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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. (See below for a further clarification of this statement.)

That statement, that nothing resembling the Wyllie-Martins match of 1863 in Checkers, will be played in Chess for a long time, still stands, even after the 12 draws in a row of the 2018 World Chess Championship, because the unfortunate characteristic of that Checker match that was the most alarming was not the number of draws, but the occurrence of games that were identical move by move, and as the complexity of Chess is much greater than that of Checkers, the prospect of that happening in Chess is very unlikely.

It is well known that Go, or Wei Ch'i (Weiqi), is a much more complex game than Chess. At least one account I have read claims that even Chinese Chess, Hsiang Ch'i (Xiangqi), is a more complex game than conventional Chess, and the Japanese game of Shogi is more complex still, although Go is much more complex than both.

This is despite the fact that in Japan, because of the popularity of Go, Shogi is generally not taken all that seriously there; although there are serious Shogi tournaments, the game is generally treated as something for children to play, or, at least, so I have read.

But if switching to Capablanca Chess or Chess960 wouldn't be a workable alternative, if things get really bad, this suggests that switching to Shogi is potentially one possible alternative.

It could indeed happen that games between very early chess programs that did not randomize their moves somewhat as a precaution against being defeated over and over again by playing the same moves as were played in a previous game they lost could end up being repeated move for move; but failing that, it is also extremely unlikely to happen in computer play as a result of advances in the chess-playing skill available from computers, which is what I meant by including computers above - even a computer many times more powerful than the one Google used for AlphaZero would not come as close to solving Chess as Wyllie and Martins had come to solving Checkers.

The 2018 World Chess Championship

The format of the 2018 World Chess Championship, contested between Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Fabiano Caruana of America, occasioned some degree of controversy, particularly in light of the results of the games played at that match.

Before even beginning to discuss that match itself, I wish to set forth some historical background.

In 1972, Robert J. "Bobby" Fischer became the World Chess Champion by defeating Boris Spassky. The match for the World Championship was of the then conventional format, of up to 24 games, to be won by the first player who scored 12 1/2 points, or the current champion would retain his title in the event of a 12-12 tie.

In 1975, the time came for Fischer to defend his title, this time against Anatoly Karpov.

Fischer proposed that, henceforth, the World Championship match should have a different format, where draws would not be significant, and where, instead, the first player to win 10 games would be the winner. Although FIDE was amenable to changing to a format of this general design, one aspect of Fischer's proposal, that if a 9-9 score is reached, the match be considered drawn, returning the title to the existing champion, was not found acceptable, leading to Fischer's retirement from active chess play and later tragic and unsettling events in his life.

The idea of changing the World Chess Championship to something demanding a fixed number of wins, however, was looked upon with favor by the chess-playing community. As a result, in 1984, a World Championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov began in which the winner would be the first player to score 6, not 10, games.

The match was called off in 1985 by FIDE after 48 games were played, with Karpov having 5 wins and Kasparov having 3 wins. Later in 1985, a new match was played between the same two players in the conventional 24-game format, the 6 wins format having proven unworkable. This time, Kasparov won with a final score of 13-11 in his favor.

This match format was tried before, and on that occasion it did yield a result, in the 1927 World Chess Championship match between Alexander Alekhine and Jose Raoul Capablanca. Again, it was 6 wins that were required to gain the title. Some accounts of that match, played under what were called the "London Rules", claimed that in the event of a 5-5 score being reached, the match would be considered a draw, and the champion would retain his title. Apparently, this was mistaken, and that claim originated from an account published in the Soviet Union - which adds poignancy and irony to the Fischer tragedy, by suggesting that it might have been avoided if not for an imagined precedent based on an error.

The events of 1984 and 1985 had shown that a format requiring a fixed number of wins was unworkable, and since then the World Championship match has had a format with a strictly limited length.

But there had also been a strong desire on the part of the community of Grandmasters that the World Championship match should not allow the champion to retain his title in the event of a tie.

In order to accomodate these conflicting requirements, a format for the World Chess Championship of the general type used in 2018 is required: after a fixed number of games played in the normal manner, if the score is tied, a short additional period in which some sort of tie-breaking activity is used to decide the match is required.

In the specific case of the 2018 World Chess Championship, the format was: 12 regular games, and if the score was tied after those games, the one day on which the closing cceremonies were scheduled would also hold first four games of rapid chess, then another four games of blitz chess if the rapid chess did not produce a winner, and finally, if the blitz chess did not produce a winner, one game where White would have five minutes of time on the clock, Black would have four minutes of time on the clock, and a draw at this disadvantage would count as a win for Black, called the Armageddon game, would be played.

This same format was used for the 2016 World Chess Championship between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin.

In that match, the results were:

First, seven straight draws.

Then, one win by Karjakin; then one draw; then one win by Carlsen; then two draws.

Thus, the match went to the first part of the tiebreaks, the four rapid games. In them, the first two were draws, and then the final two were won by Carlsen, giving him the match.

In the 2018 World Chess Championship, events transpired in this fashion:

In the first game, Magnus Carlsen achieved an advantage, and then at one point, it became possible for him to win the game with a Queen sacrifice. However, he missed this opportunity, and the game ended in a draw.

There were another ten draws. In the defense of both players, the games were hard fought. As well, the players chose King's Pawn openings and the Sicilian Defense, leading to demanding tactical games. Neither of the players had chosen to play for draw by choosng quiet, safe, defensive openings; particularly not Carlsen, who could easily have played for draws, because it was known he would be at an advantage over his opponent in the tiebreak games at tighter time controls.

Finally, the twelfth game also ended in a draw; Carlsen offered a draw to Caruana at a point in the game where he still was believed to be at a significant advantage.

Some people expressed disappointment in this.

A comment by Caruana after that game, though, noted that while he was still at some disadvantage when the draw was offered, and thus he willingly accepted it, that he was under significantly more pressure a few moves earlier.

Thus, the interpretaion that I put on Carlsen's draw offer, at the time, and subsequently, is this:

Although he was ahead, his lead was not such as he expected to be able to convert to a win against the tough opposition Caruana had been providing. His planned attack, and his hopes of a win, had faded before he offered a draw.

In acknowledging Caruana's prowess, as his equal or near-equal, and in declining to needlessly fatigue him before a portion of the match at which he was expected to be at a disadvantage, I believed, and still believe, Magnus Carlsen to have acted in a particularly gentlemanly and sportsmanlike manner.

Subsequently, in the rapid portion of the tiebreaks, Carlsen won by winning the first three games in a row.

Although one might have preferred to have the match decided by games played at normal time controls, at least this win was sufficiently decisive as to encourage even those who were not fond of having rapid games in the match to acknowledge that Carlsen had proven himself to have at least some claim to the title of World Champion.

Thus, I don't blame either of the players for what had happened. But that the 12 games which were played at regular time controls, forming the main part of the World Chess Championship match, were, every single one, a draw, is still, undeniably, a problem. For the general public, with only a slight interest in Chess, it is precisely the World Chess Championship that has a chance of catching their attention. Twelve draws in a row, even if they resulted from titanic struggles on the chessboard whose interest is obvious to those more knowledgeable about chess, will ineviably mitigate against the occasion of a World Chess Championship match leading to an increase in general interest in the game.

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