Chess Is Dead

And we’ve killed it.

Picture by Eyasu Etsub on Unsplash

In an airplane interview released in 2009, Bobby Fischer, arguably the most talented chess player of all time, exclaimed

He argued that the game is irredeemably broken due to the influence of engines. The reason for this is that now, less and less depends on originality, creativity and individual skill of a player, whilst more and more depends on learning engine variations by heart till the 20th move. Memory substitutes tactical intuition and strategic thinking.

Though the grandmasters that make it to the top are surely masters of calculation and indeed have a deepened understanding of the nature of the game, the latter factors play an ever-diminishing role in success in chess. Those abilities are important only when the engine variation is finished and a player must “take over” on the 20th move (sometimes the preparation goes much deeper, into 25th, or 30th move).

I have heard that when computers became a thing in chess, i.e. around the 00’s, Kasparov, the reigning world champion, together with his team of seconds, asked themselves how long would it take, and if it’s even possible, to memorize all computer variations in a number of openings. The goal of this would be basically to make a human a walking chess engine as much as he (Kasparov, I mean) is capable of that. To me, the very fact that they asked this question shows that something wrong went with chess at that moment. After all, it is supposed to be played by humans at the tournaments and memorizing a computer line does not differ substantially from bringing a phone with a Stockfish with you. Kasparov and his team basically asked themselves “How can I deprive myself of style and become a machine to be objectively better?”

Is that really what we want from chess? We love Ivanchuk for his creativity and we watch Carlsen for his resourcefulness. We loved Tal and Nezhmetdinov for their insane tactics and we cherished Nimzowitsch for his groundbreaking strategic ideas. If we wanted to watch the objectively best chess, we would focus more on the engine championship than on the human world championship.

So what do we watch chess for? Am I rooting for Carlsen because he’s chilled and has a wit, and dislike Nakamura as a chess player because he’s a prick? It seems that I’m forced to say yes. I would like to say that I love Carlsen for his skills and Nakamura for his crazy King’s Indian, but the truth is that Carlsen’s skill is less and less significant and Nakamura’s stopped playing King’s Indian years ago “because the engin showed it’s unsound”. If I want to watch the best chess, I should watch the engine championships.

Do you remember the iconic immortal games that every great player once created in his career? Why don’t we hear of any more immortal games for 15 years despite the fact that there are hundreds of GMs who are objectively better than Paul Morphy? There is no more creativity in chess, only preparation.

In his stream, Nakamura once argued that Fischer’s criticism does not hold because the computers change all sport disciplines, not only chess. But is that even an argument? If everbody does it, does it mean it’s OK? I believe that’s worse for sports. We have to ask ourselves whether the technical perfection is the goal of games. It seems clear that it’s not: then they wouldn’t be games, we wouldn’t play them, but, I don’t know, do them. Games are not science. Surely, there is a scientific factor in all of them, we can talk of a theory of a game, but creating the “most explanatory theory” is not the goal of games. Games are a goal in themselves.

Am I going too far when I feel that also in sports and games we’ve got tricked by the capitalist propaganda that “greedy is good” and that what ultimetly counts is the overall surplus of money? But let’s leave political metaphors for another occasion, maybe I’m just too triggered.

After all, the soulless memorization is not even the biggest problem in today’s chess.

I want to share the sole game that exposed to me the pathetic state chess finds itself in. It’s Candidates Tournament 2021, round 9 (2nd after the restart). The game is Ding Liren vs. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. They played some weird Ben Oni with an h-pawn attack:

But it’s not the opening that I want to dwell on. After the move 10. Ding went into a big think, which indicates that his preparation ended on that. But, as he’s white, and black didn’t really play any weird moves, maybe he was just deciding whether to go for a sharp line that occurred five moves later:

With 15. Nd4 sacrificing the knight. And he went for this. Another indicator that his preparation didn’t end on move 10 is that he played the next 6 moves in an instant. He must have had this prepared because the engine line shows that it’s not so easy to win the knight back and with best play white has the adventage and initiative in a vivid rook endgame (that occurres after another 15 moves). And, needless to say, he wouldn’t sacrifice a knight in Candidates Tournament if he didn’t know it’s good for him — and it’s not a matter of simple calculation.

But black immediately gave back the knight on move 16 which pushed Ding off his preparation, so he went for another long think. But white had the advantage from this point on (since, objectively, it would have been better for MVL not to give the knight back).

After some developing moves, exchanging the minor pieces and literally no fireworks on the board they arrive at this position:

Where after an inaccuracy by black Ding has an overwhelming adventage of +6 points. However, now Ding does not play the best moves. Clearly, his prep has ended and he’s all by his own. My question is: Can a super-grandmaster and current World №3 not recognize that he has such a strong advantage? Yesterday (in a game against Caruana), MVL resigned in a position that the engine was more optimistic about than this one.

The punchline of this story is that Ding not only didn’t find the best move (despite it’s one of the most natural ones to play in this position), but, when MVL blundered on move 35

He didn’t recognize once again that he has an overwhelming adventage and didn’t punish black’s mistakes. But not only that. Ding had the adventage of at least +3 throughout the series of 10 moves (until 37. d6??) and he was unable to turn it into a win. In a classical game. In the most important tournament there is. It cannot be excused as a blunder and nothing more.

My claim is that Ding, after going with 15 moves of preparation, was unable to even understand that he had a great advantage three times in the game (MVL blundered again on move 36). What I mean is that the computer lines we learn and memorize are sometimes so abstruse that we can’t even understand their consequences and the advantage they win us is only fictional (from the perspective of a human).

I believe this is so because I cannot believe in the only alternative to that, which is that Ding didn’t punish three of black’s blunders and couldn’t utilize the almost-winning advantage for 10 consequtive moves. He is simply too good for that.

The lesson that game gave me is this: It’s not only that we memorize engine lines and by that kill the spirit of the game; in our memorizing, we don’t even understand what the position we arrive at means and hope to pull something off from positions that dried out due to engines. This is bad. Are we still willing to imitate engines in order to fool ourselves that this makes us better players? This is pathetic.

Please, let’s just be honest with ourselves and watch the Top Chess Engine Championships instead of the World Championships. They are objectively better and take place more often.

Chess is dead.