Sunday, May 17, 2020

Chess Secrets

"For in the idea of chess and the development of the chess mind we have a picture of the intellectual struggle of mankind." - Richard Reti

As the Czech grandmaster Richard Reti suggested, chess is fundamentally a game of ideas. Both players sit down, and using the laboratory of their minds, compete and try to out-think each other using their imagination and creativity. Generally speaking, whoever comes up with the best ideas will win.

For us mortals at the local chess center, the prize for winning is mostly just the fun of it - after all, who doesn't like to win? But at the elite competitive level, the stakes are much higher: the prize for winning a large tournament can be in the tens of thousands of dollars plus an invitation to a still larger event. As a result, world-class grandmasters ("GM"s) need sophisticated "laboratories" to compete and come up with ideas.

Not quite that kind of laboratory though.

For the most part, the ideas they discover in these laboratories are subtle new opening strategies that haven't been tried before. In the chess world, these new ideas are formally called novelties.

Now, these novelties vary in quality. By and large, if something has never been tried, then either:
  1. It is simply bad; or
  2. It is not bad, just nobody has ever thought of it before
While a bad #1 novelty can quickly ruin your position and even lead to defeat, a good #2 novelty can catch your opponent by surprise over the board. Depending on the actual position, this surprise factor can be a powerful advantage and make your opponent more likely to make a mistake, which all else equal, leads to more victories.

Finding good novelties used to be a lot of work. In the old days, a grandmaster's chess laboratory simply consisted of their friends and comrades, who came to be known as "seconds". When the Soviets sent their best to compete for the world championship title, they had armies of seconds put their heads together and come up with novelties for their champion that could be used against the opposition. Those novelties were closely guarded secrets, and there were often political tensions involved about who would get to use them. It is especially telling that the American world champion Bobby Fischer took the time to actually teach himself Russian just so that he could read information from Soviet chess sources and publications.

This snapshot of a 1979 Soviet chess publication is an example of what their chess analysis looked like.

Nowadays, these laboratories still involve seconds, but also computers. A free computer program today (called "engines" in the chess world) can quickly look at a vast amount of novelties and tell you if any one is relatively good or bad. Although not perfect, this incredible resource has been a serious game-changer - it means that today, even a relatively "weak" grandmaster, armed with one of these engines, can produce good novelties much faster than world champions of the 20th century ever could. All else equal, more novelties means you can surprise your opponents more often, which leads to more wins. One of my favorite examples of this in practice is this upset below:

One of my favorite examples of a killer novelty in practice. This was the position after black's 12th move in Pelletier (2557)-Nakamura (2816), EU Cup 2015. Hikaru Nakamura (playing black) is one of the best American grandmasters out there, and was the #2 player in the world at the time this game was played. His opponent, Yannick Pelletier, is a veteran Swiss GM but on paper nowhere near the same strength as Nakamura. Normally the world #2 would be expected to win a game like this without too much trouble, but here Pelletier uncorked the piece sacrifice 13.axb6! Rxa3 14.Nb5 Ra5 15.bxc7. Nakamura was caught completely surprised by this new idea and actually ended up in a lost position just a few moves later, which white won without much of a struggle. Incredibly, Pelletier had actually discovered this novelty some ten years earlier, but saved it for this game to score a big upset.

Putting all this together, it is interesting to think about high-level chess as an industry of unrestricted and pure innovation - the purest form in fact, where there are no patents or copyrights on ideas. If your secret novelty somehow gets out - suppose you actually play it over the board, or one of your training partners leaks it to a friend of theirs - well, tough luck, now anyone else can use it for themselves in competition. 
But what would happen if chess moves could be patented or copyrighted?

Would we still see exponential growth of chess knowledge if moves could be "owned"?

Although it seems like an outlandish question, this issue has actually been seriously brought up before. In 2009 during the World Championship semifinal match between the Bulgarian GM Veselin Topalov and American GM Gata Kamsky, the host country, Bulgaria, prevented the moves from being relayed live, citing copyright infringement. More recently in 2016, right before the World Championship duel between the Norwegian GM Magnus Carlsen and Russian GM Sergey Karjakin, the match organizer, World Chess, sought a restraining order against numerous online chess sites in an effort to stop them from broadcasting the moves live.

Setting aside the issue of enforcement, I think most chess players would agree that allowing someone to "own" a move is wrong. Would it make players more innovative and competitive though? Probably not. Conventionally, the patent and copyright system is intended to give people monetary incentives for generating new ideas. In chess though, almost all novelties are discovered as sequels to previous novelties. This means that if new information is easily distributed, then the overall rate of innovation is actually higher.

Furthermore, there is already enough incentive for top players to find novelties. For an underdog like Yannick Pelletier, it can mean scoring a big win in an important tournament, which for some players can catapult their chess career to the next level. For the world champion, having good novelties in your back pocket can mean the difference between keeping and losing your title. The prize of "owning" a novelty if you are the first to play it publicly is not really that valuable in comparison; novelties are hard to use effectively more than once because then they lose their important surprise factor. For instance in that Pelletier - Nakamura game, people have since discovered new ways to defend for black and now the piece sacrifice that once took down the world #2 is not considered to be so dangerous.

I hope this article illuminated some of what goes on under the hood in high-level GM encounters! There is a lot of strategy and psychology involved in using novelties. Going back to the Pelletier - Nakamura example, the Swiss GM had kept that novelty in his back pocket for ten years (!) before using it in public to catch a very big fish. It is entirely possible that other grandmasters who play the same opening with white had also discovered it during that time and in fact, it's even possible that Nakamura already knew about it himself but had forgotten about it right up until he walked into it at that game!

Of course there is more to chess than just the opening, but with computers getting stronger and stronger, grandmasters will continue to discover more and more novelties. Although to some it takes away the fun of the game, there is no doubt that some novelties are awe-inspiring for chess fans to watch and will always be an exciting part of the game.

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