No more than 0.01% of chess fans are technically proficient enough to understand the subtle and near-perfect play of Magnus Carlsen and Ian Niepómniashi in much of the first five rounds of the Dubai World Cup (the Norwegian is driving today the white pieces in the 6th of the 14 planned, with the score 2.5-2.5 after five draws). The enormous influence of training with very powerful computers reopens the debate: should scientific accuracy prevail over sport and art?
“I have always defended that this is level chess, not a circus to entertain.” Who expresses himself this way, on Twitter, is Alvar Alonso, 29, a great teacher and economist, one of the greatest Spanish talents of recent decades, 9th in the national ranking (and 397th in the world) with 2,570 points despite the fact that he decided not be a professional gamer. You are right without the slightest doubt that the technical level of the Dubai games is very high; so much so that it is very difficult to understand and enjoy it, except for those with more than 2,200 points on the world list (about 20,000 players).
Although a 2018 survey by the prestigious company YouGov indicated that there are more than 600 million people in the world who regularly play chess, that number has not been verified. But, especially after the great boom caused by the pandemic and the series Lady’s Gambit (Netflix), it is more than reasonable to estimate that they cannot be less than 200 million: the Internet platforms Chess.com, Chess24 and Lichess claim that they have tens of millions of users; the International Chess Federation (FIDE) groups 195 countries; and the basic material to play is very cheap. 20,000 is 0.01% of 200 million.
The current problem – only in elite chess; amateur tournaments are another world – it is no longer the one of lack of combativeness and quick draws without a fight, but the fear of risk and the approach to perfection. The stars of the board train with several computers that calculate millions of movements per second and play better than Carlsen; and they also have a team of assistants who, in turn, also make their inhuman friends work 24 hours a day. Consequently, the first 15 or 20 movements are almost always done from memory, and then there is a lot of time available (no more than two hours can be consumed in the first forty movements) to reach that high level that Alvar Alonso emphasizes.
The most positive meanings of the word “circus” are linked to beauty and spectacle. In chess, both are, almost always, children of error: one is wrong; his rival finds a beautiful combination to take advantage of that failure; fans vibrate with excitement; and the passion for chess continues to grow. If, on the other hand, they both exhibit a wonderful technical game, with hardly any errors perceptible to a human, the game will most likely end in a draw. That has happened in 27 of the last 29 to date in the World Championship duels (Carlsen-Kariakin, New York 2016; Carlsen-Caruana, London 2018; and the top five in Dubai). If there is almost never a winner, emotion is an endangered species; And for 99.99% of fans, most of those draws are as exciting as watching grass grow.
“If defenses in soccer were close to perfect, almost every game would end 0-0, and immediate rule changes would be made to encourage defensive errors. I have argued for 30 years that World Cup games cannot last between five and seven hours. But now we are already killing chess if we do not react immediately ”. It is said by the great Argentine teacher Miguel Ángel Quinteros, 74 years old. His opinion is relevant because he was a friend and representative of the legendary American Bobby Fischer (1943-2008). This, in addition to being world champion, proposed the massification of the modality chess960: the initial position of the pieces is drawn immediately before each game; thus, memorizing the tons of published analysis of the openings and defenses (first moves) would be almost useless because the probability that the game will start with the classic position is 1/960.
The downside of this idea is that a good part of the 960 positions lack harmony (for example, if a bishop starts from a corner of the board, it only has one diagonal to leave, instead of the two of the classic position). One of its biggest detractors is the eighth champion of Spain Miguel Illescas, who proposed in 2018 a very striking solution, which favors the fastest player: every game in a draw is immediately followed by another with the colors changed and the time remaining on the clocks. until there is a winner. The negative side is that, probably, many days would exceed five hours.
The very prestigious coach and grandmaster Arthur Kogan, 47, an Israeli living in Spain, has argued for years that draws like Wednesday’s in Dubai bore even many high-level players. And it proposes that every game in a draw forces another in the lightning mode (five minutes per side) whose result serves at the end of the duel as a tiebreaker system. In the elite tournament in Stavanger (Norway) they are more radical: in the spirit of the Illescas idea (every match day must produce a winner), they resolve each tie with a sudden death (O “Armageddon”): Ten minutes for White’s player, forced to win, and seven for his rival.
The controversy is so great that it has already reached Carlsen, who on Sunday asked for a faster pace of play after signing the third draw with Niepómniashi. And also to the upper echelons of FIDE. The French Bachar Kouatly, deputy president, grand teacher and organizer of the 1990 Lyon World Cup (Kasparov-Kárpov) is very resounding: “We are maintaining a Neanderthal format in the 21st century, when the world is changing at full speed. We must establish a pace of play fast enough so that serious errors are guaranteed. Then there will be victories, defeats, emotion, uncertainty… And sport will prevail over science ”.
Kouatly predicts that “this will be the last World Cup with the traditional rules.” Although he clarifies: “Of course, if the duel trend suddenly changes radically and victories begin to occur, it will be more difficult to convince of the need for change. But I have serious doubts that Carlsen and Niepómniashi are for the job. ” And he questions the value of tradition: “Cricket matches lasted five days; now three hours. And, despite protests from purists, the new format has caught on in the UK, India, Pakistan, Australia and Commonwealth countries, where the sport is very popular. In chess, we have come a long way in rapid games, which have become very popular during the pandemic. But in the classic we have stayed in the caverns ”.
Meanwhile, purists rage on the internet. And they boldly argue that science must prevail over sport and art. The prize pool for the Dubai duel is two million euros. A good way to preserve the scientific purity of chess would be to play the World Cup in a cloistered monastery, without an audience or sponsors. And without prizes, unless a patron is willing to finance that two human beings continue to seek perfection, despite the fact that current computers are already close (everything indicates that it will be achieved with quantum ones). That approach is difficult to fit into a sport whose fundamental principle is logic.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.