||Two moorish women playing chess
to lute music. From a chess book in
the great library in El Escorial, written in 1283.
The fascination that chess holds for so many people is not difficult
to understand even for non-players: Two players locked in mortal combat,
each in control of an army, with the single objective of destroying
the enemy king! Each player totally dependent on his own skill, imagination,
resourcefulness, judgment; with no place for sheer luck! No wonder so
many chess terms have found their way into everyday language!
Of course, different players savor different aspects of the game. Some
people relish the duelling aspect, the battle for supremacy, dominating
your opponent. - When asked what he liked about chess, Bobby Fischer,
the erratic world champion of the 1970s, is said to have replied: "I
like to see them squirm." - An earlier world champion, Emanuel
Lasker, was famous for playing his opponent as much as the position.
- Other players enjoy unraveling the mysteries of a position and view
the game as a joint search for the truth, in partnership with the opponent.
Some even consider chess to be an art form.
No doubt, many players enjoy the game simply because they have discovered
that they have a talent for it. In chess, they may enjoy some status
and prestige that might be denied to them elsewhere.
Until this year, my latest chess
trophy was from 1972. Seems like yesterday!
And competitive people, just as in other sports, such as golf, may
like the objective ranking system which lets them know exactly where
they rank on the "totem pole", and which allows them to measure
their progress quantitatively.
Very young children have their own reasons for appreciating the
game. Just leave the board and men within striking distance of a
five-year old, and you will see what I mean. The visual and tactile
attraction is irresistible to them!
But its fascination is not really what I find surprising about
chess. What seems amazing to me is the richness and depth of the
game, and the enormous room that it leaves for players of all strengths,
from beginner to world champion. How can there be so many steps
on the ladder? After all, the inventor(s) of chess cannot possibly
have had more than a very shallow understanding of the game. If
he returned today, he would find himself completely outclassed.
In fact, the rules
changed a lot during medieval times. The game is thought to
have had its roots in India not later than the 7th century, perhaps
a lot earlier. It spread to Persia and Arabia, from where it entered
Europe via several routes (Russia, the Byzantine empire, Italy,
Spain). - The Swedish 19th century bishop and poet Esaias Tegnér
appears to have been justified in imagining a chess game between
Vikings. "Every second square made of silver,
every second made of gold..." - At that time the
queen (originally the vizir, the king's adviser) was a much
weaker piece, only allowed to move one square diagonally at a time.
The bishop (originally the elephant) was also weak; it could
only move two squares at a time diagonally (but jump over a friendly
piece). Pawn promotion meant promoting to the piece corresponding
to the file where the promotion took place (so that
e. g. a pawn on the b file was promoted into a knight).
By the 15th century, the rules had been modified substantially
and had, in essence, become our modern ones, although the rules for
castling were not universally agreed until the 18th century. - Yet,
when my grandfather taught me to play chess in the 1940s, he told me
that pawns promoted into pieces corresponding to the file of promotion,
and that instead of moving a pawn two squares from the second row, you
could elect to move two pawns one square each. How
could those vestiges of medieval rules have survived for 500 years??
Perhaps he just made rules up that seemed reasonable to him?
Thus, the modern rules of chess are less than 500 years old, and were
the result of considerable experimentation, so they probably were not
"invented" by some unknown genius in isolation.
In time, an extensive chess literature emerged. The Arabs, in particular,
published problems and endgame puzzles, "mansubas".
The Spanish player Lucena wrote a treatise on the game in 1497. Some
of his discoveries form part of the tournament player's standard arsenal
today, for instance how to win "Lucena's position" and how
to force a "smothered mate". Still, even the founding fathers
of modern chess five centuries ago cannot possibly have foreseen how
much room there would still be for improvement in the quality of master
games under the agreed rules.
And progress was slow for several centuries. Not until Philidor in
the 18th century was there a clear step forward in understanding, and
only in the mid-19th century, players such as Anderssen, Morphy and
Steinitz raised the standard of the game to a new level. Since then,
there has been steady progress at the top level. - How can we know?
Largely by subjecting the games of earlier generations to computer analysis.
Today the best computer programs have just surpassed human world champion
Computers are also the main reason why rapid progress is still possible
at champion level. They form an invaluable tool for analysis and training.
the strength of chess players is measured by a rating system originally
devised by Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-born statistician. Players are
rated roughly between 1000 and 2800 on the Elo scale. Complete
beginners are usually entered somewhere at 800 or 1000 (not at
0, as they might then quickly wind up with a negative Elo rating!).
Most club players are to be found in the interval 1200-1900. The
bell curve peaks at around 1600 or so (although it is not really
a bell-shaped distribution, se below). Expert and master players
can be found above 2000. Players with the titles of International
Master (IM) and Grand Master (GM) will typically have Elo scores
in the range 2300-2600. Above 2600, you will find the players
informally known as Super GMs. The World Champion has a rating
In a match
between two players of equal strength, the outcome should on average
be even. If equally rated players play a tournament game, the
winner gains 16 Elo points, and the loser loses 16 points. A draw
will not cause a transfer of Elo points. But if there is a large
difference in Elo rating, say 200 points, the winner gains many
more points from his opponent if he is the lower-ranked player
than if he is the higher-ranked player (and therefore expected
to win). Even a draw will cost the higher-ranked player rating
points and gain points for the lower-ranked player.
For an interesting
discussion of the rating system and the difficulty of making progress
as a chess player, see this
But back to the subject of "the many steps on the ladder"
of chess performance. The thing that I find so surprising is that there
is so much room for improvement even after you have reached the Expert
level. A player rated, say, 200 Elo points higher than his opponent
is clearly a stronger player. But from my own approximate level of 1800,
there are at least five such distinct steps to the world championship
level. - This reminds me of Kafka's
famous parable about the series of gatekeepers guarding the entrance
to "The Law": "But from hall to hall there are doorkeepers,
each one more powerful than the last. Not even I can stand to look at
the third one."
On the Internet Chess Club (ICC), most games are "blitz"
or "bullet". ICC uses an Elo-type rating system for these
categories. In blitz play (typically 5 minutes per player for the entire
game), the very best players may reach a rating of 3500. - After having
played 14,000 blitz games on ICC Internet over the past 7-8 years, it
is clear that my ranking will never climb much higher than 1900 or thereabouts.
Compare this to the Norwegian "wunderkind" Magnus Olsen, who
achieved a blitz ranking on ICC of 3332 when he was just 13 years
Magnus Carlsen at age 13.
It has often been pointed out, that chess, along with music and mathematics,
offers great opportunities for child prodigies. Here a youngster can
sometimes display amazing powers. This is much less common in fields
where more experience or maturity is needed, such as literature or painting.
It is a matter of debate whether a talent for chess is inborn or can
be developed through rigorous training during childhood and adolescence.
"Nature or nurture?" - A famous experiment was carried out
by a Hungarian teacher, Laszlo Polgar, who claimed that "geniuses
are made, not born". To prove his claim, he systematically
trained his three daughters in chess from a very early age. All three
of them became champions! The most successful of them, Judith Polgar,
is one of the 20 best players in the world, a "super GM".
But most likely, such training must start at a very early age to have
the desired effect.
As a young teenager I visited that mecca of Stockholm chess,
"Schacksalongerna", Drottninggatan 29C, in the
central city. I was hugely impressed to watch players playing
blitz games using just one or two seconds per move. How was that
possible? To a non-player, it may seem impressive that anybody
can calculate chess positions many moves ahead, and incredible
that strong players can play blindfolded - and play well. (In
fact, GMs have on occasion been known to play 40 or 50 blindfold
games simultaneously against amateurs, winning almost all of them.)
What impresses me even more - now that I am myself capable of
playing blitz (and "bullet"!) games reasonably well
- is that the goal of becoming a really strong player seems just
as far off as when I was a beginner, even - let us face it! -
out of reach forever. The end of the rainbow keeps receding as
we approach it.
A photo of a copy at Täby Chess Club
of a section of a painting at Schacksalongerna by the
Finnish-Swedish artist Annti Favén. Several strong
players of the early 20th century are portrayed: Tarrasch,
Marshall, Janowsky, Burn, Bernstein.
To understand the reason for this, consider this diagram (not based
on actual data). There are many more weak players than players of intermediate
strength, and many more intermediate players than strong ones. But what
many people fail to realize, is that the graph continues very far to
the right. There are not many players that strong, but among them the
difference between a super GM and a mere expert is just as big as the
difference between a strong club player and a beginner.
Or put in different terms: while we might think that chess ability
should be distributed symmetrically around an "average player",
which would give a symmetrical "bell curve", the distribution
is actually much more similar to a Poisson distribution, familiar to
statisticians, and sometimes known as "The Law of Rare Events".
Speaking of rare events, it should be a great comfort to all of us
"patzers" that the present world champion, Vladimir Kramnik,
a demi-god in the chess world whom I have just declared to be as far
ahead of me as I am compared to a mollusk, recently overlooked a mate
in one! True, this occurred in an exhibition match against a computer,
but the stakes were high, both in terms of money and prestige, and he
was not under time pressure. Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus!