Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Chess & Infinity

The New Yorker ran a great profile last week of Magnus Carlsen, the 20-year-old from Norway who rose to No. 1 in the global chess rankings last year. It made me think some cool thoughts about the intersection between creativity and the infinite, but it will take me a minute to get there, so bear with me for a few paragraphs while I summarize the article.

Carlsen’s playing style is unusual; most master chess players rely heavily on computers for their training, but Carlsen finds them annoying. “It’s like playing someone who is extremely stupid but who beats you anyway,” he says.

Chess is mind-bogglingly complex; the number of possible moves in a chess game exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. It's easy to see the draw of a computer program that could turn this labyrinth into an algorithm.

But computers’ eagle-eye focus on checkmate offends Carlsen's sensibilities about chess. He loves to win, but chess to him isn't just about winning, it’s also about how you play the game. There are competing schools of thought about how to play chess, but Carlsen’s approach isn’t grounded in any of them; he plays by a logic that is immanent to the game before him. He says he likes to have an "all-over sense of the board," heeding the situation, the mood of his opponent, the temptation of whim. It's an emergent strategy, based on feeling things out.

Computers aren't affected by affect, which is what Carlsen seems to enjoy most about chess. One of his proudest moments comes during a game he didn't even win — near death, he executes a series of moves that closes the game in a draw:
"I just thought I'd never seen this combination before, this theme. There’s no better feeling than discovering something new." ...He had 'created something special,' a small legacy of intuition and feeling that no computer or trainer had forecast for him.

This singular feeling of discovery isn’t limited to chess, of course. What Carlsen is describing is creativity — and the anxiety and thrill of finding a solution where there is no guarantee that one exists. I feel the same thing when I’m writing: what if there’s no answer? There isn’t one. You have to make it up, and when you do, it’s with the pleasure of having created “something special” — something truly new.

But you can't make up just anything. As my middle school English teacher told me, you can say anything you want about a text so long as you back it up with evidence. The possibilities are literally — and limitedly — infinite. An argument can't be random — it has to heed the demands of the text, to feel out the confines of the limited infinity dwelling between the covers.

Chess offers a similar infinity. Each game shapes itself as it plays out by a multiplicity of forces: yes, the possible moves already outnumber the atoms of the universe, but Carlsen has so much more to consider: how many games into the tournament is he? Is his opponent fatigued? Is Carlsen himself bored, and if so, would playing poorly for a few rounds revive him? The article even mentions that during one key game, Carlsen sips orange juice while his opponent drinks tea — as if this, too, mattered.

Being creative feels like sipping from infinite, which sounds like some kind of drug. One that we should all do more of.

1 comment:

  1. "What Carlsen is describing is creativity — and the anxiety and thrill of finding a solution where there is no guarantee that one exists."

    I'm going to forward this to my boss :)