The Master, the Pupil, and the Clumsy Game of Chess

Chess was in the air that Friday, as surely as the nitrogen and the oxygen.

Our school’s English teacher, an amateur chess fiend, was locked in a silent grudge match against a student. I was bored, with time to kill between the end of work and meeting a friend at the movies.

I spotted another board lying unused, and thought, Why not? I haven’t played in years.

“Hey, Zhi,” I called to a senior getting an early start on his weekend homework. “You have time for a game of chess?”

He smiled and nodded. “I cannot decline such a formidable challenge.”

That’s how he really talks, bless his heart. In my recommendation letter for his college apps, I described Zhi as “a superhuman student sent to our school from the future.” I stand by it. His diligence is otherworldly. He re-solves every single math problem, over and over, until he understands it completely. I wonder: Does he never encounter the obstacles that hold the rest of us back – the pangs of laziness, self-doubt, mental exhaustion? Or does he feel those things, and simply override them, refusing to negotiate with those base impulses? How does he stay so darn focused? Continue reading


Tic-Tac-Toe Puzzles (and the Difference Between a Puzzle and a Game)

I’m still stunned by the response to my post on Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe, which spawned a whole fleet of mobile apps, was translated into Spanish by the Argentine Department of Education, and has drawn more than half a million visitors.

I take no credit. I didn’t invent this game, just drew some silly pictures explaining it.

In response, commenters suggested lots of other variants on Tic-Tac-Toe. They ranged from well-known to obscure, from simple to complex, from fun to “I guess somebody must find this fun.” I’ll post someday about the variants that make good games. But this is a post about the ones that make good puzzles, and why “puzzle” isn’t the same as “game.”

Puzzle #1: Tic-Tac-Toe with No Starting Grid

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History’s Greatest Chess Matches

I’ve been poking at chess lately, the way a chimpanzee might poke at a car engine. Does he understand it? Not really. Is he having fun? Sure!

Chess is much like math. Instead of problem sets, you play games, and in lieu of lectures, I’ve been YouTubing famous games from chess history. Here are 3 of my favorites, each no longer than an episode of Arrested Development – and just as intricate and clever.

The Immortal Game

In 1851, Adolf Anderssen (a math teacher) and Lionel Kieseritzky (the editor of a chess magazine) played a match that has been talked about ever since.

In it, Anderssen leads his pieces in a suicide charge. He sacrifices a bishop, both rooks, and the queen – nearly all his best material – in exchange for nothing but pawns. It’s like a parent chanting, “Go! Go! Go!” as he sends his children sprinting out into onrushing traffic. He’s a madman. Yet in spite of the seemingly crippling losses, he checkmates Kieseritzky on the 23rd move. The madman wins.

Anderssen’s play is as spooky as a zombie movie. The attackers seem to have no regard for their own safety. They’ll destroy themselves to bring you down. Continue reading

Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe

Updated 7/16/2013 – See Original Here

Once at a picnic, I saw mathematicians crowding around the last game I would have expected: Tic-tac-toe.

As you may have discovered yourself, tic-tac-toe is terminally dull. There’s no room for creativity or insight. Good players always tie. Games inevitably go something like this:

But the mathematicians at the picnic played a more sophisticated version. In each square of their tic-tac-toe board, they’d drawn a smaller board:

As I watched, the basic rules emerged quickly. Continue reading