I don’t remember where I heard this story, or from who, or what the context of it was. Well, maybe it’s more of a riddle than a story. It might be the kind of riddle that engineers tell each other, a sort of math-y logic-y puzzle-y thing that makes themselves feel smarter than they are. Or it might have been one of those stories based on something that actually happened that gets immortalized because it makes for a particularly good fable. Or maybe I just saw some version of it on TV at some point when I was younger and it got stuck in my head and I elevated it into the realm of myth for myself.
And I’m sorry that I’m evoking chess in this because I promise to you that I’m not some pseudo-philosophical pseudo-intellectual Chess bro (you know the type, Chess bros are the worst). In fact, this little story (or is it more of a riddle?) could be about any two-player, turn-based game at all but I am using chess here because that is how I originally remember it being told to me (even though, again, I don’t remember any of the context around who told it to me or the reasons for the telling of it).
The story (riddle?) goes like this.
There is a little girl who has become a widely renowned chess prodigy. Her particular specialty is in playing against multiple grandmasters at the same time, showing that she can hold a great number of games in her head at once.
The way she plays them all at the same time is that she’ll have all these grandmasters sitting beside each other in a circle, facing inward, with her in the middle. She’ll play one move against the first grandmaster, then move on and play one move against the next grandmaster, then play one move against the next, then the next, going around and around the circle until all the games are finished. And to keep things fair, in half of the games, she will start first, and in the other half, she will start second.
Now, because she’s still a young less-experience chess prodigy, she doesn’t win all the games, but she always manages to win exactly half of them. Which, for a kid, is incredible! If she plays 12 grandmasters this way and beats 6 of them, then still, Hey, this kid just beat 6 grandmasters! And at the same time!
All around the world, this kid has been challenging grandmasters like this, in the same set up every time so everything stays fair, and no matter how many grandmasters she plays against at once, she keeps beating exactly half of them. And it keeps frustrating the grandmasters! It’s a mystery! How can this kid be this good?
One hint: the number of grandmasters she plays in this way always has to be even.
Another hint: if the number of grandmasters she plays is odd, then she’ll most likely always lose one game more than she’ll win.
A third hint... and here's the kicker: she doesn't even know how to play chess.
So how does she do it? How does she keep beating half of the grandmasters she plays if she doesn't even know how to play chess in the first place?
Well, what’s really happening is… she’s not really playing against them at all. What she’s actually doing is performing as a proxy, creating a system where she is a middleman who is making the grandmasters play against each other.
This is how she does it. Grandmaster A will take his first move against her. She’ll remember that first move and move down the circle, using grandmaster A’s first move as her first move against, say, grandmaster B. Then, she’ll remember how grandmaster B responds to that move (which is actually grandmaster A’s move) and when she makes it all the way back around the circle back to grandmaster A, she’ll play grandmaster B’s response against grandmaster A. Then she’ll remember what move grandmaster A plays in response, then move down the circle and play that move back against grandmaster B, and so on and on, mediating a game between grandmasters A and B until they have played out their game. One grandmaster will win and one grandmaster will lose, and because the little girl has mediated this game through herself, using grandmaster A’s moves against grandmaster B and using grandmaster B’s moves against grandmaster A, it will look like she has beaten one of them and lost to the other.
She does the same for grandmaster C against grandmaster D, grandmaster E against grandmaster F, all the way around the circle. (And the grandmasters don’t need to be next to each other — in fact, the illusion works better if she’s pitting grandmaster A against G, B against R, C against J, for example, but for the explanation above, it’s just easier to say A against B, C against D, E against F… you get the point.)
And so, this little girl is still a genius, just not in the exact way we think. The genius of what she does is that she keeps track of all of the moves the grandmasters make and replicates them against the other grandmasters she matches them against, keeping track of all the pairings of which grandmaster is playing against which, and all the moves they are all making, around and around in a circle, until all the games are played and half the grandmasters end up beating the other half. She doesn't even have to know how to play chess in order for this strategy to work!
So that’s the story of how a kid who doesn't even know how to play chess can beat half the grandmasters she plays against every time.
I guess it’s more of a riddle than a story.
And I know there’s a moral here that puts it in the classic tradition of the “trickster” fable, about an underdog using her ingenuity to outsmart a group of people who underestimate her. Or maybe there’s a parable in here about how the little girl is actually playing the role of a communications medium, and the story is an explanation for how something like the internet works, by acting as a virtual messenger that relays information between two users, connecting them by placing itself as the proxy between them.
But the reason I think this story (okay, so it’s more of a riddle than a story) has stuck with me so much over all these years, the thing that brings me the most comfort, is that this is a story where someone was only able to do something right 50% of the time and that could still be seen as a great achievement.
Chess piece (rook)