07 February 2010

Fischer: 'The *Old* Chess Is Dead'

A recent chess column in the New York Times, Modern Players Prove Bobby Fischer Was Wrong by Dylan Loeb McClain [NYTimes.com], started with an oblique reference to Fischer Random Chess (aka chess960).
Bobby Fischer once famously remarked that "chess is dead". What he meant was that so much had been discovered about the game that creativity and innovation were waning.

Typical for me, a phrase that has been 'famously remarked', like something that 'everybody knows', means that I've either never heard of it, wasn't paying attention at the time, or completely overlooked its importance. That's when I thank my lucky stars for Google. It turns out that Fischer's utterance, according to Chessbase.com in I'm finished with the old chess, it's rotten to the core! (alternately titled 'Bobby Fischer talks to Reykjavik radio station'; Chessbase.com articles often have two titles - take your pick) passed from his mouth to our ears on 27 January 2002. The Chessbase piece, in interview format, started,

Q: Is there a chance that you will play chess again? A: Only Fischer Random -- I don't play the old chess any more. The old chess is dead, it's been played out.

and later continued

Q: Do you follow chess at all? A: I follow the old chess, I follow all the pre-arranged matches, like the last Kramnik - Kasparov match [October 2000]. At the highest level it is all pre-arranged, move by move. You have very interesting, beautiful pre-arranged games being created by very intelligent players, working with computers, working in teams. I have no objections to people creating such games, but they must say these are pre-arranged games, but they must not claim that they are finding the moves over the board. I have learned so much from these pre-arranged matches and all these cooked-up notes, they're wonderful. But they are fake, they are flawed.

After embarrassing himself with remarks about Kasparov's 'rotten teeth', Fischer unwittingly summarized the last 15 years of his career.

Q: What if you were offered ten million dollars to play a match against some chess champion? A: I only play Fischer Random, period. I'm finished with the old chess, it's rotten to the core.

It was never about money, was it, Bobby? Getting back to McClain's column, it turns out that 'chess is dead' is taken out of context. Fischer said, 'The old chess is dead'. The word 'old' is important, because Fischer was talking about chess starting from the traditional start position (SP518: RNBQKBNR). Furthermore, when McClain wrote, 'What [Fischer] meant was that so much had been discovered about the game that creativity and innovation were waning', it would have been more precise to say, 'so much had been discovered about the opening'. Fischer never implied that 'creativity and innovation were waning' in the middlegame or the endgame. This is apparent from his statement that he would 'only play Fischer Random, period'. Perhaps McClain, like many traditional chess players, doesn't realize that a chess960 game eventually becomes indistinguishable from a game of traditional chess, largely due to the genius of Fischer's castling rules.

I'm not knocking McClain here. He has done an excellent job filling GM Robert Byrne's shoes at the Times and I read his column and his blog regularly. He knows chess, he knows its players, and he knows its history. In the same 'chess is dead' column he continued,

Players are certainly better prepared than ever because databases and computers are widely used to analyze and dissect openings. Players can sometimes reel off 20 or more moves before they leave their preparation.

then gave an analysis of Giri - Howell, a Gruenfeld Defense from the recent Corus (Group B) event, where Giri won both the game and the tournament. Here is more from McClain:

The [opening variation] chosen by Howell violated that principle [of pressure on White’s center], but it had been played before. And after 16 ... Qe4, White continued with 17 Qe4 fe4 18 de6 Be6, when White had an advantage, but Black was not lost. But when Giri uncorked 17 de6, Black was in trouble.

The idea had clearly been prepared by Giri, who, after [his 20th move], had more time on his clock than when he began the game, a consequence of moving quickly and having time added after each move. Though Howell struggled on, he was already lost.

This passage perfectly confirms Fischer's observation that traditional chess has become 'very interesting, beautiful pre-arranged games being created by very intelligent players, working with computers'. Perhaps more accurate would have been to say 'old chess is dying', rather than 'old chess is dead', but Fischer definitely knew what he was talking about.


A few days after the Times column, another beacon of online chess news reported that Stellwagen wins 2009 Yearbook Novelty of the Year Award [Chessvibes.com].

Daniel Stellwagen has been voted the winner of the 2009 Yearbook Novelty of the Year by readers of the New In Chess website. The Dutch grandmaster earned 350 Euros for his novelty 24...Qf3 in the King’s Indian against Loek van Wely at the NH Chess Tournament in Amsterdam in August 2009.

An opening novelty on move 24 was the 2009 'Novelty of the Year'! What would Bobby have said about that?

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