-up part, sort of synthesis that involves putting together the parts you analyzed before, but now combined with other information kicking in, basically your previous knowledge and experience. This is creative and mostly intuitive process. But again, it won’t be possible without breaking things down at the first phase of the process which also runs mostly automatic.

Finally, you evaluate the situation by judging it on scales of relative values.

You make the decision and you act – you make your move.

Chess art by Miss Boll

Again, the above mental process is mostly automatic. Our brain runs largely on autopilot.

The left side of the brain, “the interpreter” is where codes for meaning and understanding of the world around us are stored.  Codes serve to convert the visual input of the outside world taken by the right side of the brain, our visual-spatial expert. If the right side of the brain “seeing” a chess position has no language, or code in the left brain, to name it, you can’t really grasp the meaning of the position on the board, you are kind of blind to it.

Imagine that you are trying to figure out meaning of what’s printed on a page of a book written in a language you’re not familiar with. As you’re unfamiliar with the code, in other words, with the alphabet of that language, you’re unable to see the meaning.

The same goes in chess. If you are not familiar with the chess alphabet, which consist of only four letters, A, P, R and B, you’re severely impaired to understand what’s going on on the chessboard. Your chess vision is all but disabled.

You cannot fly your jet with eyes closed.

* * *

All this shows how important it is for elementary contacts to be included in the process of teaching and learning as early as possible (again, Nimtzovich showed that clearly back in 1929). Yet, the entire contacts approach flies in the face of the way chess is typically taught.

Next time we are going to take a concrete chess position and use the contacts method to break things down into elements before building them back up.

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