Monday, December 31, 2012

Fit Your Audience - Don't Put Arm Wrestling in Chess

I was sitting at home on vacation, when a friend told me to check Facebook to see the greatest sport every devised. I turned away from my kitchen to take a look.

Having been a competitive Go player in college, I had a significant appreciation for competitive board games. Having been a cross-country runner in high school, I had a significant appreciation for athletics.

However, I wasn't particularly interested. Roger insisted saying: "Look! First they play, then they fight. Isn't that AWESOME?"

Now, if you stop and think about it, it does make a lot of sense. The same kinds of skills apply to boxing and chess: reading your enemy, drawing him into a weak moment, then delivering a final takedown attack to complete the victory.

In fact, that fact that they need to continue using their brains after taking a pounding has considerable real-life connection to battlefield performance. Smart, strong warriors would be victorious where short sighted or weak ones would not.

The amount of skill required to compete in this sport is immense. A recent reports indicates that the ELO system for chess caps out at around 2800. For chess-boxing, that number is around 3300. Assuming they use the same starting point, what this says is that despite the smaller number of chess-boxing players, the skill gap between the best and worst player is much larger.

Boxing is quite popular. Chess is quite popular.  Why then isn't Chess-Boxing also popular? Clearly there's a ton of talent and skill involved.

Know Your Audience

As someone who never took the time to learn the strategies of Football, I often found myself hanging out with my aunts while my father, grandmother and uncles watched the Big Game. 

One day, while at a friend's place during the Superbowl, I asked my friend Michelle why she was riveted to the screen. 

At first she joked about thinking the Quarterback had a cute butt. When I pressed the issue, she explained:

"Well, my team has been doing pretty well and I've been following the linebacker in my Fantasy Football league. I'm pretty sure if he gets a first down, I'll come back to take 2nd in my league."

... boy, then I knew why the girls blanked out when I raved about A Link to the Past.

The simple answer is that people are drawn to watch what they know and understand. If someone knows Football, they will feel comfortable watching Football. If they know Soccer, they more easily watch a game of soccer.  Something as complicated as Chess Boxing requires double the knowledge base to enjoy. 

The overlap between people who are sufficiently experienced with both chess and boxing is rather small. Perhaps that won't always be the case, but for now it is.

Arm Wrestling is Simple

Let's say we wanted to create a new evolution in gaming, but we wanted to make it overlap with real sports. Since we've decided that boxing was too complex to mix with chess, let's trying something simple, that everyone knows - like Arm Wrestling. 

Let's consider a possible iteration of our new game, Arm Wrestling chess:

  1. Plays just like regular chess
  2. When pieces fight, the opponents arm wrestle to determine if a piece is killed. 
 Awesome - that should make for a better sport, right?

Well.. no.

Don't Cross the Streams

The reason that chess and arm wrestling are entertaining on their own is that they are contests in the same space. Two chess players battle over permutations in the mind. Similarly, two arm wrestlers contest their strength and muscle timing tactics head to head. 

The reason these games work at all, is that the conditions for success are the same on both sides of the equation.  But once we've mixed arm-wrestling with chess, the outcomes of any given decision have now become uncertain.  

We've undermined the ability of the chess player to consistently perform tactics in a way that they can reasonably and consistently expect to perform. Which detracts from the mental appeal that chess brings.  

Similarly, we've undermined the consistent strength performance of arm wrestling, by suddenly adding in a tactical element that means that where once upon a time, using all of your power to win was the right call, suddenly, the right call might be to lose a few arm wrestles to wear your opponent down for an important play later.


  1. It's always a delight to find games in which multiple experience types seamlessly contribute to a cohesive work. Toy Story, on the SNES, was one such title.

    Sadly, such titles are the exception.

    With the immense amount of technology and memory size available for video games today, I'm glad you've written out this guide so that people don't fall into a common -- and sometimes production-crippling -- temptation toward an inferior product.

    1. Thanks Danny. Unfortunately, I really don't know how to get the message out.

      How do you tell people, "hey, there's a way to do this. it works. try it and believe in it!" - I don't know.

    2. I have noitced the image above (arm werstling) which may fit perfectly in a poster I am due to pesent in a professional meeting in the area of clinical microbiology and wanted to ask of your permission to use it....

    3. I got the image from

      Ask him :)