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Saturday, September 18, 2010

How do Past Greats Compare to Present Day Greats?

I see it quite often in different forums…are the players of today better than the greats of the past? Or, who is the greatest player who ever lived?

A few years ago I was in Border’s bookstore and was browsing the chess books when it occurred to me that my collection of “Best Games” books had no “modern” players past Tahl and Fischer so I bought Fire on Board by Shirov. Playing over his games made me realize I didn’t understand them to the extent I understood games played by Reshevsky, Botvinnik, etc.

I mean, when Reshevsky played the QGD, Exchange Variation, I knew the scenarios. White would play the Minority Attack, the center break e4 with a resulting isolated QP, the center buildup with f3 and e4 or place his N on e5 and play f4. I also knew Black’s counters to all these methods. After all, in the book I learned how to play middlegames from, Pachman’s Modern Chess Strategy, devoted a whole chapter to this variation. Imagine my surprise when I read Yermolinsky’s Road to Chess Improvement and he was analyzing 11.h3 for White (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.Nf3 O-O 6.e3 Nbd7 7.cxd5 exd5 8.Bd3 c6 9.Qc2 Re8 10.O-O Nf8 11.h3) and was explaining the reason for the move. It was a whole new idea that many GM’s had recently taken up and infused new life into the whole variation.

Looking back at games played by Alekhine we read that he believed the K-Indian and the move 1…g6 were for the most part unplayable. I thought of the Sicilian Boleslavsky Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Be2 e5) and how it was considered bad for decades until the Soviet GM proved otherwise. Pachman also devoted several pages to this line in his book. I thought of the Sicilian Pelikan Variation and how my early opening books frowned on it as a not very good line. The Pelikan, you ask? Modern players know it as the Sveshnikov (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5)

Then I thought of hearing Bobby Fischer claiming that the games from the Kramnik-Kaspaov match of 2000, while interesting, were obviously prearranged, fake computer generated games. After listening to him, it was clear that chess knowledge had passed him by in his absence.

As IM John Watson pointed out in his book, Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy, when Capablanca claimed chess was played out and suffering from death by draws, it was because in those days about the only opening that was considered “correct” was the QGD, Orthodox Defense. As Watson also pointed out, players like Lasker, Capablanca, Tarrasch and Rubenstein were unimaginative and limited by today’s standards. They continually dismissed ideas which today’s players consider natural and normal.

To my mind the great players of today are far better than those of yesteryear because their understanding of what is a playable position far exceeds that of the great players of the past.

If, say Capablanca, were transported into today’s chess scene, how long would it take him to absorb today’s opening theory and be able to compete with today’s greats? I don’t think he could. He might be able to learn opening moves, but he wouldn’t have the foggiest idea of how to play middlegames arising from them. I simply don’t think he could relearn chess to the point that he would ever accept the idea that the positions Black gets from the Sveshnikov are playable. As Reti pointed in Modern Ideas in Chess, the aim of modern chess (circa 1935) is not to treat every position according to one general law, but according to the principle inherent in the position. Even in his day this was a concept that the old timers like Capablanca failed to grasp.

As Watson points out, today’s chess is less rule oriented and today’s players derive their perspective and intuition from the detailed analysis of a great number of positions and they think in terms that are far more dynamic and specific to a given position than the classical rules and guidelines of the past.

So, no, I don’t think the greats of the past could hold their own against the greats of today no matter how much time they had to absorb opening theory. After all, there’s more to chess than opening theory that needs to be learned.

For a discussion of these issues and chess theory, past and present, I highly recommend Watson’s Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy. For a good guide on how to study chess and a glimpse into a GM’s workshop and advice on how to truly improve (WARNING: most players won’t like the answer) I also recommend Yermolinsky’s Road to Chess Improvement. I think Yermo's book should be a classic. It probably won't be because he doesn't reveal any secrets that will magically allow one to win more games. He recommends hard work, but he tells you what to work on and gives sound advice on how to do it. If players put as much time and effort into doing things Yermo's way as they do on learning gambit openings and doing endless tactical excercises, they would be a lot further ahead.


  1. Let me think...who knows more about chess? IM John Watson or Jeff?

  2. One can say ‘No Pawns in the center for they can be attacked and I shall have to defend them. Rather shall my opponent have the Pawn center and I shall attack it.’ I, personally, consider (this) to be heresy…As a matter of fact, in the last few years there has arisen a School that preaches the holding back of the center Pawns. It is very significant that the strongest players – the present World’s Champion, Dr. Alekhine, the former champions, Capablanca and Dr. Lasker, and also Bogoljubow – do not belong to this School. Quite a century ago this idea, now proclaimed as new, was tried in the ‘Fianchetto’, as it is called, but was soon dropped because the opponent’s center Pawns were too harassing. Dr. Siegbert Tarrash in The Game of Chess
    Then there was Fischer’s claim that the games played by Kasparov and Anand in their match were fake. Why did Fischer make that claim? The games were too well-played to be human generated games.
    Engine analysis has shown that Capablanca made fewer mistakes than players of today, but the figures are skewed considering the limited concept on what constituted a playable position in those days…just as IM John Watson correctly points out when he says, players like Lasker, Capablanca, Tarrasch and Rubinstein were unimaginative and limited by today’s standards. They continually dismissed ideas which today’s players consider natural and normal.

    Looking at, for example, Hastings, 1922, there were 9 QGD’s, 3 Dutch Defenses, 8 Ruy Lopez’, 4 4N Games, 3 Caro-Kann’s and 3 other defenses. One was a K-Indian in the game Rubinstein – Thomas and Alekhine wrote concerning Thomas’ 2…g6 (After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4) “In my encounter with Reti in London, 1922, I, playing White, obtained much the superior position after 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.Nf3 O-O 5.e4” as if to say the problem was with the K-Indian and not Reti’s handling of it. The QGD and Ruy Lopez predominated and the players were well-versed in the strategy of the day in those openings. Look at books by Tarrasch and Capablanca; about the only openings they recommend as being correct were the QGD and Ruy Lopez.

    Looks like the GM’s of today are either 1) much further ahead in their understanding of the game than the old players or 2) they have regressed to the days before players like Alekhine, Capablanca, Lasker and Tarrasch.

  3. No one would be so foolish as to argue that players like Lasker, Capablanca and ALekhine didn’t understand anything about chess, but it’s true that each new generation has surpassed the previous one in their understanding of the game.

    GM Alex Yermolinsky told of how, as a young player studying under veteran trainer Vladimir Zak, that after his students reached a level of about 1800, Zak couldn’t help them anymore. The reason? According to Yermolinsky it was because “Zak religiously believed in the dogma of the classical school. In his opinion everything young chess players needed to know was written in stone many years ago.” Yermolinmsky described how, if anybody brought up new ideas they were “ignored or vehemently opposed.” Zak even frowned on openings other than 1.e4 or 1.d4.

    When Yermo asked Zak a question about the Nimzo-Indian, Huebner Variation (1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 c5 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. Bd3 Bxc3+ 7. bxc3 d6) Zak didn’t even know what it was. Zak quickly dismissed 6…Bxc3+ by saying it was always a mistake to play it without being encouraged to do so until White plays a3 and proceeded to explain why. Yermo never got to ask Zak about a famous Spassky-Fischer game where the variation was played.
    Alexei Shirov told about a similar experience when discussing the Botvinnik Variation (1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Nf3 e6 5. Bg5 dxc4 6. e4 b5 7. e5 h6 8. Bh4 g5 9. Nxg5 hxg5 10. Bxg5 Nbd7) with Botvinnik himself. Shirov said, “To me it was clear (that after the line in question) White stands better, but convincing the Soviet patriarch of something was always impossible.”

  4. Look there is a gm who dismissed Watson's idea, about great players today more imaginative than the past great such as Capablanca. Take away their theoretical knowledge in the opening and Capablanca (chess genius) will beat great players today like Carlsen. Let Carlsen be born on the time of Capablanca and let see how his imagination will discover by himself the many theories of sicilian that have been developed thru thousand masters games. It has taken lots of practise, years and games for pelikan to be accepted as a sound line. Do you think if players today are born on Capablanca's time they will make Sicilian defense as their main defense, much more play the pelikan variation? Nope they won't, they will also be dogmatic as the theories of sicilian was not yet great at that time.

    Another thing players today learned from thousand of thousand masters games from the past. If they will be born on the time of Capa, they will not have that luxury.

    Less talented players can reach the top because of computer, many players today are weak on middle game and endgame -Karpov-

    Now who you should believe Karpov(former world champion) or Watson? Just google that quote.

    And who are you to form an opinion in your post? What's your level, rating? 1300? You can't even understand Shirov's games.

  5. We are not comparing Capa and Alekhine to less talented players on the rating list…guys like Aronian, Eljanov, Mamedyarov. We are comparing them to the likes of Spassky, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov,

    No doubt if players of today were BORN into another era they would adapt the dogmatism of the day. But the point is they weren’t and they do have the benefit of thousands of GM games and computers and they do understand the Pelikan and 1…g6 are playable. Capa and Alekhine didn’t. Sit Capa and Alekhine across they board from Eljanov and Mamedyarov and they’d probably win. Sit them across from Karpov and Kasparov and I doubt they’d have a chance.

    As Euwe and Nunn point out, “The history of chess…is the study of growth and gradual change in the strategic ideas of the leading players of succeeding generations…succeeding generations of experts have contributed to the development of chess play…”

  6. I see Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov are really strong players. And in my opinion Kasparov is the greatest human player. Alekhine did not play g6, but the Alekhine defense is credited to him (a modern defense). You say that Capa thinks that QGD is the only quality response for black. But later in his careers when opening theory is starting to get some new ideas, Capa plays the Queen's Indian defense, Caro and Sicilian, and he did play them very well even if he is past his prime, actualy many credited the Benko gambit to Capablanca.

    But the main issue here is the claim that great players like Kasparov, Fischer and Karpov have more imagination than Alekhine and Capablanca. If you will let Capa and Alekhine play Kasparov or Fischer, chances are Kasparov or Fischer will beat them, not because they have more talent and imagination but because Kasparov and Fischer have more opening theoretical knowledge. But if these players will be born on the same time it could be a different story.

    In terms of development of chess play I think the positional concept and plans are already fully stablish and develop even during the time of Capa, what typical chess plan you see in today's game, you will also see a lot in Capa's day. For example the backward pawn formation in Sicilian pelikan, you will see lots of game with similar ideas even on Lasker's games. In the 1914 Lasker vs Capablanca game, Lasker made a move that famous move where he let his pawn be backward but he gain compensation. In another famous Capablanca game Capa has the dogmatic bad bishop and his opponent a good bishop, but Capa is a positional genius, he understand that that such set up will favor him. Infact when a modern GM Beim saw the game for the first time, he thought Capa's opponent has better position. If you say Kasparov, Karpov or Fischer are more imaginative than Capablanca or Alekhine, what positional ideas did they discover that you have not seen on Capa's time? Sicilian defense ideas? Not really. In Sicilian defense the typical plan are counter attack or destroy and challenge the center later on. Such plan are already typical on Alekhine's day, though in a form of different opening such as Alekhine defense. Aaron a players from the past play's the nimzo indian. Infact I think Aron Nimzovich is one of the most creative player off all time, all great players such as Karpov learned from him.

    In my opinion if Fischer, Kasparov, Karpov, Capablanca and Alekhine will be born on the Capa or Morphy's era, this will be the list on who will be the top.

    1.Capablanca -natural talent, fast comprehension of chess, a prodigy.

    2.Kasparov - no modern opening theory or computer to help him, but he still has good calculating skills.

    4. Fischer - has also a good natural talent.

    5. Karpov -

    6. Alekhine

    If they all of them will be born on Kasparov's era

    1. Kasparov/ Capablanca, Capablanca/Kasparov - interchangable
    2. Karpov
    3. Fischer
    4. Alekhine

  7. Kasparov for me is the greatest human player off all time.

    Of course Kasparov or Fischer could probably beat Capa or Alekhine, not because they have more talent(but Kasparov and Fischer really have more talent than Alekhine,but not Capablanca) or imagination, but because their opening theoretical knowledge is better, but if you let all these great player be born on Capa's era things could have been different.

    If these all players will be born on era of Capa this will be my list on who comes on top.

    1.Capablanca - natural talent, chess genius.
    2.Kasparov, he does not have the luxury of modern opening theory, which means no sicilian, but he still has a superb calculating skills.
    3. Karpov
    4. Fischer
    5. Alekhine

    If they will be born on era of Kasparov this will be my list on who comes on top.

    1. Kasparov /Capablanca -interchangable
    2. Karpov
    3. Fischer
    4. Alekhine

    Actualy what you see in modern games you can see it even on Lasker's time, thought in different form. For example, the backward pawn in Sicilian pelikan, in Lasker's game against Capa, he made a move which let his pawn be backward and lose a control on a key center square but he got compensation in return. In the bad bishop dogma, there is a Capa game in which even a modern gm at first look thinks Capa's opponent have the better position, but Capablanca has a superb positional judgement, he asses that the position will favor him.

  8. I agree that Kasparov was the best player in the history of chess…not my favorite though! I have said all I’m going to on this subject, but for a better informed opinion than you can get from anybody posting here, I would suggest reading Kasparov’s series on My Great Predecessors. I know the entire series is pretty pricey, but I would urge anyone who wants insight into the history of the development of chess and the great players of the past to consider purchasing the series.