12 December 2010

A Highbrow Dismissal of Chess960

Continuing with Dvoretsky on Chess960, what does the world renowned trainer think of Fischer's last, and possibly greatest, idea?
I’ve never played this game myself, but many of my friends and students have taken part in the traditional Fischer-random tournaments in Mainz. Most of them liked the new game. They were very happy not to have to waste time preparing for the game, and it was interesting to test themselves and compete with their opponents in solving original tasks. That being the case, one can only welcome the continued hosting of such events, and hope there will eventually be more of them.

This and the following excerpts are from Part 2 of 'Polemic Thinking' (PDF). [Polemic - 'an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another' (Merriam-Webster.com)] Note the curious phrase 'to waste time preparing for the game'.

But this can hardly mean that chess960 should be promoted as the designated successor to everyday chess. [...] The problems involved with such an enormous change in the rules should be examined from all sides and tested, with all aspects considered in order to find out whether there are drawbacks that might prove dangerous to the future of chess.


One of the main criteria of beauty (along with subtlety and originality) is the soundness, the correctness of the moves, of the individual ideas, or of entire games. And here is where I have some doubts about the future of chess960.

Doubts? What doubts?

In Fischer chess, where the majority of the pieces – if not all of them – are standing in unusual positions, we must deal with many new and unknown elements. As a result, a chessplayer has almost nothing to refer to in looking for a move; he’s playing “without line or compass.” I can assure you that even leading grandmasters play a weak game of chess960, full of both strategic and tactical errors. [...] So these 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.

As proof that 'even leading grandmasters play a weak game of chess960', Dvoretsky gives two examples. The first is the same game I used in A Chess960 Catastrophe.

The level of play demonstrated here by grandmasters isn’t much different from (to take an example from traditional chess) the efforts, successful or unsuccessful, to exploit the weakness at f7 from the starting position, and deliver the "scholars mate". Of course we need to take into account the fact that in Mainz, the games were played in rapid chess; however, I suspect that, even under a classical time-control, the quality of play would not have risen very much. In the early days of chess, many such naïve games were played. As experience grew, so did the understanding of the principles of opening play; new schemes of battle appeared and were worked upon, and those that didn’t work out were tossed aside.

Naive games?

In chess960, there will be practically no accumulation of experience: there are too many opening positions, and too many differences between them. And thus, the concept of the opening phase will find itself frozen, for a long time, at a childhood level.

Childhood level?

Let me summarize, briefly: Playing Fischer-random is undoubtedly interesting (and probably even useful: overcoming routine, and developing an unfettered approach to the position). But studying played games is of no interest, because it’s almost impossible for anything creatively important to come from them (when measured against the level that both amateurs and experts in classical chess have grown accustomed to). So switching to this new game involves a serious risk that we may lose the aesthetic element of chess – and consequently, a great number of its adherents.

This argument is similar to the one I addressed in More Arguments Against Chess960, where I quoted Tim Krabbé writing, 'Any form of shuffle chess puts chess back 200 years.' This highbrow dismissal of chess960 because errors occur early ignores the reality of modern grandmaster chess. The start of a game is two players following a known path for 'X' number of moves, after which they follow computer based preparation for 'Y' number of moves, after which they are on their own. At this point there are three possible outcomes: either they agree to a draw, or one of them blunders, or they continue playing as best they can.

The example I used in that previous post was the first game from this year's Anand - Topalov match where Anand blundered on move 23. As we later learned, the blunder occurred because he forgot his preparation ('Y') and mixed up his ideas. As for agreeing to a draw as soon as move X+Y is reached, I could give lots of examples, starting with the 2004 Kramnik - Leko match, which saw a humiliating loss by Kramnik because his computer preparation was faulty.

The reason we see errors earlier in chess960 is not because the games are played at a 'childhood level' (Dvoretsky's phrase). It's because the players are on their own earlier. That they play chess better than they play chess960 is an illusion, a fiction, a fabrication due to conveniently overlooking the X+Y unoriginal moves that preceded real play. The truth is that GMs play chess960 very well.

As for Dvoretsky's remark that 'studying played [chess960] games is of no interest, because it’s almost impossible for anything creatively important to come from them', this implies that the only creative phase of a game is the opening. Is there really no creativity in the middlegame or endgame? If there isn't, I can throw away Dvoretsky's own books plus all the other books I've mistakenly acquired on those subjects.

As I wrote in the response to Krabbé, 'Playing over chess960 requires playing slowly from the very first move, just like playing a chess960 game requires real thinking from the very first move.' That last thought is worth repeating: chess960 requires real thinking from the very first move. Real thinking, creative thinking, has little to do with memorization. There is no 'X'; there is no 'Y'; there is only chess.


Later:See also 'The Chess Instructor 2009' (New In Chess 2008),Ch.2 'Mark Dvoretsky: Controversial Thoughts', section 'Should we all play chess960?' (p.30). On reading through this post a second time, I realized that Dvoretsky has selected a difficult chess960 position (RKR in the corner, where castling is particularly problematic) played at rapid time control and used it to condemn the entire idea of chess960. Anyone for sophistry?


HarryO said...

Mark I cannot agree with this:
"But this can hardly mean that chess960 should be promoted as the designated successor to everyday chess. [...] The problems involved with such an enormous change in the rules should be examined from all sides and tested, with all aspects considered in order to find out whether there are drawbacks that might prove dangerous to the future of chess."

The statement is almost completely nonsense. Chess960 will only ever be promoted once it is already proven to be popular. The changes to Chess that Chess960 introduce are completely zero. Chess960 IS chess so where is the change? The only change is to the tradition of chess that the old school hang on to for dear life. But even the tradition of Chess is not thrown aside by Chess960. Chess960 does not alter Chess in any way at all and all the traditions and knowledge still apply one hundred percent.

I request that you reconsider your position regarding giving more "weight" to the Chess960 debate to those who are at the elite end of traditional chess. These people are wonderful but they cannot be given any more weight regarding Chess960 discussions than the average patzer chess player. Even Kasparov himself has no extra claim to authority on Chess960 discussions.

We in this society just habitually turn to the elites for their opinion. That is all we do. But their opinion has no substance when the discussion moves into unfamiliar territory. Then the discussion falls apart at any serious level. If Chess960 actually changed anything about Chess then there would be something to discuss. But Chess960 is not a variant of Chess it is simple commonsense. Dvoretsky's alternative proposal to solve the problems of Chess is a variant of Chess because it does change the rules of Chess! But Chess960 does not. Why do not the elites see this and a patzer chess player does?

The realisation is that ALL of us humans at all levels of academia and "intellect" are limited in the same way to our own psychological world of familiarity. We all live in a bubble and all our thinking is simply a function of our own personal familiarity. When our familiarity is confronted, all of us defend ourselves. The elites just hide their fear of the unfamiliar in more elaborate ways.

You are the first person I have met that comes from a traditional Chess background that can see through all the nonsense out there about Chess960.


millie said...

I have no idea what Harry's point is.

I will say I think you artfully pointed out the weaknesses in Dvoretsky's argument while supporting your own, and reading this makes me want to play 960 more often.

HarryO said...

Eh Millie
Yeah I try to make argument with Mark but it is impossible. I totally agree with him mostly. But we have to spice it up a little :) You very accurately indirectly pointed out my hypocrisy as well thank you! All my arguments about Chess960 are simply my familiar thought world, the thought bubble I live in that I claim as absolute fact that I think bursts all other thought bubbles but does not.

Honestly though, "creativity" is an interesting way of thinking about Chess960. Maybe I could stick my head out and to try to summarize creativity as:

Creativity = Imagination + Curiosity!

If that is true, then certainly Chess960 is creative! Yeah Chess is about winning, but it is also should be about experiencing real curiosity both the players and the spectators. Brave enough to face a sense of unfamiliarity. Run with it and have some fun with it. Loosing is fun too. There is not one Chess960 position that is unplayable. Each and every position has something to offer.

Curiosity did not kill the cat. Curiosity saved the cat! Chess960 does not kill Chess. Chess960 saves Chess!

Best wishes to you and Mark this Christmas!

GeneM said...

"Discard the 'Random' from Fischer Random Chess!"

This would answer Dvoretsky's sensible concern that "no accumulation" of experience with any one start setup would occur, and thus much lower quality opening play would be all us grandmaster spectators would have available to enjoy in the opening phase during replayed chess960-FRC games.