15 October 2011

Capablanca and Chess960

A frequent argument against chess960 is that Fischer, when he proposed it, was just repeating Capablanca's lament from the 1920s about the death of chess. That line of thought inevitably leads to two conclusions:-
  • Chess didn't die in Capablanca's time, so it can't be in trouble now.

  • To avoid the imminent death of chess Capablanca proposed a chess variant which never caught on, so Fischer's creation is doomed to the same fate.
In other words, Capablanca was wrong, so Fischer must be wrong. I was reminded of this dubious logic in a recent post on the USCF's forum -- Nakamura on Modernizing Chess -- and used the opportunity to make two points:-
  • Capablanca and Fischer were addressing two different illnesses that have beset chess.

  • Unlike Capablanca's solution, Fischer's creation is not a chess variant, it's an evolution.

On the first point, Gligoric said it succinctly in a quote I used a year ago in The Rampant Expansion of Theory.

Capablanca feared the spectre of the "draw death" of chess, while Fischer feared the rampant expansion of theory.

On the second point, Fischer talked about the differences in a conversation that was captured on video. I transcribed this in 'Me and Bobby Fischer' and Chess960.

I was just looking at a book Saemi [Palsson] gave me, a book about Capablanca. Capablanca had a very interesting game that he proposed, it was 10 by 10 or something. [...] It might be a very creative game and maybe much better than Fischer Random, but it looked very intimidating. [...] You can learn Fischer Random in five, ten seconds practically, so there is no impediment. [...] People think I'm anti-chess. No, I'm not anti-chess, I'm pro-chess. I'm trying to keep it alive. I'm not coming up with anything radical at all.

There's a lot more to be said on this topic -- What exactly was Capablanca's lament? What is the relationship between opening memorization and draws? Will there come a day when chess (or chess960) is 'played out' or 'exhausted'? -- but I'll leave that for another time. I suspect that Capablanca, an intuitive player who was blessed with a marvellous positional sense, would have been an excellent chess960 player. Fischer, too.


HarryO said...

Mark excellent link to your discussion at Uschess.org and your points are excellent. Honestly I suspect that irrespective of race, color or ability, the rule of thumb is simply this.

If a person is doing well at traditional chess, they will think that it doesn't need to change.

They will put up a mute point that acknowledges something is wrong because they do not want to appear one eyed, but the point is mute and is put in simply to nullify the reason to change. Kramnik's suggestion to delay castling until the 10th move is simply ridiculous and is designed to throw in an idea that he know will not gain traction and that is basically silly. Kasparov comes up with similar mute ideas for chess.

Those who think they benefit by status quo, will do so. The unfortunate reality is that only the high profile players ever get asked the question whether something should change (the ones that get the benefit with leaving chess as it is), and they invariably say "no nothing needs to change" (in a deceptive round about fashion). Their profile translates into media attention and so nothing happens.

The benefit that traditional players perceive is not just monetary reward or ranking status, there are many players that are attached to the aesthetics of traditional chess simply because it is a comparative advantage for them over other players to attach to this aesthetic sense. But it is just conservatism in another guise and those same players could enjoy the same aesthetic sense that is in Chess960.

Very rarely will you get a player who consistently says something should change in chess irrespective of their own personal successes. Not even Nakamura is consistent, and neither is Alexandra Kosteniuk.

Remember that conservatism is not just the play ground of the elite. The same mentality about maintaining status quo exists at all levels of chess. A patzer who is doing well at traditional chess also thinks there is no need to change it.

So let's just enjoy Chess960, for it is just Chess, and wait for the traditional players to wake up from their long cosy slumber.


Ichabod said...

I agree with you that the two variants were aiming at different things, but I would have to say that neither of them is going to solve draw death. To me, draw death boils down to the pawn. High level players are good tacticians, and good tacticians can deal with the increased power of Capablanca Chess. High level players are good strategists, and good strategists can deal with the opening complexities of Chess960. It may take time for them to figure out how to deal with these thing, but they'll figure it out. And then you're back to one player being up a pawn. Until that situation is a clear win, you will continue to have draws at the higher levels.

As for Chess960 being an "evolution" as opposed to a "variant," you're argument doesn't hold up. You say that Chess960 is an evolution because it contains Chess. But then you say that Chess evolved from medieval Chess. But Chess as we know it doesn't contain medieval Chess, so by your definition it's just a variant of medieval Chess.

Indeed, using your definition of evolution you have to deny that any of the changes leading up to Chess were evolution. You also have to deny that any of the changes that led to Xiang-qi and Shogi were evolution. The fact is that evolution of Chess-like games occurs through variants. A better way to state the metaphor is that Chess variants are mutations. Evolution happens when one of the mutations out survives the others. Capablanca Chess didn't do that. Chess960 hasn't done that (yet).

GeneM said...

I disagree that Capablanca's chess of a 10x10 board was "interesting". I have dabbled in Gothic Chess enough to know that A.Soltis was correct that even slight increases in board size drastically change chess into something that feels very different from chess.

For example, in Gothic, the only purpose of the knight is to sacrifice itself for a pawn near the enemy king.

The B+N and R+N pieces of Capablanca and Gothic can be interesting, but only if swapped for the traditional B+R queen, else too much firepower on the board also ruins chess.

Thanks, GeneM, 2011/Oct/16

HarryO said...

I don't want to stray too far away from Mark's excellent point that Bobby's issue with traditional chess were not about draws, but about excessive prearrangement (memorization).

However Ichabod's comments that Chess960 is a mutation, and Mark's comments that it is an evolution, are actually perfectly placed at the first anniversary of the great debate on the subject of what Chess960 is that was had over at Chess.com almost exactly one year ago: