Thursday, May 12, 2005

It's a madhouse around here

Like most people, I used to play solitaire on my computer. My old PowerBook came with a game called Eight Off, which was diabolically addictive -- I eventually had to throw it into the trash. First of all, it was easy; if you knew what you were about you could win in a couple of minutes. Second, because it was so easy, you were expected to win, so what it did was to time you, and keep statistics: low time, of course (mine was 35 seconds, I think), and average time. One bad hand, where for example you had to stop and think, meant that your average time went back above whatever milestone you had spent some time reaching (like 1:45, or 1:30), forcing you to spend some time getting it back down. But now of course as time goes on it takes longer and longer to affect the average time; bad hands don't hurt as much, but good hands don't help as much either, especially as they're not nearly as much below the average as bad hands are above it. The worst thing, though, is this. Immediately as the last card is played, it automatically deals another hand and the clock starts running. As you may imagine, it takes superhuman powers to resist clicking away -- after all, it'll only take another couple of minutes, and you can see immediately what to do (as I said, it's an easy game). From that experience I learned this: there really is such a thing as carpal tunnel syndrome, and man, does it hurt.

My new (year-old) PowerBook has chess, which is different enough that it's not so addictive (nor is CTS a problem). But I have been playing. I'm not very good at chess (anymore), so I find it frustrating to play normal style, which I rarely win. Instead, I've been playing what it calls "crazyhouse" chess. Now I knew two versions of what I had been calling "bughouse" chess. The first is a two-player game, where whenever you capture an opposing piece, you must immediately put it back on the board (you do get to choose where). This makes for a slow and difficult game -- you spend all of your time trying to unclog your position. This is because whenever he takes a pawn of yours, he puts it back in front of your pieces, blocking them, and whenever he takes a piece, he puts it back behind all your pawns, where they are blocked. Often the game ends with a smothered mate. The other version is more fun. It's a four-player game (two teams of two, at two boards). Let's say I'm White on my board. That means my partner plays Black on his. Whenever any of us takes a piece, he hands it to his partner, who may then, instead of moving, place the captured piece anywhere on his own board. So that leads to situations like this: I look perfectly safe, but then there's a routine exchange of knights on the other board, and before you know it, my partner's captured knight drops down out of the sky, a turncoat now in my opponent's service, and forks my king and queen. Or I have a winning position on my board, but on the other board my partner's opponent has my partner on the run, and, although behind in material, could checkmate by dropping a pawn or bishop -- so now my task is not just to crank out the win, but to do so without allowing a capture of pawn or bishop. And of course the game (match?) is won by the team who wins the first game, so if I can't do this, we lose.

As my computer plays it, "crazyhouse" is the natural cross between these two kinds of bughouse. When I take a piece of his, it changes color and becomes one of mine for potential paratrooper duty. I guess you can do this with two real players, if you have more than one set. This kind of chess is fun, but it takes some getting used to (it's weird to have four knights at the same time). What's particularly interesting is the difference, compared with normal chess, in the effect of the program's characteristic strengths and weaknesses. Naturally, computer chess "players" are tactical geniuses but (usually) strategic duffers, because nothing is easier for it than to look a few moves ahead and see whatever combinations there are to be found, but since there's no real planning going on, or any understanding of positional principles (at this level, anyway; better programs are better at this), if there aren't any "clever" tactics it can use, it basically moves randomly. In the normal game, this means it's easy to win if you can just avoid dropping material (like I said, not so easy for me anymore!). But crazyhouse is much more of a tactician's game. It is amazing to me how he, it, can whip up a bushel full of threats out of thin air. Not even a cloud the size of a man's hand (as the saying goes) ... but a pawn drop here and a bishop-for-knight exchange there, and bang! You may now choose between checkmate and pawn-takes-rook, queening. And once he gets the initiative, often by sacrificing a minor piece to get your king out, if he has any paratroopers all suited up, forget it -- you're toast. Interestingly, while in the normal game a minor piece is worth about three pawns, here it's (usually) much better to have the pawns, not least because there are three of them. If he's prevented you from castling (not hard here), and has a pawn at his K5 or K6, and a couple of pawns ready to go, it can get real ugly real fast -- those pawns are like a spike.

Not only that, sometimes it cheats! I kid you not. Each of the following has happened. First, sometimes it won't let you drop a piece you've fairly won (it error-beeps and moves the piece back to the side). Or it declares victory without the position actually being checkmate! That's happened twice. But the weirdest time was when for some reason it thought that it had an unlimited supply of queens to drop on me. I was winning, and I think I had queened a pawn which it then captured -- but then all it's supposed to get is a pawn, not a queen, let alone as many as it wants. It kept dropping them, and I kept taking them off, and eventually I won anyway (don't ask me how). I ended up with like eight queens on the side. So I do win sometimes. Actually, what I usually do is start from a saved position, one where I'm up a piece (which is actually a two-piece advantage, when you think about it), so I have a decent chance. The problem is that once it runs out of threats, as I said, it basically moves randomly, or checks or threatens you even though you can just capture the offending piece, which is no fun. On the other hand I do like crushing the last futile bits of alien resistance (wha ha ha ha ha!).

Okay, enough fooling around -- my next post will have some philosophical content!

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