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“Is Chess a Solved Game?” Debunking the Myth

A friend and I got into a discussion about Chess. He wondered if it was a solved game and could be played perfectly. I mentioned a quote I’d read somewhere which cleared his doubts right away:

“There are more possible chess games than atoms in the universe; therefore, you cannot guarantee a win or draw from the opening.”

Chess is one of the oldest and most popular board games globally. The game’s objective is to capture the opponent’s king, but there are many other pieces with different movement rules that make the game complex and interesting.

In this article on Chess, I cover:

  • What is a solved game? Is Chess a solved game?
  • How does one ‘solve’ chess? What are the benefits of doing so?
  • Can Chess be played perfectl
  • And more…
Picture of chess pieces on a board.

Let us dive straight into it!

What Is a Solved Game?

A “solved game” is one in which a player has found all of the winning moves, and there is no way for the opponent to win. In some cases, this can be determined through calculation; in other cases, it may require looking at the game from a different perspective.

In mathematics, a game is said to be solved if a finite set of moves will guarantee a victory for one player. The game itself may still be complex and challenging, but a strategy exists that guarantees success.

Either way, once a player knows how to win; the game is considered solved. It’s an impressive feat to solve a game – after all, it takes careful planning and execution to outmaneuver one’s opponent.

Is Chess a Solved Game?

Many popular board games, such as Chess or checkers, are solved games. In some cases, a computer algorithm can find the winning move for each side. However, even though the games are solved, there is still plenty of opportunity for skill and strategy in playing them.

Chess games can be solved by analyzing the state of the game and the arrangement of every individual piece. In Chess, solving a game means creating and playing a sequence of moves that are the best fit for the given position, such that you always end up winning or at least escape with a draw.

This can only be done if all of the possible responses that your opponent can play are taken into account, and a corresponding move to perfectly counter each of these responses is also thought of. And since one can never predict what an opponent has in mind, a chess game is never solved.

Chess is a fascinating game that has been played for centuries. No matter how many different variations you come across, there will always be more to explore. So, Chess is technically not a solved game.

However, keeping the following rules in mind is imperative to the success of a Chess game:

The aim for each player is to control the center of the board

Pieces in the center of the board always control more squares than pieces placed on the edge of the board. Controlling more territory on the board gives you a more significant advantage and may increase your chances of winning.

Both players must prioritize their king’s safety

Though the queen may be the most powerful piece on the chessboard, the king remains the most important. Always ensure your king is well protected from your opponent’s pieces.

Castling is one of the most effective ways to ensure your king is safe during the game (of course, conditions may vary from game to game).

Players should never leave any piece hanging

A “hanging” piece is a piece without any protection. Keeping your pieces backed up by protecting pieces ensures that you won’t ever lose a piece for free, and you can at least recapture your opponent’s piece after they’ve taken yours. This ensures that you and your opponent lose something during each trade.

Both players should always be on the look out for forced moves

Playing moves that ensure that your opponent has only one clear response can help you accurately plan for the next set of moves. This can help you in precisely planning the game in your favor.

However, one must always keep in mind that though these guidelines may not guarantee your victory, they will most definitely increase the chances of it.

How Does One Solve a Game of Chess and What Are the Benefits of Doing So?

You can solve a chess game by assessing weaknesses in both your and your opponent’s setup. It would be best if you played such that you consolidated your position while also taking advantage of your opponent’s defensive holes.

Millions of possibilities!

However, this is a lot easier said than done. Game plans and tactics continuously keep changing depending on how your opponent chooses to respond. Solving a chess game requires immense intellect, strategic planning, and foresight.

Chess takes a long time to play because of the many moves available to each player. But even with a lot of time to consider the Chessboard, no human can think of each and every move and accurate response.

Since Chess is a type of game in which one match can branch out into multitudes of different game lines, we can visualize a “game tree” representing all the possible outcomes of a game. If we envision a game tree of 10120 possibilities, even the most powerful computer will take 1090 years to play the first move.

No wonder: There are as many permutations and variations of a singular chess game as there are stars in the sky. So technically, Chess cannot be completely solved as of now.

The best we can do to solve a chess game is to only think about a few main lines that a game can run through. You don’t have to predict responses to every move; you just need to predict responses to your opponent’s best move.

Benefits

The benefits of solving a game of Chess or even solving a particular position to find the best possible move are innumerable.

1.   Memory and Focus

Not only will you develop a sense of planning and strategic puzzle-solving, but you will also develop better memory and focus.

2.   Creativity and imagination

Finding abstract move sequences to shock your opponent will also hone your creative skills and imagination.

3.   Healthy brain!

Playing Chess regularly can keep your brain cells active and reduce the risk of acquiring dementia at an older age.

What Implications Does Solving Chess Have on the Playing Field and How Do Players Respond to It?

The opening

Solving chess positions leads to the creation of complicated theories which players have to study to play a specific opening optimally. Players try to learn common responses that their opponents may play against their opening move set and accurately plan their line of gameplay further.

Many players learn entire opening game lines by heart. Their opponents remember all of the optimal responses to each opening move. As a result of this, many players can play a set of 20-30 moves in rapid succession without thinking too much.

The middle

However, solving Chess’s middle game is not easy. The mid-game tends to be very flexible and can go along multiple lines depending on how you wish to proceed and how your opponent responds.

Determining the absolute best play in the middle game is very difficult, even for the most powerful computers. In the mid-game, players allow their creativity and personal playing strategies to reflect in their matches.

The end

The end game is possible to solve to a great extent as it’s a lot more simplified due to the fewer number of pieces on the board. Simple methods to checkmate the opponent’s king with clear objectives can be formulated and followed relatively easily.

The total number of possible moves your opponent can play reduces significantly in the end game. It is even possible to estimate the number of moves a player will get checkmated.

Picture of chess pieces with the King laying over.

Is There Room for Creativity and Strategy in a Solved Game of Chess?

As I mentioned before, Chess is a game with many possibilities. Since it is a game that depends on both you and your opponent, no chess game can be perfectly “solved” unless both you and your opponent play perfectly.

Even if you don’t necessarily play the best possible move that a solved game’s move sequence would recommend, you can still win the game by plotting a different strategy.

A solved game move sequence often recommends the safest procedure of launching an attack or consolidating your position. Catching your opponent off guard by launching an aggressive gambit or performing a calculated piece sacrifice can help you get an overall edge in the game.

Many algorithms won’t study or delve into these creative strategies because they always carry an element of risk, and they may be punished, especially if your opponent knows what they are doing. However, this does not mean that you cannot deploy such a strategy without having a good chance of victory.

So, there is definitely a lot of scope for strategy and creativity in a chess game. This is why many different position-solving engines may recommend other approaches to tackle the same position in the best way possible. Strategies may vary based on each player’s specific playing style and short-term goals.

Can Chess Be Played Perfectly?

For a game like Chess, the concept of “perfect play” is very abstract. No kind of play can be clearly termed as perfect. Sure, you can always play very safe and sound moves that don’t cause any potential weakness in your setup, but the perfect play doesn’t necessarily mean playing securely.

Bobby Fischer’s extraordinary queen sacrifice during his famous match: The Game of the Century with Donald Byrne in 1956 is a classic example of how sometimes playing in a calculated aggressive manner while potentially sacrificing your strongest piece can still result in a perfect game and an outstanding victory.

Also, the concept of perfect strategies in Chess continuously keeps on changing after each set of moves. A strategy that used to be the most adequate (or best fit) for a given position may not be the best after a couple of moves into the game line.

You can never play Chess perfectly in the truest sense. What one solving engine may consider the best may not be regarded as a good strategy by another engine. As of now, the closest idea of perfect play that we can think of is the move set that these engines recommend.

Is Chess Solved by AI?

With a lot of powerful Chess AI like Deep Blue, AlphaZero, Stockfish, and Leela Chess Zero completely dominating chess matches against humans, it would really appear that Artificial Intelligence has figured Chess out a lot better than the human brain has. But can we say that these AI have completely solved Chess?

Well, to a large extent, yes. Many of the AI-based analytical chess software can accurately predict which side is at a strategic upper hand and accordingly recommend the best moves to both sides to gain or maintain their advantage.

In fact, most grandmasters these days analyze their complex games with the help of these brilliant AI systems. However, these AI have not studied all the possible chess lines till now and are still learning newer strategies and tactics to develop a strong repertoire of moves for all cases and scenarios.

The quickest way of getting an AI to learn is by playing matches with other chess AI and then analyzing its move sets and mistakes. Chess AI can understand the game of Chess a lot better than we can ever imagine due to its superior mathematical and computational power.

But like many other things in life, there is always a scope for improvement.

Key Takeaways

When it comes to the Chess debate (whether or not it is a solved game), players need to know about the Shannon Number – named after the great American Mathematician Claude Shannon.

Shannon calculated the game-tree complexity of Chess and concluded that there were almost 10120 possible games demonstrating the impracticality of solving the game by brute force.

Bottom line: Chess cannot be a solved game. Sure, grandmasters have been known to bring games to a draw based on well-known theoretical openings, but where is the fun in that?

 It is a good thing too that most human minds cannot remember all of the solutions – so the challenge of Chess will always remain. The best you can do is keep playing and learning new chess strategies.

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