About the Project

During my childhood, I was a chess whiz and spent many hours playing against a primitive chess computer my father bought me. I reveled in the infinite possibilities on such a small board. When playing firends, I learned about imagination and deception: how to set traps, feign weaknesses and when to attack. After university, I became a computer programmer and in later years, I transitioned into the contemporary artworld as a new media artist. Fascinated by paradigm shifts such as those created by Duchamp, I wanted honor his legacy as a both an artist and chess player -- the two are inseparable. Combining my early love of chess with my algorithmic skills and a current passion for creating conceptual media artwork, this piece serves this purpose.

Scott Kildall

The Chess Engine

Based on 72 recorded tournament games by played by Marcel Duchamp in the 1920s and 1930s alongside conversations with Jennifer Shahade, a chess and Duchamp expert, I abstracted various principles regarding his chess strategies. From this knowledge, I modified the GNU Chess code, under GPL license. The code is written in C and presented a challenging problem of designing a computer algorithm to play like a specific person.

For example, computers generally perform searches on all possible moves. Even a rookie chess player knows that moving your king into the center of board at the beginning of the game results in certain defeat. But, chess algorithms will typically evaluate this move with just as much effort as well-known plays. In effect, they know no history. They don't adjust their play to specific players and operate as blind evaluators.

For this project, I throttled the level of depth analysis by the code to make the computer play at Duchamp's skill level. The ELO chess ratings were not in effect during Duchamp's chess years, nor were more developed chess schools of thought. The estimation is that he would have been rated as approximately a 2100-level player. Duchamp also adhered to the Hypermodern chess school, which was pioneered by Aron Nimzowitsch and advocates strategies such as controlling the center board through distant pieces.

The most significant modifications, therefore, were around the skill level of the engine and several specific openings. I also favored certain tactics such as the fianchetto, which was often played by Duchamp. I built in chances of blunders later in the game, as sometimes happened to Duchamp when he got tired - physical fatigue doesn't affect computer code. I built in several subtleties into the code such as a more aggressive style when an opponent was playing weakly at the beginning of the game and a proclivity to sacrifice pieces for better positions.

The computer plays like Marcel Duchamp would have based on existing records. It captures the essence, but not the actuality of his play. From an incomplete archive in another time, I can only hope to approximate and reinterpret. Duchamp’s chess-work is inseparable from his art practice and his style of gameplay merits this conceptual artwork.