David Krakauer's column for the Winter 2020–2021 edition of the SFI Parallax newsletter. Subscribe here for the monthly email version, or email “news at santafe.edu” to request quarterly home delivery in print.


This year more than a few of us sought solace in the labyrinth of the game board. This is hardly a novel retreat or original compensation for reality. Vladimir Nabokov (who analyzed these ludic variations on Plato’s cave) described the habits of the ascetic master Rubinstein, observing Rubenstein “didn’t like to see his opponent. But an empty chair across the chessboard also irritated him, so they put a mirror there, and he saw his own reflection.” All in all, this sounds like a fair metaphor for contemporary reality.

Writing seven hundred years prior to Nabokov, the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio in his Decameron (set during the depredations of the Black Death) describes the third day of quarantine wherein all things lost and desired are discussed. Recounting how “some went thither, whilst others, overcome with the beauty of the place, willed not to leave it, but, abiding there, addressed themselves, some to reading romances and some to playing chess or tables, whilst the others slept.” This might even surpass — in relevance — Nabokov’s reflections on Rubinsteinian reclusiveness.

For over a millennium chess and Go have provided a microcosm for exploring analytical, aesthetic, moral, and practical matters. They have done so in different ways, reflecting in their contrasting elements something resembling a chronology of science. Let’s call this a shift from reductionism to emergence, or a focus on parts in chess and patterns in Go. It should be said that chess at the highest levels has always been about patterns. But in Go the beginner has no choice but to think in patterned terms and so the Go novice learns to play the way an ideal chess player matures.

Here are some notable differences. In Go there is only one piece, whereas in chess there are six unique pieces each with a different value. The chess board is a square lattice of eight-by-eight cells. The Go board is 19-by-19 cells. In chess the board starts with all pieces present in a fixed position and gradually empties. In Go the board starts with no pieces and gradually fills. In chess the objective is to capture pieces. In Go the objective is to capture territory. The opening game in chess is highly scripted — somewhat like the end game of Go. Both games have an equal complement of black and white pieces.

Through the game of chess we invented a fairly strong model of physical reality. Starting in a state of near-perfect order, all the pieces in play, moving through annihilating interactions, reducing the board to a sparse set of pieces with nowhere left to move. With Go we invented a model for adaptive evolution, emphasizing how patterns emerge from simple beginnings, how the constraints of pattern impose limitations on strategy, and the way growing territories form shapes of near-endless complexity.

The early history of science is often told as if it were a chess-like epistemological dissection — taking plants, animals, and atoms apart so as to reveal their constituent parts. And then determining which of these parts is essential or dominates in accounting for a property of interest. The recent history of science, and complexity science in particular, is far more interested in how we put these pieces back together to produce life — a Go-like epistemological biosynthesis.

In our ludic pursuits, whether these be chess, Go, or myriad alternative board and computer games, we have been exploring these two approaches to physical reality. Nabokov’s Rubinstein and Boccaccio’s exiles did not
willingly forfeit society in times of duress — they created simulacra. And however diminished their shadow realms, they nevertheless challenge us to think through the elements and emergent patterns of existence. It
seems extraordinary to me that with chess and Go we recapitulated — or perhaps more accurately precapitulated — some of the styles of thought that have come to dominate our understanding of physical reality. It is as if the entertainments sought in our confinement are the unwitting homework required to better cope with the world upon our release.

David Krakauer
President, Santa Fe Institute