Hidden in the games

Few days back, I was playing a carrom game on android. My machine opponent is an expert at striking. With its accuracy, it can score a coin placed almost anywhere on the board, in a single strike. But it cannot score in a single strike when the coin is cluttered with other coins, or when its path towards the hole is obstructed by other coins. In such cases, it is theoretically impossible to score in one strike. It needs two- one to separate the clutter and one to score.

I am not perfect, unlike the machine; but I can score most well placed coins on a single strike, unless I get unlucky(only on android, not in real carrom :P). But the machine is not tactical.



Once at the climax of a game[fig-1], I was at the WHITE end, ready to play my turn. I could have finished the game in this turn, if only the two whites were separated; but they are cluttered. I cannot score them in one turn- I need two: one to separate them, and one to score.

If I separate them this turn, the machine finishes the game in the next turn- just the red and the black left, both positioned conveniently. I need to do something before the machine gets its turn, to prevent it from winning. I can score the red and retain my turn, but next, I have to separate the whites, so I cant retain my turn further. So the machine gets its turn with the board in almost same sate- red back on the board at the center and black at the same location, and it wins if I do so.

But, it is not yet check-mate. There was still a way out. I used the machine’s turn to separate my white coins!. I pushed the red towards the whites, cluttering it along with them 😛 [fig-2].



The machine can’t finish the game in one turn now- red can’t be scored in one turn. So, being un tactical, it used its turn to separate the red from the whites, as it has been programmed. In the process, invariably, the two whites also got separated. I got my turn with the red and the two whites uncluttered, all wide apart :P. I scored these three, one after the other, and won the game.

The red coin played a key role in above strategy. Red is the only link between me and the machine- both of us can strike it directly. Look at the rules of the game- there is a red coin, no player can win the game while it is still on the board. But, successfully capturing it doesn’t still guarantee victory. If you capture it well before the climax of the game, it adds no credit to you, instead, it clears one obstacle towards the victory of your opponent!. With these rules, the value of red lies in such strategies.

Why is there even a red coin? Why are the rules constructed in a way so that it ought to be used in strategies like the one above?. The rules facilitate a tactical game over a purely skilled game.

If the game were a strike out(like a T20 bowl out :D), i.e., a direct contest of who scores better, with just one or a fixed number of strikes for both of us, there would be no way to beat the machine. But the rules of the game make it a play of tactics rather than skill. So, although I cannot beat the machine in a strike-out, I can beat it in a complete game. The game, as a whole is different from an individual strike. It comprises of several individual strikes, but they are not to be perceived as independent strikes; there is a longer process connecting them all. The machine’s skill at individual strikes remains underutilized, since it treats them independent.

The strike out is the most plausible ancestor of the game in today’s form. It would have started as a fun-game, involving skills of striking alone. Later, gradually it would have grown in to a mind game, with the rules designed to consistently depart the game from a skill-game to a tactical game.

Look at the very pattern of arranging the coins to start a game- all the coins are cluttered in a hexagon at the center, alternating whites and blacks. If I separate my coins, or score a lot of them, in the process, I will have inevitably separated out my opponents coins too!, spreading them out over the board. This makes it easy for him to score in a rally. This is why we often see our opponent scoring a rally right after we do so. Therefore, it is a prudent practice to avoid clearing the center and to strike on particular coins. The game would have been different if the pattern of arrangement was to cluster whites and blacks separately, in two halves of the hexagon, with the red at the center.

You get to retain your turn after scoring a coin. Even if you are left with all 9 of your coins and your opponent is left with just one, it is still possible for you to win the game. So, you can afford to make mistakes in scoring. If it were a one-chance to you and one-chance to your opponent game, mistakes in scoring would have
been expensive. A rule common to carrom and other related games(snooker, billiards, pool) is, there are two types of coins, and each player is assigned one. Your opponent cannot gain from scoring your coins which you brought near the hole. A slight imperfection or a misfortune can leave a coin you struck just before the hole, making it an easy score in the next turn. This rule ensures that such a coin is not credited to your opponent in the next turn. These two rules significantly reduce the emphasis on perfection of a single stroke and fortune.

Evolution of the rules of a game over time tells us about what is adorable and enjoyable to the human mind!. It seems, ultimately, every game is played in the mind :).

Does every game, over time, mature into a mind game? Do the rules develop over years to make it so?. Cricket is now a mind game. Most games are mind games or tactical games, built upon a basic fun game. Learning how to use a striker is learning just the language in which the carrom game is played; likewise, learning how to bat/bowl, is learning just the language of playing the cricket. The real game is always a mind game.

While learning, all of us believe, carrom is about aim, bowling is about line and length, batting is about timing and footwork. Yet, we accept the rules, which facilitate a mind game over all these skills, as the supreme rules. Understanding the rationale behind these rules requires a certain level of expertise in the game, but we accept them nevertheless.


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