Monday, September 26, 2011

WwwK XX: The Knights of Merano

A Candidates' Final in 1974, a World Championship match in Baguio in 1978 and a World Championship match in Merano in 1981: Korchnoi's highest achievements started at forty-three. As Mihail Marin points out in Learn from the Legends, this might have been long before the average age of elite chessers plummeted, but Old Vik was very much the exception even in his own time.

Aside from the end of Korchnoi's career at the very peak of the chess world, Merano marks the last days of the When we were Kings era (see WwwK XIX). It is, therefore, the last World Championship match in which the newspapers truly took an interest.

Actually, if you compare the reporting of the 1979-1981 Candidates' matches with that of previous cycles you can see that our favourite game's position in popular culture was already slipping. Even so, the coverage was monumental compared to what we get today. Here's how the mainstream press previewed the fight for the greatest prize in chess back when they still gave a shit.

WwwK Index

The Times
Saturday September 26th, 1981
George Steiner
Page 13

Next Thursday in Merano, high in the Italian Tyrol, the first pawn will be moved in the contest between Karpov, the holder, and Viktor Korchnoi, the challenger, for the title of world champion of chess. George Steiner considers the nature of an event in which a game of obsession irrelevance becomes the subject of grotesque politics.

In essence, of course, chess is trivial. Whatever the aesthetic delights, mental stimulus and emotional tension or release which it provides, the activity of moving thirty-two counters across sixty-four alternately coloured squares cannot be construed to possess moral, civic or directly creative values. Chess is a game – and I shall never forget with what lucid sadness Boris Spassky stated this fact when he realised that to Bobby Fischer, his implacable, triumphant opponent in the World Championship at Reykjavik in 1972, it was not a game, but the universe, the sum of reality.

Now Fischer’s view can, in fact, be argued. If it is, in ethical or social substance trivial, chess is also inexhaustibly profound. After the first few moves, the number of possible variants is of the order of the estimated number of atoms in the universe. Though played since the seventh or eighth centuries A.D., if not earlier, it is a game in which millions of particular confrontations lead only very rarely or only by intent, to a configuration which has already occurred before.

Absolutely fundamental elements, such as the advantage – ought it not to be formally decisive? – which White enjoys because he/she makes the first move, continue to be a matter of intuition, not of proof. Not even the supreme masters – a Capablanca, a Lasker, a Botvinnik, a Tal, a Fischer – can perceive, let alone calculate all the available choices and lines of further play which spring from a relatively straightforward position.

This inexhaustible depth can generate in a human being what Captain Cousteau and his divers call le vertige des grandes profondeurs, “the dizziness of the great deeps”. At certain depths divers experience an almost irresistible desire to take off their masks, to plunge to some final centre in an ecstasy of self negation. Precisely the same vertigo, the same perhaps suicidal addiction to the absolute, can take hold of a chess player.

Chess will fill his waking thoughts and obsess his dreams. Chess theory, openings, the cold magic of the end-game, will enlist his powers of memory. He will play lightning-chess (no pause between moves) to keep eye and hand in practice. He will carry his miniature set in his pocket wherever he goes, analyzing, re-playing with and within himself the games of the masters and his own.

Chess will become the logic of the world, as it was to Marcel Duchamp, when he gave up art in order to deepen his game, as it was to Fischer. The price can be steep. The history of the game is strewn with nervous and cerebral ruin, with the advance into madness recounted in the finest of all chess-fictions, Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defence.

Take two cardinal points: “triviality” – in the “humane” and social sense – and inexhaustible depth in the formal, structural, aesthetic senses. Seen together, they make of chess one apex of a fascinating triangle. It is in pure mathematic, in music and in chess that this singular duality of playful autonomous profundity is vital.

Pure mathematics constructs its own rules, its own conventions of beauty and rigour. Its theorems may turn out to have some application to vulgar reality. But such application is a contingent almost embarrassing by-product.

There is, to be sure, plenty of music which accompanies mimes or evokes human activities. But the greater the music, the more integral its self-containment, its plenitude to itself. A Bach partite is of no use; it does not picture anything in the world; it is not to be marched to or danced by. It simply is, in an existential necessity and totality which constitutes the world.

So it is with a great chess game, indeed with a single supreme move (Rook takes on h7 in Botvinnik’s epic draw with Fischer at Golden Sands in 1962). In short: there is literally infinite “matter” in pure mathematics, in music, and in chess. But its relation to common reality is, to borrow from the physicists, that of “anti-matter”.

This may provide the clue to a well-known psychological conundrum. Pure mathematics, musical composition and chess are the only three human pursuits in which we have reliable evidence of creative achievements (even of major creative achievements) before puberty. Pascal and Gauss were rediscovering for themselves, or proposing, important theorems in earliest boyhood. Games which Samuel Reshevsky played before his teens retain their classic authority. Mazart (sic), Rossini and other composers produced flawless inspired music in pre-adolescence.

This suggests the possibility that these three “autistic” activities are fuelled by neuro-physiological and cerebral centres which are independent of general, and particularly, of sexual maturity. One can be a mathematical prodigy, a musical genius, a chess master before becoming a “normal” human being; one can continue to be so without ever achieving, or achieving fully, such “normality”.

And the deep structural link may be this: in ways which we intuit but cannot yet analyse or transcribe, pure mathematics, music and chess are “internal spaces”, and configurations of energy across and within special “mappings” – the algebraic field, the acoustic sphere, the chess-board. Mastery in each of the three somehow depends on the ability to sense – at some highly abstract level of inward sight or hearing – the right configuration (figura) of symbols, notes or pieces, and to leap towards this “figure” across the intervening, plodding, step-by-step stages which separate you and me from the flash of right vision (the solution to the equation, the musical resolution, the mating position).

If such “leaps across inner space” are indeed the key to greatness in chess, and if highly specialised neurophysiological agencies lie at their base, we may have a clue to certain other aspects of the game. It has, certainly in modern times, been dominated by Jews. The rancorous embarrassment this causes in the Soviet Union, the super-power in world chess, is manifest in Botvinnik’s slippery, manifestly uncomfortable memoirs (Achieving the Aim, Pergamon Press, 1981). Such domination by a numerically insignificant, harried ethnic group may well point to a strong genetic factor.

The crucial zone of interaction between neurophysiology and “brain” may be crucial with regard also, to a second historical fact. Just as in higher mathematics or musical creation, the contribution of women to chess has, till (sic) now, been slight. There has been a handful of very strong women players. But even at the championship level, they rank well below male grand masters.

Because they rear boys, women have an unsparing eye for the strain of infantilism in even the most obsessive of “hobbies”. Because they bear life, women seem to find it difficult to deny reality, to banish the world. In number theory, in a fugue, in a great chess game, such banishment of the world and of oneself from the world, is the opening move.

It is this ideal of irrelevance, this almost crazy divorcement from mundanity in chess, which makes so grotesque the politics of the Karpov-Korchnoi match. It may well be that chess was initially conceived as a war-game (though this is by no means certain). And there can be no doubt as to the aggressions, as to the pulse of violence, which a hard-fought game can provoke. But it is an altogether different and sordid matter when chess becomes enmeshed with chauvinism and national propaganda.

The chronicle of world championships is a brief one. The title was first devised and won by the Austrian master Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886. Emmanuel Lasker, one of the most attractive and rounded human beings ever to achieve chess supremacy, ruled from 1894 to 1921. The next six years were dominated by the genius of Capablanca, a virtuoso whose technical insight and exactitude of judgement continue to stun as one replays his famous wins.

Except for two years, 1935-1937, when Dr Max Euwe of Holland wore the crown, supremacy belonged to Alexander Alekhine. Here was an incomparable poet of the game, a player the sheer beauty and depths of whose combinations have not been surpassed. But Alekhine as a bitterly anti-Soviet Russian who made his home, mainly, in France and who, during the second world war, lent something of his genius and titular prestige to the Nazi order. And this is where the Karpov-Korchnoi saga really begins.

With Alekhine’s providential death in 1946, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) organised a tournament in which the five top players in the post-war world each played each other five times. The victor and new world champion was the Russian grandmaster and electrical engineer, M. M. Botvinnik. Behind his victory lay not only exceptional personal gifts – Botvinnik is one of the supreme “all-rounders” in the history of the game – but a formidable bureaucratic-political endeavour.

Chess had long been immensely popular in Russia (Tolstoy and Lenin found it equally irresistible). But Russians had not figured prominently in international encounters. Alekhine’s career and political views made this situation intolerable. Using the financial, educational, mass-media resources of a totalitarian centralized regime, the Sports Committee, with such figures the Colonel-General Apollonov, the Minister for Physical Culture, the Central Committee itself, determined to make the Soviet Union the dominant power in world chess.

Botvinnik’s memoirs give a sense of the investment of menace and reward which went into this cause. He himself seems – or pretends to be – unaware of the elephantine brutality and opportunism with which Stalinist and post-Stalinist officialdom has pre-empted the personal lives of gifted chess-players. But the programme paid off magnificently. With one meteoric exception in 1972-1975 all world champions since 1946 have been citizens of the USSR.

This exception was, of course, Bobby Fischer, very possibly the strongest player of all times. With Fischer’s abandonment of world chess and personal self-burial, the title again fell vacant. In 1975, the challenger, Anatoly Karpov of the USSR, was awarded the title by default. Among Soviet masters, no one was more bitterly sceptical of Karpov’s claims to official supremacy than Viktor Korchnoi (the score between them in the Moscow Candidates’ Tournament of 1974 reads Karpov 3, Korchnoi 2, and 19 draws).

Korchnoi’s stance towards the Soviet chess establishment soon became a matter of public notoriety. He was fortunate in being able to reach asylum in Amsterdam in 1976. Here, suddenly, was the Alekhine nightmare all over again: a fiercely dissident Russian (a half-Jew, to boot) was attacking the juggernaut of Soviet pre-eminence.

What ensued at Baguio City in the Philippines, in the sweltering summer of 1978, was one of the saddest circuses in the millennial records of a wholly abstruse and quintessentially disinterested game. It took Karpov thirty-two games to obtain a one-point victory over an opponent twenty years his senior. The quality of play only rarely surpassed doggedness. The drama lay with the political propagandists on both sides, with alleged KGB hypnotists and imported counter-gurus.

If Merano proves to be a repetition of Baguio City, chess will suffer. Fischer’s high noon brought a drastic economic change: he made of chess success (relatively) big money. Add to this the more and more rancid politics of the USSR contra mundum and you have a snake-pit of motives and styles profoundly inimical to the wonder of the game.

Behind Karpov broods an entire panoply of technical advice – invaluable when positions are adjourned -, of ideological surveillance, of patriotic acclaim. Korchnoi has cast himself dramatically in the role of hunted exile (the Soviets have refused to release his family), of the quixotic representative of the free world. What has this to do with his fineness in the Open Variation of the Ruy Lopez or with Karpov’s uncanny ability to perceive and exploit minute advantages in the control of space?

In fact, a subtler but more significant shadow lies over Merano. The concept of chess-machines goes back at least as far as the late eighteenth century. It has inspired science-fiction and fantasy from Edgar Allan Poe to the present. With the development of cybernetics and high-speed computers during the second world war, the notion of “artificial play” took on reality. Charles E. Shannon’s classical paper, “Programming a Computer for Playing Chess,” was published in 1949. Only thirty years later, computer-chess had become a busy field of research and experiment. Matches between computers and players of known strengths, are now frequent.

The difficulties involved in programming a chess algorithm, this is to say a structure of decision procedures whereby a machine can register, internalize and examine a position in which every main variation can entail some dozen choices will involve the scrutiny of some seventy million positions.

The human player will calculate main variations to a depth of five or six moves. It is the virtue of the human brain to discard as much or even far more than it ponders. We have only vague, metaphoric notions as to how these intuitive preferences and economies of effort are achieved.

Yet for all the complexities inherent in the enterprise, chess computers have involved formidably. Their “memory banks,” their capacity to review and compare positions at speeds unattainable to man, the rigour with which they can be programmed to aim for simplified, and hence formally “surveyable,” configurations, have exceeded the expectations of the Fifties and Sixties.

The layman can only cite expert opinion. It is now held by a number of master-players that computers are in sight of forcing a draw against even the best of human adversaries. Botvinnik, who has devoted his energies to computer-chess since the early Sixties, puts it this way: “If a human being is really clever, then his automaton should be more intelligent than its creator.”

If the day does come when a computer can defeat or, indeed, draw against the world champion, the history of chess will enter a bizarre zone of separate lives. It will, at some levels at least, be the very first human intellectual and aesthetic activity end-stopped by artificial intelligence. This might be a sad but not altogether inappropriate finale to what is, perhaps, the most enigmatically obsessive and impertinently beautiful of contrivances.


David R said...

Great post. Great writing by Steiner, as ever. And at the very end, not entirely right but not far wrong either. Alas

ejh said...

Chandler put it better though.

David R said...

Geoff, Murray or Raymond?

ejh said...