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Interview with João Pedro Neto

João Pedro Neto is a well known inventor of chess variants. One of his inventions, Magnetic Chess, was among the 20 variants covered in Pritchard's book `Popular Chess Variants', but he invented many more interesting, playable, and fun chess variations.

In 2002, João Neto won the contest to design a chess variant on a board with 42 squares; his game Life, the Universe, and Everything was awarded the first place by Peter Aronson and Tony Quintanilla, who were the judges for this contest. Here is an interview with one of the modern masters of chess variant invention.

Dear Joao,

Many congratulations with winning the contest to design a chess variant on a board with 42 squares!

Thank you!
Can you tell something about yourself: which year were you born, how old are you, where do you live?
I was born in Lisbon in 1970, so that makes me 32 years old (already!). I live and work in Lisbon, and to be honest, I don't feel a bit motivated to change that - it has never ceased to be a beautiful city.
Can you tell how you designed Life, the Universe and Everything? What came first, the theme or the game mechanics?
Well, Hans, in that part you are the one that started this process! I wrote the two parts of Hitchhiker's Guide to Chess, and because the answer in Douglas Adams' famous book for the final question of Life, the Universe and Everything (else) was 42, the match between this and the number of squares on this contest made you sent me a challenge: Build a game using the Hitchhiker's subject. So, the theme came first, then the name came second and only then the game itself!

Since the game would have to be played on a small board, and I usually don't like strange boards I figured to work on the pieces, to try to give them interaction powers with each other. The name of the game gave me 3 pieces, Life, Universe, Everything. What could they do to to reflect those names? Life gives mobility, the Universe is anywhere, and Everything... well everything was harder :) I thought it should interact (how?) with anything adjacent to it. After that, since those 3 pieces were quite versatile, the other pieces should be weak, only by interaction could the army deploy strong attacks. The Ferz and Wazir were perfect choices, and since this is a Chess Variant, if they could repeat more than one move I would get the Rook and Bishop - then Everything went into its place. Finally, I included the double move to add extra dynamism and more paths for tactics.

I should point that I had a lot of play testing with Claude Chaunier and Bill Taylor. Bill proposed many corrections to the original rules (thanks, B).

What was your reaction when you heard that you had won?
I was surprised and glad. For me, of course, but also for Douglas Adams, for his great books! Thanks Adams for all the laughs, in whatever Galaxy you're in now!
Is 42 squares the right number for this game? Would the game have been better on a different sized board; e.g., with knight-like pieces?
I should dare say that if 42 is the right answer for Life, the Universe and Everything (you will understand it when you understand the question), 42 squares is the right dimension for those two armies. A smaller board would get no mobility space and interaction would be too easy, and a larger one would take too long and start to be boring. Perhaps 49 squares, but is 49 an answer to anything important? About horses, the board hadn't room for them.
How do you look now at Life, the Universe, and Everything 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?
I wouldn't change anything. The strong points are those 3 pieces. They are new (as far as I know) and give a multitude of options with their possible interactions. Every piece there, alone, is weak or useless, but used together and well they may create havoc!
You have designed several chess variants. What do you consider the best among those? Why?
From my own lot of CVs I would choose: (i) Magnetic Chess - the game is very dynamic and enjoyable to play; (ii) Balanced Swap Chess - not so dynamic, but still fast with lots of potential threats; and (iii) Promotions & Demotions, which is a very simple idea but with many tactical possibilities.

I think Domination Chess also has a very good potential, but I didn't play it much...

Considering other chess variants, what are your favourite chess variants?
Well, Chess is one of them :^) I still play it from time to time with friends. I see myself as a discoverer and explorer of games, but sometimes, like Marco Polo, I like to stay in Venice to rest on those streets that I know best.

Other variants? Well, most are 'traditional': Progressive Chess, Losing Chess, Alice, Marseilleais Chess and Grand Chess.

From the less known variants, I do like Royal Hand-Grenade Chess (no direct take allowed, on each move all opposite pieces at King distance are captured, the one who captures the king wins); Progressive 007 (also know as Progressive Orthodox Chess); Betza's Momentum Chess...

I do prefer CVs based on a simple concept. Keep the knowledge you have on Chess and change it a bit. This produces a bias toward CVs similar to Chess, I admit, but they are easy to learn and we already have the needed material to play them. I tend to dislike CVs with large armies, with too many exotic pieces, with elaborate board topologies, with lack of clarity, and that would take too long to decide who won.

Do you often play chess? Do you play chess in a club or by email?
Not very often. I played a lot of email chess, some at FICS, and a great number of 5 minute games when I was studying. But nowadays, I just play 3 or 4 times a year.
Do you often play chess variants?
I still play some CVs occasionally, but I'm focusing my game interest (and available time) on other abstract games - you can check them on the WAG website (the World of Abstract Games).
Do you play games other than chess and chess variants? What are your favourites?
My all time favourite is Go, but there are a plethora of good games. My favorites set includes Kris Burm's ZERTZ (it seems you are inside a N-move mate puzzle disturbed by another guy, or is it the opposite?); HEX, Y and variants (my favorite is to play HEX on a projective plane With double moves on different groups); EPAMINONDAS; EMERGO; SLIMETRAIL (and its progressive 488 variant in a square board)...

Talking about my own games, I believe my best discovery is GONNECT (play like Go, win by connecting two opposite sides, no passes), which is an extension of Go, it provides a more focused dynamic on the openning stage, while in Go things are a bit fuzzy for beginners on the first couple of dozen moves. Gonnect is a race at the beginning, a battle in the middle and a frozen minefield at the end.

KEFREN and KHAN are other two games of mine that have good potential, but I didn't played them much. You can check them all at WAG.

Do you have other hobbies?
Reading, especially Science Fiction and History, traveling whenever I can (but the World is damned big!), and writing, usually SF.
Whoever looks at your webpage can see that you are a university professor in computer science, who also does scientific research on games. Can you tell something here about this research? Is there inspiration from this research for chess variants, or vice versa?
This research just started a couple of months ago, I called it project LUDAE.

One way to present a game is to show its game-tree, i.e., all the possible positions from the initial setup to all possible endgames. In most games, the game-tree is immense and is not feasible to compute. Anyway, if we had the game-tree, the game would loose its interest, since it is our ignorance about its complete structure that provides fun.

Usually a game is defined by a rule set that specifies the game-tree into a short set of sentences easy to handle, keep and understand. What we do when we are learning is to try to discover the hidden tree patterns that lead us to better positions. Playing well, in a sense, is to know how to choose the best paths down that tree.

As most of you know,Zillions of Games (ZoG) is a meta-game player, or simply, a player of games. From what I know, ZoG uses an alpha-beta searching to travel thru the game-tree. The way it chooses to search is based on an active analysis of the rule set given by the ZRF language, so ZoG does not learn, but it makes a plan (sometimes good, sometimes bad) and keeps to it! What the designers of ZoG achieved was a very good way of planning for a huge set of games.

LUDAE's goal is the same. But while ZoG uses an active exploration of the game-tree, LUDAE will use a passive exploration, i.e., it will play games, it will go thru bad paths under the tree, will make lots of mistakes and it will learn! In LUDAE there will be an ARENA where many algorithms will fight each other in order to go to the next tournament round. They will evolve, and hopefully turn into better players. But it will not only be about conflicts. Players will send their best moves (so they think) into a common place of shared knowledge, the ACADEMY, so that other players may use what others learned so far.

About the influence of CVs, I can just say that they were responsible for captivating my interest some 12 years ago.

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?
Read the next answer.
What do you think about the strength of computers playing chess, and chess variants?
I do think that Chess at its present best (the super GMs) is almost dead. There are infinitesimal improvements pushing the ELO up like the decimal seconds on the 100 meters athletic competition. I'm not saying that Chess is not fun for regular players, but TicTacToe is fun for young children... I do think that in 50 years, celular phones (or whatever gadget) will play better chess than Kasparov or Kramnik ever did. For a game as complex as Chess, it will be very hard to survive the XXIst century. But people will still play Chess, as they play Checkers and others... I'm not sure if all the rules will stay the same, nothing is written in stone (I hope everyone stopped doing that ages ago), but the main concept will be there for a long long time.

Chess variants provide a much wider view of the Ocean of Games, ok, a better view of the Sea of Chess Variants :-) Even if the cell phone plays optimal chess, it was not programmed to play XYZ Chess. Well, at least if there is no ZoG offspring inside it! The point is to keep the people free from computer help. It annoys me the possibility to be beaten by a poor chess player with a strong computer program on his side. What's the fun of that? I rather play the program myself!

Are there variants that would be easier for humans than for computers in the long run?
Just variants that focus on the following features:

Clarity (it helps the Human)
Tremendous branching factor (it annoys the Computer)
Non local interaction - any piece is potentially relevant anywhere

Hmmm... these features remind me of Go!;-)

But in the real long run (1, 2 centuries?) there will be no computer-free games left (anyway, as Keynes said, in the long run we'll all be dead!)

Your game has a humorous element to it. What is your opinion about the role of humor in 'serious' games like Chess?
Well, to play a game is to get some fun out of it. In a way, game professionals are a strange paradox of this basic axiom, because many of them take it tooooo serious. Anyway, the sense of humour is absolutely necessary in any human activity, not only in games.

It is the sense of humour and the sense of dignity (your own and the others) that can keep our Universe a fun, interesting, decent and hopeful place.

Are there other questions that I should have asked, but didn't, but that you still want to answer?
What is my favorite Chess site? Well,, of course! I mean, thanks a lot, Hans, for starting it!
Thank you very much for this interview!
Me 2!

Questions by Hans Bodlaender and Tony Quintanilla. Answers by João Pedro Neto. Edited by David Howe and Hans Bodlaender.
Webpage made: October 29, 2002.