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Chess Masters: Fact and Fiction

by Andrew Sacks

The TV news program 60 Minutes recently aired an interview with and report about Magnus Carlsen, the youthful current World Chess Champion. It was titled “The Mozart of Chess,” although there have been several younger geniuses in chess history. One noteworthy feature of the program was the reporter’s oohing and ahhing over the champion’s playing ten games simultaneously blindfolded.

Such an accomplishment is impressive; yet no mention was made that the record for simultaneous blindfold play is upwards of 50 games, and that virtually any of the top five chess players in the world could easily accomplish the ten-game blindfold feat. The thought led me to consider other popular misconceptions of our game.

A widely accepted fallacy is that great chess players — even “mere” Masters (the rank below International Master and the highest, International Grandmaster) — customarily think many moves ahead in any given position. This is rarely the case. However, they are capable of doing so in certain lengthy, forced variations.

Common chess positions, even complicated ones, do not require a player to look far ahead. The key, among Masters and Grandmasters, is evaluating more than farsightedly visualizing. They possess fine and rare judgment of positions that might occur relatively soon. And they do not often overlook opponents’ counter-shots, which lesser players do on a regular basis. An apt quote comes from the great Cuban former World Chess Champion, José Raoul Capablanca: “I think only one move ahead. But it is always the best move.”

There has been one exception, but it isn’t human. Former World Champion Garry Kasparov was narrowly vanquished in a 1997 match with the supercomputer Deep Blue. The silicon beast was able to “visualize” in a computerly sort of way literally millions of possible positions per second. In regular, time-controlled games against mere mortals, that capacity proved effective against even our most talented and far-sighted carbon-based representative.

“I’ll bet he could beat me in five moves.” We hear this regarding the skills not only of world-class chess players but even Masters and Experts (a lower, but still impressive, level). Not even close. Strong and seasoned players do not go king-hunting early in the game. Rather, they attempt to develop pieces, control the center, and keep their own king safe. There would be no five-move debacle.

However, after five or ten moves, it is likely that the much superior player would have a clear advantage, based on elements much more subtle than a blatant checkmate. The game itself, however, would be far from over in terms of total moves.

It is a thing of the past to view chess clubs and tournaments as populated solely by men, many of them pipe- and cigar-smoking gentlemen,. Not only is smoking prohibited in almost every chess-playing venue, but women have been making their mark in national and international play for over two decades.

In fact, the recently retired — at only 37 years of age! — Judit Polgar, of Hungary, was not only the strongest female player ever, she also held an International Grandmaster title. She often ranked among the top 15 players in the world and routinely performed with distinction against the very best, defeating Kasparov himself on one occasion.

One more common mistaken belief — though certainly not the last — is that the greatest chess players have been, almost to a man, social misfits, outcasts, or even downright nuts. This view certainly proliferated because of the antics and shenanigans of Bobby Fischer, American World Chess Champion from 1972 to 1975. He was an enfant terrible and almost certifiable madman by many standards. But, while many of the greatest players have shared Fischer’s monomaniacal devotion to chess, most have been professional gentlemen that one would value entertaining at the most formal and elegant gatherings.

The chess world is a fascinating and intriguing one, and it is well-stocked with some astoundingly strong players and remarkable exploits. But one does not need to distort things to the public or to exaggerate skills and accomplishments in order to appreciate and wonder at the actual marvels of this all too little-known sphere of human endeavor.

Copyright © 2015 by Andrew Sacks

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