USCF Home Chess Life Magazine 2007 Steroid Chess
|By IM Danny Kopec, Ph.D.|
|September 20, 2007|
I come from a different time—I admit it. Perhaps I’m a dinosaur. But those currently enjoying youth’s innocence and arrogance must understand how different the Royal Game was 30 or 40 years ago when I believe chess had more “class.” Chess is now bulked up on steroids; it is a Barry Bonds as compared to a Joe DiMaggio. “Steroid Chess” means speeded up time controls and such—elements which have little to do with pure chess skill but everything to do with access to computer databases updated by the minute and inflated monetary rewards at tournaments.
This article has been incubating with me for some time, and my goal is to show some of the changes that have occurred in the game of chess that youngsters, especially those 20 years old or less, may not even be able to appreciate unless these changes are presented, highlighted and emphasized. A few of these changes I would deem as good for the game—namely the abundance of available information about the game, mainly through progress with databases and computers. However, there are also a number of changes to the game that are, in my opinion, negative and need to be emphasized.
I have been involved in computer chess since 1973 when I was introduced to the subject of Artificial Intelligence at Dartmouth College. We developed a program that competed in the North American Computer Chess Championships. It was the first not to lose to the perennial winner in the 1970s, Northwestern University’s Chess 4.x. Even then it was clear that computers would eventually have a profound effect on chess. The main results have been:
1. Computers are accepted as being able to out-analyze even grandmasters.
2. Endings up to six pieces have been completely solved.
3. Computers and databases have become an integral part of chess study. Players at all levels look up their opponents’ games.
4. The general public no longer thinks that man reigns supreme over computers in chess, even at the World Championship level.
5. There are no more adjourned games and therefore no more adjourned-game analysis.
6. Sudden death time controls have become pervasive.
7. Tournament schedules have been abbreviated.
8. Correspondence chess has been intrinsically affected by computers.
With this in mind, this article focuses on adjournments, changes to the basic tournament structure, and “abuse” of the endgame due to faster time controls.
Adjourned Games and the Sealed MoveThere was a time when the adjournment of chess games in serious tournaments and matches was the standard. World championship match games would be adjourned after 5 hours of play (40 moves, with 2½ hours each), teams of analysts would study the adjourned position overnight and the contestants, refreshed with a good night’s sleep, would follow the analysts’ suggestions in the morning.
This was true for most world championship-level players—except for Bobby Fischer, who didn’t trust anyone’s analysis but his own. The concern around tournaments was that in an adjourned game a player might somehow gain access to a “Fischer-like” human/grandmaster assistant who would analyze the adjourned position for him/her. There was, however, the sad case of GM Mark Taimanov who, in his 1971 world championship candidates match against Fischer, was so intimidated that he seemed more confused than aided by his team’s adjourned game analysis and went on to lose 6-0!
Today the sealed move and adjournments are a lost art form in chess. When and how to “seal” a move was a skill in itself. When the two players made the time control, the tournament director would present an envelope to the player not on the move. If the player with the white pieces was about to play his 41st move, his opponent would need to prepare the envelope. The envelope, into which the score sheets of the two players were placed, required a diagram of the current board position, the date, time control, number of moves played, move number, side to move, etc. A mistake on the sealed move envelope could lead to a lot of confusion. Sealing an illegal move could cost you the game.
With regard to the “lost art” aspect of an adjourned game, I refer to the choice of how many moves you might play after reaching the time control, how quickly you might play these moves, and the distribution of your time in order to be the one to seal. The person sealing might even decide to consume a lot of time into the next time control before sealing. For example, if the second time control was 16 moves in one hour, he might spend 45 minutes of that hour considering the sealed move. This meant he was already in time trouble when play resumed, but the seasoned player would understand the importance of the position at the sealed move. After all, it was the one occasion in chess when it wasn’t, in some sense, a game of perfect information (a two-person game where both players have the exact same information about a game’s state and it isn’t hidden, such as in card games)—the sealing player knew the position to analyze during the adjournment and his opponent didn’t.
I don’t want readers to misunderstand my position here. I think that there is value in nearly all forms of chess. Blitz chess is lots of fun and I have always felt that “30-30” (or Game/30 or Action Chess) is a useful, interesting and good alternative form of play. However, I also see that many of today’s young (under-20) players are being bred without knowing what serious chess is all about.
Naturally, the aspect and phase of play that suffers most is planning and the endgame. You can argue all day and night that today, with the help of chess knowledge (computers, databases, publications, etc.), players can compensate for faster play but somehow I am convinced that some essential ingredient (which perhaps is just the serenity and peace that I derived from the quietude of planning and problem-solving at the board) has been displaced by the world of time pressure and sudden-death time controls. More games than ever are destroyed by the clock and its destructive effects extend to the endgame, where subtlety, planning, and maneuvering once reigned supreme.
Let me share a particularly memorable adjourned game example with you. It was at the 1976 U.S. Open in Fairfax, Virginia. I had a seventh-round game against someone I had grown up with in the New York City scholastic chess ranks, FM Danny Shapiro. At the time I had the fortune of a 4-0 lifetime score against Danny and in this game he seemed particularly determined to score.
Adjournment exampleDaniel Shapiro (2250)
Danny Kopec (2350)
U.S. Open (7), 08.21.1976
White to play
This was the adjourned position with Shapiro sealing his next move. Later that evening (the game was to be continued at 9:00 the next morning—games were played from 2:00-7:00 p.m.), Shapiro gave me a call suggesting that he had analyzed the position to a draw with his friends. They were Class A to Expert level (1800–2199). I told him I would have a look at the position after dinner and get back to him if I wanted a draw. The ritual I had developed for studying an adjourned position was to look at it until about 2:00 in the morning, then sleep on it and get up about an hour earlier than necessary in order see if I discovered any new ideas in my subconscious “dreaming” hours. In this case it worked perfectly, in that Shapiro played the expected (best) move h4-h5 but then went wrong in allowing my king to penetrate his position (an idea I returned to in my morning pre-play analysis).
52. h5 Kg7 53. hxg6 Kxg6
And here I was about to acquiesce to a draw, but Shapiro played:
Best is 54. g4! continuing the liquidation idea that began with 52. h5 would have drawn fairly easily, e.g. 54. ... fxg4 55. Rg2 or 55. Rg5+ etc.
54. ... Kh5 55. Rh2+ Kg4
Instead Shapiro stumbles into this long checking sequence which I had fully analyzed, concluding that it gives Black winning chances.
56. Rg6+ Kf3 57. Rf2+ Ke3 58. Re2+ Kd4 59. Rd6+ Kc4 60. Rc6+ Kd5 61. Rec2
Perhaps White missed that on 61. Rf6 e3! 62. Rxf5+ Ke4 63. Re5+ Rxe5 64. fxe5 Kf3 is winning. The recurring theme is the activity of the black king coupled with the fact that the white pawns provide shelter for the black king from checks.
61. ... e3 62. Ke2 Rd2+ 63. Ke1
Another nice variation is 63. Kf3 Rf2+ 64. Rxf2 exf2 65. Rc1 Re1.
63. ... Rxc2 64. Rxc2 Kd4
To improve my king and prevent Rc4+. White appears lost now.
No better is 65. Ra2 Rh7! as the black king ultimately gets to f3.
65. ... Rh7 66. Ke2 Rh2+ 67. Kf1 Ke4 68. Kg1 Rb2 69. Rc1 Kf3 70. Kf1 Kxg3, White resigned.
Sudden Death Time ControlsBetween 1966 and 1986 I played in many chess tournaments around the United States (especially New York City), Canada, Scotland, England, and beyond. While studying for my doctorate in Edinburgh, I won the Scottish Championship (in 1980) and was tied for second in the Canadian Invitational Championship (1984) during a visiting post-doctoral appointment at McGill University (1983-1984).
I learned to respect the difference between the various forms of chess, including standard, open-tournament time controls such as 45 moves in 90 minutes, 50 moves in two hours and faster time controls. The popularity of sudden death time controls is a relatively new circumstance (since the late 1980s) worldwide. I had always considered chess a sacred sanctuary, zone, or arena in to which I could immerse myself, forgeting all the constraints of time in the “real world.”
That is no longer the case, as many people don’t want to play more than one day of chess at a time. The “action chess” and Game/60 formats for chess tournaments are very popular. Players seem to like the appeal of a dinner that they can return home to which is still warm after a three or four game one-day event.
Sudden Death Time Controls (SDTC) seem to have become the standard since about 1990. One of the reasons for this is the possibility of using computers for adjourned game analysis and hence the need to finish games in one session. However, there are a number of negative effects of SDTCs. There are probably many players who used to play under the old standard time controls who would agree with me, but few have openly expressed these views. Though it is true that we must move on with the times, I argue that though we are not going back to the 1959 Cadillac, few will deny that it was a beautiful, if gaudy, car.
As alluded to earlier, the worst result of SDTCs has been their affect on endgame play. My question (and the reason I bring all this up) is, “How many young players can really appreciate the subtleties of endings that we explored under the traditional time controls?”
This was the one phase of play where one could relish the idea that study-like solutions might be found. All you need to do to appreciate this is to take a look at Pal Benko’s Chess Life columns. The play and study of endings with over three minutes per move made it possible to understand positions deeply and to uncover their secrets.
For years now, I have detested seeing two top-flight grandmasters play what seems like a serious game in an important tournament, only to have to complete the remaining moves in an SDTC with five or 10 minutes (or less) left for each player. Certainly, chess knowledge and information gets around much more quickly during the past 15–20 years and, with the vast experience they gain from praxis and from the abundance of information available to them, players can seemingly develop expertise in certain endings that would ordinarily have required much study and analysis.
However, very simply put: I think that every serious chess player should desire that the correct (logical) outcome of a chess game should not purely be affected by the clock. When the clock becomes the main issue, we are no longer concerned with pure chess but with some other external factors akin to the “real” world from which chess had for many years been immune.
I therefore feel there should be three chess rating systems: one for slow chess (for play at the pace of Game/60 or slower, one for intermediate chess (Game/30 to Game/59) and one for blitz chess (for Game/29 and faster). These three systems should be easily managed by the USCF.
Tournament SchedulesFurthermore, the schedule and format of most action and blitz tournaments is organized and presented in a dehumanizing, cold and inconsiderate manner. The marathon aspect of chess is still present—but now it is more games and more moves in less time without consideration for the fact that a normal human being might need a break after three to four hours of concentration and competition—a break for a meal or just to relax and clear one’s head of the stuffy and noisy atmosphere in the tournament room. Is that asking for too much?
Time and time again, as I am often one of the last finishers—even in these faster games—I hear an increasing volume of noise as the session draws to a close. Those who have finished their games are not respectfully whisked out of the tournament hall. Instead the “chess vultures” will descend upon some “exciting” time-pressure finish to pound the squeaky floors possibly affecting the outcome of a game in ways they wouldn’t even have imagined. Likewise, I don’t believe that many young players realize the advantages which these fast tournament formats give them, the implications the format has on their chess development and what proper conduct is before, during and after a game is completed.
For more than 10 years I have been trying to convince one major tournament organizer that his schedule of rounds is frequently ridiculous. On any given Friday, you might drive up to seven hours to get to a beautiful resort location. Your first round game on Friday night starts at 8:00 p.m. and it could end by midnight or even 1:00 a.m. Saturday. The next round (on the three-day schedule) is at 12:00 noon. Isn’t that normally about the time that most civilized people eat lunch? So why not have the second round game at 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. or perhaps at 10:30 a.m.?
The third round at 6:30 p.m. can be very close to the end of the second round which could extend to 5:00 p.m. And isn’t 6:30 about dinner time for most people? Why can’t the third round begin at 7:30 or 8:00 p.m.? If my 6:30 game goes until 11:30 pm, what am I going to do at a beautiful resort at 11:30 p.m. to enjoy the surroundings? My point is very simple—if you’re going to hold tournaments in beautiful, resort locations, why not schedule the rounds so that most players can enjoy those surroundings for the most daylight hours available? Oh, you might tell me that tournaments in beautiful locations are not for the players, but for their partners and friends—then I might as well resign.
Who Are Tournaments For?In general, I raise the question, “Who are modern tournaments for and what is their purpose?” Certainly these tournaments are not for the players. If they were for the players, there would always be civilized conditions at tournaments, such as the ability to get a cup of coffee or a snack and the directors would be on top of the kinds of difficult situations that can arise at tournaments during time pressure. There would be comfortable amounts of time between rounds and the rounds would be intelligently scheduled to accommodate most players’ needs.
Situational needs would also be addressed. Some examples include: tournament location, available amenities and services, the availability of late checkout from the hotel for the players, transportation to and from the tournament, the hotel and the transportation center, etc. Where are the bathrooms—can they be reached in a reasonable amount of time? How is the tournament room’s lighting— does it depend on natural light?
Even where and how the pairings are posted should accommodate the players. Again, this is often not the case. Several copies of each round’s pairings should be posted. I have found in recent years that one often needs to walk hundreds of feet to find the pairings and I have even lost significant amounts of time on the clock because of this.
Instead, many directors are seen burying their heads in their laptops. Sure, they’ll get the rounds out on time, but that’s all.
A few years ago I played in a very nice tournament in Florida. There were a number of titled players participating who had been invited and “accommodated” by the organizer. It was a five-round tournament, with the traditional last round on Sunday afternoon. I had just won a very difficult, long, fourth-round game on Sunday morning against a youngster (a master-level player who was on the rise). I received my “requisite” half hour between rounds and, sure enough, found myself paired with IM Nickolai Andrianov, whom I had played the year before in exactly the same situation. The year before, I played 1. e4 and the game went into a Kopec System against the Sicilian (1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bd3; see Chess Life April 1980 and April 2000). It was a hard-fought game that ended in a draw. This time, I could tell by Andrianov’s first-move choice after 1. d4 c5 2. d5 (and the fact that I arrived just a few minutes late), leading into a semi-blocked Czech Benoni, that he was determined to get me into time trouble. I believe the first time control was 30 moves in 90 minutes and then one-hour sudden death. You may think that’s plenty of time, but in such a short time control (and after arriving a few minutes late; again I remind you that I had a five-hour game before this with a mere 30 minutes between rounds) where there may be complications in the opening, one can get into time pressure very quickly.
Anyway, there were complications in the transition from the opening to the middlegame. Black won a pawn and I had to find a very resourceful combination to recover it. However, my position became shaky and Andrianov played a very promising queen sacrifice for bishop, knight, and two pawns and very dangerous attacking chances against my king. It was an ideal situation from Black’s perspective, as I now had only about two minutes to make seven moves (to reach move 30) and was faced with great pressure. Probably I was lost anyway. And now, on the board next to us (we shared an eight-foot table on which there two games being played), IM Blas Lugo’s game had just ended in a draw. He and his opponent started talking but I “shushed” them.
Then, as they got up, IM Lugo pulled the tablecloth with him. Obviously this was entirely unintentional, but it happened, and, with the tablecloth, all the pieces and the clock from our game went tumbling to the floor. Andrianov and I (I’m not sure who really) picked up the clock from the floor and looked at it. My flag was down. Andrianov claimed a win on time. I went to see the tournament director (TD) in the other room. Of course, even though there were over 200 players, and this was around the end of the last round, his head was buried in his computer. There were witnesses to this entire fiasco but the TD did nothing to address my situation.
Another area where I feel TDs are remiss is in clarifying rules. For example, most tournaments do not make clear the “winning material” rules. For example, is knight vs. rook pawn a win for the knight (e.g. there could be a helpmate) or a win for the pawn (the knight ignores the pawn as it promotes) or are the rules subject to interpretation from tournament to tournament? Directors need to start paying more attention to the needs and desires of the players. They must realize that without the players there is no tournament.
However, the players have also changed. Why else would the seven players who turned up to our 6th Judah Ash Memorial tournament in July 2006 insist on our running the tournament as normal? As it turned out, there were more prizes advertised than the number of players who had turned up. My inclination was to cancel the tournament. After all, isn’t a tournament supposed to be about fair competition? This was more like a fire sale. Even those I knew as honorable people didn’t seem so honorable to me any more. They insisted on their full cash prizes even though these weren’t by any means professional tournament players. They took class prizes even when they were the only players in a class. Well, for now, we won’t be running that tournament again.
Bill Goichberg has had a number of innovative ideas which in certain ways have helped promote the game of chess, provided excitement through various formats of competition and in general have been good for chess. However, there have been drawbacks too.
Two of these changes I would like to discuss. One is the opportunity for a player to re-enter a tournament. This just seems ludicrous to me. It’s against everything that a tournament stands for. It’s like saying, if you’re having a bad day, just restart it and everything will be fine. It seems very much more suitable for the world of gambling but not for the world of chess which I once held in high esteem. Just pay your way into a fresh start, gamble some more money and everything may be fine. We’ll just wipe the record clean for you—if you can pay.
It’s not even remotely similar to real-life situations. Even when you get a summons (say for speeding) and then pay your fine, you still get some points taken from your license. Of course having a bad chess tournament isn’t analogous to breaking the law (except for maybe the laws of chess). However, this creates a sort of “class system” whereby those with either the money (or the gambling inclination) can pay to re-enter the tournament. And those who don’t have the money simply must suffer (live) with their bad start. The latter group is more realistic; there choice should be the only option for everyone.
The other major Goichberg idea—the organization of tournaments in such a way that the various schedules will ultimately meet (which I alluded to earlier)—is in some ways brilliant. Certainly, it allows for players with different constraints and interests to play under their preferred conditions. If someone wants to play a leisurely schedule like one game a day, they can do so, or if someone wants to blitz through a tournament, say by playing three rounds in one day, they can do so. And then we are all joined together as if it is one tournament. This is somewhat artificial and in many respects unfair.
First, people are paired based on their schedule choices and their results in that schedule, rather than by their overall performance in one tournament. So for example, a certain strong player who chooses the tight three-day schedule may lose “two games of three” in one day (everyone will surely agree that in the faster time controls upsets are more likely) and is now having a “bad tournament.”
But who said it is a bad tournament? That player chose a difficult schedule whereby they met other strong players in the same schedule early. If they had played a normal schedule it is more likely that they would have played weaker players for more rounds. Winning a Game/60 chess game (especially between two strong, fairly well-matched players) is quite different from playing a regular, slow, four-hour game. It invariably deteriorates to blitz chess.
I have played in four 12-round U.S. Opens: in 1974 (New York City), in 1976 (Fairfax, Virginia), in 1987 (Portland, Oregon) and in 1988 (Boston). Each time I scored 9-3. In Boston, a “Busy Man’s” schedule was available whereby players could elect to play only the second half of the tournament and, based on rating, could, if rated over 2600, get a score of 5-1 at the start of the seventh round. So while I was busy playing out my first six rounds to score 5/6 over the course of some 30 hours of play (not to mention the commuting, the towing of my vehicle, the $500-per-week rent of the apartment that I had incurred for expenses) my main competitors in the second half of the tournament could be somewhere entirely different, possibly resting and on vacation or even playing in another tournament and winning prizes there.
Of course this was extremely unfair but I was also aware of deals being made and games being thrown at the boards around me in the last round of that tournament. I won’t mention names; you know this “cheating thing” has been around at chess tournaments for many years now. This explains why I feel that now that TDs are able to get rounds started on time with the help of software, it is especially important that they play an active role in facilitating fair play and the best conditions at chess tournaments, rather than hiding behind their screens.
In 2004, I decided to give it another go and played in the nine-round U.S. Open in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For personal reasons, I elected to play a seven-round schedule, taking ½-point byes in rounds one and two. As it turned out there was a special event (Hall of Fame Induction Dinner) on the Friday night before the last round on Saturday night, so one could choose to play on Friday morning instead. I chose this option.
It suited me well since I could obtain almost a day and a half of rest (and might even be able to enjoy the resort) before the last round struggle. So I entered the last round with a score of 6-2 and hadn’t even played one master. This was as a result of the approximately five different schedules that players could choose from. And these five different tournament schedules, possibly because of the large number of players overall, never did seem to meet.
Hence, in the last round I was paired with then 16-year-old Jesse Cohen, whom I heard had done very well in the blitz tournament. He was rated about 2100 and was eligible for the expert prize. I decided that the ending was the best place I had a chance to demonstrate some superiority.
Vienna Game (C26)
Jesse Cohen (2098)
Danny Kopec (2387)
2004 U.S. Open, Florida, 08.15.2004
1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. g3 Nc6 4. Bg2 Bc5 5. d3 d6 6. Nf3 h6 7. Na4 Be6 8. 0-0 Qd7 9. Nxc5 dxc5 10. Be3 b6 11. a3 Bg4 12. Qd2 Rd8 13. b4 Bxf3
Interesting was 13. ... c4!? 14. dxc4 Qe6
14. Bxf3 Nd4 15. Bg2 c4 16. Kh1 Ng4?!
A hasty prepared move against 16. Kh1, but stronger was simply 16. ... cxd3 17. Qxd3 Qc6.
17. dxc4 Qe6 18. Bxd4 Rxd4 19. Qe2 h5
With mixed ideas of attack and to provoke White’s next move which makes his bishop worse.
20. h3 Nf6 21. c5 Qc4! 22. Qxc4
It is hard for White to accept that he could be worse in an ending a pawn up.
22. ... Rxc4 23. cxb6 cxb6 24. f4 Ke7!! 25. fxe5 Nd7 26. Rf5 g6 27. Rf2 Rhc8?!
Correct and almost certainly winning was 27. ... Nxe5. The e5-knight would be a tower of power. This was my second hasty move of the game.
My opponent blitzed and banged this move in as if we were in some kind of blitz time scramble, and sure enough, despite my over 30 years of active tournament play, being rusty and tired, I blitzed back.
28. ... Kxe6?
Black would still have the much better game after 28. ... fxe6 when if, for example, 29. e5 Rxc2 and Black is still in the driver’s seat.
29. h4 Ke7 30. Bh3 R8c7 31. Bxd7 Rxd7 32. Re2 Rdc7 33. Ra2 Rc3
Black begins the “boa constrictor” technique which is aimed at preventing White from finding any activity for his rooks by attacking the numerous white pawn islands.
34. Kg2 R7c4
Aimed at preventing a3-a4 and to further clamp White down while preparing ... Ke6, ... Ke5.
35. Kf2 Ke6 36. Ra1 Ke5 37. Rd1 Rxa3 38. Rd8 Ke6 39. b5 Ra2 40. Re8+ Kd7 41. Ra8 Ke7 42. Rb8 Rcxc2 43. Rb7+ Ke6
I spent some 15 minutes analyzing 43. ... Kd6 44. Rxc2 Rxc2+ 45. Ke3 Rc7 46. Rxc7 Kxc7 47. Kd4 Kd6 48. e5+ Ke6 49. Ke4 f6 50. exf6 Kxf6 51. Kf4 when it seems White is drawing, but Black has 51. ... g5+!! 52. hxg5+ Kg6. I didn’t see 51. … g5+!! in my over the board analysis but it turns out that 52. Ke4 draws anyway.
44. Rxc2 Rxc2+ 45. Ke3 Ra2 46. Rc7 Ra5 47. Kf4 Ra4 48. Ke3 f5?
Black would retain excellent winning chances after 48. ... f6 49. Rg7 Ra5 50. Rxg6 Rxb5 51. Rg7 a5 52. Ra7 Rb4.
Much better was 49. Rc6+ Ke5 50. Rxg6 Ra3+ etc. when White has some drawing chances.
49. ... Kxf5
Now Black’s king and rook will be able to coordinate and White will be lost.
50. Kf3 Ra3+ 51. Kg2 Ra5 52. Rd7 Rxb5 53. Rxa7 Rc5!
From here Black will be able to put his rook alongside his b-pawn and victory will be assured.
54. Rb7 Rc6 55. Kf2 Ke5 56. Re7+ Kd5 57. Rd7+ Kc4 58. g4 b5 59. Rd1 Rb6 60. Kg3 b4 61. gxh5 gxh5 62. Rc1+ Kd3 63. Kf4 b3 64. Kg5 Rb5+ 65. Kg6 b2 66. Rh1 Kc2 67. Rh2+ Kb3 68. Rh1 Ka2, White resigned.
No doubt this was a heartbreaking loss for the youngster. We analyzed the game for several hours after it ended, well into the night. However, hopefully it was a lesson (which all strong players must learn sometime) about the subtleties and secrets of endgame play which will be appreciated and built upon for many years to come.
ConclusionIn this article I have tried to address how the game of chess has changed since I was a youngster actively playing in tournaments around the country some 30-40 years ago. Some changes have been good (such as optional tournament schedules—within limits) but others have not. I have particularly focused on the speeding up of play and sudden-death time controls, the effects of computers on chess, (e.g. no more adjournments), poor tournament schedules, and the degradation of the endgame. In possible future articles, I would like to cover the effects of computers on chess and how chess etiquette has changed.