Quantum Chess: Where No Entrepreneur Has Gone Before

Quantum Chess: Where No Entrepreneur Has Gone Before
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So what does world renowned scientist Dr. Steven Hawking, Ant-Man actor Paul Rudd, Matrix actor Keanu Reeves, Hollywood actor, director, and screenwriter Alex Winter, Ultima Online creator Richard Garriott, USC Ph.D. student Chris Cantwell, and Caltech Scientist Spiros Michalakis all have in common? - They are all advocates of Quantum Chess.

Chess has been around for over 1,500 years. The baseline complexities and potential variations from chess are almost limitless. Even with the best supercomputers today, the game has never been figured out, and the best mathematicians cannot even calculate how many potential variations even exist. While computers have enhanced numerous aspects of chess, there has been little innovation in adapting the core frameworks of the game. Besides former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer trying to make popular Fischer Random Chess (also called Chess960), where the starting pieces are randomized in an attempt to neutralize opening theory, or 3D chess, where chess pieces can move in three dimensions across multiple boards, it is very rare that one tries to reinvent a game that is so old and established. Yet, USC graduate student Chris Cantwell, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Physics and a Master's in Computer Science, is attempting to take chess to the next dimension with his concept of Quantum Chess.

Photo: Quantum Chess Inventor Chris Cantwell
Image Source: Laurie Cantwell

In today's competitive environment, entrepreneurs have to be resourceful with fundraising tactics. As a recently turned entrepreneur, Chris has done a phenomenal job of utilizing Kickstarter, the media, and numerous celebrities to draw attention to his concept that he has spent years working on. With the trending Youtube video "Anyone Can Quantum", Quantum Chess has been organically featured on such prominent publications as the: WSJ, CNET, Popular Science, as well as numerous other sites. With over 700 backers, Quantum Chess has already met its $30,000 Kickstarter goal with several days to spare. Clearly, Chris is tapping into something groundbreaking here.

Growing up, I was an international chess champion, #1 ranked for my age for 8 years in a row, and beat Bobby Fischer's record for becoming a master at the age of 13. The game is very dear to me, and the ability to write this article is quite special. I believe that chess represents the epitome of strategic thinking, intellect, and mathematical beauty. I sat down with Chris and Spiros to explain what Quantum chess is, how they were able to galvanize so many celebrities behind the concept, and the future of the game.

Please enjoy this fascinating interview.


A.J. : Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you were able to come up with the idea of Quantum Chess.

Chris: I am a graduate student at USC pursuing a Ph.D. in Physics and a Master's in Computer Science. In the Fall of 2014 I took a class, just for fun, that focused on creativity. For the final project we had to invent something so, at the suggestion of the Professor of the course Dr. Berok Khoshnevis, I created a game. I didn't want the game to teach quantum mechanics though. I wanted to make a game that would allow people to develop an understanding of quantum phenomena on an intuitive level, almost without them even realizing it. I even toyed with the idea of not using the word quantum in the name because I didn't want it to scare people away.

Photo: Chris Cantwell (L) and his wife Laurie (R) at Caltech's "One Entangled Evening." Image Source: Chris Cantwell

My initial intent was to create Quantum Chess. After a bit of research on what was already available in the field of quantum games I came to a conclusion. There weren't any games that felt truly quantum in nature. There were a few games that took one or two quantum phenomena and injected them into the gameplay in a way that would allow a player to get some idea of what the concepts were, but nothing that really felt like you were interacting with a quantum world. So I decided that I was going to design the game to be quantum at its core.

"My favorite moment was when Keanu Reeves, while reading the full script for the first time, turned to Jose (the writer) and me and declared that "A checkmate with a Bishop and a King is impossible." Here was my childhood hero, whom I had just met minutes ago, pointing out a potentially fatal flaw in the script!"

- Caltech Scientist Spiros Michalakis on the videotaping of "Anyone Can Quantum."

We only had a month so I dialed my ambition back and made a simple game on a 5x5 board with a single type of piece for each player, and the pieces moved quantum mechanically. I figured if the very movement of the pieces was implemented using unitary evolution (fancy words for how quantum things change) in a way that created superposition, then other quantum phenomena would manifest. The prototype I created was a game that was quantum in nature, but it certainly wasn't very fun. After I had a working prototype my research advisor, Todd Brun, put me in contact with Spiros Michalakis of Caltech. Spiros loved the concept, so we began meeting regularly to discuss the game and modifications I could make to it to make it more fun.

After a year of meetings we began discussing the possibility of having more than one type of piece. The conversation evolved, and I was once again contemplating quantum chess. A few weeks later, I had a working prototype of a game that was reminiscent of chess, but where the pieces moved using quantum unitary evolution.

What made you want to apply Quantum principles to specifically the game of chess?

C: I'm a fan of chess. I wouldn't consider myself to be very good at it, maybe average, but I do enjoy the game. I enjoy the strategy and the mental stimulation. Chess seemed like a natural fit to add a bit more complexity. I wanted to do it in a way that didn't really raise the barrier of entry into the game though. I feel like I hit that mark. You can play the game almost like standard chess, and use the quantum moves sparingly. But, as you become more skilled, you can utilize more of the quantum aspects to create different strategies.

Very interesting. What Quantum Mechanics concepts are you incorporating inside the Quantum Chess game?

C: I am happy that you framed the question in this way. It touches on a common misconception, and was one of my design goals from the start. I did not set out to make a game that I could incorporate quantum concepts into. I set out to make a quantum system that I could build the rules of a game on top of. I felt like this is where the previous games, few as they were, fell short. They were plugging select concepts into the framework of an established game.

What I have made, at its core, is a quantum simulation. I built the rules of chess into it using unitary evolution. Even the moves that appear to be standard are accomplished based on unitary math. I specifically designed the quantum move to create superposition. But you also get effects like entanglement and interference as a result of the underlying framework being quantum.

How has the development been going? Has it been difficult to fit Quantum principles inside the constructs of chess?

C: Development has been going well. I would rephrase the second part of your question, though. The struggle hasn't been in fitting quantum principles into the constructs of chess, but the other way around. It has been a struggle to fit the constructs of chess onto a quantum framework. There is a balancing act between maintaining the "quantumness" of the game and getting as close to chess as possible. I feel like having access to both the standard set of moves as well as the added quantum move does a pretty good job of that.

Designing the game to be consistent was pretty interesting, especially when it came to special behavior like en passant. How do you deal with pieces that exist in multiple places when you're trying to capture with en passant? What does the move look like if it could be an en passant capture in one subspace, and a standard capture in another? I spent quite a bit of time on that problem actually. I think I worked out all the bugs, but I'll need a larger pool of beta testing to tell for sure.

Even with the current processors from the top supercomputers today, chess has still not been figured out due to the myriad of variations. How are you accounting for these newly added Quantum complexities on top of those almost limitless baseline variations?

C: The short answer is, I'm not. I've added a few rules, how that changes the complexity of chess, and a computer's ability to solve it, wasn't my main concern. There is another complexity issue, though, that I think you may be hinting at. How can a computer run the game? But this has less to do with the complexity of chess, and more to do with the sheer amount of data needed to store and manipulate a simulated quantum state.

Quantum systems exist in superposition, meaning they can be all possible states at once. Imagine a chess board, how many possible configurations are there? Each of those configurations is a state that will be part of the superposition. Quantum unitary evolution modifies a system so each of these possible states is essentially more or less "real". It takes a huge amount of memory to store a number telling you how probable each of those states.

Photo: The preliminary designs that led to development of Quantum Chess.
Image Source: Chris Cantwell

When I first started the project I did a calculation for my 5x5 board to approximate how much memory I would need. You can think of it in terms of a quantum computer, where each space on the board has three possible states: empty, player 1, player 2. Just for that much simpler system you would need almost 7 terabytes of memory! This obviously wasn't feasible. You can cut down on the required memory by only storing the values that have non-zero probability. But with the moves creating superposition it is still possible, in theory, to max out. Every quantum move doubles the amount you have to store, it adds up quickly.

Photo: The "simplistic" origins of Quantum Chess with a 5x5 board.
Image Source: Chris Cantwell

In the beginning I used what I refer to as artificial means to keep things under control. But in the end I found that tuning the rules for when a measurement occurs, and what is being measured, is the key. Measurement gives you information about the system, and in the process "rules out" some of the possible states, what physicists call quantum state collapse. The key was figuring out the right rules for measurement so that the state was allowed to grow enough to give you quantum effects, while at the same time keeping it manageable. The "No Double Occupancy" rule seems to do a pretty good job of that. But more beta testing could lead to some modifications.

One of the main drivers for your press is the trending "Anyone Can Quantum" video where Dr. Steven Hawking plays Ant-Man actor Paul Rudd in a game of Quantum Chess. The video is narrated by actor Keanu Reeves and is quite hilarious. How did you organize and convince so many celebrities to join forces for the benefit of Quantum Chess?

C: Spiros dealt with all of that, so I'll let him answer this one.

Spiros: I worked with Paul Rudd on Ant-Man as a scientific consultant on issues related to the quantum realm. When the time came to choose a worthy opponent for Dr. Stephen Hawking, I reached out to Brad Winderbaum (producer on Ant-Man) and he put me in touch with Paul's publicist. When Paul heard that he would be playing quantum chess against one of the greatest minds of our time, he got pretty excited and quickly replied that he would do it. At the time, I did not know how busy Paul was (this all happened in a span of 5 weeks - early December to mid January), so I worked with Chris and Gorjan Alagic (good friend and former Caltech quantum computing postdoc) to develop the story, which I thought Paul would then flesh out as a funnier version and in the form of an actual script. That didn't go as planned. Paul needed an actual script from me and time was running out.

Photo: Ant-Man Actor & Quantum Chess advocate Paul Rudd
Image Source: Variety

It was a Saturday night and I needed to think of something less stressful, so at my girlfriend's behest I called up my volleyball buddy, Jose Gonzalez, to see if he would be down to play some videogames and chill. It never crossed my mind that Jose would be the answer to my prayers. At some point, the conversation turned to movies (Jose is a movie buff like no other), and I mentioned that I was working on a script that involved Paul Rudd playing quantum chess against Stephen Hawking, with a famous person narrating the action (I made that last part up, but it all worked out in the end). His eyes lit up and he asked to see the current draft.

Photo: Actor Paul Rudd playing Dr. Steven Hawking in a game of Quantum Chess.
Image Source: Spiros Michalakis

I emailed him what I had and said goodnight. The next morning I received an email from Jose with an attachment. He had turned the draft Gorjan, Chris and I had developed into a full-fledged script that was hilarious, irreverent and smart, for free and in less than 12 hours. Jose had not slept that night. I made some edits to his version (poking more fun at Caltech and connecting the script to One Entangled Evening) and sent it to Paul's publicist. Paul loved it (he would only add a few jokes during the shoot in New York on January 12th.) In the meantime, I still needed to find a director and a famous narrator. So I reached out to my friend Ed Solomon, the brilliant mind behind Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Boy, did he come through. Within a day Ed had connected me with Alex Winter (a.k.a. Bill S. Preston, Esq.), who was willing to direct the short and bring Keanu Reeves on board as the narrator!

Photo: Actor, film director, and screenwriter Alex Winter connected Spiros Michalakis to Actor Keanu Reeves for the shoot. Winter & Reeves were actors together in "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure." Image Source: Wikipedia

When the final pieces were in place, I reached out to Jose to rework the script with Mr. Reeves now as the narrator. We recorded Mr. Reeves early January and filmed Mr. Rudd next, while Dr. Hawking's assistant, Jonathan Wood, worked with the good doctor on his (now infamous) lines. The rest is history.

Photo: Actor Paul Rudd humorously receiving a "future" call from Actor Keanu Reeves in the "Anyone Can Quantum Chess Video."
Image Source: Space.CA

Any behind the scenes tidbits that the audience would find interesting on the shoot?

C: I'll defer to Spiros again.

S: Here is a bit more behind-the-scenes tidbits: When it was time to look for a location in NY to film Paul, I reached out to my friend (and Caltech graduate student) Shaun Maguire, in case he knew someone who knew someone. He texted me back within 10 minutes: "Quick call when you get a chance?" Shaun's friends, Richard and Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux were offering their place for the shoot. I was ecstatic! Then Shaun told me a bit more about the hosts: Richard, aka Lord British, is the creator of Ultima Online, the first private American citizen to go into space and a good friend of Stephen Hawking. His wife, Laetitia, is the co-founder of Escape Dynamics, the company Scientific American featured in its top ten "World Changing Ideas of 2015", and a close friend of Hillary Clinton. Then I found out that the filming location itself was so spectacular, that Polygon had sent a crew to do a story on it.

Photo: Caltech IQIM Graduate student Shaun Maguire (L), Actor Paul Rudd (C), Escape Dynamics co-founder Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux (C), Caltech Manager of Outreach and Research Scientist at IQIM Spiros Michalakis (R) at Richard & Laetitia's Manhattan estate for the Hawking-Rudd Quantum Chess Video shoot.
Image Source: Spiros Michalakis

Paul cleared his busy schedule the day of the shoot so he could take a tour of the mansion after filming was done. During filming, it was Paul's idea to bring Harry Potter into the mix of books he was reading for the training sequence on Quantum Chess. And the scene were Alex Winter pops out to say "Shut up Ted!", was not in the original script. It was something that happened on the spot when Paul actually turned to me and asked "What is that line from Bill and Ted that would work so well right now?" Alex, behind the camera, answered immediately with "Shut up Ted!" I don't remember whether I actually got on my knees at that point, but I begged both of them to do it again, for real and while the camera was rolling, this time with Alex in front of the camera.

Sounds like quite an experience. What was your favorite moment from the shoot?

S: My favorite moment was when Keanu Reeves, while reading the full script for the first time, turned to Jose (the writer) and me and declared that "A checkmate with a Bishop and a King is impossible." Here was my childhood hero, whom I had just met minutes ago, pointing out a potentially fatal flaw in the script! This was my one chance to impress the coolest, most excellent dude of all time, so I looked him straight in the eyes and said: "Yes, you are right. But this is not regular chess. This is quantum chess!" (in my head it was more like: This is Spartaaaa!) Indeed, the (quantum) mechanics of Chris's modern take on Chess allowed Paul to beat Stephen Hawking with only a Bishop and a King.

Photo: Actor Keanu Reeves narrated the Hawking-Rudd Quantum Chess Match.
Image Source: MatrixFans

Incredible story. Offline, how has the reception been around the concept from the scientific, gaming, and the mainstream communities?

C: The reception from all communities has been overwhelmingly positive. I get a lot of messages from people in all areas of the scientific community who love the concept. I also get a lot of interest from educators. The gaming community reception has been quite surprising, but I think that's because it is something completely new. Just as an example of the reception there, we put the game on Steam Greenlight. In about a week we are 85% of the way to the top 100. Of course there are a few naysayers here and there, but that is to be expected. The overwhelming majority of people that I talk to, in all of the different communities, are extremely excited and intrigued by the idea.

With all of the traction that you have been organically generating, how are you spending your days between the development of the game and your Ph.D.? Are you doing this full time?

C: At the moment, the Kickstarter is a full time job. Fortunately this hit between projects. Last semester I finished up a draft of a paper for publication. So now I can read papers, in preparation for the next Ph.D. project, when I find downtime from this Kickstarter and game.

What is your "endgame" goal with Quantum chess?

C: The short term goal is just to get this game out there. But I would love for this to do well enough that I could then turn into a company that makes quantum games. I have ideas for many different games and how they could be built onto a quantum framework. Chess isn't for everyone.

I envision a world where the word "quantum" isn't scary, I think interacting with quantum phenomena through games is the way to get there. I want concepts like superposition and entanglement to seem as normal as gravity, I really believe it could lead to some incredible breakthroughs.

Thanks for taking the time to chat, as I'm a big supporter of the game. I wish you the best of success.

C: Thank you, it was great talking to someone with an extensive chess background about this!

Image Source: All-free-download

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