Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Revolution in the millennium part 2

The possibilities are nowadays almost unlimited to improve at chess. With a few clicks of the mouse we can access countless games played at a high standard. A student can learn a lot by studying the good examples but does it also make sense to look at wrong examples? There is no agreement about that between trainers.

Even analyzing our own games already generated some discussions recently see my articles "Which games should I analyze? " part 1part 2 and part 3. Some young masters only do a blundercheck (15 minutes maximally) anymore of their games and prefer to spend more time at studying games of stronger players. Also for my classes I doubt it is a good idea to analyze games of my students. Sometimes I decide to include one of their games to discuss a specific new theme but generally I try to avoid it also because some of my students like to mock about someone other's mistakes.

Nevertheless amateurs make a lot of mistakes so mistakes are often much more important than finding complicated concepts or discovering new ideas. It is for a reason why we often say that the player whom made the penultimate mistake, wins the game. Therefore ignoring mistakes, doesn't seem to be for me the right choice. Some authors already understood this perfectly see e.g. swindels part 2. I also like that in the book "On the Origin of Good Moves" not only is covered what was known in the early years of the chess-history but also what the best players were still doing wrong.

Especially the first official world-champion Wilhelm Steinitz is targeted in the book. Tactically  but also strategically and positionally he gets harsh comments. Particularly Wilhem's theory that the king can take care of itself, is refuted convincingly by showing several failures of Wilhem. I think nowadays any experienced club-player would consider such risky strategy as nonsense but Wilhelm didn't hesitate to snatch a pawn even if this would mean that his king would have to stay for a longtime at the center. It is not a coincidence that a line of the kingsgambit with Ke2 got Wilhelm's name.

We should also not forget that Wilhem won many games with this risky strategy in his best years. Naturally it is not his fault that his opponents weren't strong enough to punish it. It is fully understandable to stick to something which worked before. I believe it is still possible to score points with such strategy even today against weaker players. However against a master it is a different game. I experienced that last in Cappelle La Grande. My opponent the strong French IM Chistophe Sochacki didn't know the opening and I thought to profit from it by winning a pawn but quickly regretted my decision.
I was annihilated in the game. White kept my king in the center on pain of huge material losses and demonstrated with the refined 24.a3 how hopeless my position already was. In other words masters know nowadays how to exploit a king stranded in the center. At least till shortly as recently we hear regularly another sound. With this we arrive to the essence of this article.

In the book "On the Origin of Good Moves" we get the theory of evolution presented. The improvement of chess has been a very slow process during the history. However in that case we are only talking about the human player. In the last decades there was a parallel evolution happening of engines which not only ran much more via jumps but also sometimes 100 times faster. Especially the introduction of neural networks opened a new world of chess which we never thought of as humans. Suddenly there was an engine playing hundred of points stronger positionally than any other one with knowledge built by playing games against itself in just a couple of hours.

A lot has been written already about it but I think one of these revolutionary changes has been largely neglected by most authors. Leela evaluates the safety of the king very differently compared to traditional engines like Stockfish. Last couple of months we didn't see much well played chess by humans but engines didn't suffer of the corona-virus and kept spoiling us with high-quality played games. The TCEC super-final of season 18 is still ongoing but in April we had already the fantastic TCEC super-final of season 17 which for the first time was even live commented by (top-) grandmasters at chess24.com. It is hard to choose between the plethora of games but below one is a great example of how Leela doesn't mind to omit castling.
Besides I can recommend to people willing to see more and learn more of such games, to create their own matches with Leela at home. Last year I already did that a few times see my article testing chess-engines and also during the corona-crisis I again repeated this enjoyable activity. Also in my own organized rapidmatches Leela proofed that it isn't afraid of keeping the king in the center. I've again selected one game which demonstrates this surprising feature very well.
It didn't take long before humans started to pick up this new insights from Leela and implement it in their own practice. I clearly notice this in my own opening-choices in which I much more go for maximum activity of the pieces even at the expense of the safety of my own king. A nice example of this is the opening which I played against the Belgian expert Tijs Cocquyt in Cappelle La Grande.  Optically it looks very dodgy for black as even some grandmasters already chose to play the position with white. However the engines show at the other hand that black is doing more than fine.
Another example of which I was impressed was the march of the black king played by the Belgian FM Hendrik Ponnet in our most recent mutual game. In a board full of pieces he decides to use his own king in the frontline so his other pieces can take up other duties. Later I read a report about the chess-weekend for adults only, earlier this year organized by Schaakinitiatief Vlaanderen in which was stated that Hendrik gave a presentation about the currently existing tools online to play and learn chess. So I suspect Hendrik also has experience with Leela or other neural networks.
This doesn't mean that Wilhelm Steinitz was right however. There is a big difference between the type of positions which Wilhelm obtained and the one Leela likes to play with the king in the center. Activity is the key here. Wilhelm captured material but very often got himself into terribly passive positions in which he could only hope that his opponent wouldn't have the tactical skills to punish it. That is for sure not the case in the positions chosen by Leela as she always can create very active counterplay. A last important remark is that we shouldn't forget that we humans don't have the calculating power of engines. Not rarely a position is theoretically fine but we as humans still go wrong as we are not able to find the best moves with the king in the center.


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