When explaining the complexities of Melee to a layperson one of the most ubiquitous analogies is that of chess. People throw it around all over reddit and it’s generally assumed to be true because 1. Melee is arguably the richest and most intricate fighting game out there and 2. It’s flattering.
However, both of these intuitive reactions can be chalked up to confirmation bias. We want to believe that the game we excel at, love and enjoy is as intellectually rigorous, respectable and legitimate as the long-established and revered game of Chess. Players want to feel like they’re not wasting their time and, perhaps more importantly, let others realize the same.
In an age where e-sports is still looked down upon by mainstream culture despite its many leaps and bounds in popularity, the need to be taken seriously is stronger than ever and we accept such analogies without really stopping to consider how true they might be.
So, when push comes to shove, just how similar are chess and Melee? And what, if the analogy holds true, are the implications?
You either love them or hate them. Either way, they’re an integral part of both Melee and Chess by design. Unlike most physical and team-based sports/e-sports, where matches are played out collectively, Melee and Chess are played sitting in a very intimate setting. It's just you and your opponent, nothing else matters.
Because of their 1 v 1 nature, you have the ability to not just play the game, but the player as well. Within the match, you have time to analyze your opponent and get a feel for their playstyle. Are they confident? Unsure? Aggressive? Meek? With both sides constantly sizing each other up, the way you project yourself can have a significant impact on your opponent’s thought process, with the ultimate goal of eliciting a response you can anticipate and take advantage of.
In Melee, there is perhaps no better example of high-level mind games than Mango, whose hyper-aggressive, unorthodox playstyle relies on constant pressure (though now that he’s learning how to play smarter and work on his defense this might not apply to the same degree).
Armada said it best at BOFG when he described Mango as a train and “if the train is coming and you’re not ready, then you’re dead.”
PPMD summed it up as feeling “like there’s a needle and he’s trying to find a way to stick you in your brain and you have to find a way to keep stopping it and if you stop it he just finds a way to redirect it and tries to find other ways. He’s always trying to make you make a decision like that…He’s so good at getting a reaction [that he wants] out of you.”
By getting in people’s faces and throwing out seemingly random hitboxes, Mango creates a controlled chaos, where it feels like he has you pegged and there’s nothing you can do about it. Being forced to think faster than you want to and unable to pick up any patterns, self-doubt sets in. For Mango’s opponents, at least the ones without the mental fortitude to handle it, this results in reactions based more on panic than anything else.
To counter these mind games, Mew2king (perhaps unwittingly) and HungryBox turn the tables by targeting Mango’s pride. By planking, playing “lame” and refusing to react to Mango’s pressure or play at his speed, these players often get under Mango’s skin and force him to tilt.
In Chess, especially against less experienced players, the same psychological warfare is used to great effect. Like Mango, Chess players opt for crazy out-of-the-blue plays like the Blackburne-Shilling Trap to catch their opponents completely off-guard. They follow up standard moves with ones that do absolutely nothing for their position, normally a no-no in Chess, and use gambits, moves that sacrifice pieces in order to achieve a better position in the long-run, to trick opponents into a false sense of confidence.
The result is a very similar sort of controlled chaos where the player using the mind game has calculated the risk of such a move and the player reacting to it is now forced to rethink everything he knew about his opponent’s strategy.
Attitude can go a long way too. Smacking pieces loudly, quickly, confidently and decisively to make your opponents react and feel as though they have been caught in a trap, causing them to overanalyze the board and make a mistake. Feigning relaxation or pretending to be distracted to get into your opponents head and wreak havoc by taking advantage of their insecurities or ego. Playing slow to frustrate opponents and cause them to act reckless (Mango’s Achilles heel). For such an unassuming game on the surface, Chess offers a surprising number of ways to affect the outcome of a match.
Though there are by far fewer single actions in Chess than there are in Melee, we can’t forget the majority of Chess takes place in the invisible arena of the mind. It's easy to be lulled into believing that Melee is more mentally demanding than Chess because one can physically see the results of the constant push-and-pull of the game and the incredible speed at which players see, analyze, decide and act.
What we see on the screen, in all its blinding, flashy beauty, is a direct manifestation of the blurring speed the players are thinking at (and instinctively reacting to) in real-time.
Chess, while far less flashy, is just as intense. While games can take days, and individual moves can take hours, this does not mean the players aren't processing as much information at any given second. Chess players constantly think 20 – 50 steps ahead, something that Melee players don't need to contend with given the volatility of the game, where skirmishes require the player to only be a couple steps ahead to win. They construct and deconstruct chessboards in their mind, attempting to see all the different options (and variations of those options) the enemy might take as well as appropriate measures to counter them.
The reason Melee has reached the competitive heights it has and the respect of many non-melee players is just how absurd its movement options are. At any given moment, assuming one is free to move and not on the ledge or caught in a frame trap, the potential options available to a player are immense.
One can walk, run, dash, short hop, full hop, dodge, roll, move with an attack (falcon kick), moonwalk, sticky walk (to name a few). When you combine strings of these potential options the things one can do expand exponentially and you get crazy things like wavedashing, cactus dashing, and surfdashing. Even when it comes to attacking you have a wide array of smashes, specials, tilts and aerials to employ to your advantage. One even has options during hit stun, namely DI/Smash DI, which raise the complexity of the game even more and create micro-read situations that test a player’s pattern recognition and reaction time.
The reason why computer programmers have had such a difficult time programming an AI that can beat a Chess Grandmaster is…you guessed it: options. The sheer number of options that a player has as the game progresses branches out like an ever-widening tree. The Shannon Number is a widely accepted (though later improved upon) lower bound of the “game-tree complexity of chess” which, according to Wikipedia, is 10 to the power of 120 “based on an average of 10^3 possibilities for a pair of moves consisting of a move for White followed by one for Black and a typical game lasting about 40 such pairs of moves.” That’s a shit-ton of options.
If we think of chess moves as the melee equivalent of trades and assume a number of 3 – 5 trades per stock we get 12 – 20 potential trades (pairs of moves) happening each game and tons of possibilities for the outcomes of each one which makes the game-tree complexity of melee still massively huge. I am not good enough at math to attempt to guess Melee’s own “Shannon Number,” though in all likelihood it doesn’t come close to Chess’ (this might be technically false due to it being a continuous game as opposed to a discrete one like chess), but even if the g-t complexity of melee is hundreds of times (or more) smaller than Chess’, it's important to realize that Melee players (assuming they have top-tier awareness and processing skills) are cycling through all of the potential options in a tiny, minuscule fraction of the time that Chess players have available to make a move.
Chess is widely regarded as one of the most strategically oriented games in the world. Players must be able to predict their opponent’s moves and create a long-term strategy to counter them. This is then composed of smaller, tactical victories. Chess-insights defines tactics as combinations of moves “aimed at winning material or delivering mate and are very concrete.”
So while strategy deals with the “evaluation of the chess position and the setting of goals”, tactics is the set of steps chosen (based a given board position) to achieve that ultimate goal. Tactics may include setting up clever traps or targeting and isolating pieces. The ultimate goal being, of course, to pressure the King and put him in check until he has nowhere else to run.
In Melee, outsmarting your opponent and landing a move is similar to putting the king in check. Once hit, the opponent’s movement options become severely limited as the aggressor moves in to take advantage of the hit-stun to either continue the combo into a high damaging attack (in chess: continuing to corner the king) or cover as many of the remaining options the opponent may have at their disposal to get out of their predicament through DI chasing (in chess: “win material” after getting a fork i.e. – capture more pieces).
In a way, damage is similar to board presence. The more damage you have, the more of your pieces have been captured and the closer you are to checkmate. Smarter players will trade damage more efficiently to maximize their chances of victory. How players trade is a matter of strategy. To beat certain players and matchups it if often important to have a game plan and get as much mileage as possible from character advantages. Westballz strategy against Mango (according to Mango on his stream) is simply to crouch cancel and then capitalize off Mango’s greed. This is a deliberate strategy that consists of the tactics Westballz uses to goad Mango into approaching while he is still at a percentage where he can crouch cancel.
Positional advantage + Tempo (And Strategy cont’d)
It’s no secret that holding center stage and controlling space are incredibly important elements of high level play. In chess, this is called positional advantage. Positional plays build up this advantage with the hopes of creating tempo – turns in which you “achieve a desired result in one fewer move” than your opponent (putting your opponent in check and forcing him to waste a move defending his king is a common way to create tempo since this puts you one move ahead).
The difference between positional plays and strategy is that “you’re able to perform positional play in open as well as closed positions. Whether you’re going to play an open or closed position has to be answered by your chess strategy.” In short, your strategy is carried out by a multitude of positional plays that put you in a position from which you can mate your opponent through clever maneuvering - which gives you the opportunity to discover attack, fork or perform a number of other crushing blows to the enemy. Strategy can also take into account factors that transcend the game – such as the weaknesses of your opponent, which can inform the way you play in order to capitalize on those weaknesses.
Positioning is extremely powerful in melee as well. Both players are, at most points in the game, in a competition to assume stage advantage and maintain center stage (when not combo-ing and edge-guarding). Having center stage means that you are more or less equidistant from the ledges, making it much harder for your opponent to knock you offstage. It also means that you (depending on your speed) can cover the largest percentage of the stage possible in the fastest amount of time – automatically putting your opponent at a disadvantage (unless it’s HungryBox). Gaining center stage also implies that your opponent is cornered on one side of the board while you have almost all of the stage to do with as you please. In a game where options are crucial, cutting your opponents by as many as you can gives you the highest chance of winning – assuming, of course, that your own options are not less viable then the few your opponent might have (hence why there are tiers! Fox might still have an advantage over Kirby even if he’s cornered and on the defensive).
A_Reverie from Smash boards offers a particularly good example of the importance of positioning:
Falcon has a smaller amount of options to choose from in his disadvantageous [cornered] position. Marth can exploit this in several ways:
- Favorable position gives him control. Falcon is forced to act through Marth's space in order to gain a position of advantage. Marth has more opportunity to respond to Falcon initiating into his space.
- If Falcon does not initiate, Marth can and do so in a manner which maintains control of his space. Whether the initiation scores a hit or not, Falcon is forced to respond from the unfavorable position and is in turn effected more by bad outcomes.
- Marth has more advantage to "spend" in the form of stage. If he chooses, Marth can fall back to a position that might make Falcon choose a predictable tactic for retaking the space he's given back.
Just like in Chess, the concept of tempo also exists in melee. To borrow from Alex’s Puff Stuff, tempo is “a concept describing the rhythmic state of the characters” and to gain tempo is to take advantage of an opponent’s rhythm and capitalize on it.
Here are some concrete examples to help visualize the similarities:
Chess: Example by Devin Clark, a competitive chess player
“Let us say you are in a stuck position where you need a knight on a specific square but not when the bishop is guarding that square. All other pieces are locked down protecting some other piece so this is a very positional situation. Your opponent will move the bishop back and forth to defend this square, however every other move it has to move away just so he or she can maintain the rest of their position. Since the bishop will be blocking this specific square every even turn, you will need to move your knight around to get it there on an odd turn right after the bishop moves away. By doing so your opponent has done nothing with their position and you have increased yours, thus gaining a tempo.”
Melee: Example from Alex’s Puff Stuff Blog
“If Jigglypuff is bairing to a rhythm (they tend to do that) you can align your dash forwards in DD to correspond with her pulling her leg back, giving yourself more time/space to work with. In a less obvious example, if Marth dashes back at the same time that fox dashes forward to nair range then Marth doesn’t have enough time to turn around and make Fox’s nair unsafe. Because Fox took positional advantage as well as tempo Marth has to either accept the hit or continue running and lose stage.”
Prediction. Both games rely on it. You can’t beat your opponent’s tactics without anticipating them and countering them. Reads in melee are simply more visually impressive because they happen from one moment to the next whereas in chess they take methodical preparation and are unveiled over the course of a match.
Reads are also a far more crucial aspect of melee because of the reactive nature of the game. In Chess (not speed chess) one is given the luxury of ample time to analyze the opponent’s options and figure out the best strategy to counter it. Decisions in melee are done at breakneck speed which means that sometimes gut, intuition and move analysis are all a player has to properly react to an opponent’s moves.
However, without an incredibly deep and borderline subconscious mastery of the game (see M2K) processing all of the information is unbelievably difficult. In moments like these, reads act as a way to effectively (if done correctly) bypass* the need to ascertain the optimal move because they are based on an analysis of the opponent’s habits rather than an accurate calculation of the move that covers the most possible options for the given scenario.
*Not necessarily applicable to highest levels of play where pros are able to see both the optimal move and the hard read.
Classical conditioning is the mother of reads and the favorite child of mind games. Most people are familiar with the concept, but to clarify, it is a psychological phenomenon and “a learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired: a response which is at first elicited by the second stimulus is eventually elicited by the first stimulus alone.” The popular example is that of Pavlov’s dogs.
In melee, conditioning can be used in one of two ways:
When on defense: You respond to a specific situation (being knocked to the ground, recovering), aka the first stimulus, in a consistent way multiple times (always rolling away, always high angled recovery), aka the second stimulus, so that your opponent picks up on your movement and instinctively reacts to it predictably.
When on offense: You approach, string, or throw in a certain way consistently so that your opponent assumes that you will continue to act the same way in similar scenarios.
The most famous instance of mind games, immortalized forever in countless memes and youtube videos, is, of course, the iconic “Did he just walk up to him and down smash?!” Conditioned to expect unrelenting aggression from Mango, Hax$ instinctively shields. Mango, knowing full well what Hax$ is expecting, completely reverses his timing and playstyle and opts for the slowest possible progression of moves. Hax$, completely mindfucked, drops his shield and loses a stock in spectacular fashion.
In chess, conditioning is exponentially harder to pull off and would probably need to be done over the course of multiple games against the same player, though it may be more possible in speed chess where a player cannot always think things through and has to rely on instinct.
Even then, “aggressive” moves are a lot subtler in chess and good players won’t throw them out unless there is a clear way to gain an advantage. In regular chess, once you have committed to a particular strategy and developed your pieces to further that goal, switching up styles as drastically as Mango does would be more counter-productive than not. Melee has no board that you have to slowly and meticulously develop so sudden shifts in playstyle can be done seamlessly. In this sense, at least, Melee has an extra layer of mind-games that chess’ structure does not allow for.
TLDR - While this article in no way proves that Melee and Chess are identical games or that Melee is more like chess than other games, it does, however, demonstrate that there are strong similarities. Even if there are subtle similarities that I neglected to address, I think the point that - if Melee is related to Chess, one can take skills and learn from one game to the other – still stands.
The amount of scholarship, research and analysis inspired by Chess blows all of the contributions ever posted on Smashboards out of the water. Instead of segregating both games as separate beasts, perhaps we should take the analogy that is so often made between them a little more seriously and glean new insights into how Smash can be played – and what its potential might be.
Join me for next week’s article: “Think like a Grandmaster, play like a God” where I explore the mechanics of consciousness and use the work of notable scholars to propose a new way of approaching smash training that might make all the difference.
Special Thanks To: