Reading Passage 2

Such a Fascinating Game

It is one of the world's most popular games, played by millions of people at home, in clubs, online, by correspondence, and in tournaments. It is chess, a humble arrangement where two players stare at a checkered board with 64 squares arranged in an eight-by-eight grid, eyeing their 16 pieces each as the first move is played. When the opponent's king is checkmated, the game is over, but between the beginning and the end, a wealth of elegant, complicated, and fascinating moves and combinations can unfold.

The origins of chess lie in Northwest India, around the 6th century. At that time there existed a game known as caturanga, which means 'four division', those divisions being of the military, represented by the infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry. These pieces were aventually to become the pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively, in the modern descendant of the game. Around 600 AD, caturanga spread to Persia, then, after the Muslim conquest of that region (beginning around that time), the game gained ground throughout the Islamic world, from where it eventually spread to Europe.

Around 1200 AD, Southern Europe began modifying the rules, and within 300 years the game had become recognisably the one we play today. The queen had long replaced the earlier vizier to become the most powerful piece, while the pawns were given the option of advancing two squares on the first move in order to accelerate play. These new rules quickly spread across Western Europe, creating the game now known as 'western chess' or 'international chess', to distinguish it from older or regional variants of the game.

As for the players themselves, one world think that the best of them are necessarily smart, with extremely high IQs; however, research has not been able to confirm this link. Some studies have shown that good chess players may have strong IQs, but there appears to be no direct correlation between this and chess ability. Paradoxically, the academically brilliant may even be less able at chess, and vice versa. Evidently, there are other factors involved, such as spacio-visual insight and subliminal memory, not necessarily picked up by conventional intelligence tests, readily noticeable, or even useful in real life.

But there are non-mental factors which clearly play a role. No one can doubt that raw talent is necessary, but even the best and brightest must systematically undergo at least 10 to 15 years of theoretical study and competitive practice before reaching world championship levels. The American chess genius, Bobby Fischer, was only 13 when he produced the 'Game of the Century', but he was not world champion until he was 29. The Russian chess player, Garry Kasparov, was the youngest world champion ever, at 22, but he began dedicated state-sponsored training from the age of ten onwards, complete with personal chess coaches.

All this shows the fixed place chess has in western culture, meaning also that this region has, historically, produced all the greatest players. However, interest in chess is now growing in the East, although there is one problem being the stiff competition it faces with local board games, such as Xiangqi and Go. These are more popular by a wide margin, but regarding China for example, with its huge population and state-sponsored training, it is fast becoming a major chess power. The reigning women's world chess champion is Chinese, and the country performs well in chess Olympiads. The future for the game in this country looks bright indeed.

Talking about the future inevitably leads to the subject of computer chess. Serious chess-playing machines began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, but their abilities were far below that of the top human players. Progress, although slow, was steady, and with increasing memory and faster processing, it was inevitable that one day a computer would be able to match humans. Yet this is merely by brutally going through all the possible moves, millions per second, deeper and deeper into the position. The final move-choices give the appearance of intuition and long-term strategy, when in actual fact they are simply based on an unthinking and directionless material count.

In 1989, the computer 'Deep Thought' scored some wins against top human players, although the world champion at that time, Garry Kasparov, easily defeated the machine in some arranged games. In 1996, however, IBM brought out the next generation computer, 'Deep Blue' , Pitting it in s match with this same player. Although it managed to score the first win against a reigning world champion, by losing three and drawing two of the remaining games, it lost the match. However, a return match the following year saw Kasparov facing an even better machine, 'Deeper Blue'. This time, the computer triumphed 3 1/2 - 2 1/2. And they are only getting better.

As impressive as these results seem, most people agree that it is similar to a forklift beating a weightlifter - somehow not a valid contest, and of little significance. Yes, computers can win games, but creativity and intelligence are still the province of human players. It is these factors, as well as the tense psychological struggle of minds and the personalities involved, together with the limitless artistry of the positions themselves, which will always make chess such a fascinating game.

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