What follows is from my latest newsletter (to which you can subscribe by using the yellow box on the right). I discuss Garry’s problems and how chess has changed since his retirement.
When I was growing up, which coincided with Garry’s time at the top, the general idea was that in every position there should be a move that is if not the best, then at least better than all the others. The player’s task was to find that move and play it. Perhaps he may take into consideration some psychological factors, but generally, as Fischer put it, players believed more in good moves than psychology.
And then came the engines. By a coincidence or not, Kasparov retired in 2005 and Rybka 3’s emergence was in 2007. What Rybka 3 and all the others that came afterwards showed was that in many positions there were more moves of relatively equal value. The engines will still show you the “best” move as the first line, but in fact the miniscule difference of value between the first and the fifth means very little to the human sitting at the board and thinking for himself. (Obviously I am talking about balanced positions which are far from a forced win or where there is a clear best move available). The players who grew up with these engines accepted that fact as a given. They were happy to play one of the five best moves. The players from the older generation kept on looking for the best move.
This is where Carlsen’s pragmatism comes from. And not only his, but generally the practicality of today’s best players. They are not trying to find the one best move, they are happy to “keep it between the hedges” and play one of the five. (For those who haven’t read Rowson’s Deadly Sins and Zebras and are not familiar with the term, it’s an advice for driving on unmarked country roads with hedges on both sides – there are no lanes on the road, but keeping it between the hedges should suffice.)
I am sure Kasparov understands where does this new pragmatism come from, but I am not sure he has managed to “re-program” himself as his great teacher Botvinnik recommended to all players who wanted to achieve longetivity in chess. Kasparov struggled at the board, his brain was looking for the best move and then his time on the clock ran out. Kasparov has been one of the best learners in chess, so I am sure he can learn to apply the new pragmatism that rules today’s chess, but I am not so sure we will see him again in action to see the fruits of his newly acquired skill.
It was fantastic to see Kasparov play again. But I felt uneasy to see my childhood hero suffer and his hands shake, after being used to see him dominate everything and everybody. Times have changed and he is not the best anymore. That makes me a little sad, something has been taken away from the legend.
Still, it was the contrast of Kasparov’s old ways and the new pragmatism of the modern chess that made it so compelling and easy to notice the change that has occurred in his absence. And as Confucius said, “they must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”