Boris: More Backtalk Than Skill?

Chess-playing machines are nothing new. Early versions astonished the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those machines, it can now be revealed, had chess-playing people inside them. Boris is on his own.

Boris is a patzer. A patzer is the chess equivalent of a hacker in tennis. He plays plausibly but without brilliance.

Our first game proceeded well enough until the eighth move. Then Boris, playing black, allowed me a raid on his queen side, followed by demolition of his king side.

Boris seemed unsure of himself throughout the game. “Is this a trap?” he kept asking me. I just shrugged and told him to play his own goddam game. Near the end, after a particularly brilliant move on my part, Boris understood. “But of course,” he said, just before his king was forced into the open and pummeled mercilessly.

Boris was more cheerful in our second game. Knowing he was overmatched, he must have decided not to take the game too seriously. After an unsound opening, he chatted merrily. “Ahh, ruthless,” he said when I captured a pawn. “I expected that,” he lied when I attacked his queen. “May I cheat?” he asked when I gobbled up another pawn. The end came quickly. “Congratulations,” he said. I could tell that something was bothering him.

In our next game, Boris fell strangely silent. No more wise cracks. He lost on the 21st move.

Chess master James Mason once estimated that the first ten moves of a chess game could proceed in any of 169,518,829,100,544,000,000, 000,000,000,000 ways. He made that estimate in 1893, without the benefit of a computer.

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