Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Making Steinitz Make Sense

Wilhelm Steinitz... bad ass.
Austrian-born, chess genius Wilhelm Steinitz was the first undisputed world champion and is the father of modern chess theory.   Aside from his world championship reign, Steinitz is best known for his work and discovery on chess theory on which modern chess strategy is based!

Before 1873

When anyone thinks of the years prior to 1873 they always imagine a wild, reckless, culture filled with frivolity and party-times. Designated drivers were unheard of prior to 1873 and operating a horse and carriage while intoxicated was dangerous business.

At this time, chess also reflected the wild, partying society. Players such as Adolf Anderssen and Paul Morphy reigned supreme with their unrelenting and fearless attacks. Chess was filled with wild attacks, wicked sacrifices, and was very much a spectator sport because of its blatant (but exciting) disrespect for material.

Steinitz himself was very much a part of this style of wild chess play, but in 1873 he ruined everything.  Steinitz introduced a new style of play which included numerous boring elements such as pawn structure, space, and king safety.  Steinitz introduced this new style of play, even though he was already a very strong chess player, and was ferociously criticized by his contemporaries as being boring, cowardly, and worst of all, inaccurate!

The reason Steinitz was met with such disdain by his peers is because he was suggesting a complete overhaul to the way a game of chess should be approached.  Many players took this assertion as changing chess for the worst.  It no longer was a romantic, swashbuckling, attacking game. It instead transformed into a boring, positional treatment which many attackers considered cowardly.  Furthermore, many argued that there was no proof for Steinitz’ wild assertions about the game of chess, and therefore making such staunch claims about the game were both damaging and irresponsible.

Despite all of the seething opposition Steinitz received, the proof was in the pudding. Steinitz became the first undisputed world champion in 1886 and from that time until 1894 he was almost unbeatable.  Up and coming chess players began recognizing Steinitz’ contribution to chess theory as correct. Most notably, Emmanuel Lasker recognized Steinitz’ ideas for being the basis for all chess theory.  Thus, Steinitz’ contributions to chess theory had become globally recognized the birth of modern chess theory.

Steinitz’ 7 Chess Principles
1-At the beginning of the game, the forces stand in equilibrium.
2-Correct play on both sides maintains the equilibrium and leads to a drawn game.
3-Therefore, a player can only win as a result of an error made by the opponent (there is no such thing as a winning move).
4-As long as equilibrium is maintained, an attack, no matter how skillfully executed, cannot succeed against correct defense. Such a defense will necessitate the withdrawal and regrouping of the attacking pieces and the attacker will inevitably suffer disadvantage.
5-Therefore, a player should not attack until he already has an advantage, caused by the opponent’s error. That justifies the decision to attack.
6-At the beginning of the game a player should not seek to attack, instead a player should seek to disturb the equilibrium in his favor by inducing the opponent to make an error-a necessity before attacking.
7-When a sufficient advantage has been obtained, a player must attack or the advantage will be dissipated.

Whoa! There are some awfully bold assertions in these seven principles. Chess is a forced draw? What? Computers have not verified this, how can some fellow in 1873 make such a stupid claim? Now, imagine being a really strong chess player in the late 1800’s and someone comes out with this trash. You are talking a complete changing of the landscape and understanding of the game of chess. No wonder Steinitz was met with such fierce resistance.

Most club-level players struggle with Steinitz’ claim that the game is a forced draw. Steinitz never said having the first move was not an advantage, because it certainly is. He only claimed that black has a correct defense (no matter how hard it is to find) that will maintain the equilibrium. That is providing, of course, that he maintained the equilibrium on the move prior, because a decisive mistake is a decisive mistake. The only way to regain equilibrium after that is by an opponent’s error.

I concede that it is quite an amazing claim without sufficient proof.  I cannot say what the percentages are, but I suspect most chess theoreticians agree that chess is probably a forced draw.

So how can chess be a forced draw and white has an advantage by going first? The advantage is mostly due to the imperfect play of humans.  White gets to decide the opening move, and thus pawn structure, etc. That means that white should be more familiar with the middlegame position than his counterpart (should be). 

Also, having the first move means completing your development first (again, should anyway).  Completing your development first means having the luxury of placing your pieces for future attacks, instead of developing them for defense as black is sometimes forced to do.

Here is another way to look at it. Most computer engines evaluate the position after 1.e4 to be about .33 in favor of white, thus recognizing the initiative as being a small advantage. This makes perfect sense because white is up a tempo and three tempi is worth about one pawn. Thus, one tempo equals about one-third of a pawn or .33.

In grandmaster play, a one pawn advantage (or an evaluation of 1.0) is generally a decisive advantage.  So Steinitz claims that with correct play, black will maintain a positional score of .33 for the entire game, which will result in a draw. Ergo, white has an advantage by moving first, but not a decisive one.

But here is why going first is advantageous for humans.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that a positional (not tactical) mistake is worth about one-third of a pawn.  If black makes only two positional mistakes, suddenly the evaluation is 0.99 in favor of white, almost decisive victory!  However, white can make up to four positional mistakes before the positional evaluation shifts to from +0.33 to -0.99.  Black must walk a very fine line during the game not to lose. However, Steinitz claimed that black is capable of finding correct moves that leads to a drawn game, even if he fails to do so. Therein lies the rub; Steinitz basically says the opportunity is there, even if the ability is not.

Also I would like to take this opportunity to dispel a misconception someone hit me with the other day. When I was sharing Steinitz’ principles he claimed, “that’s a load of garbage, moving first is always advantageous!”

Not so.

Steinitz may not be correct. Maybe black has a forced win. I know it’s weird to think about but maybe white is in zugzwang at the beginning of the game. It’s certainly possible. Chopsticks, Othello, and Sim are all forced wins for the second person to play.  So there you go, three cases in which having the first move is not advantageous. Maybe everyone’s wrong and black wins by force! Wouldn’t that be something?