The language of chess

There are many things that appeal to me about chess, and perhaps in some future post I’ll list them all, but one of the most important is the way that it creates a whole new sophisticated language, with inflection and shades of meaning, that doesn’t map to English (or whatever human language you care to choose) at all.

Music is the most obvious other abstract system like this. Music has a whole theory of meaning and communication, of what the composer is “saying” to the listener over the course of a piece, whether that is setting up expectations and fulfilling or dashing them, or getting a reaction out of a unexpectedly piquant chord or melodic leap or rhythmic displacement or what have you. There are a few obvious correlations to “actual” semantic meaning (major is happy! minor is sad! fast is exciting!) but largely music remains an abstract closed system. It mostly doesn’t refer to anything outside of itself (tone poems aside), and although it can be analyzed and frequently is, it has to be analyzed on its own terms, and not by “translating” it; it has some sort of “meaning” in the same way that English sentences have meaning, but there’s no mapping between the two spheres. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend Leonard Meyer’s Emotion and Meaning in Music.)

Anyway, this post is supposedly about chess, not music. My point is that chess games and positions also carry some sort of untranslatable-to-language abstract semantic content, and that the richness of this content and the fact that it has no linguistic analog is one of the things that makes chess so aesthetically appealing to its devotees.

It’s so abstract it’s hard for me to put into words, but a chess enthusiast gets a certain feeling when he or she glances at a board and sees an open position as opposed to a closed or semi-closed one; or looks at possible pawn breaks; or notices that one player has sacked material for the initiative; or sees a fianchettoed bishop, or the possibility of a standard Bxh7+ sac, or a “bone-in-the-throat” pawn on e6, or Alekhine’s gun lined up, or a good vs bad bishop, or… I could name dozens of these, but the point is that they are supremely meaningful to me (in that they literally have meaning) and probably mean nothing to you. Not everything about chess always appeals to me — the competitive aspects, the need to calculate extremely accurately and to memorize openings and endgame techniques — but I will never tire of this aesthetic aspect of it.

(As I was writing this, I found an interesting attempt to make connections between two of these “languages”: Haskell Small’s “A Game of Go”, a musical accompaniment to a classic game of Go (about which I could say many of the same things). It’s a really cool idea, although it doesn’t get much past some basic correspondences (ko fights are tense! things wind down in the endgame!). I suppose that if it had been easier to make one-to-one correspondences between Go and music, my whole point that they are interesting and unique complex systems would have been undermined.)

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4 Responses to “The language of chess”

  1. Fr. Terry Donahue, CC says:

    Hey dfan,

    Funny that I stumbled across your (relatively new) blog around the same time that I’ve had a renewed interest in chess. I know from experience exactly what you’ve described about the semantic content of chess positions.

    I had a related train of thought after spending some time walking through some ridiculously long winning lines ( – see post #311 and #316 in particular) from those infamous Endgame Tablebases (

    When these difficult endgames appear over the board, especially in speedchess games, an interesting question arises. Can mere mortals win these technically-won positions over the board, and if so, how?

    For an example of a speed chess game of R+B vs. N+N, see # 369 at – The graph of “Distance to Mate” from move to move in these positions showed that the R+B player did make progress over time, but then slipped back, and eventually gave up.

    I think the frustration of these “fringe” positions is precisely that the standard semantic content of chess (such as king safety, pins, piece activity, piece coordination, etc.) is either absent, no longer applies, or is transcended by yet deeper semantic content that only a different kind of mind could recognize.

    For instance, if one takes two position snapshots (200 moves apart) from Bourzutschky & Konoval’s 517-move (Distance to Conversion) win in QN vs. RBN, humans can’t recognize in which position white has made more progress (see #370 at the above link).

    Watching anyone play such positions correctly would prompt one to say, “He plays a game with which I am unfamiliar” (Bobby Jones, commenting on the golfing of Jack Nicklaus).

    P.S. Yes, this is the Terry from MIT ’89, Xtank, etc. Long time no see! I enjoy your blog.

  2. dfan says:

    Hi Terry, nice to hear from you!

    I agree that those kind of tablebase positions have no semantic content in the sense I mean, and therefore aren’t interesting to me as a human chessplayer. Not all chess thinking maps easily to words, but the “thinking” required to win one of those positions is so structureless and alien to me that it becomes devoid of “meaning”.

    I’m sure that for someone with a religious bent, the way that this example illustrates the differences between what the human intellect is capable of and what an intellectually omnipotent being could handle (does God “understand” how to win K+R+B vs K+N+N the way that I understand how to win K+B+N vs K?) is pretty interesting food for thought.

  3. Fr. Terry Donahue, CC says:

    Interesting idea about a divine (or even super-intelligent) mind’s understanding of such games. Another way of thinking about it is this: What would be God’s move-by-move commentary on the KRB vs KNN? What key positions would be chosen? Would any of the concepts used be transferrable to other endgames?

    On an unrelated topic, given your experience with Interactive Fiction (I enjoyed “For a Change” a while back), do you have any recommendations for specific examples of IF that would be of high quality and suitable for a 9 year-old? Also, any recommendations for teaching IF programming to that age group (for those with some programming experience)?

  4. dfan says:

    Another interesting thing is that in this tablebase case, a sense of understanding is provably unnecessary – a stupid machine with nothing more than a huge database can already play these endings perfectly. That’s a big difference from a hypothetical divine mind that could play the entire game of chess perfectly, which is physically impossible for a machine just due to the resources required.

    I asked some friends for IF suggestions for children and one of them pointed me at this recent poll: Note that the reference to “Grunk” in the text at the top refers to the game Lost Pig. As far as teaching goes, the main thing I’d suggest is the language Inform 7, which is a good newbie language as far as being quite interesting from a computer science point of view, as I’m sure you’ll notice if you take a look – is the place to start.

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