Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Narrated Chess can be Hazardous to the Listener


Speaking as a fan and occasional player of the fascinating International Worldwide Game of Chess, I have a few observations to share.

First, let me say, for us chess fans, computers and the net have revolutionized our experience. My favorite is YouTube which carries wonderful videos made by good chess players who are also good communicators. The video reports of chess matches, classic games, and personal or locational sidelights are entertaining interesting and educational. A wonderful use of the YouTube medium.

As a frequent listener to chess videos, I have noticed an interesting problem. Hence this article.

So, here goes….

When we chess folk communicate about chess, we use chess notation to record and describe the move-by-move progress of a given chess game. Chess notation has a long, varied, and interesting history. In the modern era, since the 1980’s or so, algebraic notation has become standard. Having nothing to do with mathematical algebra, algebraic notation makes use of a coded alphanumeric coordinate system for locating squares on the chessboard. The eight ranks (rows) are labeled 1 through 8 and the eight files (columns) lettered “a” through “h.”

Chessboards often have these coordinate numbers and letters printed along the edges. Thrown into the mix are the code letters for the chess pieces R,B,N,K,Q, except for pawns. Pawns are anonymous in algebraic notation, as befits their low status. If White advances the pawn in front of his king by two squares, algebraic notation for the move is e2-e4 or simply e4.

Algebraic notation is the current favorite for written chess, along with its fun variant, figurine algebraic notation. Figurine algebraic on the printed page mixes tiny color-coded icon images of chess pieces, the figurines, with algebraic chess board coordinates making for pleasingly mysterious hieroglyphics. Computer chess applications code chess data in files using specialized formats such as the pgn format. Chess fans know this stuff inside out.

However, when it comes to speaking and listening, we chess folk have a problem, a failure to communicate. The spoken language of chess is much less developed than the written one, and chess language in its present form has flaws. That’s the problem I want to examine in this article.

When talking about chess moves we use spoken algebraic notation, what we might call narrated algebraic. In narrated algebraic, we pronounce the English names of English letters along with the English names of the numbers 1 through 8. The trouble is, spoken letter and number combinations often sound awkward, and very often result in ambiguous sounds. Especially so, for network audio streams having limited bandwidth and background noise.

Come to think of it, all audio streams have both above properties, but anyhow, I think you get my drift. Listening to narrated algebraic chess speech is tough going. The letters b, c, d, e, and g sound alike and are easily confused when spoken casually. And it’s worse over a noisy audio channel. Another problem is “h.” “h” is awkward to pronounce. Not to mention “f” and “a,” neither of which are pieces of cake.

Narrated algebraic requires pronounced letters to be combined with pronounced numbers with silent pauses in between. This creates additional hazards for the listener. “f6” and “h8” especially so, among many others. Are you with me? Ok then.

Compounding the problem is the scarcity of context clues in chess speak. In normal conversation, spoken words have a natural grammatical syntax which provides a stream of context for each audible sound. The listener gets an unconscious version of what computer guys call error correction. The, “Oh! That’s what he meant by that…” moment, where it takes a half second to figure out what was intended by the speaker. This along with a continuous flow of percollating sub-awarenesses all contribute to our perception of continuous speech comprehension.

Narrated algebraic as it presently exists, is simply not a very good way of transmitting chess moves through speech. The spoken letters are hard to distinguish and there’s no error correction. And it’s even worse in audio streaming. All this makes listening to narrated chess games difficult: perhaps needlessly difficult.

So is there no hope? Will we chess fans continue to suffer forever with geeethreee ceeethree aaichaate?

I say, “Maybe not.”

The problem of communication over noisy audio channels is important to others. In the military and in aviation, noisy radio channels are used in critical, and even life-death situations where errors could be fatal, or worse.

What did they do about it?

Interestingly, they developed a phonetic coded alphabet. It’s called the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet (IRSA). It’s what air traffic controllers use to talk to the captain of your flight from Chicago to Boston. Most people have heard this lingo on TV or movies, or listening to the ATC channel on a flight.

So we have the IRSA phonetic system, a tried-and-true effective and reliable means of spoken communication over noisy channels. And it sounds cool! Hmmm, so if we took the IRSA system ...... and combined it with ……ummmm well….

So here you go…

Chess board files labeled: a b c d e f g h in algebraic, become alpha bravo charlie delta echo foxtrot golf hotel in IRSA algebraic. Cool!

Speaking casually about last night’s club game, Alex says, “Yeah, he played echo 4 and I played charlie 5. Then he played Knight foxtrot 3 and the game continued Knight charlie 6, bravo 3, … “

Hmmm… better than eee4 ceee5? For speech communication?

Yes, it is for sure more intelligible over audio channels. Maybe we have a possible solution to an outstanding problem in Chess communication. Perhaps not an optimal solution, but I believe it or some variant could be of great value to chess players and chess fans everywhere.

Ok. Now there are fun things you can do with this concept. How about other options?

Would "Knight Alekhine 3 to Capablanca 4," "Knight to Fischer 3," or "pawn to Euwe 4" work? No, too geeky. Hmmm, for chessplayers geeky maybe a positive connotation. So maybe.
Or there’s Pawn to King Four, Knight to King Bishop three, … No?

Well, ‘Splain me your ideas, comments and suggestions.
Over and Out.

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