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.