Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Cueball begins a conversation with White Hat with the declaration that he will be scoring his conversations using chess notation. White Hat is not interested, so the conversation dies out, with both Cueball and White Hat saying "Fine". And just as promised, Cueball has scored this particular conversation, giving it a ½-½, as he believes that this is a drawn conversation. The reasons for the draw, as explained below too, may be due to a stalemate (the conversation isn't going anywhere), draw by repetition (both players have played the same moves over and over again, and cannot improve their position - probably if "Fine" had been repeated more times), 50-move rule (the conversation has been going on fruitlessly for too long - unlikely here since it is only 4 dialogues long) or something else.
The title text contains the same assertion that Cueball is scoring all his conversations in chess notation, followed by a (??). In chess notation, (??) means the move in question was a very bad move - a blunder. Cueball says that his decision to score all his conversations was a blunder, which is understandable as it turns conversations from something fun and rapport-building to a sort of war where one has to win over the other party. Also, Cueball may be treating his conversation itself like a chess game, and memorize openings, use tactics and evaluate various possible things to say, which will take away the light-heartedness of any conversation. Quite a ?? indeed!
The ?? may also mean that Cueball and/or the persons he is having a conversation with are confused (??) by this decision, as seen here when White Hat says he doesn't know or care what that means.
Chess notation (and annotation)
Chess players and critics use certain notations to write down chess games in a very short fashion (for example the Forsyth–Edwards Notation, which is both computer- and human-readable). In addition, chess annotation symbols like ! and !? help to comment certain moves in a similarly short fashion. That way it is possible to print or discuss a chess game (or a chess opening) in a limited space, for example in printed reference manuals.
A short synopsis about common chess annotation symbols:
!! – brilliant move: Very strong and counter-intuitive move. A sound sacrifice.
! – good move: A surprisingly good move.
!? – interesting move: Risky, or worthy of attention and analysis.
?! – dubious move: Designates a move that may be bad, but it is hard to explain why.
? – mistake: Poor move that should not be played.
?? – blunder: Exceptionally bad move, usually designates a move that turns a winning position into a draw, or a draw into a losing position.
The score of the "white" player is always given first, followed by the score of the "black" player. Possible notations for the game outcome are:
1-0 – a win (for white)
0-1 – a loss (for white)
½-½ – a draw
Because every chess game begins by moving a white piece, the following can be observed: When Cueball ends a conversation with 1-0,
- he either began the conversation, and won it;
- or he responded to a communication request, and lost the conversation.
Draws in chess
A chess game can be won (and lost for the other party) or drawn. It should be noted that draws most commonly occur by agreement, or very rarely by stalemate. A stalemate is a situation where the opponent's king is not in check, but none of the opponent's pieces can be moved in a legal way. In a human conversation, what amounts to a draw, and what amounts to a stalemate?
If agreed draws should be allowed (and under which circumstances) is a matter of some discussion among chess players, thus adding another point to Randall's comic. For example, some tournament rules (e.g. the so-called "Sofia Rules") do not allow a draw to be offered directly - any player has first to announce the intention of drawing to the arbiter (referee), who then decides if the position should be played out further or not.
The official chess rules offer some ways the concept of a "draw" could be applied to a human conversation. According to the World Chess Federation (FIDE) rules, a draw can occur:
- by agreement. Any player can offer a draw when it is his turn to move.
- by stalemate. As explained above: The king is not in check, but no legal moves are available.
- when the same position (with the same possible legal moves) occurs at least three times, with the same player having the same possibilities of moving his pieces. This draw must be requested by the player. According to the FIDE rule 9.6, the arbiter himself declares the game drawn when the same position occurs five times.
- when 50 moves have passed without a capture or a pawn move. Again, the draw occurs only upon request. According to the same FIDE rule 9.6, the arbiter declares the game drawn when 75 moves have passed, without a request by either player.
- when one of the players has used up his time, but his opponent has not enough material to mate. For example, king and pawn mate against a king in certain situations, while king against king leads to a draw by the 50-move-rule.
- when both players have used up their time, but the arbiter cannot determine who did so first. This is impossible with modern electronic chess clocks, though.
- upon request, when the opponent does not play seriously and attempts to win the game by timeout.
So, what's a "draw" in a conversation?
- Draw agreed: As pointed out by Randall in his cartoon, a drawn conversation is one where all participants agree.
- 50-move-rule: Conversation is drawn, based on the excessive duration of the talk.
- Draw by repetition: Both participants have talked in circles, arriving at the same conclusions all over again. No progress has been made.
- Draw by stalemate: When A cannot convince B, but B doesn't have any legal argument left, and would have to resort to lies or logical fallacies in order to continue.
Chess games and conversations
The notion of applying chess scores to conversations raises the question if and how chess play and conversations can be compared.
Chess games and human conversations do have some things in common:
- The outcome fully depends on the behavior of the partner/opponent.
- As in chess, there is no certainty that a certain statement will have the desired effect. The opponent can always react in a surprising way.
- Chess players, like conversation partners, do not "calculate" the opponent's next move(s). They don't compute anything. They are not cold-blooded machines. They do, however, similar to conversation partners in a job interview or a televised debate:
- create a plan, and revise and refine it as necessary
- try to get a good feel of the situation, and try to remember how they dealt with a similar situation in the past
- try to identify the opponent's weaknesses, and try to remedy one's own weaknesses. Prepare against surprises and pitfalls.
- focus on a few promising moves, and quickly spot if they're easily refutable. "You see, I spent 8 years programming BANCStar applications at..." - "Anybody with that experience is dangerous and should be locked up." - "Oh."
- The question of what is considered a good move (or statement) can only be answered in a subjective way. Chess engines though use algorithms to assess the position, and they can calculate the value of different possible moves. In human conversations, social norms help avoid making bad moves.
- It is difficult to win against an experienced, alert partner or opponent. Competent exploitation of the opponent's errors is often the only way to win.
- In both, you will try to find moves that make your win more probable, while avoiding deleterious moves. Due to inadequate computing power, it is hitherto impossible to calculate all possible ways a chess game (or a conversation) could play out. See also 1002: Game AIs. Therefore it is impossible to design a path that leads to a guaranteed outcome - except when the situation has been simplified enough. There are handbooks to play endgames, explaining how to secure either a win or a draw, no matter the capability of the opponent. Nowadays, computer-generated endgame tablebases exist for six-piece and seven-piece endgames. Those for six pieces are freely available and are about 1 terabyte large.
- Chess games are inherently competitive, zero-sum ventures; if one player wins, the other loses. In contrast, conversations aren't usually competitive, so there isn't really a concept of a winner and loser unless the conversation was an argument or debate. Often, both people in a friendly conversation will benefit ("win") from having had the conversation.
- Both chess games and conversations are turn-based, but lacking time controls, people's statements sometimes last up to an hour.
- Especially in disputes, (agreed) draws are extremely rare.
- It is difficult to judge the winner of a conversation.
- In chess, every position of the pieces can be analyzed completely independent of the previous moves. It does not matter how the situation evolved. After 1.e4 e5 and 1.e3 e6 2.e4 e5, there is an identical situation. Due to human emotions, though, this is not the case for conversations. No situation is ever exactly the same.
- Chess games are extremely constrained by a set of rules. Players are expected to behave gentlemanly, and arbiters can hand out punishments for any behavior that brings the game into disrepute.
- [Cueball and White Hat facing each other.]
- Cueball: I've decided to score all my conversations using chess win-loss notation.
- White Hat: I don't know or care what that means.
- Cueball: Fine.
- White Hat: Fine.
- [Caption below the frame:]
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