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The Crisis in Chess

The game of Chess continues to be a very popular game.

However, it is not quite as popular as some people might wish, as in certain respects its popularity is not as great as it was at certain times in the past.

It might perhaps be advanced that viewing such a situation as a "crisis" is short-sighted and unreasonable. That is not a point I am prepared to dispute; it is one I am entirely willing to grant. Be that as it may, however, the situation remains: Chess is not so popular, either as a recreation, or as a spectator sport, that in the present day grandmasters and somewhat lesser, but still accomplished, chessplayers can support themselves in the style to which they could once have become accustomed through their play.

Opinions may differ on the significance of this problem, but when a situation is not as desired, the steps involved in analyzing the causes of the situation as it is, and determining a solution thereto, remain the same whether the problem is grave or trifling.

On the occasion of a meeting to set up the groundwork for the London Chess Congress of 1862, Lord Lyttleton is noted in a book about that Congress as having "lamented the inferiority, in point of interest, of the matches of the day, which he ascribed to the prevalence of the adoption of close openings".

Wilhelm Steinitz, in the English edition of the "Modern Chess Instructor", had this to say:

"Objections have been raised against the reform chiefly on the ground that its tendencies are calculated to abolish or at any rate to reduce brilliant combinations which it assumed are the special characteristics of the direct attack against the King. We can only answer that this is a sort of sentimental objection that ought to exercise but very little influence on our game which is essentially of a scientific character."

Much later, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government of which saw advantages to its prestige through patronage of chessplayers, made the difficulties faced by Chess players in the West a universal condition. It is unnecessary for the purposes of this page to recount here the story of how one Robert J. Fischer became a folk hero for much the same reason as H. L. van Cliburn did before him.

Wilhelm Steinitz has been much excoriated for his part in bringing about the era of Modern chess. But the test of any theories of how to play Chess is whether they help players to win instead of drawing and draw instead of losing. In this respect, the Modern school of Chess has proven to be entirely correct. Its tenets have only been amended, not overthrown, by the Hypermodern school of Chess, which has added other effective ways of obtaining positional strength to the Chess player's repertoire.

Thus, it's useless to blame Steinitz for the situation. Not only is he not its sole cause, as the insights he helped to popularize were exemplified by earlier players such as Staunton and Morphy as well, but it is useless to exhort players to play less well than they could otherwise in order to play more entertainingly. Something else must be done.

Not particularly seriously, this illustration of a Chessboard with color-coded pieces shows one way to make Chess games on color television more exciting:

The next thing one might consider would be to enliven Chess matches in the same fashion as football games, by bringing in cheerleaders.

But to move on to somewhat more serious ideas:

Presumably, the issue that prevents Chess from grabbing the public fancy is a combination of "Too many draws", and "Too much dull defensive play". That may not be the only issue.

Because Chess is an intellectual game, not a physical one, to understand and appreciate a game as a spectator engages the same faculties as are engaged to play it. In other words, it is not at all necessary to be athletic to appreciate the highest levels of sporting competition - but one has to understand Chess to enjoy watching a game of Chess. This is mitigated, though, by what I will call the "Watson effect" from a recurring type of incident in the stories of Sherlock Holmes; brilliant moves become obvious to the spectators after the expert chessplayer has made them.

How can players be encouraged to play less defensively if playing more defensively is the way to win more often?

Asking the question points out where the solution is not going to be found - and points straight at the only effective answer. The desired type of play must be made the rational type of play; exhortations, even monetary brilliancy prizes when winning is still the most important thing, won't do it.

One measure that has been taken is to award players 1/3 point each, instead of 1/2 point each, in the case of a draw. This encourages players to play for a win as long as doing so only puts them at a slight disadvantage, in a tournament situation.

I don't believe, though, that it helps much in a match, and if the goal is to make Chess more interesting to the general public, we need to ensure that the Chess played is more interesting in the Chess event that is most likely to come to the attention of the general public.

The World Championship match.

On the next few pages, I describe a revised system for scoring games that I think could work in a chess match.

I took my inspiration from how the Go world solved a similar problem with komidashi.

However, what I came up with turned out to be very different from komidashi, which adds a number of points on the board, which has changed from 2 1/2 to 8 1/2 over time, to the number of points controlled by White (the second player in Go) before they are compared to the number of points controlled by Black to determine the winner.

A simplified version of Dynamic Scoring would begin with the idea of giving the player who forces stalemate the winning side of a 3/5-2/5 split of the point for the game, rather than making it a draw.

This would mean players could play for a win of some kind under more circumstances. But since stalemate is only worth 1/5 as much as checkmate, it remains important not to blunder away a checkmate by accidentally stalemating one's opponent instead.

The idea of providing smaller scores for partial victories is not original with me.

Around the year 1921, the noted grandmaster Emmanuel Lasker suggested the following scoring schedule for Chess games:

Checkmate       10 points -  0 points
Stalemate        8 points -  2 points
Exposed King     6 points -  4 points

He referred to this suggestion again in his 1925 book My Match With Capablanca (quoted recently in the book 200 Open Games by David Bronstein).

In order to be more conservative, to avoid changing Chess, I sought to retain a large incentive to checkmate in preference to stalemating, and so I felt a 6 point - 4 point split is appropriate for stalemate. I did go on to suggest awarding points for the historic victory condition known as "bare King", but at an even lower level, and even to reach further still to award points for inflicting even just perpetual check on one's opponent.

The key idea that distinguishes Dynamic Scoring, however, is going on to then decree that if Black, instead of White, forces stalemate, the points are split 1/3-2/3 in favor of Black.

So Black gets almost twice as much for a stalemate as White!

What good is this intended to do?

It's intended to deal with Black's disadvantage by encouraging Black to play for a win and open up the game to a limited extent, corresponding to the Black player's reasonable prospects of victory.

And since checkmate is 1-0 for both players, it is hoped that White will respond to the situation by taking the risks involved in playing for a win instead of a draw.

This simplistic proposal, aside from burdening those who score Chess matches and tournaments with arithmetic with fractions, has limitations. Stalemate may still require enough of an advantage to achieve it that playing for it is not realistic enough for Black for the incentive provided to be persuasive. White can as easily avoid the disadvantage in the scoring for stalemate by opting to play defensively to make draws the norm instead of playing aggressively to make checkmates the norm.

Further thought indicates to me that there are a number of flaws in this idea of mine. For one thing, if it is possible to put partial victories on the scoreboard, giving an advantage to Black may not be required, and may not change anything. For another, whatever the point may be that is the normal outcome of a game played scientifically and defensively, whether that is scored as a draw or as some fraction of a point for White, how that outcome is scored will not, in itself, encourage players to take risks, at least not if those risks are more likely to lead to a detrimental outcome than a beneficial one.

So, to encourage players to take risks, a change in the scoring of games might well be appropriate, but it would need to be one that benefits a player who obtains a result that is better than the expected one. While Dynamic Scoring, in some ways, reflects this principle, only counting checkmates, the existing method, might be thought of as embodying that principle to even a greater degree. Making something that can be noted on the scoresheet more accessible, by means of risks that players are more willing to take, or can more realistically take, may help to make more games decisive and interesting, but it could as easily shift things the opposite way.

It may also be noted that, as I have recently learned, Frank J. Marshall, U. S. Chess Champion from 1909 to 1936, suggested, in his book "Chess Masterpieces", that Chess follow Checkers in having an opening ballot; that is, having the first few moves chosen by a random draw.

I feel that Chess players are unlikely to find that acceptable; in the case of checkers, this expedient was only adopted when, in a World Championship match, several of the games were draws which were also identical to each other move-by-move; nothing approaching that situation exists in Chess, nor is likely to for a long time, even in games played by computers.

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