Some people believe that the word 'science', in all of its forms, has been misappropriated and is now overused.

Nowadays, anyone hawking a beauty product, organic food or sleep aid only needs to tout that their product has been scientifically proven to help with ..., to reduce the effects of ..., and to promote... whatever the product is supposed to boost or counteract.

And, in these days of the coronavirus, don't we all tune out when talking heads start blathering about 'the science'? "Follow the science", they say, or "The science shows..." or "Science isn't a crystal ball; it can't show us the future!"

But wait! We're not done listing the many ways science has been overused yet!

There's the science of happiness and the science of sleep, the science of well-being and the science of breadmaking - another 'science' we saw entirely too much of in the early days of the pandemic.

Considering how many 'the science of' there are, is it any wonder that people discredit the science of chess? If you're among them, Superprof avers that you've gone one discounting too far.

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How is Chess Different From Other Games?

Humans have been devising ways to entertain themselves since before civilizations were established. They painted on cave walls, invented worlds replete with deities and mythical creatures and, as archaeology has shown us time and again, crafted toys for their young to play with.

They also crafted board games millennia before boards as we know them could be manufactured. One of the world's oldest board games, backgammon, originated in 2000BC and the Royal Game of Ur predates it by about 260 years.

There's no given reason why people gave up on the royal game of ur
Nobody knows why people stopped playing the Royal Game of Uri. Source: Wikipedia Credit: BabelStone

Around 1300BC, games of military strategy emerged. Centuries later, Tafl games, the Celtic/Germanic forerunners of chess emerged in Europe while India developed a game called Chaturanga.

Incidentally, the German word Tafel, derived from Tafl, means board. That's likely where the description for such games came from.

Interestingly, some of these games - backgammon, checkers and even an early prototype for Monopoly called The Landlord's Game from 1903 are still played today. What makes chess stand out from these games is its constant evolution.

There's been little change to the game's format - the chessboard or the pieces, nor has there been any change to how the game is played and what the objective is. What sets chess apart is how chess players study games played by chess masters to improve on their tactics and strategies, and develop new theories.

Doesn't that sound an awful lot like what biologists, physicists and cosmologists do?

By contrast, backgammon, a much older game, lacks the attention, devotion and development of chess. Thus, most aspects of backgammon remain unchallenged and unchanged over time - a decidedly unscientific process and outcome.

True, backgammon has theories similar to chess - opening theory and a loosely applied game theory. However, a backgammon outcome relies, to a certain extent, on luck - literally, a roll of the dice while chess relies entirely on players' ability to analyse the game and carry out their strategies in real-time, grounded in the knowledge of every previous chess game they've played or studied.

Here, too, it's easy to see chess' connection to scientific procedure.

Finally, chess literature abounds. Not just fiction such as The Queen's Gambit, the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis that the Netflix series is based on but records of past games in the form of chess notation and volumes upon volumes of chess theory, written by chess masters past and present.

By exposing the many faces of chess, we could go much further to make the point that this game, like science, is a constantly evolving discipline. For now, let's consider the point made that, unlike other ancient board games still played today, the knowledge base for chess is vast, with new theories and hypotheses being tested and added all the time.

Chess pieces used to look very different
Before 1849, when chess pieces were standardised, players confronted armies of differently-designed pieces. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Gustav Selenus

The Evolution of Chess

From its humble beginnings - two blokes killing time till the next military quest, until now, the game of chess has undergone many changes.

In one form or another - and one name or another, military strategy games have ruled the board game circuit since the dawn of civilisation. As tools, materials and manufacturing processes grew more refined, so too did the crafting of chess sets. And, as those sets became more widely available, more people played.

Although the Vikings had their version of chess, the aforementioned Tafl that they took with them everywhere they sailed and conquered, ultimately, it was chaturanga, the Indian/Persian version of the game that dominated.

When it finally landed in Europe, sometime in the 16th Century, there were no chess clocks or notation; even the pieces weren't the same from one chess set to the next... but the game's rules and objective remained the same.

Chess turned into the game we play today during the 1500s. This Renaissance period was far easier on societies; suddenly people had time to contemplate things other than their immediate survival. They also had leisure time to spend; some of the most fertile minds spent theirs on chess.

Developing chess theory was slow, at first, but picked up around the mid-1700s. French chess master Francois-Andre Philidor published his work, Analysis of Chess around that time; it opened the floodgates of new ideas and chess theories.  From there:

  • chess sets were standardised
  • chess clocks were introduced
  • the first chess tournaments took place
  • correspondence chess allowed chess masters to play long-distance
  • the first world chess champions are crowned
  • a new school of chess, hypermodernism, is introduced
  • hypermodernism clashes with dynamism
  • the International Chess Federation is established
  • new types of chess emerge: rapid chess, bullet chess and blitz chess
  • the chess supercomputer Deep Blue defeats the reigning World Chess Champion, ushering the age of computer chess

None of these changes took place in a vacuum. Taking steps similar to those followed in scientific discovery, each development of chess relied on logic, principle and empirical evidence to advance the game.

For example, by standardising the game's pieces, chess players from different regions were able to visually recognise knights, rooks and bishops.

Likewise, by introducing chess clocks, players are better able to measure their performance and ability to play under pressure. With such performance standards set, it became easy to rank chess players according to their level of skill.

Although playing under time constraints does nothing for chess' image as a mindfulness vehicle, keeping players to a time limit allows for more expedient development of chess theory.

After all, every scientist knows that time plays a crucial role in how experiments are conducted.

Chess clocks were used for the first time at the 1883 London chess tournament
Chess clocks made their debut at the 1883 London chess tournament. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Mbdortmund

How Chess Parallels Science

Just as sports science, unlikely as it sounds, is a growing field, chess science continues to thrive, with grandmasters and chess champions constantly adding new theories and permutations to the game.

For that reason, chess can legitimately be called a science, just as it can be called a sport. So what does the science of chess involve, and how like more conventional science disciplines is it?

Science continuously builds on existing knowledge and establishes new knowledge; so does chess.

For most of human history, both scientists and chess players operated in relative isolation. Galileo, Mendeleev and Mendel worked alone, with little chance to compare their findings with others who were studying the same phenomena. Similarly, chess players were restricted to their geographic region and the players available there to build and develop their strategies and theories.

It was only when cooperation and collaboration were made easier - through the printing press, correspondence, symposiums and other knowledge-sharing pathways that both chess and science could advance.

Much of the work in science revolves around observing and recording phenomena, formulating theories as to why the phenomenon came to be and then, testing their hypotheses.

Chess works in much the same way. A chess player executes a new strategy, tactic or move sequence, the process of which is recorded and the outcome dissected and studied, which then leads to further hypotheses to test.

It sounds counterintuitive that scientists formulate theories and then submit them to proven wrong. Karl Rainer Popper, the Austrian academic, put it best: good science does not try to corroborate theories, it seeks to destroy them.

A genuine fan of empirical falsification was he!

Falsification signals nothing nefarious; only the idea that any theory can be refuted. Since nobody possesses all the knowledge to be had - the journey of discovery is eternal, new evidence could arise to disprove any theory. Thus, the best outcome any scientist could hope for is corroboration of their theories. Verification remains forever out of reach.

Scientists are forever falsifying their experiments; chess players constantly strive to falsify their theories, too.

If you've watched The Queen's Gambit, you've seen a prime example of chess falsification when an assortment of chess players gather at Benny's apartment to refute all of the possible theories that Beth might encounter at the tournament in Russia.

Good chess players develop their knowledge and skills the same way that empirical scientists do: by studying the literature, formulating theories and then, offering them up for falsification.

Now, with conclusive proof that chess is a science, attained through a high level of corroboration, it's time to discover how chess is an art.

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.