En Passant

Published 19 years, 6 months past

Last night, during a small window of down time (the first in almost a week), I fired up Freeverse‘s entirely free yet thoroughly gorgeous Big Bang Chess.  Now, it should be stated right up front that I’m not really a fan of chess.  Oh, sure, Game of Kings and all that, but generally I find it to be an almost even mixture of boredom and frustration.  The latter is particularly true because I’m just not very good at the game.  There’s too much going on, and I have to juggle too many things that might or might not happen, for it to be much fun for me.

But I was looking to keep myself occupied for a few minutes, and I have very few games installed on the laptop, so Big Bang Chess got the nod.  I immediately cranked the AI setting all the way over to the left (thus elevating fast thinking above smart thinking) and started playing.  As I blew through a few quick matches, it occurred to me that there are a few things that a computer chess game could do to make me more interested.

Human-like turn lengths for the AI.

One of the things that most often frustrates me about computer chess is that the AI will make a move within seconds of my making a move.  More often, it will do so immediately.  Then I sit there, thinking my slow organic thoughts, feeling vaguely stupid for being such a slowpoke even though I know there’s no direct comparison.  Eventually, I make a move.  Instantly, the computer makes its move.  My first reaction is, “That was awfully quick.  Was he waiting for the move I just made?  Did I just walk into a trap?  What am I missing?”  And then I go hunting around the board, not sure where to look, not sure that there’s even anything to see.

I’m aware that the computer needs only a fraction of a second to run through possible moves and pick one.  If it’s a really advanced system, it may take 20 or 30 seconds as it looks five moves ahead.  If the computer took a human amount of time before moving, say a few minutes, I’d feel more at ease.  Yes, I know that means having the computer pick a move and then do absolutely nothing for a few minutes.  I don’t care.  This is purely a matter of acting in a manner that makes me more comfortable, and therefore more likely to enjoy the entire process.  The UI could have a “go ahead and move” button tucked away in a corner for me to use if I ever got tired of waiting.

I realized this was what I wanted when I asked myself why I was setting the AI to be quick at the expense of being smart.  Aside from making it more likely that I’d win, I realized it was because I felt like if the computer was going to move at a speed that, subjectively, seemed reckless and devoid of consideration, then its moves should reflect that.  And they do.  But even if I set the AI to be as smart as possible, it’s still going to seem to me like it’s moving without putting much thought into its game.

So put up a picture of an opponent who looks around the board, holds a chin in his or her hand as if pondering deep thoughts, leans back in reflection, and generally acts like it’s still thinking even though it picked a move three minutes ago.  It will make the game more enjoyable.

An option to show all of the squares that any enemy piece can reach.

Part of my problem in chess is that I don’t have the patience to figure out whether a given square I’m considering occupying (or piece I’m thinking about taking) is already covered.  That’s largely due to all the possible ways a square can be covered.  Is there a knight within striking distance?  Can a bishop jump over from the other side of the board?  And so on.  It isn’t that I can’t manage this mental feat.  It’s just that I have little interest in doing so for every single last square that interests me, turn after turn.  So if a game tinted all enemy-reachable squares red, for example, I’d have a much better grasp of the strategic situation.

This would obviously be an option in the preferences, albeit one I’d never disable.  Having a similar “tint all squares my pieces can reach” option would be cool, too.  It would be even better if the amount of tinting of a square was based on the number of pieces that could move to it.

This kind of visualization would keep me from making stupid mistakes, and mean a lot less use of the “Undo move” option.  Who knows?  Maybe with enough play in that mode, I’d eventually reach the point where I didn’t need the help.

The ability to somehow create variant games.

Back in high school, I was a member of the chess club, mostly because a lot of my friends were members.  Also because I still bought into the idea that the really smart people played chess, and I wanted to be really smart.  We had a few variant games that I remember fondly, and it would be fun to have them reborn.  My favorite was Nuclear Chess.  In that one, any piece could instead of moving choose to self-detonate, destroying itself and any pieces in adjacent squares.  (Of course, if you did that with your King, you lost the game—unless you took out the opposing King, in which case it was a tie.)  And then there was Thermonuclear Chess, where any piece could make a normal move and then immediately detonate.

They were quick games.  Lots of fun, too.  The nature of the game changes dramatically when you have to make sure an opposing piece can’t just plow into your pawn line and immediately detonate, thus wiping out your King in the process.

Anyway, I’m not entirely sure how one could open up a chess game’s architecture to allow the creation of variants like that, but I’d love to see it happen.

Just some random thoughts on a game I don’t really like.  If you want to talk Checkers, though…

Comments (33)

  1. I didn’t read the article (because I’m not very good at understanding english… I’m from Quebec, Canada) Although I just wanted to leave a comment saying that it’s cool that you use this french expression “En passant” as your entry title ;)

  2. It’s amazing to me how many people aren’t aware of the “en passant” rule of Chess. In fact, next to the “end-game stalemate” scenario, I think en passant might be the least known nuance of the game.

  3. Or castling. (Had an uncle accuse me of making it up once.)

    I suck at chess. I’ve lost games to people who didn’t even understand the game well enough to know that they had won. I really suck at chess.

  4. Ooh yeah :-)

    I was always being accused of making up fantastic moves when I used the En Passant move.

    Turning to the idea of highlighted squares — that’s exactly what I used to do to my guitar when learning (and later on teaching) improvisation… taking the focus away from always hitting the f… wrong notes (that is, NOT the one you aimed for) makes for major improvements in other areas, e.g. the rhythms & phrasing.

  5. Chess….???? I was getting use to your new obsession,
    gay men….

    Oh well, check mate gayBait.

  6. Nuclear chess… what a brilliant idea! That seem so cool, me and my friends will have to try that one out…


  7. Trackback ::

    Boylston Chess Club Weblog

    Beyond Deep Blue
    Eric Meyer, a self-avowed non-fan of chess, has a few suggestions for how to improve chess computer user interfaces. To summarize, he has three major recommendations:

  8. Good to know that someone I look up to and am inspired by is bad at chess like myself. Call me crazy, but the attention span needed to learn chess well is easily shattered by quick defeats at the hands of those would-be teachers.

    Also good to know he admits to being in the chess club :)

  9. Chess with threatened pieces and piece paths highlighted is like bumper-bowling. What fun is that? Just play more! I haven’t played much in ages since most of my friends are lame like that. Maybe instead of wishing for guys that sit on the streets striking up impromptu chess games, I should just be that guy… hmm…

    Anyway, can anybody clarify the rules on castling for me? I thought I’d read something fairly definitive once stating that you can castle only if you’re king has not previously been in check, not to be confused with is in check. I’ve had this disputed by many individuals. Also, I thought my source stated that you may not castle if in doing so the king will pass through threatened territory.

    Perhaps we could strike up a game of online chess someday, Eric… :)

  10. You can’t castle if your king is in check, will pass through threatened territory, or will be in check after castling. Basically, no checks allowed. Also if you’ve ever moved the king or the rook you’re using to castle.

    It’s okay if the king was previously in check, as long as you didn’t get out of check by moving the king. It’s also all right if you’ve moved the other rook.

    Seth is right, though: Play enough (not all that much, really) and you won’t see any need for the computer to help out. It would be like having your mom sitting in the passenger seat of your car pointing out every oncoming vehicle. Not that I don’t still make some incredibly dumb mistakes from time to time… (On the chessboard, that is!)

  11. Castling FAQ
    They also have a nice page on en passant.
    I agree that there should be an option for longer computer turns, along with a sagely opponent bearing a majestic beard to peer around the board.

  12. Scott –

    Like the guy in Chessmaster 2000 (the last version I played. They’re up to, what, 9000?).

    I was playing when I was six so it felt like a big thing when I beat an old wrinkly-faced (probably Russian) wise man + beard.

  13. One of the most fun things to do in chess is play in an endgame where you have no chance of winning and you must induce a stalemate by putting your king in an unchecked position but so that any move you make causes a check.

    It’s the most satisfying tie ever.

  14. I, myself, was disappointed to see that this beautiful piece of software was only available for the Mac OS X. I’m a PC user (with WinXPPro on one machine and Redhat 9 on my webserver) and would love to find another chess program as impressive graphically as this one appears to be. Any suggestions out there?

  15. I was disappointed to find out the game is for OS X only…anything equivalent out there for us PC folks?

  16. My favorite was Nuclear Chess. In that one, any piece could instead of moving choose to self-detonate, destroying itself and any pieces in adjacent squares. (Of course, if you did that with your King, you lost the game

  17. If I am not mistaken, you can’t take out the opposing King by detonating your King, for the two Kings can never stand in adjacent squares.

    True in both regular and Nuclear Chess, but in Thermonuclear Chess you could manage it by moving the King adjacent to the other King and then detonating. I must have gotten the two mixed up in my head as I wrote about them– it’s been a couple of decades– but I knew there was a way to do it.

    As for those of you looking for a PC equivalent to Big Bang Chess, I can’t help you there. I’m barely aware of what games are available for the Mac, let alone other platforms. I only ended up with a copy of Big Bang Chess because I saw mention of it in some RSS feed or other… probably one of Apple’s feeds.

  18. http://www.linux-games.com/nuclearchess

    I don’t know if it works well or not, but since you have the source code…



  19. It’s okay if the king was previously in check, as long as you didn’t get out of check by moving the king. It’s also all right if you’ve moved the other rook.

    No, no, no! According to FIDE‘s Laws of Chess, 3.8 a 2,

    1. Castling is illegal:
      1. if the king has already moved, or
      2. with a rook that has already moved
    2. Castling is prevented temporarily
      1. if the square on which the king stands, or the square which it must cross, or the square which it is to occupy, is attacked by one or more of the opponent’s pieces.
      2. if there is any piece between the king and the rook with which castling is to be effected.
  20. One of the things that most often frustrates me about computer chess is that the AI will make a move within seconds of my making a move. More often, it will do so immediately. Then I sit there, thinking my slow organic thoughts, feeling vaguely stupid for being such a slowpoke even though I know there’s no direct comparison. Eventually, I make a move. Instantly, the computer makes its move. My first reaction is, “That was awfully quick. Was he waiting for the move I just made?”

    That is hilarious! (Thanks for the laugh.) Yet, it makes so much sense that I’m surprised ‘Human-like turn lengths for the AI’ isn’t already a standard feature. Good idea.

  21. Nothing is more boring than bad chess. But when chess is done right, I find it exciting and stimulating. Every couple years, I go on a chess binge. I’m in the middle of one now.

    I *highly* recommend reading the “Novice Nook” columns in the http://www.chesscafe.com archives. Also, check out books by Yasser Seirawan (especially the Tactics one).

    For a beginner, playing against a computer is frustrating and ultimately pointless. I recommend downloading Blitzen and logging onto the Internet Chess Club. You can play as a guest for free.

  22. I love chess. I probably average about one game per day, and it’s just not the same on the computer (that holds true when playing another person online).

    Usually the first few moves when I play in real life are immediate. There are only so many good openings, and when you play enough you learn how to react to each of them. Often I’m able to move immediately later in the game as well–it doesn’t mean that my opponent has fallen into a trap, only that I knew what they were going to do and decided on how to counter it before they did it. Of course, I often take a few seconds to pretend that I’m deep in thought about it because I don’t want them to notice that their queen is in danger ;)

    Back in the days when I used Windows, I had a program called KChess Elite which put a red border around the square of the pieces in danger. Personally, I hate that feature, but to each their own.

    An interesting read is an old e-mail on The Anatomy of Chess Programs (took me forever to remember the bloody title). It’s a bit of a tangent from what you wrote about, but may be of interest.

  23. Evan,

    It sounds like your rules there don’t cover the instance of when all other rules aren’t broken, but the king has previously been in check but got out without moving. That is the situation in which I was under the impression that you could no longer castle, but it seems that’s not the case.

  24. I’ve never been that good at chess. It’s hard to think ahead multiple moves — keeping all the possibilities in mind — and see a strategy to follow. I can see one move or 2, but no more than that. I’ve always wanted to study chess though and become better at it. It’s one of those things that’s supposed to be good for you, like learning to play an instrument or studying math as a child. Maybe some day.

  25. Try one of the go programs (gnugo is free). Because the number of possible moves in go is vast, computers can’t depend on looking ahead for n moves, and have to rely more on pattern matching and that kind of heuristics. As a result computers make the same kind of dumb mistakes that I am make. Also go has a handicapping system, so anyone can get the pleasure of beating the machine.

  26. Can something like chinese checkers be imlemented completely using the web technology of html / js / css so two people can play with each other with only the browser at thier hands.

    Since eric is the god of CSS just wanted to gode him into developing it :)


  27. kalu, it would have to require the use of some other trick – such as the xmlObject so that each move passes information back to the server. each client would also probably have to use that same xmlobject idea to query the server every x (where x may be a fraction) seconds so that an update could be shown on the screen of both players without having to refresh.

    i don’t think having your screen refresh all the time would be very “user friendly” for a game.

    using that technique, then yes, I think it would be possible – you would just have to have a server side data store that kept track of the game(s) currently in progress. With that in place, so long as you knew what game id you had the game could even take place over many sessions really.

  28. For a fun chess variant you might like Nightmare Chess by Steve Jackson Games. You play chess as normal except each player has a hand of cards that let him/her do interesting things. There’s a card that allows a player to switch the positions of one of their knights and one of their rooks, for example. There’s a card that allows you to take your king off the board for one full turn and then return it to any edge space. There’s a card that lets you move a pawn as if it were a bishop for one turn. There’s even a Fireball card that lets you detonate one of your pawns in the manner that you described. Etc.

    It’s a crazy game — you never know what’s going to happen on your opponent’s turn. It’s certainly not for chess purists, but it’s wacky fun when you’re in the mood.

  29. I agree with Nemerson, above. Folks, really, what fun is chess if none of the mental power involved is engaged in gauging possibility? If all areas you can move to and all areas your opponent can move to are highlighted, one of the most exciting elements of chess is lost. The only thing left to judge at all (in other words, the only challenge) would be mental highlighting of possibilities on your next turn (the prediction and preemtion part). Actual careful maneuvering on the board and measuring threats is more or less gone. More importantly, it would make players lazy. For example, if you see a diagonal line of red, but also see the rest of the board speckled with red dots that make the line indistinguishable as such, you’ll merely avoid a red square like any other without acknowledging that a bishop is the cause and that on the next turn if the bishop slides down that line he can easily attack you within one more turn, at the same time blocking another bishop of yours (a safety net that caused the last square to be “friend” colored). For chess, the complication of deciding where enemies can and will move is the whole point; if you take out the “can” part you’re making it unnatural. To get good at it, you really do have to weather the tiresome mental highlighting yourself. Having highlights is like having an “Undo”; it kills the spirit.

    My $.02.

  30. When I saw this post & comments it reminded me of something I had seen showing a visualisation of all the moves the computer is considering….shown as colourful threads, and it takes a few seconds at least to decide, so you get that feeling of the computer considering it’s options

    there is also a subtle pulsing effect to show the squares you can move to….

    it’s quite lightweight I think….but covers some of the points you made.
    hope you enjoy!

  31. As the inventor of nuclear chess, can I ask when you played the variant you played by the same name? Look up “Nuclear Chess” on google to find the rules and my site. If you want, you can invite me to a Play by mail game in chessvariants.com

  32. I’ve found some chess game and free Puzzle games online. Maybe you should check it out if you have a time to spend.

  33. En passant (from French: “while [the pawn is] passing”) is a maneuver in the board game of chess. The en passant rule applies when a player moves a pawn two squares forward from its starting position, and an opposing pawn could have captured it if it had only moved one square forward. The rule states that the opposing pawn may then capture the pawn as if it had only moved one square forward. The resulting position is the same as if the pawn had only moved one square forward and then the opposing pawn had captured as normal. En passant must be done on the very next turn, or the right to do so is lost. The move is unusual in that it is the only occasion in chess in which a piece captures but does not move to the square of the captured piece. In chess notation, en passant captures are sometimes denoted by “e.p.” or similar, but that isn’t required.

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