Isaac Asimov and Chess

Isaac Asimov was born on January 2, 1920. In his lifetime, he wrote 470 books.   Some of his science fiction stories mentioned chess.

One of his first science fiction stories, Nightfall, written in 1941, contains a reference to chess. A multi-chess board was set up and a six-member game was started.   "The men about the table had brought out a multi-chess board and started a six member game. Moves were made rapidly and in silence. All eyes bent in furious concentration on the board."   In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted Nightfall the best science fiction short story ever written. When the book was expanded into a novel, multi-chess had been changed to stochastic chess.

His first published novel, Pebble in the Sky, published in 1950, propelled a man thousands of years into the future. The only thing that did not change, after thousands of years, was the game of chess. The novel also mentioned variants of chess such as 3-D chess, and chess played with dice.

“Chess, somehow, hadn’t changed, except for the names of the pieces. It was as he remembered it, and therefore it was always a comfort to him. At least, in this one respect, his poor memory did not play him false.  Grew told him of variations of chess. There was fourhanded chess, in which each player had a board, touching each other at the corners, with a fifth board filling the hollow in the center as a common No Man’s Land. There were three-dimensional chess games in which eight transparent boards were placed one over the other and in which each piece moved in three dimensions as they formerly moved in two, and in which the number of pieces and pawns were doubled, the win coming only when a simultaneous check of both enemy kings occurred. There were even the popular varieties, in which the original position of the chessmen were decided by throws of the dice, or where certain squares conferred advantages or disadvantages to the pieces upon them, or where new pieces with strange properties were introduced.  But chess itself, the original and unchangeable, was the same--and the tournament between Schwartz and Grew had completed its first fifty games.   They used a "night-board," one that glowed in the darkness in a checkered blue-and-orange glimmer. The pieces, ordinary lumpish figures of a reddish clay in the sunlight, were metamorphosed at night. Half were bathed in a creamy whiteness that lent them the look of cold and shining porcelain, and the others sparked in tiny glitters of red.”

Asimov mentioned chess in his 1950 short story, Legal Rites.  “Every night we sat up together. When we didn’t play pinochle or chess or cribbage, we just sat and talked over the news of the day. I still have the book we used to keep records of the chess and pinochle games. Zeb made the entries himself, in his own handwriting.”

In 1953, in Asimov’s short story, Monkey’s Finger, he wrote, ““Yes. Yes.” Torgesson paced faster. “Then you must know that chess-playing computers have been constructed on cybernetic principles. The rules of chess moves and the object of the game are built into its circuits. Given any position on the chess board, the machine can then compute all possible moves together with their consequence and choose that one which offers the highest probability of winning the game. It can even be made to take the temperament of its opponent into account.  Torgesson said, “Now imagine a similar situation in which a computing machine can be given a fragment of a literary work to which the computer can then add words from its stock of the entire vocabulary such that the greatest literary values are served. Naturally, the machine would have to be taught the significance of the various keys of a typewriter. Of course, such a computer would have to be much, much more complex than any chess player.”

In his 1953 book, Second Foundation, he wrote, “But she had died. Less than five years, all told, it had been; and after that he knew that he could live only by fighting that vague and fearful enemy that deprived him of the dignity of manhood by controlling his destiny; that made life a miserable struggle against a foreordained end; that made all the universe a hateful and deadly chess game.  But there was no way of making the people suddenly disbelieve what they had believed all their lives, so that the myth eventually served a very useful purpose in Seldon’s cosmic chess game."

In his 1955 short story, Franchise, he wrote, "We can’t let you read a newspaper, but if you’d care for a murder mystery, or if you'd like to play chess, or if there’s anything we can do for you to help pass the time, I wish you'd mention it.  Reason alone wouldn’t do. What was needed was a rare type of intuition; the same faculty of mind (only much more intensified) that made a grand master at chess. A mind was needed of the sort that could see through the quadrillions of chess patterns to find the one best move, and do it in a matter of minutes."

In his 1956 short story, The Dead Past, he wrote, "Your scientists can’t write. Why should they be expected to? They aren’t expected to be grand masters at chess or virtuosos at the violin, so why expect them to know how to put words together? Why not leave that for specialists, too?”

In his 1968 short story, Exile to Hell, he wrote, “He considered the chessboard carefully and his hand hesitated briefly over the bishop. Parkinson, at the other side of the chess board, watched the pattern of the pieces absently. Chess was, of course, the professional game of computer programmers, but, under the circumstances, he lacked enthusiasm. By rights, he felt with some annoyance, Dowling should have been even worse off; he was programming the prosecution's case.  He tapped his finger on the chessboard for emphasis, and Dowling caught the queen before it went over. “Adjusting, not moving,” he mumbled.  Dowling's eyes went from piece to piece and he continued to hesitate.”

In his 1970 short story, Waterclap, he wrote, "No mystery," said Bergen genially. "At any given time, some fifteen of our men are asleep and perhaps fifteen more are watching films or playing chess or, if their wives are with them-"

From 1971 to 1974, Asimov wrote Tales of the Black Widowers.  It had several chess references. He wrote, “He was a master at Chinese checkers, parcheesi, backgammon, Monopoly,checkers, chess, go, three-dimensional ticktacktoe.”  Do you have a chess set, Mr. Atwood?"


"Yours? Or was it a present from Mr. Sanders?"

"Oh, no, mine. A rather beautiful set that belonged to my father. Sanders and I played many a game on it."




In 1972, in his short story, Take a Match, he wrote, “He said there was a low hum that you could hear in one of the men's rooms that you couldn't hear anymore. And he said there was a place in the closet of the game room where the chess sets were kept where the wall felt warm because of the fusion tube and that place was not warm now.”

In his 1976 short story, The Winnowing, he wrote, “Peter Affarre, chairman of the World Food Organization, came frequently to Rodman's laboratories for chess and conversation."

In 1978, Asimov wrote a story for the September 4, 1978 issue of New York Magazine, entitled, “Gosh, Kreskin, That’s Amazing!”  He wrote, “The amazing Kreskin, who bills himself as the "world's foremost mentalist," played chess with Cleveland Amory and Jacques d'Ambroise at the Raga restaurant last Tuesday.  Kreskin was blindfolded, and he announced he would call out his
opponent's moves after thay made them, presumably by reading their minds.  He called out the first two moves of each opponent, then caled a halt to that part of the demonstration.  Both Amory and d'Abroise made the common Pawn-to-King's-Four opening move, and Kreskin guessed the move - after much patter and visible suffering.  Kreskin moved his Queen's Pawn up to Amory's piece, and Amory promptly too it with his King's Pawn.  In being taken from the board, the two chess pieces made a pronounced click - a dead giveaway.  Kreskin guessed the move again with suffering and delay. 

For the second part of the demonstration, Kreskin had Cleveland Amory place a Knight on another chessboard with the 64 squares numbered sequentially.  Although blindfolded and with his back to the chessboard, Kreskin guessed that the Knight was on No. 35.  I don't know how he did it, but I presume any good mentalist can do it.  He then called off the number of 63 other squares in order, squares to which the Knight could move by legitimate Knight's moves.
     The various "Knight's tours,"  which is what these are called, are well known to chess players, and I suspect it is quite possible to memorize a Knight's tour and then, having established the starting number, rattle off the other 63 numbers in the correct order.
     Kreskin suffered through every number, though, asking for quiet, then pattering and squirming endlessly.  He got the numbers right, of course.
     He expressed surprise at one point that one position was followed by another square bearing a number higher than the previous one.  There are 42 different positions on the squares that allow a move to another position ten higher in number by a Knight's move, so his surprise was itself surprsing.
     Kreskin is offering to meet Bobby Fischer, together with the winner of the Korchnoi-Karpov match, and play them both simultaneously, himself blindfolded.  If that should happen and Kreskin proceeds with constant chatter as last Tuesday, I wonder which of his two opponents will kill him first.  Probably Fischer.”

In 1979, Asimov wrote Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts. On page 68, he says, "The number of possible ways of playing just the first four moves on each side in a game of chess is 318,979,564,000." This may be wrong. The number of possible ways for White to play the first move is 20 (16 pawn moves and 4 knight moves). For the first move with Black, the number is 400. For the 2nd move for white, the number of possible moves is 8,902 (5,362 distinct). For the 2nd move for Black, the number of possible moves is 197,281 (71,852 distinct). For the 3rd move for White, the number of possible moves is 4,865,617. For the 3rd move for Black, the number of possible moves is 119,060,679. For the 4th move for White, the number of possible moves is 3,195,913,043. For the 4th move for Black, the number of possible moves is 84,999,425,906. This is smaller than what Asimov says.

In 1981, Asimov wrote a science fiction short story called The Perfect Fit. He referred to a 3-dimensional chess game which was a game with 8 chessboards stacked upon each other, making the playing area cubic rather than square.

In 1984, in his book Bouquets of the Black Widowers, he wrote, “'Please! It will do you good to listen. You may be a distraction. If you play chess, you will know what I mean when I say you may be a sacrifice. You are sent in to confuse and distract us, occupying our time and efforts, while the real work is done elsewhere.”


In 1986, in his short story Robot Dreams, he wrote, “Paulson said, “We can’t let you read a newspaper, but if you’d care for a murder mystery, or if you’d like to play chess, or if there’s anything we can do for you to help pass the time, I wish you’d mention it.”  “Reason alone wouldn’t do. What was needed was a rare type of intuition; the same faculty of mind (only

much more intensified) that made a grand master at chess. A mind was needed of the sort that could see through the quadrillions of chess patterns to find the one best move, and do it in a matter of minutes.”


In 1987, in his book Fantastic Voyage II – Destination Brain, he wrote, "In life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate."  There were other references to chess in the novel.  He wrote, “What's more, Aleksandr was a dreadful chess player, much to his father's disappointment, but he showed signs of promise on the violin.”  A pawn is the most important piece on the chessboard -- to a pawn.”

In 1988, in his short story The Smile of the Chipper, he wrote, “Of course, we couldn’t hire them both. Getting two chippers to work together is impossible. They’re like chess grandmasters, I suppose. Put them in the same room and they would automatically challenge each other. They would compete continually, each trying to influence and confute the other. They wouldn’t stop couldn't actually -- and they would burn each other out in six months."

In 1990, he wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times, entitled “Checkmate?”, about computer chess vs. human intelligence.

In his book, Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor, he wrote, "Once while I was in the army, I read "The Royal Game", surely the best chess story ever written. It filled me with a wild desire to play chess and I began to approach various soldiers who appeared the chess type. No Luck! To each one I came with a wistful "Would you like to play a game of chess?" and from each one came a cold "No."  Finally I had the idea that I should have had to start with. I came to a soldier and said, "Would you like to read a terrific story?" and handed him " The Royal Game".  I waited. An hour passed. And then he came to me and said "Would you like to play a game of chess?"

In 1994, Isaac Asimov's last autobiography, I. Asimov: A Memoir, was published after his death.  In his chapter titled Games, this is what he said about chess.

 “Failure at physical sports has never bothered me...What bothered me, though, was my failure at chess. When I was quite young and had a checkerboard, but no chess pieces, I read books on the game and learned the various moves. I then cut out cardboard squares on which I drew the symbols for the various pieces, and tried to play games with myself. Eventually I managed to persuade my father to get me real chessmen. Then I taught my sister the moves and played the game with her. Both of us played very clumsily indeed.

My brother, Stanley, who watched us play, learned the moves and, eventually, asked if he might play. Ever the indulgent older brother, I said, "Sure," and prepared to beat the pants off him. The trouble was that in the first game he ever played he beat me.

In the years that followed, I discovered that everyone beat me, regardless of race, color, or religion. I was simply the most appallingly bad chess player who ever lived, and, as time went on, I just stopped playing chess.

My failure at chess was really distressing. It seemed completely at odds with my "smartness," but I now know (or at least have been told) that great chess players achieve thier results by years and years of studying chess games, by the memorization of large numbers of complex "combinations." They don't see chess as a succession of moves but as a pattern. I know what that means, for I see an essay or a story as a pattern.

But these talents are different. Kasparov sees a chess game as a pattern but an essay as a mere collection of words. I see an essay as a pattern and a chess game as a mere collection of moves. So he can play chess and I can write essays and not vice versa.

That's not enough, however. I never thought of comparing myself to grand masters of chess. What bothered me was my inability to beat anyone! The conclusion that I finally came to (right or wrong) was that I was unwilling to study the chessboard and weigh the consequences of each possible move I might make. Even people who couldn't see complex patterns might at least penetrate two or three moves ahead, but not I. I moved entirely on impulse, if not at random, and could not make myself do anything else. That meant I would almost certainly lose.

And again - why? To me, it seems obvious. I was spoiled by my ability to understand instantly, my ability to recall instantly. I expected to see things at once and I refused to accept a situation in which that was not possible.”

Asimov died on April 6, 1992 of AIDS after a blood transfusion during heart surgery.

In 1996, in Robert MacBride’s trilogy book Caliban – Utopia, set in Isaac Asimov’s Robot/Empire/Foundation universe, the author wrote, “A whole series of questions she dared not ask flickered through her mind, along with the answers she dared not hear from Kaelor. Like a chess player who could see checkmate eight moves ahead, she knew how the questions and answers would go, almost word for word.”

In 1997, Gregory Benford wrote Foundation’s Fear as part of the Second Foundation Trilogy.  It was written after Asimov’s death, authorized by the Asimov estate.  There were several chess references in the book.