May 3, 2001

Valery Segal


The first thing with any system is to play chess good.

T. Petrosian

The evident truth which is stated in the epigraph is now practically denied by many people. Thus, they call often the knock-out system a lottery. It is held as an axiom that the strongest player can be determined in a match only. In a long match, namely. This thesis can be nothing more than an axiom, indeed, because it cannot be proven either theoretically nor empirically. But then it’s very easy to give an irrefutable argument against it. For several decades challengers used to play several comparatively short (of 10 games usually) matches each, and the most prospective candidates always won the right to play with the champions. There were no misfires for thirty years. So why do you want to play longer matches? I suppose that 6 or 8 games are fair enough, and longer matches are examples of the very gigantism in chess history that is a sign of extinction.
Another extreme was tried out already as well: that of very short matches (the knock-out system) which gave an abundance of unpredicted results, so unusual for the chess world. Should this be feared? Sport is like that, and, by the way, Petrosian’s aphorism still stays relevant.
There are many discussions going on now, in which main lines can be distinguished:
1. Fans usually support long matches.
2. Nearly all professionals support the knock-out system.
These two trends can be easily explained. A fan is an average person as a rule, and average people are conservative. Now for professionals it is important to earn as much as possible and as simply as possible. It should be mentioned in particular that professionals don’t like to play long matches in general. I met no exceptions. In their books great grandmasters always describe long matches as extremely hard and unpleasant ordeals. This position of chess players is quite natural. Psychologically it is very hard to struggle against the same opponent for many days. Besides, the opening repertoire of a chess player undergoes a very serious trial in a match, and, respectively, an extremely thorough preparation is required, as well as the help of assistants.
Thus a match becomes an expensive product, while in the market cheaper products of higher quality prevail. Therefore sponsors can be interested in organising long matches only if the quality of the product is worth its price in their opinions. As practice shows, present sponsors do not think so. Well, Kasparov declared more than once that sponsors are distracted with his evident prevalence over his rivals. In part this is true, but this argument cannot be accepted as a comprehensive explanation: Karpov’s priority looked even more evident in the seventies, still there was a contest among sponsors, and biased opponents used to choose the most convenient city from a rather considerable list. As for the present time, sponsors seem not to be ready to finance any matches at all, and when Kasparov goes begging to the West he resembles Yeltsin very miserably.
The intractability of the sponsors has its reasons. First, the popularity of chess has decreased in the world for the last decade. Second, low-dynamic long matches don’t comply with the spirit of the age absolutely. These arguments are beyond any question or nearly so. Still, doubts remain. Are long matches outdated? Or may be they are like the very famous cheese Roquefort that appeals to gourmands so much with its artificial staleness which is the guarantee of its peculiar quality?
“The strongest player can be discovered in a long match only ”. This is probably the single real argument, and supporters of long matches will prove the quality of their favourite product only after it will be proved. Above I have already put forward an argument for the statement that the strongest player can be discovered NOT only in a long match (the history of challengers’ matches). Now I’m going to try to argue for an absolutely rebellious statement that long matches do not help to discover the strongest player at all.
Whereas professionals often play a short match or a tournament (even a long one) with pleasure, enjoying the art of chess, a long match is played most often without any wish to play. I have mentioned the reasons already. I can add also that it is very unnatural to play 20-30 games in succession against the same opponent. That is why it cannot be excluded that in a long match between chess players of nearly the same level not their chess power, but their motivation can play the main part. And sometimes even a weaker chess player manages to beat a superior opponent if his motivation in this match is higher.
Before providing practical illustrations of this thesis I’d like to note that in this case Petrosian’s aphorism that is cited in the epigraph remains relevant again. So, Lasker’s victories in the matches with Marshall and Janowski are simply beyond my thesis as Lasker was much stronger in both cases and was able to prove it at any distance. By the way, in tournaments Lasker played much better too; they could sometimes contest with him or even take the lead over him but as a whole the list of Lasker’s victories was more impressive. I mean now only those matches where both rivals were of a similar strength. Let’s remember several famous central moments when the time line of chess history seemed to have come to a cross-road and its further way was unclear, and sometimes it turned just contrary to forecasts of experienced specialists.
1921, Havana. Lasker – Capablanca. The Cuban hardly could be regarded as the favourite before the start. The opponents had played previously only one game, in St.Petersburg in 1914, where the World Champion took first prize and won a convincing game against his chief rival. Still, it was Capablanca who won the match in Havana. More than that, he not only won the match, he crushed his opponent (Lasker resigned having scored –4=10). Subsequent tournaments did not prove the appropriateness of this result: the next time that Capablanca left behind his historical rival was only in Nottingham when Lasker had already turned 67. It looks as if Lasker was at least not weaker than Capablanca before and after the match. Despite the brilliant tournament record of the Cuban it is self-evident that the crushing defeat in Havana was an absurd result in Lasker’s career. Quite naturally, Lasker looked for an excuse. He found it in the bright sun of Havana. To me such an explanation of the disaster that befell Lasker appears to be questionable, as the Caribbean climate is fine and tender, no better place to play can be desired. Most probably Lasker simply was lacking in motivation for such a hard and unpleasant test as that match for the better result in thirty games. It is known that Lasker agreed to play that match only because he suffered financial difficulties, he wanted then to abandon chess totally (he had several such periods). As for Capablanca, he was dreaming of the champion’s title, and even the long match which hardly could be close to his nature did not hamper him.
1927, Buenos Aires. Capablanca – Alekhine. Was Alekhine right when he reproached Capablanca for his attempts to avoid this match? Was it necessary at all? Doubtful. The rivals played together in four tournaments before the match. Capablanca had a big advantage in personal duels (plus three without losses). In 1914 in St.Petersburg Capablanca was three points ahead of Alekhine; in London (1922) he was 1,5 points ahead, then 2,5 in New York (1924), and at last the Cuban beat the Russian grandmaster not long before the match in the year 1927, in New York, he left him 2,5 points behind, having won the game with him. Neither Karpov, nor Kasparov ever had such an evident superiority over their contemporaries like that which Capablanca had over Alekhine. Also Lasker was better than Alekhine in all tournaments and beat him regularly. A return match between Capablanca and Lasker would look more reasonable. Still, Alekhine got a match with Capablanca regardless of any logic and won. How could this happen? It is evident that Alekhine’s playing mood in the match was much higher than his opponent’s. Even from his books it can be seen that he went all his life to this match as to his highest cherished summit. As for Capablanca, for him it was an ordinary match, and he played rather carelessly. So, Liljendahl and Friedstein are still discussing whether Alekhine could save his 28th game if Capablanca would have decided to play it to the end. But probably the Cuban was attracted more by a romantic meeting or a jovial supper with his friends than by the 28th in succession contest with Alekhine. After the match the rivals met again only in 1935 in Nottingham, where Capablanca was ahead of the Russian Champion again and won the game with him. The Cuban simply played chess better! Alekhine had a very interesting personality, he was a bright creative man, an outstanding, though not the strongest, chess player. Capablanca was an ordinary person in many respects, but… he was endlessly talented in chess.
A really grotesque attestation of my position is the contest of Alekhine and Euwe. As a chess player the Russian champion was stronger than his rival in every respect, but Euwe’s motivation in 1935 was immeasurably higher. No comments are required.
A rich food for thought can be derived from Botvinnik’s matches, played after the WW II. It’s customary to say that Botvinnik was brilliant at learning from his defeats and this was the reason why he played so confidently in return matches. Still, if Botvinnik could prepare for a particular opponent so soundly, then what should have prevented him from doing this before the first match? Did he need to get acquainted with his rival personally by the way of playing some 20 games with him? Be that even true, still the difference in results between his first and return matches appears to be too big. This phenomenon can be explained much simpler through motivations of the grandmasters. Smyslov, and especially Tal did not like to play long matches, but in the first ones (in two first matches by Smyslov) their aim justified the means, and they beat Botvinnik confidently. Naturally, their motivation was lost in the return matches, whereas Botvinnik’s motivation grew higher.
By the way, Tal’s biography illustrates very well the absurdity of the cult of matches in the chess practice. The unique grandmaster from Riga played matches badly. After he lost the champion’s title he tried to climb the summit again more than once but was not earnest enough in challengers’ matches. Then away with the matches! After the useless return match with Botvinnik Tal remained one of the strongest tournament players for two decades at the least and won in a brilliant style more tournaments than all his match winners together did.
Of course the considered examples don’t cover the whole history of chess. These examples are too many to deny their significance, still there are unsolved questions left. So, Karpov and Kasparov are always motivated for any contest, including long matches, though Kasparov’s abilities have not yet been tested well because he struggles now with players of the “new wave” who don’t prepare for matches as seriously as Soviet champions did. Modern heroes of chess battles regard matches not as earnestly, and in general they play now less long matches. I think that the new generation won’t play them at all. The world changes, and children are wiser than their fathers were. Good luck to them!

"Chess is so interesting in itself, as not to need the view of gain to induce engaging in it;and thence it is never played for money."

Benjamin Franklin, "Chess made easy", 1802

"It is one of the insights of modern players, and especially of the best ones, that one has toplay the position itself, not some abstract idea of the position."

John Watson, "Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy", 1998

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