Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Old Guys Could Play Too

So I've been doing something that I often see GMs recommend (including Kramnik in an interview on his website, ), but which I've never seen the point in doing. I'm going back and playing through the annotated games of strong GMs from back in the day. I'm actually finding it surpisingly helpful, and I'll explain why, as well as tell you why I haven't done it before.

I've always studied openings in the context of complete games. I thought that by studying complete games in the systems that interest me I'd come to understand the subtleties of piece placement and common strategic themes in those positions. This has been true in many cases, and I have several nice games to my credit where I was able to reach a theoretical middlegame position that I had studied (probably more than my opponent in some cases) thoroughly enough to know where my pieces should be, what I should be playing for, and how to cross up my opponent's plans. When such games arose, it was always a pleasure to be able to point to my studies and say "I knew move A was wrong when he made it because in the Leningrad Dutch black should do B and C in this position or else white responds D and dominates" or some such. I just assumed this was how chess was played, and that better players simply knew more such positions that me. I still don't think this view is completely without merit, but it's certainly not the whole answer to chess skill and it's very limiting as the heart of a chess learning program.

Since I study games based upon whether I played the opening or not, I mostly study the games of contemporary masters. Many systems that were popular in the 30s-60s are not played often anymore, and many positions moderns GMs play regularly would never occur in the games of Alekhine or Botvinnik. As a result, I simply never looked at their games .It's not that I doubted their strength, I just didn't see much point in looking at positions I never intended to play.

What changed my mind was playing through the best games of Svetozar Gligoric. He's not really a household name these days among chess players, but he was one of the best in the world from the late 40s through the 50s and 60s. I don't play many of the openings he played, but I am still finding his work extremely valuable, and here's why: his chess is more natural than the modern chess.

That's quite a statement, since todays players are certainly stronger than the best players of 50 years ago. The problem is, I think that modern GMs are so strong, know so much theory, and have so much of the game already worked out that it can be very hard to understand their moves. So much of what they play is based upon tactical justifications often found with the aid of computers that their moves have little strategic content, in the sense of making plans that might last for 5-6 moves. Certainly they target weak pawns and squares, work to improve the activity of their pieces and all that, but it can be very hard for a 1700 player like myself to see how their moves accomplish these aims. I loved watching the Anand-Kramnik match, but those games in the Meran were way over my head. I get this feeling studying some modern opening systems too. I get to a major theoretical splitting point and I have no idead why some options are better than others. I can't understand the position.

This is not the case with the old GMs. They didn't have computers, they relied more on long term strategy, and they often deviated early from theory because they wanted to execute a certain plan. So many times reading the Gligoric book he makes a comment like 'This move is not regarded as best by theory, but I wanted to play in such-and-such fashion and in that case the move is the best'. Perhaps I'd play better chess if I deviated earlier to start a plan that I actually conceived of myself and understood. Wouldn't it be better to know that your first 6 moves were good and that while the 7th may not be best, at least you know why you played it than to play 8 moves of theory and have a position you don't have a clue how to play?

The other thing is, people don't always (rarely, actually, in class events) give you the chance to play positions you know. I almost never deviate before my opponent. In some ways, I'm actually giving them an advantage because while I can go deeper in theory, they get to choose when to deviate and pick a plan that suits them. I'm almost never dictating play in my games out of the opening.

So I guess the moral of all this is that studying the games of strong players you can understand is probably more valuable than studying the games of strong players you don't understand, even if you may not play that exact system. And who knows? Some of those old opening systems aren't so weak in their own right...

1 comment:

transformation said...

ive had you on RSS feed for months, but only now getting to go back and read what i clearly identified as great. thank you.

fabulous. you are a real chess player man!

warmly, dk seattle