Chess, math, physics

One of the interviewees in Engaging Pieces is Paul Hoffman, who used to edit Discover magazine and who writes frequently for big media outlets such as the New York Times. Hoffman’s also a chessplayer and his latest book is King’s Gambit (which is NOT about the opening).

From the Engaging Pieces interview:

Mathematics is very similar [to chess]. On the one hand, at first blush, mathematics looks like a discipline based on calculation. Yet to make great leaps forward in mathematics and come up with new theories, requires the same kind of intuitive leaps that happen with someone who advances chess strategy.

So we’re back to theoretical physics. Physics could be called an attempt to precisely  (mathematically) describe nature. How stuff works. What exactly the universe is made of. Over time various theoretical frameworks have been developed to describe, for example, gravity and the movements of planets (e.g. relativity) and the movements of subatomic particles (e.g. quantum field theory). There’s a ton of mathematical complexity involved but the development of each new framework required a dramatically new underlying concept.

And, as this site explains with such clarity, string theory (with yet another new underlying concept) arose as physicists attempted to reconcile discrepancies between the frameworks for the big bodies and the small ones. Older but still useful diagrams and explanations by the same author here.


10 thoughts on “Chess, math, physics

  1. I think what you are saying is that models in isolation are fine-tuned over time using analytic methods such as mathematics. However those very models are steeped in assumptions that limit its usefulness. Observing variances in nature from these models lead to inconsistencies, then the human mind has to say – what?

    Then the long search of what went wrong, and you can’t get out of a model with the model itself. A new one is needed and this is where intuition comes in. And what is intuition – pattern matching? Being able to see pieces perhaps from various models, what are the interrelationships (even if the math is non-existent or tortured), and is there anything new. Einstein’s work, Quantum physics and string theory could qualify for this kind of work.

    And pattern matching and comparing different models is exactly what chess is. The interplay between dynamics and statics, with tactics the only sure way to know – but is it? There is an event horizon (not black hole) with calculation, so then we can only experiment (games) to (over time) increase our certainty about theories, but we can never hold on to them forever…

  2. Hey Harvey – well put.

    I suppose the reason I gravitated (ha ha) toward liberal arts was to avoid the hard work of mathematical fine-tuning. I just like the conceptual stuff and if you ignore the math, you can never be proven wrong :)

    In chess, you can search forever for “the absolute truth” about a position, but in OTB play the clock introduces this need for shortcuts, patterns, “best practical chances”, etc. Goes back to the ideas that Howard Goldowsky brought up in another thread (the Event Horizon one, I think). In absolute terms it’s better to calculate everything out. In practical terms, the person who does a better job of “pruning the tree” and skipping certain variations based on intuition often comes out the victor.

    It’s been interesting casually going over games with Petr Jirovsky, an IM – quite often he digs into a position I gloss over, or conversely we reach a position where I start to calculate but he just looks for about one second and then says “and white’s attack is faster.” So my judgment about when to do the math and when to just look at the big picture needs some improvement.


    dear Derek, while spelling is not my forte, i am otherwise a carefull observer in many areas, not least of which in the sociology of knowledge, mapping if not physically then at least mentally who is who in our area, so of course came to understand in the last week or two that derek was the ReAssembler, who i enjoy very greatly.

    like me, you range widely, and bear the mark of a true educated human. for me, to call someone a human, is one of my highest compliments.

    link to photo, which doesnt have specifics on location or type, but a carefull reading of comments at nearby similar brown toned photos of belgium might bear fruit.

    as a registered architect (i now gladly am done after 25+ years, starting full on at age ten, then practicing the ten years up to age thirty five) im not much on what is called urban archaelogy, but the images are better than the facts, thereof.

    summer is ending, after which, i can start taking carefully nurtured vegetable or chicken stock alike, and make my own heart soups, broths, stews, the kind of constructs that could hold a timber vertical… shallots, ginger, rosemarie, 18 bean and beef, or lentals…

    three years next week no alcohol, very bad for depression, in this case, but i do keep malty beer in the refrigerator, just to prove to myself i dont need or want it…

    photo above kinda of like Jules Vern or such.

    i see you are a big wheel in security, and editor, and have your own fine voice.

    thank you for being.

    please feel free to email me directly at any time, with appropriate subject identified as not viagra or such–they found me last month, and now it wont stop. :)

    warm regards, dk

  4. Thank you David – I may take you up on that email, and you can rest assured that (unless George warns me otherwise :) if I wander up to Seattle I’ll invite myself for a bowl of soup.

  5. Physics, Math, Chess

    Perhaps it’s called, “Thinking/practicing inside or outside of the box.” How things work, theoretical frameworks or models or whatever one chooses to call them, of necessity are not likely to be good fits for frameworks outside of the one we are immediately dealing with. First we can extrapolate from where we are. When that fails we must look for something new and the tools are creativity, other experiences or intuition.

    Mathematics versus chess would be an example. Mathematics, I would think, differs from chess in that the rules for mathematics are vastly larger. In fact I wonder if chess is not a sub-category of math itself. This doesn’t mean creativity within chess differs from that of mathematics, just the the number of restricting rules is smaller.

  6. Hi BigApple – chess as subset of math? Seems entirely reasonable. Some chess vocabulary is drawn from of math. I could describe it as a set of known quantities interacting according to a set of clearly defined rules.

    On the other hand, maybe we’re just misapplying an old framework – maybe somebody will come up with a non-mathematical approach that turns out to be superior for describing chess. :) This seems like the old positional versus tactical argument again…

  7. i had a guy, in 1991, almost pass out–literally–on my sofa, after a bowl of soup but not having warned me just how sensative he was to spices,

    but if that be the case, i can tone it all down on demand.

    but, honestly also, my soup can make mind altering dreams, as i take all the love juice from organic beats, organic cabbage, organic kale, and after parboiling that, accumulate the SAME stock over time, just as in the Tassajara cookbook author Brown says to do, as ‘it will keeep indefinitely…’, or what is really the only cook book that ive actually read, which explicates ingredients and how they operate, as against procedures and steps.

    i did buy Julia Childs big book, the Way to Cook, but just never find the time or gumption (cf. Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintainance use of that term, by Pirsig) to use it, much as i wish, instead filling gaps with hours and hours of Food TV while studying chess, when not otherwise distracted by Survivorman, the dear bloke.

    drop me a line when you come to town, beside non-Viagra peripatetic muse via extranet mail.


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