The White Sheep Moves First

Working from first principles is grossly inappropriate. Except when it isn’t.

There is barely, if any, distinction between mathematics and logic when one is asked to reason from a premise. If all sheep are white and you see a creature not white, it isn’t a sheep. The premise, all sheep are white, cannot be argued with or it isn’t a premise anymore. It may not be true that all sheep are white, but that is not a concern of formal logic.

Tic Tac Toe (noughts and crosses for the internationals) is both a game of perfect information and wholly solved. The game is so simple that poultry have been trained to play the game to the inevitable draw. Yet, sheer ignorance or dis attention, have resulted in the occasional loss of a game by normal functioning adults. Nonetheless, whether working from first principles or the rote calculation of variations, there is no ambiguity to be found in Tic Tac Toe.

In principle, Chess must be the same. A finite grid featuring the maneuvers of 32 units all of which act according to unchanging rules. No information is hidden from the participants, and no random factor is present. Chess, for all intents, is nothing more mysterious than Tic Tac Toe. The only substantive difference, is where Tic Tac Toe has answers in practice, Chess only has answers in principle, and there’s the rub.

A human being is incapable of memorizing the sum of all possible variations, and nor is it within the realm of feasibility for a human to calculate all possible variations from the starting position. What one is forced to do, is guess, for despite all relevant information being available in principle, it is denied in practice for the shortcomings of the human brain. You calculate precisely what can be calculated, apply the principles of good play when appropriate, and intuit the rest. What one cannot do, is work from first principles in any but the most trivial of positions. Forced moves leading to checkmate, captures and recaptures, checks, and the short term loss and acquisition of large amounts of material, are obvious and easy for being subject to first principle reasoning. The rest is what’s hard, and is hard for being very fuzzy.

Much like philosophy, Chess requires of the practitioner (if I may refer to someone who philosophizes as someone who practices philosophy) to simultaneously remain rigorously logical, think abstractly, and be very concentrated. Abstract to get your idea. Logic to examine the veracity of the idea. And concentrate to maintain the long line of steps necessary to apply the logic successfully – don’t lose the thread.

So, despite being routinely cast with algebra or calculus, computer programming, or bean counting, talent for Chess (if not Chess itself, for it is only Tic Tac Toe) is more in keeping with fuzzy reasoning – areas where logic plays an obvious role, but not all the important information is available. The stock market, political contests, and warfare, being obvious examples.

So, the ability to win chess games, and the ability to reason from a premise, may be related by coincidence, but are not manifestly so. In chess, you must always ask: “Yes, but are all sheep really white?”

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

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