Thursday, May 14, 2009

How Can Chess be Fixed

Recently I was laid up for more than a week with flu symptoms. I don’t believe it was “swine flu” but then again I never went to get tested . I just stayed home from work and watched daytime TV while playing some very poor online speed chess. It’s amazing how quickly you can drop 150 points when you can’t think clearly.

I also had a chance to ruminate on another recent article at Chessbase regarding the problems facing classical chess and the changes that some people feel are needed to revitalize it. Here is a link to the article

In summary the problem are as follows:
1. Drawing Tendency: Chess is a drawish game when played by very good players.
2. Lack of Sponsorship: Chess does not attract the same level of sponsorship as many other professional sports do.
3. Computers and Cheating: Self explanatory
4. Opening Theory Too Advanced: Theory has perhaps advanced too much leaving less room for creativity than say 50 years ago. Many opening variations have been analyzed to death.
I would add a fifth problem. 5. White has an inherent advantage due to the first move.

Some of the proposed solutions are as follows:
Bigger Board and More Pieces: This was Capablanca's proposal, a fresh start. This is the most radical solution. The problem is, it is difficult to agree on the new rules..
Random Start Position: This was Fischer's proposal, which enjoyed a modest success. The problem is, not all starting positions offer the same chances to both players. Some gives white a huge advantage, some are too drawish.
Random First Moves: This is Dvoretsky's proposal, which has the same problems with Fischer's.
Sofia Rule: This is a modest change that forbids draws by agreement. It enjoyed some success, but it addresses only the problem of grandmaster draws.

My thoughts on these issues are as follows

1. I am not bothered as much as some others with the drawing percentage of chess. It has to be accepted that draws are a likely outcome of high level grandmaster chess. (which makes Fisher’s run through the candidates series to the world championship in 1972 even more remarkable). I also don’t have a huge problem with players agreeing to a draw. If a player thinks his best chance for a good result in a tournament is helped by a draw in a given game and he plays accordingly by choosing a safe but drawish opening line and his opponent feels the same way why should anybody force them to play in a way that may hurt their chances. My only concern would be if the game was prearranged or if both players were paid an appearance fee and then played a 8 move draw in front of spectators. In that case the Sofia rule seems like a modest rule change that helps reduce this problem.

2. The only way sponsorship in this country will improve dramatically is if another “Fisher” emerges from North America. Without that, I can only see chess attracting a much smaller funding base compared to other more traditionally “Canadian” activities. Maybe if chess was offered at all elementary schools it would have a chance to grow from the base up but that has been talked about for years and still I can’t see it happening any time soon.

3. Computer cheating never used to be a problem until just a few years ago when the chess programs became stronger than grandmasters and small enough to hide. Tournament directors will soon need to control entry and exit from the tournament hall. In the distant future, when I believe most humans have computer interfaces implanted in their brains I’m not sure how a TD would ensure they have been turned off.

4. Chess should be a game that promotes and rewards ingenuity and creativity but today’s ever-expanding depth and breadth of opening theory makes this harder and harder to produce at the board. At the grandmaster level, games sometimes go through thirty moves of theory before any new moves are played. In fact, at this point the whole middle game, where the most creative chess should be played, may have already passed. At the very top level nowadays all the novelties seem to have been produced by computers, or at least vetted by computers before being played in a tournament. Even at the club level, this abundance of opening theory means that average players must spend hours studying openings to be competitive. This discourages many casual chess players who don’t have the time for this study. In my opinion chess should not just be a memorization test followed by an endgame, but instead should be a creative struggle from start to finish.

May players including Fisher have come up with chess variants that try to solve one or more of these problems. My solution would be the following. The game would start with only the pawns on the board.

White’s first move would then be to place his king anywhere on the back rank. Black would follow placing his king anywhere he wanted. Then the Queens would be placed followed by the Bishops (one on light squares and one on dark squares), then the Rooks and finally the Nights. Black would then have the advantage of knowing the placement of his opponents pieces prior to placing his own pieces which would help offset the white first move advantage. I think my solution is very similar to “Transcendental chess” but some modification would be necessary to allow for a castling move. The advantage of my variant over others is that a traditional player could still set up his pieces in the classical arrangement and maybe his opponent would do likewise. Other players could become experts at their own designed set-ups.

I must say that I myself have never played any chess variant game (other than the one time 20 years ago when I tried Siamese chess, or is it called bughouse, but I found it too confusing). Maybe I will try out Fisher chess online and see how it goes.

I believe that someday there is going to have to be radical changes to chess laws but it has to come from the very top players and have FIDE support or it will never be accepted by the average chess player and general public.

The Calgary international is taking place this long weekend and my prediction is that Kovalyov will win and Hansen will get at least an IM norm.

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