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'Really Bad Chess': A Game That Introduces An Element Of Luck


If you play chess, as I do, you know the rules. Each player gets a row of pawns, pairs of rooks and knights and bishops and of course the all-important queen and king. Chess is all about strategy, knowing which combinations of moves will lead to victory, which is precisely what has always bugged our next guest, Zach Gage. He is a game designer and artist, and he's developed a game called Really Bad Chess, a game that introduces an element of luck. Zach Gage is in our New York studios. Hi, there.


KELLY: Why did the world need Really Bad Chess?

GAGE: Well, chess is one of those games that I've always really loved the idea of but never actually enjoyed playing. And about a year ago, I was talking about chess with one of my friends and being frustrated about how it's just not any fun for us to play it because he's so much better than me that even if we tried it would just devolve very quickly into something that wasn't fun.

KELLY: Oh, right. He's going to crush you no matter what you do.

GAGE: Right. And I started thinking about poker, which is another really old game. And one thing that I really love about poker is this idea that even though I play poker all the time, if a new person comes to the table, there's a pretty reasonable chance that they will take my money instead of me taking theirs. And in poker, that's something that we basically call beginner's luck. And in chess, there's no such thing as beginner's luck. So I started wondering to my friend, what if I just tore out this sort of sacred part of chess that's all about balance and perfection and replaced it with luck? And he suggested that that would be a really bad version of chess, and the name stuck.

KELLY: And it stuck. And the really bad version of chess you came up with is that as you play, you are randomly assigned different pieces each time you play.

GAGE: Right. In my variant of chess, what can happen is you're actually getting a random mix of pieces. So you can end up with six queens or twelve knights, and it's not mirrored to the other side. So your side could actually be quite a lot better than the other person's side.

KELLY: I can, however, hear shouts of heresy from the chess purists out there. Have you heard a lot of pushback on this?

GAGE: You know, I've gotten some for sure. I think there are a lot of chess purists who are really deep into the game and they look at it and it's just not doing what they want out of chess. And I think that's totally fair. But I think what's been really exciting about the game is it does some new things for pros. You know, it starts immediately off book. So it's giving you a different kind of experience in chess but...

KELLY: Wait, sorry - what does that mean, starting off book?

GAGE: So off book is like - when chess pros play chess, a professional will make a move that's - results in a board state that has never been seen before in a tournament, and that's called off book. And it's very rare, and it's very exciting when it happens because it means that the game is now going to play through a state that's much more about the tactics and in-the-moment decisions that the players are making.

KELLY: Well, I was going to ask, have you had any world-class players play this and gotten feedback from them?

GAGE: So I haven't yet, and I'm really hoping that that happens soon. It's starting to make its inroads in the very professional chess community from what people have tweeted at me. But I think the really exciting thing about the game is that, for beginners, the fact that it's random really changes quite a lot about how the game is played and how you learn it.

KELLY: Have you gone back and tried to play chess on a traditional board since creating Really Bad Chess?

GAGE: So funny thing is I've actually never played a complete game of chess (laughter) until very recently. Last weekend, I played one of my friends, the guy actually who I was walking with when I came up with this idea. And it was the first game of chess that I've ever actually played and completed. And I beat him.

KELLY: You beat him.

GAGE: (Laughter) And it was extremely weird (laughter) because I've never - I mean, it was really - I've never played it before. And my dumb little game actually taught me how to play.

KELLY: That's Zach Gage, inventor of the online game Really Bad Chess. Thanks a lot.

GAGE: Thanks so much.

KELLY: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.