Jody Miller & Aaron Tucker

Aaron (Playing White)

sandy finger across desert (desert)
or lock values curve, path 
and flavour and copper must 

that something and cast 
beyond perfection or spooned apple 

Like all good relationships, Jody and mine began over Craigslist.

The initial pupae for this project emerged from cocoon after I found myself in a new neighborhood in Toronto and, in one of my first wanderings down Mt Pleasant St., came across Strategy, a store dedicated to chess and board games which also happened to have weekly lessons in the basement. There was an itch (an instructional interest? That something?) that only the game seemed to scratch. I began re-learning, a humbling process that involved being beaten numerous times by preteens, and perusing the shelves of the store. I admired the strange language of the books, (1. c4 c5 2. Nf3 g6 ) the near-incomprehensible notation that led into stunning and clear diagrams. I eventually found an opening, The English, I enjoyed and set to work on understanding just the first six moves of it, marvelled at how quickly one move spiralled out into a twelve move variation (varyingly and forcefully), all with the goal of gaining a slight edge in space. I replayed games at my kitchen table, soon gravitating again and again to Capablanca’s games and commentary as the ones that produced the most sense (beyond perfection), the simplicity and cleanliness of his games demonstrated what I thought I knew and what I loved about the game. And the more I looked, the more chess I saw in the world, in the movies and TV I was watching, the books I read, the casual metaphors of news, sports. And then, I could see the language of the game beginning to collide with the language of poetry, the two intertwining until the cause and effect, the move and response of a chess game mirrored, in my mind, the same read-response, type and reveal, that my own computer-enhanced writing process was immersed in.

And so I put out a Craiglist ad and hoped there was just one more weirdo like me.

Jody (Playing Black)

blazing texture each diagonal cord 
rustically winks estimate within screen 

What is instantaneous elder?

Cruising Craigslist looking for gigs is, to be honest, one of my favourite things. Even if it’s not the most productive at finding interesting projects to work on, it always guarantees at least a chuckle. The “computer gigs” section is a potent mix of pyramid schemes, charlatans looking for free labour, and stalkers hoping a ‘hacker’ can find someone’s home address. The spelling and grammar are usually pretty lacking, too. Every once in a while, though, there’s a golden nugget like Aaron’s that makes it worthwhile. The proposed idea struck me as whimsical, a trait I value highly. It also included a fun intersection of my interests. I especially delighted in the mapping of two seemingly unrelated entities, like learning what the motion of a Cheetos bag floating on the Don River has to tell us about preparing our annual tax returns. I replied to Aaron’s ad with an outline of how I would proceed with the project, beginning with a simplistic 1:1 mapping of moves to words to generate poems from chess games input in algebraic notation.

 immobile spoon varyingly and forcefully 
coheres instructional interest above 
any negation tempts vault 

I had forgotten the capital “J” Joy of working in collaboration. I have a lot of great memories of working with others during the hectic afterhours of grad school and the intensity of The Scream Festival but those instances have receded. If I’m not paying attention, my own writing practices take a dangerously hermetic approach, an extended period of typing wherein I surface only to discuss the margins of a project over beer. Frankly, it is lonely.

Jody’s response to the Craigslist ad, including a short video of him doing stand-up, was perfect. Working with him has been a delightful call-response, move-countermove, that bears an understanding that one of our elements/strengths is complimented by the other’s. Our email exchanges are potent mixes, are alternately fascinating (from Jody: “Also unexpected isomorphisms between seemingly very different representations of information.”) and excited (from Jody, in response to the very first poem the Chessbard produced: “I really like the phrase “the  allegorical seashell along board”). We are a mash of computer-human cooperation (a calculation unto or inside) that mirrors the project itself.

And as we met more frequently, for strong coffee just outside Lansdowne Station, we mapped the project’s concerns and problems, together. The first Chessbard we generated was simple, satisfying, but also tremendously lacking in what both of us thought the project could be. Each email about the second stage translator highlighted the slow trial-and-error process; each updated language pool or template pointed glacially towards how to generate the most flexible grammar that computer-user-chess (reassemblage) could overlap under. Simultaneously, every update fine-tuned the code(s) and the program side began talking more clearly, cleanly. Eventually the Chessbard began making poems that hinged more and more towards a coherence, (a round) a voice. 

opposition butts erectly or softly 

each specimen or tide 
slights or darkens pebble, dark 
and butt underneath preachy mathematics 

The ChessBard and were welcome breaks from more common software jobs – creating database-driven business systems that have a possible-mirth-creation score approaching zero.

As Aaron and I met periodically, the ChessBard came to life and slowly, iteratively, improved. It was great fun to be pleasantly surprised and occasionally delighted at some of the poems generated. This experience became more common as improvements were made, to the poem generator as well as to the templates and wordsets that fed into it. Faster than improvements could be made, new ambitious ideas were thought up. It was, at times, difficult to rein myself in to focus on getting the thing basically working when new exciting questions wouldn’t stay down. Can we get people to play against each other on Facebook? More importantly — what if the program could, using English grammar rules, generate poems it could genuinely call its own? Could such a ChessBard win a poetry contest? Or at least be as convincing an entrant as a human?

a calculation onto or inside 
caterpillared weather cocoons any reassemblage 

a round

Jody’s questions were at the forefront of my head too as I left Toronto for Victoria in June 2014 for the annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute. Those six days surrounded by a great many weirdos like me in the “Games for Digital Humanists” class brought in even more, wider questions and thinkers that challenged the nature of the project itself and me to focus down to the essentials: What did I actually mean when I said “play”? What did I consider a game? What might poetry have to do with playing games? DHSI, with its extreme generosity and no-ego, co-operative environment convinced me that the spirit of interdependence was not only a key component to the project but, more largely, at the root of my beliefs in what poetry should (must) do.

While the East-to-West time change forced me up at near 5 every morning, I spent my extra hours reading Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense in the foggy sun of UVic`s campus, marvelling at how the titular protagonist so seamlessly blended chess into his reality, how eventually there were no barriers between the imagined potentials of a future game, the current game itself, or the sensual world directly in front of him.  Blending, interpenetration, symbiosis. When I returned home deeply energized I bounded back into the world, my chess lessons, my conversations with Jody. Then I began to invite people to this site, to write with and in response to the Chessbard, a symbiosis of computer-user-player-chess-poetry together. This then is a wide-armed invitation: to co-operate, to write with, to cavort and play. 

combined twist beds around mineral 
darkens and beds echo 

washed dark each magic preacher 

the informed smartphone stains 

When Aaron returned, he was re-energized and this was somewhat contagious. Still newer ideas like converting chess games into 3D printed objects added to the excitement, but we managed to focus the energy into getting ready for public consumption, with the particular aim of having it presentable and with enjoyable gameplay before the academic year began in September. I was very pleased to see the final (well… as final as any software project ever is) version of the playable Chessbard featuring live turn-by-turn poem generation come to life. When the graphic designer came through with a beautiful aesthetic for the site, it felt like it was just perfect – exactly the right feel for the project. 

Aaron Tucker and Jody Miller are the creators of The Chessbard. You can find out more about them at