"Chess is too simple", says Elon Musk

by Albert Silver
8/29/2023 – Readers may remember when the Hans Niemann controversy broke out that the world's richest man, Elon Musk, decided to dip into his vast fount of wisdom and offer his own explanation. But this was neither the first nor last time he would proffer opinions for the chess world, and has suggested ideas to revolutionize the millenary game.

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There is some unresolved issue between chess and Elon Musk that has not been revealed, but it needs to be said that the mega-billionaire, a business genius in his own right, deems it necessary to take constant pokes at the royal game, and quite unprovoked. Does he make digs at checkers? Draughts? Go? Bridge? No, but come chess, and it might as well be a target with a bullseye waiting for him to take a pot shot. Not that chess will be genuinely impacted by it, but it does make one wonder.

Readers may think this is in reference to his much repeated crack about vibrating sex toys as an explanation for the cheating scandal just put to rest, but not so. Months before the Sinquefield Cup even started, the richest man on Earth commented on his Twitter account (sorry, but I just can't really find it in myself to call it his X account just yet):

Seriously? Squirrels and Rocks? The question then begs: what does he prefer, and by extension, why? 

Polytopia? So was this a passing fad? Seven months later, he insists, and then goes on to list the qualities Polytopia has that elevate it so far above chess:

What is Polytopia?

My first reaction upon reading the list of characteristics was that he could just pull up Civilization by Sid Meier, the ground-breaking 4X game that has had these qualities since its first version in 1992 (now on Civ VI), not to mention tons of other games.

It turned out my silent quip was spot on since Polytopia is a free mobile game that is an ultra-simplified derivative of Civilization. I did download it and gave it a go, and while your mileage may vary, I found it a tad too simple and repetitive for my taste.

Imagine Civilization with polygonal graphics, but with a fraction of the techs and possibilities and you have Polytopia

There are much more interesting options, even for free on Android and PC. UnCiv, for example, is an open source version of Civ V, and even has tons of variants one can try from within.

Still, if I had to choose a cool strategy game I return to, it would be Xcom 2, an exceptionally fun game with plenty of variety. 

So does the presence of characteristics such as a tech tree, fog of war, more than two players, and so on, make them superior to chess?

The effect of simplicity and complexity on depth

As my friend Frederic Friedel retorted wryly in private: "Musk is right about simplicity -- just 64 squares makes the game trivial. Just like 26 letters of the alphabet completely restricts our ability to produce interesting literature."

The point was well-taken: simplicity does not mean simple, or primitive. Shakespeare did quite alright with a much smaller English language than we have today, and I have yet to read complaints on Shakespeare's 'simplicity'.

The irony is that for all the vaunted complexity suggested in the features, they actually reduce the depth of play and the planning and ideas one can employ. Consider that fog of war, which is when parts of the playing area are unknown until they have been visited, means one cannot plan ahead in depth due to the extent of unknowns of the board.

Chess has the virtue of allowing greater and greater ideas and concepts in battle thanks to ever deeper planning and calculating. This is by no means to suggest that variety or a larger board would not increase the complexity and depth of chess, but as no human is able to play error-free chess it would seem complex enough as it stands. 

Variety in chess

Still, if the standard flavor is not satisfactory, there are literally thousands of chess variants, such as Grand Chess with a much larger board,

Grand Chess, a variant with more pieces and a much larger board

or my personal favorite, Double Shuffle, with asymmetrical randomized starting ranks:

In Double Shuffle, there is no castling, the pieces are shuffled, and an essential point for imbalance: the starting positions are asymmetrical

I wrote an article on it and illustrated how one could even play it with Fritz Online.

There are thousands of chess variants you can explore and try, including well-established ones such as Shogi and Chinese Chess, or you can learn more at the Chess Variants site.

Have fun!


Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.
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tamango tamango 8/31/2023 09:38
Chill, guys. He's just trolling
adbennet adbennet 8/31/2023 07:28
@ljfa38jasdfy98hrf - Is it trolling if Musk doesn't know it's trolling? Likely his thinking is: (a) a super genius like him should be able to outwit anybody at any game; (b) when he plays chess he doesn't always win, not even against obviously inferior intellects; (c) there must be some problem with the game.
ljfa38jasdfy98hrf ljfa38jasdfy98hrf 8/30/2023 05:57
He has to be trolling, right? He's said this same thing on podcasts before... seems like he has to be trolling. Same thing with the fight. Bringing light weights to work and complaining about neck injuries... I think people don't get that he's just trolling because he does so many other dumb things we just expect it from him at this point.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 8/30/2023 12:47
It's apparent by now (eg, see his comments early in the pandemic) that Musk is ignorant about anything outside a few areas of expertise.

I remember after Deep Blue and other early strong chess programs, poker players would talk about how poker is much more complex than chess (when actually it's much simpler). They would talk about incomplete information (maybe the "fog of war" is an example of this) and number of possibilities. I said then that the reason computers could beat top chess-players and not poker players was only because serious attention was not paid to poker. They didn't believe it would happen in poker of course (citing the factors above), but now computers can beat all the top poker players with ease.
fabiomaxxx fabiomaxxx 8/29/2023 07:58
Elon Musk is an idiot. As usual.
Mamack1 Mamack1 8/29/2023 06:32
Musk's opinions about chess are just as simplistic and worthless as his opinions on everything else.

tom_70 tom_70 8/29/2023 05:21
It seems simple to people who don't really know how to play.
IStohl IStohl 8/29/2023 03:29
Musk doesn't understand chess deeply enough to appreciate its complexity.
arzi arzi 8/29/2023 10:50
Oh no! Couldn't that savant idiot be quiet even about chess? He may be rich and famous but that does not make him wise.