Saturday, November 08, 2014

Losing R-E-S-P-E-C-T

As in the famous song by Aretha Franklin, you have to have respect.

In a recent article in Chess, John Saunders reviews the impact of computers on chess and how they have changed our perceptions of chess-players at the highest levels (Saunders on Chess, Chess, October 2014, p 58). I agree with most of what he has to say, and being of a similar age (BC – Before Computers), I too lament the more free-flowing and in hindsight, naive 1960s, the last decade of computer-free chess.

He points out the way in which computers have made everyone an instant expert on chess, able to critique the moves of the greatest players as they are made, simply by having an analysis engine running in parallel with the human players. This has led to a lack of respect for the top players because by pointing out sub-par moves, the computer shows their limitations. Once they walked as Gods among us but now they are shown to be merely human (‘Human, all too human’ by Friedrich Nietzsche).

I take a rather different point of view. I too have lost a certain degree of respect for modern chess players but not because of the mistakes they make according to analysis engines. Rather, my decrease in respect is because they use them to prepare to such an extent that you know (because they often tell you) that the win of a game was brought about by excellent memorisation of lines prepared by the computer. I compare these games with the intellectual effort across the board by chess geniuses of the past. Yes, there was extensive preparation in the past, certainly since Alekhine. But it was the players own thinking which was involved. The discovery process was human not silicon circuitry calculation. And the use of general principles (not universal, hence there were always some exceptions) and practicality, are human traits which all of us use to navigate through a chess-game and also life itself. In other words, the effort is no longer even significantly human. At least that is how it looks.

The skill-set of the modern player is different – how to drive the technology and it’s not as easy as it looks. But it doesn’t feel to me as though the quality of thinking is at the same level as the greatest players of the past. The computer gives so much help that some of the deep thinking is sub-contracted out to that machine. This is doubtless a generational issue. An old fashioned bias (guilty as charged, m’lord). But let us put it to the test. Let the top players play against each other with no silicon preparation, as I have suggested in a previous post. Randomly selected credible openings with no adjournments. I bet there will be some significant surprises. Recall the time when Chigorin swept all before him in Gambit tournaments?

Here is one of Chigorin’s greatest games – fittingly an Evan’s Gambit played against Steinitz from a World Championship Match in 1892.

Mikhail Chigorin Versus Wilhelm Steinitz (Game 1, World Championship, Second match, 1892)

Evan’s Gambit

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. b4 Bb4 5. c3 Ba5 6. O-O d6 7. d4 Bg4 8. Bb5 ed4 9. cd4 Bd7 10. Bb2 Nce7 11. Bd7 Qd7 12. Na3 Nh6 13. Nc4 Bb6 14. a4 c6 15. e5 d5 16. Nd6 Kf8 17. Ba3 Kg8 18. Rb1 Nhf5 19. Nf7 Kf7 20. e6 Ke6 21. Ne5 Qc8 22. Re1 Kf6 23. Qh5 g6 24. Be7 Ke7 25. Ng6 Kf6 26. Nh8 Bd4 27. Rb3 Qd7 28. Rf3 Rh8 29. g4 Rg8 30. Qh6 Rg6 31. Rf5 1-0

The following effort is not at such an elevated or wild level as the game of Chigorin. It is, however, reasonably instructive. On Board 29, I have White against Ioan Secrieru of Romania in a match Australia/NZ versus Romania.

The game is simple to understand. I play a passive but safe opening (sorry Mr Chigorin – I wimped out), which gradually leads to a superior position because of elementary mistakes amateurs tend to make. I obtain the better centre, control of a key open file and pressure on my opponent’s weak pawns. I work on those advantages in a slow, methodical way, not allowing any counter-play, until checkmate.

G. Eraclides (1987) Versus Ioan Secrieru (1867)


1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.e3 d5 4.Bd3 c5 5.c3 g6 (this is not quite right and allows White’s Knight to assume an early active position) 6.Ne5 c4 (definitely bad; many amateurs play this way but it drives the Bishop where he is comfortable and eases any pressure on White’s centre; White no longer has to worry about a Pawn exchange on d4) 7.Bc2 Bg7 8.Nd2 Qc7 9.O-O O-O 10.Qe2 Nbd7 11.Nxd7 (N2f3 was also good but White wants to play the ‘classic’ central advance in the Colle. It gives Black the chance to free his position slightly but without any real prospects. Black hopes to create some options for his ‘bad’ Queen Bishop, although the Bg7 is not that good either, ‘biting on granite’) Bxd7 12.e4 dxe4 13.Nxe4 Nxe4 14.Bxe4 Rfd8 15.Qf3 Bc6 16.Bxc6 Qxc6 17.Qe2 (exchanging Queens gives Black chances against b2 and makes c4 look good as it restrains White’s Queenside; it is also better to hold on to the Queen as she will create threats) b5 18.Bf4 (centralisation, restraining e5 and controlling b8; Nimzovich would be proud of this amateur’s play) a5 19.Rfe1 b4 20.h3! (a hideaway for the Bishop f4; the coming Pawn exchange strengthens White because Black cannot easily get a Rook into b8 to contest the file, which will become White’s in time) bxc3 21.bxc3 a4 (Black hopes to fix the Pawn on a2 but nothing comes of it; in fact, it weakens b4 which turns out to be very important; note also the defensive role of Black’s Queen. As a piece, the Queen is better in attack and her potential is wasted having to defend a mere Pawn) 22.Rab1 Qd5 23.Rb4 (see what I mean?) Rdc8 24.Reb1 Bf8 25.Rb5 Qd7 26.Be5 Bg7 27.Rb7 Qd8 28.Bxg7 Kxg7 29.Qe5+ Qf6 (hoping the Queen swap will relieve the defence; if Kg8 then R1b4 and White just waits ‘zugzwang’ style for Black to implode) 30.Qxf6+ Kxf6 31.R1b5 (again restricting e5) h5 (what else?) 32.Kf1 g5 33.h4! (seizing the opportunity to create, attack and win the weakened Pawns) gxh4 34.Rxh5 Rg8 35.Rxh4 Rg5? (Rf8 held out a little longer) 36.Rf4+ Rf5 37.Rxf5+ exf5 (or he loses another Pawn on f7 but his position is dreadful) 38.Rb4 f4 39.Rxc4 Kf5 40.f3 f6 (the position is quite unusual and not unattractive although Black is lost) 41.d5 Ke5 42.Rd4 (White’s technique is logically straightforward – Passed Pawns should be advanced if practicable) Rb8 43.d6 Ke6 44.d7 Rd8 45.Ke2 (it’s all over ‘bar the shouting’) Rxd7 46.Rxd7 Kxd7 47.Kd3 (Black could resign here but plays on hoping for an asteroid to strike the Earth and cause the game to be cancelled) f5 48.Kd4 Kd6 49.c4 a3 50.c5+ Kc6 51.Kc4 Kc7 52.Kd5 Kd7 53.c6+ Kc7 54.Kc5 Kc8 55.Kd6 Kd8 56.c7+ Kc8 57.Ke5 Kxc7 58.Kxf5 Kc6 59.Kxf4 Kc5 60.Ke3 Kc4 61.Kd2 Kd4 62.g4 Ke5 63.Kc3 Kf4 64.Kb3 Kxf3 65.g5 Kg4 66.g6 Kf5 67.g7 Kg6 68.g8=Q+ Kh6 69.Kc3 Kh5 70.Kd3 Kh6 71.Ke4 Kh5 72.Kf5 Kh4 73.Qg4# 1-0

If only all our games followed this kind of template: get the superior position (with help from weak moves by your opponent) and then use good technique to grind out the win. No mind-numbing tactics, just the patient application of technique or as Belgian crime-writer Maigret said – the order and the method.

Until next time may all your games be brilliant wins (unless you play me).