Here’s something interesting: according to the chess engine on lichess.org, the worst opening move in chess is either 1. g4 or 1. f3. The move 1. g4 only opens up the light-square bishop, doesn’t help at all in the center, leaves the king-side rook exposed, and removes a defender of white castles on the king’s side. 1. f3 doesn’t open up any pieces, opens up the king to an attack, and blocks the advance of the king-side knight. These moves are equivalent to giving up more than half a pawn’s worth of material.
Chess openings have names ranging from brief (“Scotch Game”) to less brief (“Ruy Lopez, modern Steinitz defence, fianchetto (Bronstein) variation”). These describe the first few moves of the game. The single moves above are called “Grob’s Attack” and the “Barnes Opening” respectively.
Henri Grob was a Swiss chess master in the mid twentieth century. According to semi-reliable sources, he was married nine times (1). Thomas Wilson Barnes was an English Chess master in the mid-nineteenth century. According to reliable sources, he “went on a diet and lost 130 pounds in ten months, which resulted in his death.” (2) (3)
Both would’ve kicked my butt in a game of chess. With the benefit of time and computers, we know that their eponymous openings are weak against optimal play, but, after the first move, their following play would have been much closer to optimal than mine.
The people I know with whom I’ve recently played chess are similarly much better than me. (4) When we play, I view it more as a self-esteem boost for them than a real contest. I can occasionally defeat strangers online, which is pretty fun. (5)
But, if you really want to see me get annihilated in a game of chess, watch me play against a computer. Computers are now reliably better than even the best human players, and are thus almost incomprehensibly better than me. And that’s sort of funny because I could sit down and program a computer chess player that’s better than me, and it would take less time than all the time I’ve spent playing, watching and reading about chess. That’s not a brag about my programming skills or an insult to my chess skills; it’s just that computers are very good at some things.
In fact, machines are very good at a lot of things. Machines can defeat humans at chess, sure, but if we let machines compete in the Olympics they’d crush us there too. The right machine could move faster, jump higher, and throw harder than any human. Every time I drive over thirty miles an hour, I yell out “YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE SO GREAT USAIN,” and then I do the finger wagging motion like “No, you’re not so great.” Machines are even better at making other machines than people are. (6)
But then machines have their weaknesses, too. I could easily beat my laptop in a footrace, and my car doesn’t even know how to play chess. So who’s really the greatest? (7)
(1) The assertion is made on Wikipedia, but there is a “” marker, so I dug up this forum post which cites New In Chess magazine. Specifically, the poster mentions this issue. I didn’t feel like paying $12.99 just to verify this claim, but I’m inclined to believe it because it would be a weird thing to lie about. If someone has $12.99 lying around, feel free to buy it and let me know.
(2) Again, I found this on Wikipedia, but I checked the source (The Oxford Companion to Chess) on Google Books and the fact does appear there.
(3) If I lost 130 pounds in 10 months, I would weigh about 20 pounds next June, but that’s neither here nor there.
(4) Shoutouts to Nate and Sam.
(5) You’re welcome Nate and Sam.
(6) This fact is the number one ingredient in my book Recipes for Robot Revolution.
(7) Me. America. LeBron James.
Tony graduated in 2012 with majors in mathematics and economics. He now lives in Chicago and is pursuing graduate study in economics. He also has a very good cultural trivia podcast called “Here’s My Number, So Call Me Ishmael” available on Libsyn, iTunes, and Google Play.