In theory, a two-dimensional chess diagram has all of the information you need to play the game. In practice, maybe not….

Midday Matinee is our people watching, people doing and people being feature. Join the Woodland Creatures for an afternoon break.

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s Midday Matinee by Linda Lee on chess sets.

The image at the top of the page is a three-dimensional image of a chess position, as it might appear in the online chess game Mobialia Chess. But you’ll rarely see an image like that in a chess book, or a print or online chess problem. Instead, you’ll see something like this:

I looked for a 3D image and a 2D image that had pieces in the same positions, and the only one I could find was the default starting position. So the two images do not document the same chess problem, yet in theory they provide the same amount of information. A chess board is a two-dimensional space, and there are common, easily-recognized two-dimensional symbols for chess pieces. Placing those symbols in the appropriate board spaces should show you everything you need to know.

In fact, a chess programming website argues the 2D image is better:

Despite the more challenging task for the GUI or graphics programmer and progress to simulate the view on a real chessboard, the 3D Board is usually harder to grasp for a human chess player than good 2D Boards. Pieces and specially pawns are often partly covered by pieces in front, and movement of head and eyes of the chess player lack the same visual feedback as looking on a real chess board. Therefor 3D Boards are often featured in mass market products and some programs where authors are interested in 3D graphics programming. The really sophisticated 3D boards of Chessmaster and Fritz are eye catchers and rich of features, but rarely used for serious playing.

It’s easy to select a view angle where pieces are rarely if ever hidden. But no, moving your head does not have the same effect with a static 3D image. No matter how you duck and weave, the view angle in the 3D image at the top of this article stays the same.

Even so, I find the 2D chess diagrams difficult to read-forward. I find it almost impossible to see more than a couple of moves ahead with a 2D diagram.

I recognized this problem when I was in high school. Several friends liked to play chess, but we didn’t always have a board available. If we didn’t have a board, we simply drew an 8×8 grid in pen on a sheet of notebook paper, and marked the pieces’ positions with one-letter abbreviations in pencil: K for King, Q for Queen, B for Bishop, N for Knight, R for Rook, and P for Pawn. The Black player circled his/her letter-pieces, and in theory the paper contained enough information to play chess.

Yet I beat one friend every time we played on a board with pieces … and he beat me every time we played on paper.

It wasn’t that he played better on paper. It was that I played worse. With a board and pieces, I could easily see strong and weak shapes: collapsed pawn ranks, pinned pieces, dominated ranks, files, or diagonals, etc.

Recognizing strong and weak shapes – in combination – let me read more moves ahead. I never had the talent and/or skill to specify exactly what sequence of moves would lead to winning a piece, or to checkmate. But when I was playing regularly, I could identify and seize upon a critical shape advantage, or see that I needed to correct a dangerously flawed shape.

In the picture at the top, for example, White is in dire trouble. Black has a Queen, two Rooks, and seven Pawns to White’s Queen, lone Rook, Bishop, and six pawns. That alone is a serious material disadvantage, as White’s Bishop can attack only half the board (the white squares).

But Black’s shape advantage is devastating. The third file (from the left) is open, and Black has a Rook at one end and a Queen at the other. If White captures Black’s Queen, Black’s Rook will complete the Queen exchange – making the relative material advantage greater – and be posted on the open first rank (nearest the camera). From there it’s merely a matter of time, exchanging piece-for-piece and pawn-for-pawn, until Black’s extra pawn becomes a checkmating Queen.

The Black win in the 3D image at the top is more than 20 moves ahead … but it’s obvious (to me) from the shape.

Conversely, the problem in the two-dimensional diagram has White to move and force checkmate in three moves … and I can’t see it.

For me, the shapes just don’t ‘pop’ in a 2D image. That’s why I bought a little magnetic chess set like this one. The pieces fit inside the board, which folded over on itself and was small enough to keep in my purse. It wasn’t fancy or elegant, but it let us play a three-dimensional game instead of writing letters on a grid.

I liked it. My friend … not so much….

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Photo Credits: Mobialia Chess; Bluebox Chess Problems.