Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Position to Pawnder - Pyre's Reflections on his Journey into the World of Chess

The following is an article written by Pyre, one of my chess students, reflecting upon his transition from competitive SC2 to chess. My thoughts on Pyre's progress will be published here soon.
This article can also be found on TeamLiquid:


When playing Starcraft, I was very often asked by friends and family, “What is Starcraft?” and “How do you play Starcraft?”. My response was always, “Well, it’s sort of like chess, but faster and more difficult”. On the one hand, who can argue that Starcraft isn’t a faster-paced game? Starcraft is in real time and chess is turn-based. Some Starcraft games end in 5 minutes, while some chess games last for 7 hours! However, I could never have been more wrong when assuming that Starcraft was a harder game than chess. Learning how chess pieces move is one thing, but mastering the art, beauty, and complexity that encompasses it is as different as night and day. 

Pyre used to be one North America's most promising SC2 talents and was consistently ranked among TOP 16 on the GM ladder before he turned his attention to chess

Optional Backstory:

      If you don’t know who I am, it's because I haven’t logged onto for about 8 months. Back in September, I joined my high school’s chess club thinking that my strategic brain would easily be able to convert my grandmaster Starcraft abilities into grandmaster chess play. I was terrible at first, and the mere thought of eventually becoming good at chess was slowly slipping away. I lost to every single person in the chess club every week and wondered why I was good at Starcraft and not good at chess. But eventually, the constant defeats and humiliation got to me and I decided to seriously train to become better. The same competitive drive I applied to Starcraft in my humble beginnings was being applied to chess. What began as a side-project to Starcraft shortly took over as I regained the desire to become better at something--the same something that attracted me so much to Starcraft in the first place.

      With this ambition, I was lucky enough to fall under RevTiberius's wing and become a chess student of his. Soon enough, I started to see results. It was not long before my first competition happened, which was the culmination of all the high schools nearby and I got third place. Good right? Well, not as good as I had hoped. All this did was tell me that I still had a really long road ahead of me. But after several hours a day of studying and playing from January to now, I can confidently say that my chess is at a decent level (approximately 1800 ELO from 1000 ELO) and I hope to continue at the same rate during my stay at UCSD. 

 "I could never have been more wrong when assuming that Starcraft was a harder game than chess". SC2 GM and chess enthusiast Pyre reflecting upon chess and SC2
      “We ain’t so different you and I”. It’s true. Both Starcraft and chess are similar games where both players start evenly and through smart decision making, the better player should win. There are starting imbalances very similar to that of terran, protoss, and zerg, although I doubt “white” is going to get patched anytime soon. There is a large amount of theory, strategy, and overall knowledge required in both games to be successful. Taking expansions in Starcraft is the same as developing your pieces and castling (bringing your king to safety, while bringing your rook into the game) in chess. Going for a baneling bust, or a 6 pool, is very similar to the infamous “Scholar’s mate” (trying to checkmate your opponent in 4 moves) in chess or even just moving your queen out too early and trying to do damage with it. 

      The strategy in both games is really no different. In both games, you build an army and often there is a main fight that decides the game. For all you positional, quiet players who like to “turtle” in Starcraft, guess what? You can do that in chess, too--just close up the position with pawns and its equivalent to a widow mine and siege tank line! And for all you attacking players who like blink stalker openings, roach baneling busts, and 1/1/1s, there’s aggressive type play in chess as well with what are known as gambits (sacrificing material for hyperaggression). 

      Both games have gone through changing times and changing ideas throughout their existence. In the beginning of Starcraft 2 in 2010, everyone (including zergs) opened on 1 base and it remained that way until even the 7 minute mark. Struggling, zergs eventually realized that they needed the extra larvae and they needed the extra base, so they started going hatch first. As a response, terrans started making reactor hellions to start putting pressure on the expansion. These are examples of trends. From the 1500s-1800s, chess players strived to control the center immediately and valued fast development. However, at the dawn of the 20th century, ideas changed and certain people (called “hypermodernists”) decided that as a response, chess players could let their opponent control the center at first, but then flank attack it later! This idea had never been seen before, but it changed the way people thought chess was played and it led to even more innovation further down the road. 

      Tournaments are seen in both chess and Starcraft 2 at the professional level and the amateur level. One of the most intriguing things I had found out about when I first started getting into chess was the fact that most local chess tournaments have sections. This was a new thing to me, as no Starcraft tournament I ever went to had a “diamond-only” section or a “platinum-only” section with cash prizes for them too. This seemed genius to me. Everyone who participated in these chess tournaments had something to play for. They weren’t just going to get “beat by a gm, then watch”.

      There are also chess pros, just like there are Starcraft pros. The “Flash” of chess would be either Garry Kasparov or Bobby Fischer. Both of these chess players are legends of their time and have been internationally recognized outside of the chess world. The “Taeja” or “Mvp” of chess would be Magnus Carlsen. Magnus Carlsen is currently the world #1 at only 22 years old! He is a superstar in his own world just as Starcraft players are in theirs.

      If you’re a fan of just one of these games, then I highly encourage you to try the other. As a non-Starcraft player, if you feel intimidated by the speed at which Starcraft is played, let me assure you that you don’t need 450 APM to be good. Plenty of successful Starcraft players, like Polt, are able to out-think and outplay their opponents purely out of strategy, tactics, and immense game knowledge. If you play Starcraft and have never gotten into chess, then just imagine you’re playing Starcraft except without the APM and constant movements--just the strategic portion. Nothing can match the pleasure of beating someone in a game of raw intellectual strength.