[Paleopsych] NYT: Chess Players Give 'Check' a New Meaning

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Fri Feb 4 14:45:49 UTC 2005

Chess Players Give 'Check' a New Meaning
NYT January 13, 2005

JAY BONIN, an international chess master who lives in New
York, is one of the busiest players in the country. He
takes part in face-to-face tournament matches every week
and also regularly participates in games of speed chess at
chessclub.com, the Internet Chess Club. He estimated that
he has played more than 20,000 games online in the last
three or four years.

Mr. Bonin is much more active than most elite players, but
he is doing what most serious players have long thought is
necessary: playing frequently to stay in peak form. Now,
however, because of the widespread availability of
databases of games and the growing strength of chess
software, such activity may actually be making it easier to
beat him.

Mr. Bonin said that he recently lost a tournament game to a
weaker player who had not competed in years, but who had
sprung a surprise move on him in one of Mr. Bonin's
favorite openings.

"The line he played reeked of preparation," he said.

problem for elite players is that while practice is
important, so too is study and preparation - knowing the
best moves and knowing what opponents like to play.

There are many ways to play a chess game, particularly in
the opening sequences, and some players may have studied
the first 15 or 20 moves of their favorite openings, like
the Kings Indian defense, the Ruy Lopez or hundreds of
others that are known by shorthand names.

Game databases, many of which are online, give players
information about what opening strategies their opponents
use. And rapidly improving chess computer programs can
analyze games and make suggestions about what to play. In
many cases, electronic game collections are replacing books
as chess players' primary source of information.

Using computers and databases during tournament matches is
not allowed, and most players say that cheating is rare.
But using such systems to help prepare has become

Gregory Shahade, an international master, said he has used
databases, partly because everyone else does, too. Mr.
Shahade said that he did not think that he had ever lost a
game because an opponent prepared a special opening, but
that he felt computers and databases have made chess more
predictable and probably less fun. "It seems there is less
creativity now," he said.

Garry Kasparov, a former world champion and still the
world's top ranked player, agreed that electronic aids may
have stifled creativity, at least in the openings.

It certainly has made things more difficult for the more
innovative players. Before people started using databases,
a player who came up with a new move in an opening might be
able to use it several times before enough people found out
about it to start preparing for it. Now innovations are
known almost as soon as they are played. "The profit maybe
is very small," Mr. Kasparov said. "You can only use it one

Mr. Kasparov himself may be most responsible for the
widespread adoption of electronic aids by chess players.

André Schulz, editor of Chessbase (chessbase.com), an
online database and news site based in Hamburg, Germany,
said that Mr. Kasparov met one of the company's founders,
Matthias Wullenweber, in 1985, when Mr. Kasparov was
preparing for his second world championship match against
Anatoly Karpov. With suggestions from Mr. Kasparov, Mr.
Wullenweber created a program that would allow someone to
search a database of games based on different
specifications, like player names, positions and opening

Mr. Kasparov was enthusiastic about the resulting program
and when Mr. Wullenweber started selling it, Mr. Kasparov
gave it an endorsement sure to catch the attention of other
players. "It's the greatest development for chess since the
invention of the printing press," Mr. Kasparov said.

Chessbase.com, which now has more than three million games,
is updated every week. Mr. Schulz said that many of the new
games are supplied by tournament directors who collect them
from the players. Most of the games are in the public
domain, so there is no cost to acquire them. The games are
entered using notation that has a designation for each
piece and each square.

Many games are from elite players - including some played
hundreds of years ago - but there are also a great many
games from average players. That way, Mr. Schulz said, it
is possible to look up games played by your next opponent.

Mr. Schulz, who is about master strength, plays in a
league in Hamburg and knew who his likely opponent was
going to be in a match Monday. Although his opponent was
ranked lower than him, Mr. Schulz found some of his
opponent's games to see what he usually plays. Their game
ended in a draw.

Mr. Schulz said that in this match and others, having
access to archived games was useful. "I have a better
feeling now than if I come to the board cold," he said,
adding that he was not worried that opponents probably
prepare for him in the same way.

Not all players are so unconcerned.

For the last three
years, Mr. Shahade has organized a tournament, the New York
Masters, every Tuesday night at the Marshall Chess Club in
the West Village in Lower Manhattan. One game from each
round can be seen live on the Internet Chess Club. Mr.
Shahade said one prominent player, whom he did not
identify, had complained because he did not want people
seeing what he plays.

The Internet Chess Club, which is based in Pittsburgh,
archives all of the games from top players who play at the
site, which is one reason so many people know what Mr.
Bonin plays. Hal Bogner, a consultant to the site, said
players can preserve anonymity if they log on as a guest.
Although no one knows how often that happens, Nigel Short,
a British grandmaster, wrote in an article several years
ago that he was certain that a guest he played at the site
was the former world champion Bobby Fischer.

While databases have changed preparation, chess programs
may be changing how people play.

Alexander Shabalov, 37, a grandmaster, said he had noticed
that players ages 15 to 25 play differently than older
players because they have spent so much time going up
against computers. Because computers are so good at
tactics, younger players are more tactical, Mr. Shabalov
said, and more willing to take risks.

"They will take a pawn or a piece if they don't see the
refutation," Mr. Shabalov said. "When I was younger, I
assumed that stronger opponents knew what they were doing
and I wouldn't do that. The computers make them bolder.
They defend better."

Not all strong players believe that electronic aids are

Jaan Ehlvest, 42, an Estonian grandmaster, said that better
players are more able to take advantage of the abundant
information provided by computers and databases because
they have the expertise to identify the ideas that are
worth pursuing. For lesser players, he said, computers can
actually slow development because they cannnot separate the
good ideas from the bad.

Mr. Ehlvest added that in any case he did not believe that
computers made people better than they otherwise would be.
Instead, they can help them reach their potential sooner.

"Now you see 14-year-old grandmasters because they
accumulate information much faster than in my day," he


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