Saturday, June 27, 2009

How Good is Good?

So I drew a game against a master (with black), first time I've ever done so, and when I Fritzed it I was surprised. Not that I'd overlooked things, but rather that he'd overlooked so much, playing one or two pretty dubious moves. It's not that I assumed he'd play perfectly, since even masters clearly make mistakes, but even so the number of times he missed the best move seemed high. This guy has been a master for a long time too, with a peak rating around 2400, so he's no slouch. It got me thinking about what it means to be good at chess. By almost any standard, master is pretty strong. If you make it to master, you have a good grasp of the fundamental technical aspects of chess, and probably some areas where you possess truly exceptional understanding of the game. And yet...there's always somebody better (or something, in this computer era) to compare yourself to and come up lacking. So therefore we can't use purely comparative criterion. We also can't define chess mastery as not making mistakes because by that criteria nobody is a master. Beyond 'mistakes' vs. 'no mistakes', there are no absolutes. Mastery is an arbitrary definition we impose at an arbitrary rating of 2200.

Which brings us back to the comparative criterion. When I say we can't use it to define master, I mean that there is no formal way we can do so. In truth, mastery is whatever we say it is. John Nunn has done some comparative work that suggests that some participants in major tournaments at the turn of the last century were probably no more than 2000-2100 strength by today's standards, but in their day there were considered the leading chess masters. Considered is the wrong word...they were in fact the leading chess masters, based upon the knowledge developed at that time and the caliber of their opposition. In a way the development of knowledge in chess and the ease of disseminating that knowledge has made it harder to become a master, because it has raised the general level of chess play worldwide. The comparative criteria are stricter now for mastery than they've probably ever been.

In the end, how good you think you are is purely a function of who you compare yourself too. The better I get, the more I am bothered by small mistakes that wouldn't have worried me in the past. I find it hard to feel good about being 1800 (one point shy of 1900 now) because once you're there you recognize how much further you have to go. I think when you read GM annotations you get the sense that they feel the same way, because their self deprecation is almost always connected to errors they've made. The fact that those errors are so slight that a normal master wouldn't even rate them doesn't matter, no more than it matters to a master that I don't think his errors are gross inaccuracies.

This is a bit of a rambling post, but I really find this subject interesting. I remember one specific instance when I was talking to my buddy Garrett, who's about 2150. I was roughly 1700 at the time, and the conversation essentially consisted of him showing one of his games (which I believe he won) and repeating over and over that this move or that move was 'a blunder'. I recall thinking at the time 'wow, if that's a blunder then I wish I could blunder more often. These moves are at most small inaccuracies, 3rd or 4th best moves instead of 1st or 2nd'. Looking back, I completely understand that Garrett wasn't just being hard on himself, but was judging himself by the criteria appropriate to his level. As I keep getting higher, so do my standards. It's actually kind of a bitch, because it makes it hard to ever be satisfied with your play.

For today at least, I'm going to be satisified even though I took a draw when I could have pressed for more. It's still my first draw against a master. Here it is:


I won't be playing chess for another two weeks, so this may well be my last post for a minute. One final note: if you don't get New In Chess magazine and you can spare ~$100, then you should get it. The stories are great, and the annotations are by the top GMs themselves. I think the last issue I got had annotations by Aronian, Shirov, Leko, Carlsen, and Bacrot just to name a few. Congrats to Shirov for kicking some ass again. I would love to see him back in the elite mix. Peace out.

1 comment:

CHESSX said...

Way to go chessgasm,and against a 2241.
You must be playing 1900+.
It was godd no very good to see at the end you had the better position.
Yes the better you get the more doubts you have over what you are doing.
Come back refreshed after your break.