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  • Writer's pictureRicky

Complexity versus Richness

Here’s some chess jargon: pawns aren’t pieces.

Your king, queen, rooks, bishops, and knights are all pieces. But your pawns are just pawns. Respect the aristocracy! (And clergy.)

But chess is still a teensy bit meritocratic. Maybe one day, your pawn can advance down the board and grow up to be somebody important. After all, every pawn’s a princess in waiting. And a squire. And a really small tower? And an altar boy.

But who would ever promote their pawn to a bishop?

"I hope I become a bishop someday..."

A queen is strictly better than a bishop in every case. It moves like a bishop and a rook combined. So you could have had the queen. But you chose to get the bishop. Now you’re just showing off that you don’t even need a queen to beat me.

But that’s not actually true in Crazyhouse chess.

In Crazyhouse chess, when you capture a pawn or a piece, it switches sides.

This game was not a masterpiece, but it was a wild ride.

Crazyhouse chess adds a few simple rules to chess, most notably:

  1. Once I’ve captured your piece, I can spend my turn dropping it anywhere on the board in my color

  2. I can’t drop a pawn on the first or eighth rank (where they never go anyway)

In Crazyhouse, if I let you capture my Queen, I give it to you to as a weapon to wield against me. And that can be the difference in a game.

So now Crazyhouse makes me think about a decision I never would have thought about in chess. When I promote this pawn, should it become a bishop or a queen?

I’m not good enough to be an asshole in standard chess. I miscalculate things all the time. As a result, I never underpromote to bishops, because I’m never confident enough that I’ll get away with it. So I run through the tape every time. Is a knight better? No? Then hand me the queen, please!

But in Crazyhouse, I might choose to promote to bishop so you can’t steal my queen. And that’s a really interesting choice. Even if you know chess well, Crazyhouse offers fascinating, very novel gameplay like this, and totally reshapes the metagame.

For example, the value of pieces changes. Being able to coordinate multiple bishops on the same diagonal turns out to be really powerful. And dropping a knight to give an unexpected check can keep an attack going where it might have stalled out. Even dropping a pawn one square away from promotion can be devastating.

So attacking becomes a relentless affair: Is there a magic square where you’d love to get a useful piece? Why not just drop it there now? Attacks can keep going until you run out of captured pieces to drop. And suddenly, the tables turn. Now you’re on the defensive, facing all the pieces you just sacrificed attacking your opponent. Crazyhouse chess is a game of runs.

In standard chess, the rules are relatively simple, but playing perfectly is so complex that no one knows how to do it. Standard chess is already so rich in value—offering us so many subtle, distinct sources and kinds of value—that people have been playing for centuries.

Compare the joys of playing quick, intuitive, free chess versus the satisfaction of calculating far ahead; the boldness of a daring sacrifice versus the solidity of inerrant defense; the relief of finding an unexpected way out of trouble versus the sense of mathematical closure imposed by a particularly forcing line. Chess offers multitudes.

On the other hand, there are lots of instances in our lives where we’re confronted with simplified metrics (say, views and likes) driven by complex rules beyond our understanding (say, social media algorithms) that are nonetheless quite poor in value.

Just to pick an offender, the LinkedIn algorithm is a mysterious, recently updated piece of esoterica. But we know what values it ultimately serves. The algorithm is designed to drive user engagement on the platform (measured in likes and comments) so that LinkedIn makes money. I don’t know if you’ve been on LinkedIn recently, but the algorithm’s pretty blind to the quality of what that engagement looks like beyond the most superficial indicators. (Did the poster include #comment, or post multiple links? Well that’s obviously spam…)

So the mere presence of complexity does not guarantee richness. We know this, of course; we’re familiar with the peculiar value-blindness of bureaucracy. Look, I'm sure you have a lot on your mind, but I cannot imagine anything mattering more than the conversation we are now having concerning your tax liability...

If you still haven't watched Everything Everywhere All at Once, you definitely should.

Mere complexity doesn’t guarantee richness. And it’s richness that really matters.

After all, we have a lot of values that we care about.

And part of what we value in Crazyhouse chess is that such a simple change introduces so much novel richness. That’s what makes it elegant.

With just a few extra rules, you can pursue relentless, daring sacrifices that would be impossible in standard chess, though you’d better be confident the line is forcing all the way through! You get to reevaluate our pieces in very new ways as you’re forced to reconsider how they harmonize to attack and defend. Crazyhouse enables a lot of really fascinating possibilities.

I hope you’ll check it out.

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