The New York Times
January 13, 2005
Chess Players Give 'Check' a New Meaning
By DYLAN LOEB McCLAIN
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.
The 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 ubiquitous.
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 game."
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 names.
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 equalizers.
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 said.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company