Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chess & Mind

I recently started learning something new: 
The Lewis Chessmen. 

I never played it, I didn't know anyone who played it, and my total exposure to chess came from books and films in which people played chess (see: Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fresh, The Lymond Chronicles (especially Pawn in Frankincense), The Americans, Cairo Time, WarGames, The West Wing, etc.). In the cultural artifacts that introduced me to the game, it was always heralded as something really hard. When a character plays chess in a story, it tells the audience that the person (Fresh, Jed Bartlet, or Francis Crawford) playing is always several steps ahead of the people around them. Chess players think ahead, they can strategize, they can "see the whole board." And the mathematical nature of chess, especially (so I'm told) at its highest levels, lends itself to computational technology. (I vividly remember the Kasparov-Deep Blue matchup.) 

But I confess that I'm confused about how and why chess became a yardstick for intelligence and, in some cases, for humanity, insofar as "human intelligence" is a proxy for what makes us uniquely human. Humans have been building calculating machines for millennia--even before chess was invented. Why is it that the element of human intelligence that is the *easiest* to reproduce with machinery became associated with chess, and used as a marker for intelligence itself? When did this start to happen? And what does this reveal about historical theories of mind and cognition--have they changed sufficiently over the past centuries to reveal any changes in terms of the importance chess as a measure of intellectual capability?

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