Check Mates: the internet and the mythology of genius in chess

Digital environments have morphed the place and reality of an age-old game.

It’s often said that chess is a game so simple you can learn it in a day, yet so difficult that it will forever be used as a clichéd metaphor (I’m looking at you, The Wire). No game will ever evoke the hyperbole of genius like chess, whose glossary of terms including ‘grandmaster’, ‘zwischenzug’, ‘fianchetto’ and ‘en passant’ sound like they came straight from a textbook or science fiction novel. Like all  geniuses, chess grandmasters are characterised as enigmatic and eccentric, and the folklore behind famous chess games is so romanticised it gets its own preamble in Wikipedia articles.

The Opera Game is perhaps the most well-known chess game, played between prodigious Paul Morphy and the Duke of Brunswick in 1858 during a performance of Norma at the Italian Opera House in Paris. The game itself is about as dramatic as its backdrop suggests; Morphy won in 17 moves by sacrificing nearly all his pieces in a display that still today is considered an exemplar of flair and beauty in chess. Legend has it that this brilliancy was a result of Morphy wanting to finish as quickly as possible so he could continue watching the Opera.

But something has happened to the mythos of the chess grandmaster. The advent of powerful computer chess engines has contributed more to our understanding of the game than centuries of theory. We can quantify the quality of a given move, by comparing it to what a computer suggests, meaning mistakes become objective, and accurate moves not brilliant, but necessary. The skills of the top chess grandmasters no longer draw comparison to divine inspiration or tactical wizardry, rather, accurate and precise play is most heavily complimented as being ‘machine-like’. Put another way, the Opera Game is far too simple to be recreated at the highest level today—such a game would be considered a failure of the opponent, instead of a display of genius.

So, one might ask why we have human chess players at all nowadays? Where can the future of chess go when the epitome of skill is to just emulate machines who have eclipsed the highest level of human ability for over two decades? Yet the game persists, and interest in chess continues to grow both as a game and as a cultural symbol. The reason for its survival, perhaps, is that chess is more accessible than ever. As the myth dies, what’s left is something human and relatable.

The current world chess champion, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, is arguably the strongest chess player in history. He is the highest rated player in classical, rapid and blitz chess formats. In 2016, Carlsen played 70 games simultaneously at an exhibition in Hamburg, losing only one game. Magnus Carlsen is very good at chess, and yet he will never have an Opera Game. What he does have is 200k followers on Twitter, where he shares his love of basketball, his cameo on an episode of The Simpsons, and as this year, a successful online chess streaming account. It’s in these streams where we are shown a glimpse into what makes a world chess champion think; where over a millennium of accrued theory culminates to give us the strongest chess mind the world has ever seen.

In one such stream, the Italian Opera House is substituted for a bedroom in Norway, where Magnus sits, slouched in his chair. The Duke of Brunswick is replaced by countless virtual faceless opponents, as thousands of fans tune in from over the world. The music of Norma is instead swapped out for the dulcet tones of Eminem, Dr. Dre and Young Jeezy, playing from Magnus’ speakers. More incredible than his skill is how relaxed and casual he appears. He’s playing one-minute ‘hyperbullet’ games which blaze by at incomprehensible speed. After one such game, which he wins convincingly, he takes a swig from a bottle of Corona then quips to his audience: “I played a similar game in 2007”.

One would be forgiven for feeling like a rug had been pulled from underneath them. Without the pompousness and the romance that was once attributed to chess, what’s left for us to confront is the simple reality that the genius in front of us is not some superhuman, but instead a person who has worked vigorously hard to become great at a game. Watching him in real time, the method to his madness becomes more transparent, and the façade of an elevated, enigmatic genius is quickly shattered. The internet has broken down a communication barrier between the layman and the expert, and peering into the mind of a chess grandmaster reveals more similarities than differences. We may never see another Opera Game, but that’s okay, because to elevate real people and stories to the status of myth is to deny the wonder that is human achievement, banal as it can be.

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