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!