Level of Precision

In a recent (immediately after this year’s Wijk) interview Peter Svidler expressed a notion that got me thinking.

When speaking about Vladimir Kramnik and a conversation they had at the party after the Wijk tournament, Svidler relates how he was taken aback by Kramnik’s opinion that the level of chess played 20 years ago was higher than the one now.

This was surprising. Normally I would expect to be the other way round, since we have learned more about chess since those times. But when I thought about it a bit further, I discovered two factors that may vindicate Kramnik’s opinion.

The first one is the domination of pragmatism in today’s chess. The end of the 90s was still Kasparov’s era with his scientific method of always playing the best moves after obtaining an advantage in the opening due to superior preparation. Today, this time under Carlsen’s influence, the emphasis is on practical play. This came as a result of the rise of the engines (sounds apocalyptic, doesn’t it!) and the end of White’s advantage in the opening.  The aim today is just to play and preferably play better than the opponent, who would make a mistake that can be used to win the game. So less science, meaning not always searching for the best move, and more pragmatism.

The second factor, again connected to the strength of the engines, is the vast difference of the level of precision when the opening ends. Svidler also mentions this factor. Since everybody studies the opening with an engine, it means that everybody plays the opening at a 3500 Elo level. But once the preparation has finished, everybody drops at the level of their competence, be that 2700 or 2000. And here comes the important moment – the over-reliance on the work with engines makes the players less reliant on their own ability and as a result of this their own ability is neglected and it aggravates. This leads to decrease of the level of precision.

Perhaps there is an additional psychological factor. For the players nowadays the engine is God. They feel humbled and know that their own efforts rarely stand up to scrutiny. Today there is no greater praise for a player when he is told that his moves were approved by the engine! They may not necessarily be the first line, it is enough that the engine doesn’t change the evaluation drastically after the move made by the player. This feeling of lesser worth affects the players and as a result they may play weaker than they used to.

So perhaps Kramnik was right. He usually is, though I would have loved to hear his own explanations!

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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  • Peter Jones
    Feb 27,2018 at 4:18 am

    Hello 🙂 I think the level has decreased in our time because of the less time we have officially when playing a rate game. While in the past it was 2 hours for the first 40 moves plus one more hour for the rest of the game,now the whole game must finish in one and a half hours. Also people aren’t helped by increments because the few seconds given are not enough and players panic.

  • Tom Goss
    Feb 26,2018 at 5:03 pm

    Re: Kramnik’s opinion that the level of chess played 20 years ago was higher than the one now. Why not study this opinion scientifically? If the engine is truly ‘god’, then compare the top 10 players over the last several decades against what the engine would have done – it will produce a w-l ratio that settles the issue of precision decay or increase over time. My bet is that ‘precision’ is increasing due to engine influence on playing better/more sound moves (which will lead to more draws between the best players).

    • Feb 26,2018 at 9:09 pm

      That would be a fantastic analysis! I also have my doubts about Kramnik’s view, being more inclined towards what you say, though his logic can be observed. However, it can always be argued that humans play each other and “God” cannot immiate their play (perhaps I should end that sentence with “yet”?) 🙂 In any case, I’d be very interested to see the results of that analysis!

    • Roberto
      Feb 26,2018 at 11:23 pm

      That is not a relevant thought. First, they would have to be alive(Fisher, Alkhine, Tal, etc.) Second, everyone of them ought to know what they are gonna face(computer engine) and ought to have time for preparation(suppose 1 month, since they are legends). and after that, each of them ought to have the opportunity to play with each of the five top current players. Then, we could have a more precise answer for that. So for now I agree with Kramnik’s opinion.

  • George Kosinski
    Feb 25,2018 at 11:10 pm

    aha! I was wondering why my rating has been going down for the last twenty years. now I know!

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