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.


Ichabod said...

It sounds to me like it was the opening. Nunn states that the range of openings was much narrower and not as deep, he just thinks that is okay because the theory hadn't developed at that point. The state of opening theory in Chess 960 is much worse, so in that sense it does throw Chess back 100 years, if not more. Of course, that was pretty much intended.

I think you're over thinking this. If you like opening theory, you don't like Chess 960. If you don't like opening theory, you like Chess 960. It's that simple, and it's just not going to change.

I also wonder about your comment that positions in Chess 960 after 17 to 20 moves are similar to those in Chess. I have seen this claim a couple times, without support. But the players making the claim are better players than I am, so I figured they knew something I didn't. However, I've recently seen the counter claim made that the middle game in Chess 960 is "weird." Again, by a better player than I am.

It seems to be a subjective judgement, and I am wondering if there is an objective way to test it. Clearly the opening position is different. Clearly KP vs K is the same in either game. But what is that point where the shift happens in an objective sense?

Mark Weeks said...

Ichabod - Thanks for the response. You raise some very good points.

Re 'It sounds to me like it was the opening', I came to the same conclusion while writing the post. In retrospect, it's the logical conclusion, given the rules of chess960.

If you accept that conclusion, then the discussion shifts from 'chess960 sets chess back 100 years' to 'chess960 sets chess opening theory back 100 years'. I think the second statement can be shown to be just as misinformed as the first, but that can wait for another time.

Re your second paragraph, I like opening theory *and* I like chess960. Where does that leave me?

Re the middlegame transition *FROM* a start position alien to traditional chess *TO* an endgame indistinguishable from traditional chess, I currently believe that it happens with castling. To be more precise, it happens when the castling option no longer exists. There are, of course, many chess960 middlegame positions that can never arise from the traditional start position, but the same middlegame principles still apply. This is too big a topic to explore in a comment.

I think Nunn gave away too much when he wrote, 'I did not find this factor [the great growth of opening theory] very important'. It's clear from Nunn's study that the 1911 masters had a limited conception of the opening. It's also clear that they had a limited conception of chess. Are these observations coincidental or are they related? Now take that same question and apply it to the limited opening theory in traditional chess versus the expanded possibilities in chess960. - Mark