Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Chess Knowledge

Chess Knowledge

It's 1970 and Harry Lyman would always take some time out for a then 18 year old Mike Griffin to review something. I brought to him a knight sacrifice in the Dutch-Peruvian variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined that went like:

1. d4 d5
2. c4 e6
3. Nc3 Nf6
4. Bg5 c5
5. cxd5 cxd4
6. Qxd4 Be7
7. e4 Nc6
8. Qd2 Nxd5

During our analysis an excited Harry said "I think you have something here." He got up and returned with an index card to write down our analysis. I was proud that Harry felt this was such a feasible idea that it made it into his personal chess archive.

Most strong players of those days had their own personal archive of openings on index cards. Jackie Peters lugged around a thick 3 ring binder breaking down his openings ,analysis, and percentage of performances against rivals in his records.

How did/and does the distribution of chess knowledge get to chess players? 200 years ago one learned to be good at chess by playing against good players in the divans of France, England, Germany, or the US. Although there is evidence that chess books have been around since about 650 AD and publishing picked up in the 1400'ds, dissemination of chess information was slow. In the early 1800'ds newspapers started publishing chess columns. In 1851 the first international tournament occurred in London won by Adolf Anderson. Chess was becoming popular but only a few dedicated folks mastered chess in this information starved environment. A clique of masters would travel from one international tournament site to another and they became the creators of the current chess theory. Many of them wrote for various newspapers and tournament books and so information out to the public broadened. In the very early 1900'ds, legend has it that a young mediocre player Akiba Rubinstein disappeared from his school studies to figure out the secrets of chess by himself to return as a strong player (kind of like the Michael De La Maza story). But records show Gersz Salwe coached him.

I think the 1909 and 1914 Saint Petersburg tournaments (where the first "official" grandmasters played) is a good milestone for the beginning of type of environment that passed on chess information for most of the rest of the last century: tournament chess books, chess newspaper articles, people could make a non gambling living playing chess and became professional and international celebrities. Openings like The London System, Cambridge Springs, Carlsbad, are names of openings/formations related to the tournament's name, where practically every participant would try their twist on a particular opening at the tournament. Clearly these masters were on the bleeding edge of chess theory had a feel for what was new in chess. The rest of the world tried to wrest information from their games and publications.

In early in the last century in the Boston area, many players like Harlow Daly would visit the Boston Public Library and hand copy interesting games from the newspapers. And so it went in the US, there were a handful of classic books by world champions; tournament books; magazines like the American Chess Bulletin, Chess Life, Chess Review, becoming Chess Life and Review, New in Chess among others. In 1933 Ruben Fine edited a US version of Modern Chess Openings. Local papers of major cities had their chess columns. Fred Reinfeld and I.A. Horowitz in the middle of the century began turning out many mediocre books aimed at the beginner and middle strength player, although they did write a few gems. In 1966 the Chess Informant came to life to become a major contributor. Chess information to the public was expanding.

The government of the Soviet Union sponsored chess and the biggest chess system known to man evolved organizing play, teaching, and developing chess theory. In time, emages would spread knowledge throughout the world.

The Fischer era had an infusion of British and Australian chess books into the US in addition to domestic publishing. People were saying that more chess books were published than all other games combined. Still what was published was usually behind what was current theory. Masters that occasionally traveled widely would pick up ideas, sometimes the hard way, and could apply them when they came back home with great effect. Active players in major urban areas had the advantage to be involved in a large pool of the chess population, as compared with someone in an exurb who had to rely on correspondence chess to face talent. The index card was the major storage device of most player's personal chess knowledge.

Then BOOM everything changed when the PC and Internet arrived. Chess players no longer have to be near a city that had a chess environment to play challenging games or play correspondence chess; today everyone has equal access to the Internet and computers. Milestones, for the average strength chess player, are 1986 for the 386 processor and computer programs that were beginning to consistently beat good chess players; and 1992 with the introduction of the Internet Chess Server (ICS) and other online resources. Today you also have the chess databases with millions of games and many thousands of other chess related sites on the web. My personal estimate is that there are 60K to 80K people playing chess on the internet every day. Immediately everyone can see what grandmasters are playing. Now we are able to enter a position onto a board and quickly call up all the games in a database that have had this position and select what games you want to play through, in order to see how the masters handle a specific position. And with our own games we can store them into a database and have the PC analyze for blunders and make recommendations; our own personal coach. We can analyze our opponents games and cook up surprises. No longer do we have a chess knowledge vacuum; it's information overload. We are in chess pig heaven.

Do you have any interesting chess knowledge stories? Please comment. Mike Griffin 09/23/2008


Dutch-Peruvian Gambit of the QGD

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