28 January 2010

Do You Care about Today's GMs?

Not too long ago, Wahrheit, the pipe-smoking proprietor of Robert Pearson's Chess Blog, posted the question Do You Care About Today's Grandmaster Games and Tournaments? He summarized his concern with

My purely unscientific sample says that the over-teenage, under-2200 crowd spends a lot less time at the club discussing the latest GM games than when I started going to clubs around 1980.

While I doubt that many GMs lose sleep over this issue, perhaps they should. I am absolutely certain that the only people on the planet who are the least bit interested in GM chess are the card carrying members, the rank-and-file, of the chess playing public. If they aren't interested in GM chess, then no one is. This contrasts with most other sports / hobbies / pastimes, whose experts can count on a smattering of interest from those who know next-to-nothing about said sport etc., but who will spend at least a few of their 8760 hours per year watching an occasional program or reading the odd story about that passing interest.

Wahrheit: So, for any reader who has been around serious chess long enough to have seen the beginning of the computer era, what say you?

I say thanks for asking. It's a good point and since I've been interested in serious chess since the years just before the Fischer boom, I'm qualified to answer.

Wahrheit: Do you look at yesterday's Wijk aan Zee games with annotations by the excellent Dennis Monokroussos, or was it on your radar at all?

Substitute 'any cat.18+ tournament' for 'yesterday's Wijk aan Zee' and 'any competent commentator' for Dennis Monokroussos and my answers are:

  • 'Do you look?' • Yes, I look, but not immediately, and often long after the event has ended.
  • 'Was it on your radar?' • Yes, it was, because I follow a number of news sources and blogs, many of which report on the same top level events.

One of the attractions of chess is that we can play through a Lasker - Capablanca game from a century ago and get the same sort of intellectual pleasure as from playing through yesterday's game between two world top-10s. Chess news and chess games have a certain timeless charm that increases with temporal distance from the event.

How many chess fans can name the last 2-3 winners at Corus-A or at Linares? I know I can't, but when the day comes that I'm suddenly interested in Kramnik's handling of a certain variation, or Anand's conversion of a miniscule opening advantage, I'll look at the game and say, 'Oh, yes! That's the year he won that event. He was in great form, wasn't he!'

Wahrheit: If you were around for both, were you more likely to look at the games from Karpov - Kasparov 1985 than Anand - Kramnik 2008?

Nothing has changed. I was just as likely to look at the K-K games in the 1980s as I was to look at the most recent World Championship match. A big difference is that nowadays the games are available immediately. In the pre-Internet, pre-TWIC, pre-Chessbase, pre-blog era the games were available only when they were printed. In the days of Fischer - Spassky 1972, or the early Kasparov - Karpov matches, that meant printed the next day in mainstream, big city news sources. Other top level games were available a few weeks or months later in the specialist chess press.


Now it's time to change gears. This Q&A is obscuring Wahrheit's original point, that 'the masses increasingly don’t care about innovations at move 17 or 25, even compared to 20 years ago in the Kasparov era'. I'm not sure that they ever did care. Kasparov, the best prepared player that the world had ever seen, was following in the footsteps of of his well prepared predecessors: Alekhine, Botvinnik, Fischer, and Karpov. What was once, for those players, proprietary technique in preparation is now the common property of all world class players. Some players might work harder, and some might have slightly better memories, but they all work hard, looking to improve their own openings while looking for chinks in their opponents' openings. What has changed is that where once they moved wooden pieces at lightning speed around a chess board, they now slave away at their computers, watching the numbers calculated by their chess playing software scroll by.

We, the small part of the public interested in chess, know that the first 10-20+ moves in any 2700+ (maybe 2600+ or even 2500+) GM game are the result of both players having studied that opening using software and then having memorized the most favorable lines. What we might not know is that players did the same 25 years ago. It might have only been the first 10-15 moves and it did not involve computers, but the basic technique was already in use.

How many club players could pinpoint where the new move ('N') occurred in a game between two 2700+ players? Very few. How many could do it 25 years ago? Also very few. Does it matter? It depends on where you stand. The trend at GM level will continue until chess as they know it is played out. It might take 10 years or it might take 20 or more, but opening theory will eventually be exhausted. That's a fact, not an opinion, and that's why I'm becoming more and more interested in chess960. The memorization ends the day you admit that there is more to chess than the single, traditional start position. On that same day a chess game begins once again with the first move.


Wahrheit said...

Mark, thanks for the linkage and the thoughtful response. The genesis of my piece was of course Mark Ginsburg's post, but I didn't specify that one of the examples I was remembering was Kasparov's famous 8. ... d5 in the Sicilian (which the computer would probably have panned) vs. the game Ginsburg gave (or 25th move nuances in the Semi-Slav among the even bigger dogs).

Your final points about the original position being played out ring true. I have only lightly examined the nuances of Chess960 and I plan on a new post pointing here and inviting more discussion of this topic.

Michael Goeller said...

I think this is the "two cultures" of chess...amateur vs professional. In a post on Chess Amateurism a while back I wrote: "This is the new age of the amateur, and the professionals are not necessarily setting the audience's agenda. For instance, very few try to keep up on "main line" theory anymore -- how could they? The amateur game is getting more interesting for amateurs (certainly more worth looking at and commenting on)...." I was thinking specifically of how amateurs play "amateur openings" -- from the Urusov Gambit and Jackal Attack to less sound ideas like the Fishing Pole or the Jerome Gambit -- and how they get their "theory" on these lines from fellow amateurs, because the professionals are paying no attention. Meanwhile, the pros are playing chess that is difficult for the majority of players to follow. I try to follow it, but I probably spend about as much time looking at fun and unusual side-lines as at GM games, and I am most interested in games where GMs play offbeat "SOS" type of lines that us amateurs might like to try. But I think the two cultures are good for the game, because otherwise it would just be impossible for newcomers to catch up...