Information Age Education
   Issue Number 213
July 15, 2017   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Joy of Learning; Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Chesslandia: A Parable about
Chess-playing Computers

David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon


Early in my professional career I regularly attended the Association for Computing Machinery annual conferences. Often, the conferences had tournaments in which computer chess-playing programs competed with each other.

Thirty years ago, I published Chesslandia: A Parable about chess-playing computers (Moursund, March, 1987). Ten years later, in 1997, a computer program defeated the reigning world chess champion. Quoting from the Wikipedia (2017):

Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov was a pair of six-game chess matches between world chess champion Garry Kasparov and an IBM supercomputer called Deep Blue. The first match was played in Philadelphia in 1996 and won by Kasparov. The second was played in New York City in 1997 and won by Deep Blue. The 1997 match was the first defeat of a reigning world chess champion to a computer under tournament conditions.

Deep Blue was specifically designed to be very fast at the types of computations needed in analyzing a large number of possible chess moves. Quoting from IBM (1997):

What are the differences between last year's rendition of Deep Blue and this year's model?

There are two main differences between the Deep Blue of last year and the current version. First of all, this year Deep Blue will be running on a faster system—the latest version of the SP—which uses 30 P2SC or Power Two Super Chip processors. As a result, it will run about twice as fast as last year's system.

Secondly, Deep Blue's "chess knowledge" has improved since last year. Working with international grandmaster Joel Benjamin, the development team has spent the past several months educating Deep Blue about some of the finer points of the game.

Last year, Deep Blue averaged about 100 million chess positions per second. This means it examined and evaluated 100 million different chess positions every second. This year, the developers estimate that Deep Blue will work about twice as quickly—that is, 200 million chess positions per second.

Incidentally, Garry Kasparov can evaluate approximately three positions per second.

As suggested in the quoted section, the chess-playing computer had both considerable chess knowledge and was very fast. Garry Kasparov had far more chess knowledge than the computer, but the computer was millions of times as fast as he was at analyzing board positions.

Now, another 20 years later, computers have defeated world-class human players of much more challenging games, such as no-limit Texas Hold'em Poker and the board game Go.

Chesslandia: A Parable

Some of my readers will remember Abner Peddiwell’s educational fable, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum (Peddiwel,1939). I had read The Saber-Tooth Curriculum many years before writing Chesslandia in 1987, but didn't consciously remember Peddiwell’s fable at the time I wrote Chesslandia. Only later did I realize the similarities between the two.

So here is my own 1987 parable about a chess-playing computer and how it disrupts education in the small country of Chesslandia. Enjoy!

Chesslandia: A Parable

Chesslandia was a small but aptly named country. In Chesslandia, almost everybody played chess. A child's earliest toys were chess pieces, chessboards, and figurines of famous chess masters. Children's bedtime tales focused on historical chess games and on great chess-playing folk heroes. Many of the children's television adventure programs were woven around a theme of chess strategy. Indeed, most adults watched chess matches on evening and weekend television.

Chess boards and playing pieces were family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. The oral and written language in Chesslandia was rich in chess vocabulary and metaphors. "I felt powerless—like a pawn facing a queen." "I sent her flowers as an opening gambit." "His methodical, breadth-first approach to problem solving does not suit him to be a player in our company." "I lacked mobility—I had few choices."

The reason was simple. Citizens of Chesslandia had to cope with the deadly CHESS MONSTER! The CHESS MONSTER, usually just called the CM, was large, strong, and fast. It had a voracious appetite for citizens of Chesslandia, although it could survive on a mixed diet of vegetation and small animals.

The CM was a wild animal in every respect but one. It was born with an ability to play chess and an innate desire to play the game. A CM's highest form of pleasure was to defeat a citizen of Chesslandia at a game of chess, and then to eat the defeated victim. Sometimes a CM would spare a defeated victim if the game was well played, perhaps savoring a future match.

In Chesslandia, young children were always accompanied by adults when they went outside to play. One could never tell when a CM might appear. The adult carried several portable chess boards. (While CMs usually traveled alone, sometimes a group traveled together. Citizens who were adept at playing several simultaneous chess games had a better chance of survival.)

Formal education for adulthood survival in Chesslandia began in the first grade. Indeed, in kindergarten children learned to draw pictures of chess boards and chess pieces. Many children learned how each piece moves even before entering kindergarten. Nursery rhyme songs and children's games helped this memorization process.

In the first grade, students were expected to master the rudiments of chess. They learned to set up the board, name the pieces, make each of the legal moves, and tell when a game had ended. Students learned chess notation so they could record their moves and begin to read chess books. Reading was taught from the "Dick and Jane Chess Series." Even first graders played important roles in the yearly school play, presented at the end of each year. The most popular of these plays was about a famous chess master and contained the immortal lines: "To castle or not to castle–that is the question."

In the second grade, students began studying chess openings. The goal was to memorize the details of the 1,000 most important openings before finishing high school. A spiral curriculum had been developed over the years. Certain key chess ideas were introduced at each grade level, and then reviewed and studied in more depth each subsequent year.

As might be expected, some children had more natural chess talent than others. By the end of the third grade, some students were a full two years behind grade level. Such chess illiteracy caught the eyes of the nation, so soon there were massive, federally-funded remediation programs.

There were also gifted and talented programs for students who were particularly adept at learning chess. One especially noteworthy program taught fourth grade gifted and talented students to play blindfold chess. (Although CMs were not nocturnal creatures, they were sometimes still out hunting at dusk. Besides, a solar eclipse could lead to darkness during the day.)

Some students just could not learn to play a decent game of chess, remaining chess inept no matter how many years they went to school. Lifelong supervision in institutions or shelter homes was provided for such students. For years, there was a major controversy as to whether these students should attend special schools or be integrated into the regular school system.

Surprisingly, when this integration was mandated by law, many of these students did quite well in subjects not requiring a deep mastery of chess. However, such subjects were considered to have little academic merit.

The secondary school curriculum allowed for specialization. Students could focus on the world or national history of chess. One high school gained considerable publicity by offering a course based on the chess history of its community, with students digging into historical records and interviewing people in a retirement home.

Students in mathematics courses studied breadth-first versus depth-first algorithms, board evaluation functions, and the underlying mathematical theory of chess. A book titled A Mathematical Analysis of Some Roles of Center Control in Mobility was often used as a text in the advanced placement course for students intending to go on to college.

Some schools offered a psychology course with a theme on how to psych out an opponent. This course was controversial, because there was little evidence one could psych out a CM. However, proponents of the course claimed it was also applicable to business and other areas.

Students of dance and drama learned to represent chess pieces, their movement, the flow of a game, the interplay of pieces, and the beauty of a well-played match. But such studies were deemed to carry little weight toward getting into the better colleges.

All of this was, of course, long long ago. All contact with Chesslandia has been lost for many years.

That is, of course, another story. We know its beginning. The Chesslandia government and industry supported a massive educational research and development program. Of course, the main body of research funds was devoted to facilitating progress in the theory and pedagogy of chess. Eventually, however, quite independently of this research, the electronic digital computer was invented.

Quite early on it became evident that a computer could be programmed to play chess. But, it was argued, this would be of little practical value. Computers could never play as well as adult citizens. And besides, computers were very large, expensive, and hard to learn to use. Thus, educational research funds for computer-chess were severely restricted.

However, over a period of years, computers got faster, cheaper, smaller, and easier to use. Better and better chess programs were developed. Eventually, portable chess-playing computers were developed, and these machines could play better than most adult citizens. Laboratory experiments were conducted, using CMs from zoos, to see what happened when these machines were pitted against CMs. It soon became evident that portable chess-machines could easily defeat most CMs.

While educators were slow to understand the deeper implications of chess-playing computers, many soon decided that the machines could be used in schools. "Students can practice against the chess-machine. The machine can be set to play at an appropriate level, it can keep detailed records of each game, and it has infinite patience." Parents called for "chess-machine literacy" to be included in the curriculum. Eventually, legislatures passed laws requiring that all students in their schools must pass a chess-machine literacy test in order to graduate from high school.

At the same time, a few educational philosophers began to question the merits of the current curricula, even those which included a chess-computer literacy course. Why should the curriculum spend so much time teaching students to play chess? Why not just equip each student with a chess-machine, and revise the curriculum so it focused on other topics?

There was a call for educational reform, especially from people who had a substantial knowledge of how to use computers to play chess and to help solve other types of problems. Opposition from most educators and parents was strong. "A chess-machine cannot and will never think like an adult citizen. Moreover, there are a few CMs that can defeat the best chess-machine. Besides, one can never tell when the batteries in the chess-machine might wear out." A third-grade teacher said, "I teach students the end game. What will I do if I don't teach students to deal with the end game?" Other leading citizens and educators noted that chess was much more than a game. It was a language, a culture, a value system, a way of deciding who will get into the better colleges or get the better jobs.

Many parents and educators were confused. They wanted the best possible education for their children. Many felt that the discipline of learning to play chess was essential to successful adulthood. "I would never want to become dependent on a machine. I remember having to memorize three different chess openings each week. And I remember the worksheets that we had to do each night, practicing these openings over and over. I feel that this type of homework builds character."

The education riots began soon thereafter. (Moursund, March, 1987.)

Final Remarks

I find it interesting to be living during the time when our educational system is struggling to deal effectively with Information and Communication Technology (ICT) changes in the world. The current pace of change in ICT is much faster than our educational system seems able to adapt to. Thus, there is a growing gap between students' everyday uses of ICT and their uses of ICT in schools.

Our schools are also making slow progress in integrating uses of ICT into the content of the full range of courses that students are taking. Computers can solve or greatly help in solving many of the problems that are currently studies in the school curriculum. I have addressed this issue in my free book, The Fourth R (Moursund, 12/23/2016).

References and Resources

Best, J. (9/10/2013). IBM Watson: The inside story of how the Jeopardy-winning supercomputer was born, and what it wants to do next. TechRepublic. Retrieved 5/28/2017 from

Eadicicco, L. (2/1/2017). This researcher programmed the perfect poker-playing computer. Time. Retrieved 5/28/2017 from

IBM (1997). Frequently asked questions—Deep Blue. Retrieved 5/28/2017 from

Moursund, D. (12/23/2016). The Fourth R. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the Microsoft Word file from Download the PDF file from Access the book online at

Moursund, D.G. (March, 1987). Chesslandia: A parable. The Computing Teacher (Learning and Leading with Technology.) Eugene, OR: ISTE. Retrieved 5/28/2017 from

Peddiwell, J.A. (1939). The Saber-tooth curriculum. New York: McGraw-Hill. Retrieved 5/28/2017 from

Wikipedia (2017). Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov. Retrieved 5/28/2017 from

Free Educational Resources from IAE

IAE publishes and makes available four free online resources:


David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and editor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See

In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See Information Age Education is now fully integrated into the 501(C)(3) non-profit corporation, Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) that was established in 2016. David Moursund is the Chief Executuve Officer of AGATE.


Reader Comments

We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please click the Login link below and sign in. If you have questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help page.

Readers may also send comments via email directly to

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at and all back issues of the Newsletter at