Four Incredible Facts About Chess

Four Incredible Facts About Chess
(Dave Zajac /Record-Journal via AP)
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Chess has captivated the world like no other board game has. Arising somewhere in Asia in the 7th century A.D., it has since spread globally, attracting players of all ages and backgrounds, entranced by a game quintessentially simple to play and maddeningly difficult to master. Featuring pieces like rooks, knights, bishops, and pawns, each with their own unique abilities, the game pits players against each other as well as themselves... What piece to play? What move to make? Should I attack? Defend? The choices can be myriad, testing the mind to its limits.

Here are four incredible facts about chess.

1. Practically Infinite Possibilities. There are 318,979,564,000 potential ways of playing the first four moves for both sides in a game of chess. The possibilities grow even more mind-blowing from there. American mathematician Claude Shannon calculated that at least 10120 unique chess games can be played. (For comparison, there are roughly 1080 electrons in the Universe.) And that's just a learned estimate. The actual number is likely even higher. As Jonathan Schaeffer, a computer scientist at the University of Alberta, told Popular Science, “The possible number of chess games is so huge that no one will invest the effort to calculate the exact number.”

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2. The Long and Short of Chess. While chess can be played in virtually endless ways, the longest game theoretically possible is 5,900 moves. That's because of three rules: the 50-move rule, the three-move repetition rule, and the insufficient material rule. If fifty moves are made without a pawn move or piece capture, the game ends in a draw. If a move is repeated three times, the game ends in a draw. If there isn't sufficient pieces on the board to checkmate either of the kings, the game will be declared a draw. Given these constraints, chess afficianado Braden Laughlin calculated the longest possible game is roughly 5,900 moves.

Though a game can last 5,900 moves, no one has never gotten close to that. The longest tournament game ever played occurred in 1989, lasting 269 moves and taking twenty hours to complete.

The shortest possible game is two moves, ending in what's called the "Fool's mate," pictured right.

3. Computers Conquer. In 1988, the computer Deep Thought (named for the fictional machine in Douglas Adams' book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) became the first computer to defeat a grand master in a tournament game. More than thirty years later, humans no longer stand a chance against the top chess computers. Magnus Carlsen, the reigning world chess champion, has an Elo rating (a mathematical way to measure chess skill) of 2847, more than 700 points lower than the leading computer. Steadily increasing processing power and machine learning means that computers are still increasing their edge.

4. A Big Boost to Academics. Playing chess has been widely hypothesized to boost academic performance by training the mind, and in 2019, a published study provided evidence to back it up. Dr. David Poston, a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, tracked the education of elementary school children who participated in chess club and of those who did not. "The benefits of chess are strongly tied to “learning” the game," he wrote, "the more you learn, the more you benefit. Kids who come only to chess club receive a small (5%-10%) benefit in math, whereas kids who play in rated tournaments gain substantially in math (30%-50%) and significantly in reading (10%-20%). The benefits also continue to grow as kids play more tournaments and/or increase their USCF chess rating."

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