31 December 2011

Setting Chess on Course for the Next 100 Years

In my previous post, I pursued the frequent objection to chess960 that it will somehow be responsible for Setting Chess Back 100 Years. I quoted from IM John Watson's Book Review #82, where he tackled a chapter from 'Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book' by GM John Nunn. In that chapter, titled 'The Test of Time', the British GM presented (to quote myself) 'the results of a study where he compared the games of the great 1911 Karlsbad tournament with the 1993 Biel Interzonal'. Nunn wrote,
My general impression of the play at Karlsbad was quite poor, but the main flaws did not show up in the areas I expected. It is often said that the great growth of opening theory makes it hard to compare the chess of other ages with that of today, but I did not find this factor very important. It is true that there was no Sicilian Najdorf theory in 1911, but this is irrelevant as nobody played the Sicilian Najdorf. The range of openings played at Karlsbad was very narrow by today's standards. [...] The whole of ECO E was represented by just two games, nor was there a single game in the range B80-B99. The openings which were played had been developed theoretically, not to the same extent as today, of course, but enough so the players were not at a total loss.

He also concluded that the time control was not a factor. If not the openings and not the clock, what then? The words are Nunn's, the brackets are Watson's, the italics are mine:-

On the whole, the main deficiencies revealed at Karlsbad fell into three categories. The first was a tendency to make serious oversights. It is quite clear that the Karlsbad players were far more prone to severe errors than contemporary players. Even the leading players made fairly frequent blunders. Rubinstein, for example, who was then at virtually the peak of his career (1912 was his best year) failed to win with a clear extra rook against Tartakower. He also allowed a knight fork of king and rook in an ending against Kostic. [...] The second problem area was an inclination to adopt totally the wrong plan [examples follow]. The third main problem area was that of endgame play [horrendous examples of elementary blown endgames follow].

How exactly would chess960 return the royal game to the level of 1911? Taking Nunn's third point first, the endgame play in chess960 is exactly the same as in traditional chess. While there are some positional features that can occur in chess960 but never occur from the traditional setup -- a Bishop on a corner square blocked by an adjacent Pawn on the diagonal -- it is unlikely that they will endure into the endgame. Even if they do, they can be handled by the same general techniques that apply to all other endgames.

As for 'the wrong plan', Nunn's two examples are at move 20 and move 17, the point in a chess960 game where the position is looking very much like a game of traditional chess. In both examples, Nunn uses specific aspects of the position to determine a general course of play, a course contrary to the move selected in the actual game. This application of chess logic is no less valid in chess960 and any player capable of reasoning this way has a good chance of finding the right plan.

As for serious oversights, aka blunders, Nunn again gives two examples. The first leaves a piece en prise, while the second overlooks a two move tactical sequence. I can see modern masters making such mistakes in a blitz game, but not under standard time controls. Did the old timers calculate variations less effectively than modern players? So it would appear, but why?

So if it's not the opening, not the time control, not carelessness, not planning, and not endgame play, what is inherent to chess960 that puts chess back 100 years? The games from 1911 were played before the hypermoderns presented their case, before Nimzovich codified positional play, and before the Soviets adopted scientific methods of tackling a chess game. All of those evolutions apply just as equally to chess960 as to traditional chess. Chess960 doesn't invalidate them. It's not taking us into the past, it's taking us into the future.

24 December 2011

Setting Chess Back 100 Years

In my most recent post, Not Everyone Likes Chess960, my second of three examples included a quote from Yakov Damsky.
'One Step Forward, Two Steps Back' is the title of a book by that chess lover V.I. Ulyanov or Lenin, and that is wholly pertinent as a judgement on Fischer's idea.

Damsky didn't explain what he meant by that remark, and since he died in 2009, we're not likely to get an explanation. I understand it as saying that chess960 somehow sets chess back, a notion which I've already encountered in this blog.

First we had More Arguments Against Chess960, where I quoted Tim Krabbé saying, 'Any form of shuffle chess puts chess back 200 years'. This wasn't just the respected Dutch writer having a bad hair day. Some time earlier he is on record saying, 'chess would be put back 100 years'. The more he thinks about chess960, the more it puts chess back.

Later we had A Highbrow Dismissal of Chess960, where I quoted Mark Dvoretsky saying, '[Chess960] games almost never show us any aesthetic value. If we remember how hard it can be to discover the secrets of a position even in traditional chess, where we can refer to many generations' worth of experience, what I’m saying becomes logically obvious.'

I was reminded of all this when I encountered John Watson Book Review #82 : Historical and Biographical Works, Installment 3 on TWIC. In that 'review', really several reviews rolled into one article, the American IM tackled two books by GM John Nunn: 'Grandmaster Chess Move by Move' and 'Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book'. The review isn't dated, but the newest book reviewed was published in 2007, so it's from a few years ago. My interest on this blog is in the 'Puzzle Book', where Watson wrote,

I'd like to describe a fascinating and potentially controversial section that Nunn incorporated into this book, one that seems to have escaped notice in most book reviews: his historical comparison of older, pre-World War I players to modern ones. Nunn calls this section 'The Test of Time'.

In his review Watson quoted large portions of the book, enough to let us follow Nunn's complete train of thought. The British GM started,

One of the great perennial questions in chess is: how do the great masters of the past compare with the leading players of today? Like all really interesting questions, it is very hard to answer. It is even possible to disagree on the ground rules for the comparison: for example, should you take into account the development of chess theory over the intervening time, and not mark down the old masters for their naive handling of many opening systems?

He then went on to describe the results of a study where he compared the games of the great 1911 Karlsbad tournament with the 1993 Biel Interzonal. Since the Karlsbad tournament was played 100 years ago, you can guess where I'm going with this post...


Today is Christmas Eve, I'm running late, and there are more pressing matters than the evolution of chess theory. I'll leave you to read Watson's synopsis of Nunn's findings and will come back to the topic for my next post, scheduled for the day of New Year's Eve.

To all those who celebrate the holiday, have a Merry Christmas! And please be careful about drinking and driving.

17 December 2011

Not Everyone Likes Chess960

The title of this post is borrowed from a post I wrote two years ago on my main blog, Not Everyone Likes Chess, and reused recently to introduce a silly video in Life's Too Short for Chess. Saying 'Not Everyone Likes Chess960' is the chess960 understatement of the year. In recent weeks I collected a few more examples that I'll share here.

The first example is from the one player who can challenge Fischer for the title of best chess player of all time. A few weeks ago I summarized a recent video interview in Ask Kasparov. About 44 minutes into the video the 13th World Champion had this to say:-

As for Fischer Random or similar ideas, I'm very much in favor. Let's be very specific. Fischer Random in its purity is not such a great idea. It creates a mess at the chess board from the very beginning. Out of 960 positions, 95% are quite bad.

What I think could help, and I've been saying it for almost ten years, if certain positions selected by a committee of grandmasters or chess fans, I would say at least 20 positions are pretty good. They are playable and these positions could be picked up on a random basis for a whole year, or for a special tournament. They could be announced in advance, a week or two. If you want, you can play for a whole year. Even one year is not enough to come up with a comprehensive theory, but it adds a component that is very important.

Starting from scratch is wrong. It eliminates a very important element of chess beauty. When you are preparing, you are looking for strategies. You won't do much, but at least you will be able to start in unknown territory and start working out some kind of decent strategy for games to look real. Not to have Pawns blundered at move ten or five, which happens, because the geometry is totally alien to our eyes, with new weaknesses in the position. That's my take.

After hearing Kasparov say, 'As for Fischer Random or similar ideas, I'm very much in favor', you might take him at face value, but when he says, 'Out of 960 positions, 95% are quite bad', you know which side he's really on. I've explored his proposal before, so if you search this blog for 'Kasparov' using the search box on the right, you'll find those posts. There is nothing to stop any circle of players -- be they GMs or club players -- from restricting their chess960 activity to a handful of positions. This is, after all, what traditional chess does in restricting its focus to SP518 (RNBQKBNR). The rest of the world should not be obliged to follow their narrow choice.

The next example is from 'The Batsford Book of Chess Records' by Yakov Damsky (p.222). It's an interesting book, although somewhat sloppy, which is why I've let the typo stand.

Out of artistic indloence [sic], the genius Capablanca -- who had not even had a chess set in his home -- demanded in the late 1920s that the positions of Bishops and Knights should be swapped round in the starting position. This would nullify all the theoretical work on the openings, which for all its modest dimensions at that time, was not the forte of the third World Champion.

Across the span of the decades, he was echoed by another Chess King -- Fischer. Gone were the days when the young Robert James's opening preparation dumbfounded his opponents and plunged them into gloom. A quarter of a century of absence from chess had duly left its mark. Catching up with the 'theoretical train' which had pulled off into the distance became unrealistic, so the ex-World Champion sought a different way out: by starting the game with the pieces arranged at random.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back is the title of a book by that chess lover V.I. Ulyanov or Lenin, and that is wholly pertinent as a judgement on Fischer's idea. Whereas 'Fischer clocks' immediately caught on, 'Fischerandom chess' has yet to establish itself in tournament practice, and is hardly ever likely to -- even though semi-official Fischerandom World Championships have already commenced...

Although I've explored the idea of Switching Bishops and Knights and once looked at Capablanca and Chess960, I wasn't aware that the ideas were somehow related. Until now I was only familiar with Capablanca's idea of playing on an expanded board. The Damsky book deserves a closer look, which I might do on my main blog.

The last anti-chess960 example harks back to my recent post Chess Isn't Boring, where I pondered an anti-chess960 idea from Chessvibes.com; see that post for a link to the original. One of the comments said,

Fischer Random's flaw is that it's too wildly different, as you point out. As its name and creator remind us, it's random (incoherent, meaningless), and therefore disrupts in too violent and shocking a way the inner coherence and logic of chess that is its essence. A game perhaps appropriate only for Bobby Fischer himself, or someone of his inner chaos and insanity. If only we could stop idolizing far-and-away the single most insane and dangerous of chess genius, we may be more receptive to good ideas.

Many amateurs won't appreciate the idea because they won't think it's a major difference. They like Fischer Random for that reason. But the truth is a pawn on a3 or a6 is a monumental difference. Some of those who bemoan the dying of chess by opening theory, in my view, are plain dishonest with themselves. They laud themselves as ultra-creative as a defense mechanism to defend bruised egos. Their problem isn't really with opening theory, it's that they lack comprehension, may be a bit lazy (or frustrated with past attempts) and, yes, may lack creativity compared to better players. Wanting to "invent" from move one is not a sign of brilliance or creativity, people! Like some spoiled child who slaps paint on paper and wants to be praised a brilliant artist, they want to be appreciated as creative geniuses without doing any work or respecting the history of the game.

In what other field -- math?, science? -- do we praise people who want to invent everything anew, without absorbing the body of material collected by humanity first? Most theoretical chess opening lines leave us in early mid-game positions that are unclear, with many possibilities reflecting different styles and values. That's where the limitless creativity kicks in, and if you listen to any GM review his or her games you won't help but be filled with an appreciation for his/her creativity. Do some opening lines lead directly to equal endgames? Sure. The exception proves the rule.

There are so many curious statements in this flat-earth diatribe that I hardly know where to start. When I read the question 'in what other field -- math?, science? -- do we praise people who want to invent everything anew', I immediately thought of the science of astronomy. What would we know of the universe if astronomers everywhere pointed their telescopes at the same little piece of the sky? Then I thought of similar examples in other sciences. Suppose all botanists studied the same plant family or all mathematicians worked only on number theory. I thought HarryO countered the scientific angle rather well in a comment to When Vishy Met Bobby.

[Some people] are confusing the idea of a game with the idea of scientific inquiry. The only difference between traditional chess and 960 is that traditional chess has a huge opening database of accumulated "facts" that support the theories on best practice. But since when has chess been about scientific inquiry? That is just one aspect of it. Chess is a game, that is all! It is good to have theories that are tested over the board on the spur of the moment but that have no substantive fact to back them up. It's just a game!

Shall We Play Amar's Opening? The author of the Chessvibes comment answers with an enthusiastic 'Yes!'. On the one hand we have the idea of forcing White to open with a dubious move; on the other hand we have Fischer's brilliant conception. Amar or Fischer? Fischer or Amar?

The one thing all of these commentators have in common is that it's obvious that none of them has ever tried chess960. But why should they? If they are happy with the current state of chess, that's great. At least they're playing chess. Just show me the same courtesy and don't start calling me a 'spoiled child who slaps paint on paper'. I don't need anyone's permission, Kasparov included, to enjoy the entire gamut of chess960 positions.

10 December 2011

'Can I use this name "Fischer Chess"?'

Toward the end of When Vishy Met Bobby, there's a link to a Macauley video where various well-known chess personalities talk about Fischer just after he died in 2008. One of the speakers is Hans-Walter Schmitt, aka Mr. Chess Classic Mainz. At 7:50 into the clip he says,
My children [said about] this Fischer chess, or chess960, 'This is the modern chess.' Modern chess is the right name for them.

There's a nice story about the name when we go for looking for a name. In 2002 we [ask] 500 people around the world, 'What is the right name to [use]?' More than half of these people ask, or vote, for 'chess960'. Then there is some [contact] with Fischer and he says this is not correct what we do. 'The right name is Fischer chess'.

'So can I use this name Fischer chess?'

'No, this is my idea and I [might] want to license it some day.'

Although I've edited the dialog a little, I haven't changed the meaning. When Fischer talked, people listened.

03 December 2011

When Vishy Met Bobby

An article yesterday on Guardian.co.uk has been getting mentions on chess blogs everywhere -- not too surprising in that it features the current World Champion talking about one of his greatest predecessors: Vishy Anand: I found Bobby Fischer surprisingly normal and calm. Here's the portion that relates to this chess960 blog.
Q: The BBC are currently showing the documentary Bobby Fischer, Genius and Madman. You met Fischer in 2006, a couple of years before he died. What was he like?

A: I found him surprisingly normal. Well, at least not very tense. He seemed to be relieved to be in the company of chess players. He was calm in that sense. He was also a bit worried about people following him, so the paranoia never really went away. But I am really happy I got the chance to meet him before he died in 2008. It was weird as well because I kept having to remind myself that this was Bobby Fischer sitting in front of me!

Q: Were you tempted to whip out a pocket chessboard and challenge him to a quick blitz game?

A: No, because he whipped out his pocket chess set first and we started to analyse some recent games I'd played.

Q: Really?

A: Yes, I showed him some of my games from Wijk aan Zee and tried to share some interesting developments. He was sort of able to follow everything – he hadn't lost his sharpness for chess – but his methods were a bit dated. In that sense he had fallen behind.

Q: How do you mean?

A: Well, he had some suggestions, and he was sort of in the ball park … but when I would tell him that the computer says white is winning here, for me that was a sign to move on – but for him it was a starting point to argue with me! [Laughs]. I found it difficult to say to him 'No, no, no – these computers are really strong. You shouldn't be arguing with them!"'

Is it a coincidence that, as I recounted in 'Hardly Ever Played Chess960 Before', Anand first played chess960 the following year? Whatever the reason, another account of the same meeting appeared in October 2008 on Chessbase.com -- Vishy Anand: 'Chess is like acting' -- which featured an interview with Anand from Der Spiegel:-

Q: The American Bobby Fischer, who died at the beginning of the year, was chess crazy, paranoid, misanthropic. You met this chess genius two and a half years ago in Iceland, where he was living in exile. How did that happen?

A: I played in a tournament in Reykjavik and the Icelandic grandmaster Helgi Olafsson asked me if I would be interested in meeting Bobby Fischer. Olafsson picked him up from his flat, while I waited in the car. Fischer probably wanted to avoid my knowing which apartment was his.

Q: What did you talk to him about?

A: Fischer told me how he sometimes rode around Reykjavik with the bus, in order to see the city. He complained that he could not get Indian balm [Amrutanjan] in Iceland. Suddenly he wanted to go to McDonalds. So there he was, this legend of the chess world, asking me if I took ketchup.

Q: Did you talk about chess?

A: Of course. We were standing in a park and Bobby pulled out an old pocket chess set and we analysed a couple of games between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi in 1974. He wanted to prove that all world championship games after his victory were prearranged. He did not convince me.

Q: Why did Fischer specifically want to meet you?

A: Perhaps he felt an affinity. We are both from countries in which chess was not popular until we came along. I am not Russian and Fischer felt persecuted by the Soviets in the past. And there is evidence to suggest that Soviet grandmasters actually ganged up against him.

Q: Fischer proposed a new variation of the game, which is called Fischer Random Chess. He wanted the pieces in the starting position to me shuffled before every game. Would that not be a more creative form of chess?

A: I do not think much of a random placement of the pieces. That is perhaps something for people who were previously active and now have very little time. They don't want to study openings theory. But the opening systems are part of chess.

Looks like we won't be seeing Anand anytime soon in another chess960 tournament. In fact, that assessment complements an item posted by Thechessdrum.net just after Fischer's death in January 2008: Fischer wanted to play Kasparov, Anand.

A story from the Iceland’s Morgunbladid has stated that Bobby Fischer desired one last match with Garry Kasparov and/or Viswanathan Anand. [...] In interviews he stated that he would only play Fischer Random, but there was keen interest in a match with a top player. [...] Anand had been asked about a match with Fischer and expressed keen interest in the possibility.

It's not clear from that account whether Anand's 'keen interest' for a match applied to chess960, or was reserved for traditional chess, where he would have trounced Fischer. The Chess Drum's post leads to another account of the Anand - Fischer meeting, this time preserved on video -- Fischer Remembered | Macauley on blip.tv -- where Anand speaks about the Reykjavik meeting at both 5:50 and 7:40 into the clip.

[NB: I could be wrong, because I haven't seen either documentary, but the Guardian's reference to Bobby Fischer, Genius and Madman seems to be the same film as the Liz Garbus effort titled Bobby Fischer Against the World. To be confirmed...]