Wilhelm Steinitz and Paul Bishop

Wilhelm SteinitzA couple of days ago, someone by the name of Alekhine’s Cat followed me on Twitter. It was weird because this person had no followers. That alone intrigued me, but not as much as the reference to Alexander Alekhine, the great chess world champion who beat Capablanca. You see, I was trying to decide if I was going to follow this strange person since I now have a new theory that I’ll follow pretty much anyone, at least until they annoy me. But the guy had zero followers and that seemed strange.

A single tweet to him resulted in a series of tweets back that mostly confused me. He said, for example, that Alekhine’s cat was named Math, although as far as I can tell it was named Chess. (Note: both are terrible names for cats; they would be hard to distinguish; I would go with something like “chess piece.”) He also said that Alekhine was killed because he was suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer. That doesn’t appear to be true, but many people want to think it. Finally, he tweeted, “I am two degrees of separation from playing Alekhine over the board and you are three.” I told him he lost me, so he tweeted, “I’ve played someone who’s played Alekhine over the chess board and you’ve played me.”

There was an interesting mystery. I’d only every played two chess players who were really good. One was a master and the other may be one by now. So I figured it had to have been one of them. In order to know that you had played someone who played Alekhine, you would have to be a club player. That ruled out most of the good players I’d played against. So I went into his twitter feed to see who he was following and other than bizarre people like Carrot Top (who I’m willing to admit is wrongly vilified), I found that he was following David Luoto. That narrowed it down to Bob Portlock and Paul Bishop. I don’t know Bob to play chess, but the conversation was so bizarre, you’ve always got to include him. But it has been so many years that I’d talked to Paul, I’d forgotten just how bizarre he is.

Paul is an interesting guy. But in terms of chess, he is exactly the kind of person that makes me rarely play the game with humans. To me, it is a fascinating game of problem solving that opens your mind to creative thinking. To most players, it is about destroying the opponent. That was definitely the case with Paul. And I’ll admit, I’m not above that. When I really started to take chess seriously in graduate school, it was very rewarding when I started to beat people who previously mocked my playing. Now I find playing chess with a computer rather fun because I can force certain games to be played, although admittedly, the computer never really surprises me. Also, I find teaching children to play quite rewarding. In general, chess education is horrible.

Of course, I would love to play chess with Paul, as long as he was willing to approach it as a game rather than a contest of manhood. I’m very out of practice, but even at my best: my opening game was sloppy, the middle game was pretty tight and aggressive (it’s the best part of the game as far as I’m concerned), and as with most amateurs, my end game was pathetic. It’s strange, but I’ve often found that I could hold my own up to the end game against a strong player, but in the end game, that’s where they destroy you in short order.

All of this is a prelude to pointing out that on this day in 1836, the great chess player Wilhelm Steinitz was born. Let me just quote from what I wrote last year:

He pretty much single-handedly changed chess into what it is today. What I mean by that is that it used to be all about clever combinations. But after him, it became a game of position. That isn’t to say that clever combinations weren’t still important. But the focus of the game became controlling the board.

This is something that annoys me to this day about the way that I was taught to play chess. The idea that you can teach a child the moves and just expect them to figure out the rest is madness. It is like telling a child you are going to teach them how to play the piano and then only show them that this key is a C, this key is a C-sharp… No one would consider that a music education and yet that is the extent of most chess education. In fact, it’s even worse. There is a kind of social Darwinian aspect to it. Step one: teach the moves. Step two: see if anyone figures out the game. Step three: properly teach the game to the survivors.

It was only in graduate school that I learned to play chess. And I did it by studying master games. By trying to understand why they moved this way rather than that, I finally figured out the nature of the game. At that point I got so that I could beat people who previously had trounced me. All that was missing between my being a hopeless player and being all right, was an understanding of the game that I think I could teach a child in a short period of time. What’s key is that without this knowledge, you end up in games that are extremely frustrating. After a few moves you are in a position were even your best moves are bad.

Combine the lack of proper elementary chess instruction with the hyper-aggressive style that is encouraged and you end up with a game that very few people enjoy. Although I enjoy the game, I don’t much like the people I’ve played against. I’m not an aggressive person. My interest in chess is more academic. In a sense, reading those master games was perfect for me. It can be as thrilling to analyze a game as it is to listen to a symphony. Thus, I have no interest in destroying my opponent. My desire in playing is to have a good game. As a result, I commonly have opponents redo bad moves. I don’t ever recall anyone reciprocating. This seems to be because of this aggressive chess mentality that teaches that the purpose of chess is to crush the opponent. I recall one time allowing an opponent to take five moves back before eventually beating me. He was very full of himself after the game. And that’s fine with me because I think he’s pathetic.

Anyway, the point of all this is that understanding positional play and the overall theory of the game makes it fun to play. It also makes it beautiful and even artistic. And we largely have Wilhelm Steinitz to thank for that. Of course, this style of play would have come along eventually. But the fact is that he is the one who did it. Unfortunately, over the last 50 years, this has been taken to extreme to the point where serious players spend much of their time studying openings that can go up to 40 moves or more. This more than anything is the reason that computers are now the best “players” in the world. That’s why I think we need to move on to something like Chess960. But for the average player, chess is still a great and fun game, and that is largely thanks to Steinitz.

Happy birthday Wilhelm Steinitz!

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