Monday, September 15, 2008

What's up with all this Parity?

I have a weakness for chess history. Partially this is because I get very bored at work and reading Wikipedia bios of Salo Flohr and Lev Psahkis is better than doing nothing, but mostly it's because I like the personalities that existed in chess when it was more of an art and less of a science. This is not a rip on current players, because they do what they have to to compete, but as we all know computers (primarily databases) have completely changed the way professionals prepare and play. I think the standard of play is a lot higher now at the highest echelons than it used to be, but I think the intense professionalization of high level chess also makes it hard for some of the unstable, interesting players who used to knock around just below the elite to make it. Tony Miles, for example, would probably have a hard time these days because he would have trouble putting in the study hours on a consistent basis, as well as playing mostly main line, deeply analyzed openings. It's just impossible to have pet systems that your opponents aren't prepared for anymore.

This brings me to my main point in this rambling post. What's up with all the parity these days? only 26 points separate Anand from Carlsen, #1-#6, on the July ratings list. The concentration of players at the top is pretty extreme even as you move down. You have to go down to #31 on the list to find someone (Hikaru Nakamura) 100 points weaker than #1 Anand. This is not normal for top level chess. The usual pattern is that a few elite players dominate everyone else. That was true from Steinitz through Kasparov.

For example, in the July 2000 list, Garry was #1 with a 2849 rating, and #2 was Anand with 2770. Now, we all know Garry was always head and shoulders above everyone (except Karpov in the mid 80s to early 90s), but even going down the list the parity isn't there in 2000. #6 Shirov is already 100 points weaker than #1 Garry with a 2749 rating. Again, Garry's a beast, but looking at #2 Anand, you have to go only to #21 Sergei Rublevsky to find someone 100 points lower than him. The distance between the top and the middle is even greater in the 80s, and increases each decade you go back. In the 30s, the bottom finishers in elite round robins would sometimes have zero points, or only a couple draws. That would never happen at Linares anymore. Even Al Modiahki did all right in the FIDE Grand Prix, and he was very much outrated by the field.

It will be interesting to see if anyone emerges in the next couple years and really starts creaming even the other top players. Carlsen is the obvious bet, and I could see it happening though I must say I don't think we'll ever see another run like Fischer had in the candidates. It may be a function of generation too, because many of the top 50 guys were born in the late 60s to early-mid 70s and may well start losing strength soon, at which time the younger generation might show more variety in strength. My personal opinion is that we won't see that happen, and that because of instant dissemination of chess information future generations will probably show more parity rather than less. There will always be iconoclasts like Morozevich, Ivanchuk, and Nakamura (not that he's in that league just yet, though I hope it comes soon), but I think we'll see less of that style of play and more dogma, especially concerning openings, in the years to come.

It's funny in a way, but some of the most intersting chess is actually produced a bit below the elite level, when players have more freedom in their opening choices since many of their opponents aren't professionals (at least not primarily playing pros, to say nothing of teaching). I think the chess played in big opens like Aeroflot actually looks a lot more like chess from the 60s and 70s than what's played by the big guys, and I rather like it that way. Here's to guys like Ivanchuk who will play anything, and guys like Shirov who will happily go into really irrational looking positions just for the hell of it. I hope chess doesn't pass them by.


Benjamin said...

Actually, the October rating list is yet to be released, and will have Topalov at #1 with a rating of 2790. Kramnik will be at #6 with a rating of 2771.9 (according to the live rating list). So actually the top players will be even closer in ratings than you say!

I have to think its only a matter of time (probably months) before a clear rating leader emerges. Probably still too soon for Carlsen, but honestly anyone in the top 6 could make the push.

Andrew said...


Andrew said...

(original post that is)

Andrew said...

actually this is pretty reasonable case, i wouldnt even call it an argument its pretty obvious that chess is deeper right now than in the last two decades. BUT rating and RESULT parity among the exclusive tournament elite top tenners and "parity" which i will call closeness between the ratings of top tenners and 10-50ers is not direct evidence of parity the way you intend it. This second parity is in some ways an externality of the first. blahblahblah now talking about rating systems and stats. Really i just want to say that your tony miles comment should probably be removed.