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Interview with Ben Good: winner of the 38-challenge

In winter and spring 1998, a contest was held to design a chess variant on a board with 38 squares. Ben Good, with his game Crazy 38s was winner of the competition. After the competition, an interview by email was held with Ben in May 1998.

Can you tell something about yourself: which year were you born, how old are you, where do you live, what is your occupation, etc.?

I'm 26 years old. I live in Pittsburgh PA, USA. I recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in classical guitar performance. For the past 7 months I've worked as a salesman at Trombino piano and organ; however, I recently quit to pursue other employment. I also teach private lessons and play electric bass in a rock band called Stone Soup.

How often do you play chess? Do you play chess in a club or by email?

Actually, I very rarely play chess, since I devote most of my time to variants and other games. Occasionally I play chess on Richard Rognlie's pbmserver. I haven't played in a tournament in almost a year, it's hard to find time.

My dad taught me chess when I was very young (the day after I finally beat him at checkers). In junior high and high school I played on the school chess teams; we had some very excellent teams, when I was a freshman in high school, our best player was ranked 2nd in the nation among students, and he really helped my game. When I got to college tho, I stopped playing until a year before I graduated when I discovered xiangqi and shogi.

Do you often play chess variants?

Every day. I have lots of games going by email, and I move on some game or other every day. I'm still interested in starting more games, too.

What are your favourite chess variants?

Well, since you asked...

So many good chess variants, so little time. I like Eric Greenwood's Rennaissance Chess a lot. I've been playing the game with Eric and others (you can now play Rennchess on Andy Kurnia's pbmserver), and recently I've been talking to Eric about the possibility of writing a book on the game. I've also been composing a lot of Rennchess mating problems (I've been posting them on the new email discussion list for chess problems, so far only Andy Kurnia has attempted to solve them).

I like Quantum also, and as soon as I get an extra $260 (not anytime soon) I'd like to buy the nice wooden set. I've only been able to get one person to play with me by email tho.

Duchess is a good one too, but it doesn't lend itself to email playing, nobody's ever in the online playing room, and I only have one friend in the area who is willing to play chess variants with me (and we have trouble finding time to get together). But I recommend it to others to check out.

I like all the Freeling games. I've played a lot of Grandchess in the arena and on Richard's pbm. I've also played Rotary, Shakti, Caissa, and Chad. Andy Kurnia recently put Yarishogi on his pbmserver. And I recently submitted mating problems for Looneybird and Dragonfly. Freeling also has a lot of good non-chess games, and I haven't gotten to trying all them yet either.

I like Xiangqi; it's the game that got me back into chess. I discovered it when I was in the bookstore looking for books on pente (ironically, I've never found a book on pente). I used to play a lot of Xiangqi on the telnet server, but I'm very bad at it and eventually people wouldn't play me cause my rating was so low.

And shogi of course. I am not a good shogi player either. I like chu and tenjiku also. I used to play with Colin Adams via telnet, and I gave him a couple of ideas for his book on tenjiku, which I highly recommend. You can play chu and dai on Andy's pbmserver (I'm still looking for another dai opponent).

Jim Aiken is still working on his game Dragon, Archers, and Oxen, and when the rules are finally finalized, I think it will be an excellent game. He and I have been composing mating problems for that game as well.

As far as games go that can be played with a regular chess board, the best I've seen besides Ultima so far is Joao Neto's anti-magnetic chess. (The worst is riflechess).

Carlos Cetina and I are also playing four of his inventions: Coherent Chess, Sissa, Symmetric Sissa, and Cetina Random Chess.

I'm sure there's ones I'm forgetting and people are going to be upset with me for forgetting their game. And there's so many I haven't tried. I've hardly played any 3-D chess, or hexagonal chess. There's some commercial variants that look very interesting (like global chess and macrochess) that I don't have the money for.

Like I said, so many good chess variants, so little time.

So if anybody wants to start any new games with me, feel free to email me at [email protected].

Btw, I'm also involved in a giant four-player nomic chess variant called Fourplay. For those of you who are curious and have a lot of spare time, you can check it out here. The game was put on hold a couple months ago, but hopefully will be resumed soon.

Concerning Crazy 38 chess, can you tell how you came to designing this game?

In the six weeks before the deadline, I sketched out a LOT of different ideas. I covered about 10 pages with little boards, trying to find something that was good. 38 squares was very limiting for me, since I generally like larger variants. One way I tried to get around that was using 38 squares, but allowing the pieces to move to both the squares AND the intersections (like in Xiangqi). With this method I could get around 90 playing 'locations' but I had trouble find a good set of pieces and a good way to switch back and forth between squares and intersections without having the game be too messy. I also sketched a lot of different shaped boards, since I'd been experimenting with different shapes (altho on a larger scale) since last summer. I'd come up with an idea in my head, then sketch it out to see if I could make it work with 38 squares. Usually it would take too many squares, and I'd have to try and cut it down somewhere. At one point I was so frustrated that I decided I wasn't going to bother entering the contest at all. When I sketched out the Crazy38s board tho, it happened to come right at 38 squares. As soon as I sketched it, I knew that was the one I was going to use.

I came up with the board only a few days before the deadline, so I didn't have much time to think about pieces, and I didn't get to playtest it before I submitted it. I figured since the board is a little crazy, keep the pieces simple. I wanted a rook of course, to make use of the loops in the board. And a bishop too, since the bishop can make a complete loop if he's on the right squares. The pawns were probably the toughest thing; I think I made the right decision tho. I put drops in to help eliminate draws (and cause drops are fun); small games (like quickchess) tend to draw easy, and drops work better on smaller games.

Some votes were extremely enthousiastic about your game. What was your reaction when you learned that you won?

It made my day. I was in a really bad mood, and I was already late for work, but I decided to check my email anyway before I left, and I got the message and it turned my whole day around. I told everybody at work even tho I knew none of them cared. Actually, I've told everybody I know at some point.

It was very flattering to know that my chess peers had voted me the winner. When I submitted it, I figured I had a chance at winning, since the board was eye-catching. My biggest fear tho was that the actual gameplay wouldn't be that great, and people would be let down when they actually played it and wouldn't like it. And a lot of the other entries were excellent.

And of course it was nice to win prizes. It saved me the $30 or so that I would have spent to buy John-William Brown's Meta-Chess. It would have been $30 well spent however, the book is excellent and I highly recommend it.

I note some resemblance to Infinite chess. Were you somehow inspired by the shape of that board?

No. I didn't see the link for Infinite chess til after I had already submitted Crazy38s.

You also borrow several elements from Shogi, Japanese chess. Did you have a specific reason for it?

Not any specific reason, other than the elements I used from Shogi seemed to work well.

How do you now look at Crazy 38 chess after the contest. If you had to redesign the game, would you do it in the same way? What do you feel yourself are the strong points of this game?

Drops are nice cause they reduce the chances of draws, but the danger of drops is that neither player can get an upper hand, and both players keep dropping pieces back on the board in defensive positions and eventually you have the Endless Game. When I was playing with my friend Randy, we were concerned that the Gold and Silver Generals were too powerful, that if you got an extra one, you could build a little General castle around your King that was too hard to break thru for mate. But you could trade something for one of the Generals, and that drop it in your own General castle, and it would just keep going back and forth. But in the games I've played, somebody's always won in 50 moves or less, so I don't know if it'll become a serious problem or not. But I have considered a least trying a variant of Crazy38s where the Gold is replaced by the Wazir (one square orthogonally), and the Silver is replaced by the Ferz (one square diagonally).

The strong point is the Rook. Another concern I had when first playing the game, is that because the game is played with drops, that the board would stay too crowded for the Rook to ever get a chance to sweep around the curves. But in the games I've played, somebody always has gotten to make a Power Rook Move of some sort or other.

Would you end up with this or another similar board if you didn't have to use exactly 38 squares?

I don't know. After the contest deadline, I sketched a lot of larger versions of the board, many of which bordered on ridiculous, and many of which were totally ridiculous (I sketched them during my spare time at work). The best one I've come up with I called Crazy108s, where the board is basically just a big version of the Crazy38s board. Much different pieces tho. I hadn't submitted it to the Chess Variants Page yet cause the page isn't quite finished, but if you wish you can check it out here. I haven't played it yet, cause I haven't finished making a set yet. I have had one offer to play by email, but we haven't started yet.

I always have tons of ideas for chess games, but have good ideas and actually putting together a good workable playable fun chess game are two totally different things. Recently I've been too busy playing other people's variants to work on my own.

Do you play games other than chess and chess variants? What are your favourites?

I originally got back into game playing cause I was staying at somebody's place and they had the game Pente lying around. We played one evening while waiting for pizza to be delivered or something, and I got hooked. It was my search for web info and computer programs for Pente (cause nobody would play with me) that led to my discovery of Richard's pbm server. There's tons of good games on the server, Andantino, K-pente, Renju, Gomoku, Coneutron, Spangles, Plotto, Trax, the list goes on and on. I also play non-chess games on Freeling's Mind Arena, he has some excellent games. Andy recently put Fanorona and Chinese Checkers on his server.

Do you have other hobbies?

Well, between work, playing chess variants and other games, teaching guitar lessons, playing in the band, and going out with my friends, that pretty much takes care of all my spare time. I like to read too, National Geographic and Newsweek and stuff like that.

What do you think of the future of chess? Do you think variants will take over from chess once, or will people always mostly play chess with the FIDE rules, or will they stop playing chess and its variants after a while?

I don't know. People have been talking about how chess is 'played out' since the turn of the century. Capablanca's game didn't catch on, and he was a world champion, so it doesn't give me much hope for converting people to other variants, like Freeling's Grandchess. In Chess Life magazine the only variant I ever see get mentioned is Fischer's Randomized Chess, which I think is a stupid variant and the only reason it gets so much attention is because it has Fischer's name attached to it.

I think the game with the best chance of having worldwide popularity like FIDE chess is shogi. It has a lot of things going for it. It's a great game, it's an established game with tradition and history, it has a big following in Japan, and it's building a solid following on the web. And the fact that it's played with drops makes it unique. One summer I taught little kids at camp, and I taught them chess, Xianqi, and Shogi. Shogi was easily the most popular of the three.

I think the internet will help too, if only because most people don't even know these games exist. If it wasn't for the internet and email, I probably still wouldn't know about any of these games. I think most people think FIDE chess has existed in the same form for thousands of years (Chess Life magazine printed a letter from a woman who described chess as the world's oldest game; from what I've read there is no historical evidence to support this).

Finally, I think the chess industry doesn't want us to know about other games. If, for example, shogi becomes extremely popular in the US, I think most of the people playing it will be people who were already interested in chess. Which means the people who make chess sets, publish chess books, and play professionally will be losing out. It's already tough enough to make a living in chess as it is. When people talk of changing the rules so that knowing book openings isn't useful anymore, this is a threat to the livelihood of people who are successful in chess because they've devoted years of their lives to learning these same book openings. And I don't think it's a good assumption that world class chess players will necessarily be world class shogi players (altho I would guess some of them would be). The analogy that comes to mind is Michael Jordan: he is the world's greatest basketball player but he couldn't make it in minor league baseball.

Well, I'm done talking about that, I think I've talked too long already.

Does the name of your game point at a characteristic of people that turned 38 years old?

Ha ha. No, I hadn't even thought of it that way. The reference, which is admittedly obscure, is to a popular card game called Crazy 8s, which is popular with children. It was the only name I could think of, and it seemed to fit, since the board is a little crazy. (I was going to use The Weak Square of the Jumping King, but the name was already taken).

Are there other questions that I should have asked, but didn't, but that you still want to answer?

Yeah, you didn't ask me what I thought about the other entries.

I picked Jim Aiken's Amoeba for Best Game Design. We haven't even finished playing our game, but I think it is an excellent game. We are playing with the rule that you can slide a square if a friendly piece is on it, but not an enemy piece. The result is sort of a controlled form of doublemove chess, since you can often move 2 pieces in one turn and get some good threats. but it's limited enough that you can see ahead and plan and play a good game, rather than just being totally chaotic.

I picked Weak Square of the Jumping King as Most Playable. It's a fun little game and the rules are interesting but not too complicated.

I picked The Royal Standard as Most Original. The fact that all the pieces had to stay on squares adjacent to the Standard Bearers definitely gave the game a different feel, but it works, and helps control the pieces in a small space. I also thought the Windmill was a neat piece.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to play a lot of the entries before the voting deadline. I wonder if maybe the reason people delayed voting so long was because they wanted to try as many games as possible before voting. Which may have tough, if most people were doing most of their playing by email (that was my problem anyway, I voted on the day of the original deadline). I'm not complaining, since I know the contest was pretty much made up as it went along. But I'm guessing there's going to be a 39square contest (several people have already told me they have games designed for it), and I'm thinking we should have an earlier entry deadline (august 31st maybe? october 31st? I'm just making suggestions) so we have more time to playtest all the games. I'm wondering if there aren't some really great games among the entries that didn't get a lot of votes simply because people didn't try them because the rules didn't instantly grab their attention.

Thank you for the interview.

My pleasure. Thank you for having the contest and for having the Chess Variant Pages.

The email address of Ben Good is: [email protected].
Questions by Hans Bodlaender, answers by Ben Good. Html-page made by Hans Bodlaender.
WWW page created: June 8, 1998. Last modified: August 26, 1999.