2018-08-31

The death of chess

I became interested in chess around age 11. I read a book about the 1972 World Championship and all the events surrounding it. At that time, the idea of a single person with great talent causing such disruption to multiple organizations and world governments was quite inspiring. Of course, this was not about chess itself, but chess as a proxy for the larger Cold War conflict. Chess would still remain important as long as the Soviet Union wanted to use it as a public relations tool.

When Fischer abdicated in 1975, Anatoly Karpov became champion by default. This set up an even more spectacular conflict. Viktor Korchnoi challenged Karpov for the title in 1978 and 1981. Both matches were surrounded by the political drama of the Soviet champion defending against a Soviet defector. At a personal level, Korchnoi also had to ignore the threat to his wife and son who were still in the USSR. These matches inspired the London musical Chess. What other game has generated that type of memorial?

Korchnoi failed to topple Karpov and he was overtaken by a new challenger Gary Kasparov. This removed the Cold War aspect of the championship since Kasparov was also from the USSR, but there was an internal conflict. Karpov represented the ideal Russian chess player that worked within the Soviet system. Kasparov was a maverick from Armenia who was viewed less favorably. He was supported by former champion Botvinnik and his talent overcame all obstacles. The rivalry between Kasparov and Karpov was intense. The 1984-1985 championship was an open-ended match that was eventually terminated without result after 48 games. Karpov was leading 5-3, but Kasparov had won the last two games and had some momentum. Kasparov now had reason to dislike both FIDE and the Soviet chess agency.

Later matches between Kasparov and Karpov were played under different conditions: 24 games with the champion retaining the title in case of a draw. Kasparov won the title in 1985 (13-11) and kept it in 1986 (12.5-11.5), 1987 (12-12), and 1990 (12.5-11.5). Kasparov created the PCA organization in 1986 and in 1993, Kasparov broke away from FIDE to create a separate PCA championship. Kasparov defended that title until 2000 and then retired in 2005. (Karpov remained in the FIDE system and held the FIDE championship from 1993 to 1999.) Kasparov's successor Vladimir Kramnik was able to reunite the championships in 2006.

So for three decades the World Chess Championship was contested between a representative of the Soviet Union and an outspoken critic of the Soviet system. The political aspect was as much a part of the match environment as the chess, and usually more interesting than the activity on the board. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, though, Russian involvement in chess politics has declined. Viswanathan Anand from India held the championship from 2007 to 2013 and Magnus Carlsen of Norway has been champion since then. Where is the drama in that?

Meanwhile, the nature of chess itself was changing due to the steady improvement in computers. In 1972, Fischer had an advantage over his contemporaries through his diligent study of the (printed) Informant series. By the 1980s, internet distribution made the same quantity and quality of information cheaply available to all players. Modern players are addicted to Chessbase and The Week in Chess.

Over the same period, chess programs have made enormous advances. In 1997, Kasparov became the first champion to lose a match to a specialized computer under tournament conditions. Modern consumer computers can now beat a champion and top level players rely on computers for analysis and training. Now AlphaZero is threatening to make another leap forward in capability. On the one hand, this has led to a great improvement in chess technique, especially in endgames. On the other hand, extended analysis has also changed the openings used at the top level.

The intricacies of the Closed Spanish have been replaced by the Kramnik's drawish Berlin variation. The fireworks of the King's Indian have disappeared and the Open Sicilian is a rarity. For a while, the Semi-Slav was the dangerous exception, but even there, extended computer analysis has found paths to dull equality. Instead we have slow meandering lines in the Italian, the Queen's Gambit Declined, and the Slav Defence. I understand the competitive pressures on top players, but as a spectator, top level chess is just so boring now. Carlsen often succeeds because he "plays like a computer," teasing out endgame advantages in the most tedious, uninteresting positions. Who wants to watch that?

So if interesting chess play at the top level has faded away, and the computer programs have surpassed the human players, and the political aspect has declined, how do you maintain interest? Western funding for the championships has dried up with the exception of Carlsen's home country of Norway and Rex Sinquefeld. Government funding for chess has dried up except in rich but insecure China. But the thrill is gone. I need to move on to something else.

"If you can't beat your computer at chess, try kickboxing."