Chess and Practical Reason

I watch chess videos on the internet.  Yes, that makes me a super-nerd.  But it also gives me a great example for explaining STA’s account of practical reasoning!  See, it’s the medieval philosophy interest that saves me from being a real nerd…


When you watch certain chess instructors online, they are teaching a class at a chess center.  Sometimes they have just a few players in attendance, other times many.  The instructor will play through a game to teach a key theme or idea of chess.

Often in the course of these lectures the instructor will pause at a critical moment in the game and ask the students to answer basic chess questions.  How do you assess this position?  What are the advantages and disadvantages for each side?  Most importantly, what is your plan?

There’s a funny moment in a lot of these classes where the students will shout out things like, “d5!” or “Nf3!”  The GM instructor will laugh to himself a little and say, “No, I’m not talking about a move.  What do we want to do here?  What do we want to accomplish?”

While watching one of these videos where the students continued to give moves instead of plans, I realized we could map this perfectly to the account of practical reason given by Aquinas in ST I-II Q11-17.  These kids (some quite a bit older than mere kids) were thinking in terms of moves instead of plans or, to put it another way, means instead of ends.

Actually they were thinking in terms of means with no end, which is pure gibberish.  A means can only exist as the thing that moves me from where I am to the end I want to reach.  Sure, in a game of chess you could name every legal move on the board and eventually, accidentally, hit upon the “right” move.  But what is it that makes it the right move?

Not to spoil the complications of a beautiful game for you, but, in the words of the great Bobby Fischer, checkmate wins the game!  The end of chess is checkmate, winning, putting your opponent away.  Everything that moves you toward that goal is a good move.  Everything that moves you away from that goal is a bad move.

In chess, as in life, good and bad are said in terms of an end.  If those silly students had shouted, not “d5!” but “Checkmate the other guy!” they would have been moving closer to the right answer.  Not all the way there, but it’s the first step in the right direction.  You have to know your end and want to move toward it before anything else.  First law of practical reasoning:

Begin with the end in mind.  Begin with the end in mind.  Begin with the end in mind.

Next question, which is the question our GM instructor is always getting at: How do we get there?  Now we are talking about the plan.  Between the move and the end there is the plan.

In the lingo of Aquinas, coming up with a plan is called counsel, or deliberation on means.  Deliberation: I know I want to do X.  How do I do it?  How can I do it?  What are the good ways to do it?  What is the best way to do it?  That’s counsel.  And now we have a real problem.

Between the start of a chess game and its conclusion in checkmate, there are a lot of possible plans.  In fact, once you account for variations in plan, there is a practical infinity of plans–far too many for the human mind to think through.  As is often quoted in many contexts, there are more possible moves in a chess game than there are atoms in the universe.  In fact, if we eliminated two rules from chess–the two drawing rules by repetition or fifty moves without a capture or pawn advance–there would be a truly infinite number of moves and a truly infinite number of plans.

Aquinas addresses this problem in an article about whether the process of counsel is infinite.  If it is infinite, then we can never finish doing it, which means that at some point our reasoning process is fundamentally irrational.  We have to shrug and jump forward for no reason.

Hey, that sounds like how I play chess!

But when good players play chess, they have a wealth of acquired knowledge about structures, strategies, tactics, relative values of pieces, etc.  You can study those in a book, or have a chess coach, and you can acquire them through experience.  At the other end of things, you have the moves that are available to you right now.  Counsel is the charting from where you want to be back to what you have at your disposal right now, filtered through all the things you know how to do.

Sure, you could try to sit at the board and calculate everything at every step, using your intellect and senses to build from scratch, but there’s a reason they time the games and there’s a limit on human ability anyway.  The really great players don’t need to do that; they play the right move much faster than you can imagine unless you’ve seen one play.  The proverb is that a grandmaster throws his knight up in the air and it always lands on the right spot.  The reality is that GMs are drawing on all of those sources of knowledge, and simplifying the process of counsel.  Rationally limiting a rational process to be rational, if you will.

Ok so what happens when you know, one way or another, that you have multiple plans at your disposal?  Now it’s time for the next phase of practical reason: consent, or approval of the means.

Some courses of action require more calculation than others.  Some will require the opponent to find very tricky, very accurate moves to survive.  Some will require me to find very tricky, very accurate moves because my king will be badly exposed.  Some will be safe but probably lead to a draw unless the opponent makes a terrible blunder.  Some will lead to structures that make me uncomfortable.  Some will lead to structures that I’ve played a thousand times and know like the back of my hand.

Consent is the embrace of the judgment of counsel: I like some of those plans and I don’t like others.  Maybe I only like one plan; maybe I like three; maybe I don’t like any of them and need to re-evaluate.  As the GMs like to say, skeptically, to their students: “That’s a plan, sure.  Is it a good one?” (Also of note, especially for players like me: better to have a bad plan than no plan at all!)

No matter how many plans you consent to, if you want to play the game–if you want to get to the end and win the game–then you’re going to have to choose one.  And that’s the next phase of practical reasoning: choice, or election of means.

Choice of plan is clearest when we consent to multiple plans, but it’s still necessary for moving forward even when there is only consent to one plan–you can always just sit there and do nothing!  And if you don’t like any of your plans, then you go back to the counsel phase and decide which one is least bad–or try to find a new one!

So far we’ve talked about this process at the broader, more universal level of plan.  To really finish the process of practical reason we have to reason all the way down to the fundamental unit in chess: the move.  But the reasoning out of the plan as good or bad terminates in part at “what I can do now.”  Perhaps there is more than one move to accomplish the plan, and the player must initiate a second process of counsel.  But either way, the reason for the plan is still anchored on those two points: that it gets me to checkmate (hopefully) and that it is something I can do now.

Something makes chess very interesting and verrry complicated, however.  There is a (putatively) rational agent sitting across the table from you!  The thrill of chess comes from the collision of plans, the re-evaluation and the mistakes and the tempi and all the rest.  Each player is doing this, each player has to take the other’s plan into account, each player has to make moves that advance one plan and thwart another.  Chess is hard!  But that’s what makes it fun.

Make use of those pieces!  Execute the plan by executing the move!  Enjoy the victory!

And stop guessing when you play chess.  It’s irrational.

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