David Bronstein. "Grandmaster, what is chess?"

David Bronstein. "Grandmaster, what is chess?"

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Interview from the Sahs magazine, September 1969. Unsigned.

How do you conduct an interview? In 99 cases out of 100, it's very simple: a grandmaster comes into the office of a chess magazine, you ask him a series of prepared questions. The grandmaster answers, you write his answers down, then you give a generalized headline, something like "Grandmaster Whatshisname Gives An Interview", and your article is ready - you need only two or three hours.

I imagined that the interview with grandmaster Bronstein would be similar. I had that series of prepared questions, and among them - either the first or the last - was the hackneyed, "Grandmaster, what is chess?" The question was asked quickly and calmly, as always in such cases, and I was sure that I would get a quick and calm answer, which was, of course, prepared by the grandmaster in advance...

I did get an answer (or else the article wouldn't have been published), but it wasn't quick and easy - it was hard, long, driven by the desire to explain the grandmaster's own understanding of chess to the interviewer, delve very deeply into the question's essence. This talk with David Bronstein began back in December of the last year, during the USSR team championship in Riga, then continued in January, when the grandmaster held coaching sessions with our republic's second team and gave lectures in the Riga Chess Culture University, and concluded at the Petrosian - Spassky match in Moscow.

We gathered around a table and were analyzing some complicated position. Bronstein entered and asked what game was that.

An adjourned game, we said.

"I propose to abolish the adjournment rule in chess competitions", said Bronstein.

But why? How?

Very simple: abolish, and that's all! Play the entire game in one sitting. I think that it would be much fairer. For instance, you have adjourned your game, and several players are analyzing it. Imagine that your opponent is doing the same: he asked his friends, maybe masters or grandmasters, to analyze. So, it's not a player vs. player game anymore - it's team vs. team.

Yes, but... that would be a very serious reform.

Don't forget one thing: life is not static, it's constantly developing, moving forward, destroying the old, stiff tradition, creating new, more progressive ones. Just look - many other sports are changing: basketball, volleyball, hockey. Why can't chess change? Why can't we, say, change the Soviet championship system, creating League A and League B, with well-defined qualification rules? Or let's organize the Soviet Cup - that would be interesting too! Perhaps we could organize some age-category tournaments too. Sweden, for instance, holds a "boys' championship" for the players older than 60...

And, speaking of reforms, I think that your magazine also needs a small reform. Why don't you create a column called, say, "The Most Beautiful?" The tradition to give brilliancy prizes in tournaments has somewhat faded in the recent years, but I think that there'd still be a lot of material for such a column. A great book was published in France several years ago - a collection of games that got brilliancy prizes in various tournaments! Why can't we give more attention to the beauty in chess, its aesthetic influence on people?

Yes, there's a lot of material to draw from. For instance, the classical legacy: the games of Anderssen, Morphy, Chigorin, Capablanca...

Soon after I started learning chess, someone showed me Carlos Torre's combination against Lasker in Moscow 1925. Since then, Torre became the brightest of talents to me, and I'm still dreaming to repeat his miraculous "windmill" one day.

But, strange as it sounds, the FIDE qualification committee had recently awarded Carlos Torre the title of... International Master. And I've always thought of him as a grandmaster. I think that a fifth place in such a strong tournament (Capablanca, Lasker, Reti, Tartakower, Spielmann...) is reason enough to get a grandmaster title for life.

But what criteria do you think should you use? What's more important: creative or sporting results? Perhaps the latter are directly proportional to the former?

Not always! There are some international grandmasters (modern!.. Not the maestros of the past!) whom I know solely because of their tournament results, and I can't say anything about their talents, chess tastes, interests. The answer is simple: those are average masters who play well and constantly take part in tournaments. On a good day, someone of their opponents gets unlucky, and chess fortune smiles to those masters. Grabbing the table, they rush to the FIDE commission and, based on this sole sport success, formally receive a GM title... This is not a harmless thing, you know: in the next tournament, these masters are classified as grandmasters, and... it becomes easier to other masters to reach the coveted norm.

Yes, this looks somewhat unfair. But how would you improve the system of grandmaster title dispensal?

I think that a match of 10-12 games with a well-known grandmaster can definitively show whether the candidate is ready for the high title. If the master is able to win such a match, you can't say that a random chance helped him.

Recently, there's a lot of debate which system of determining a world championship candidate is better: tournament or matches...

The opinions are divided. I personally support the match system, because I'm sure that on this level, this type of competition is the fairest. You have to win a match solely by yourself: you can't hide behind others' backs, you can't score the needed amount of points by beating the players who are out of their sporting or creative form. In a match, you have only one way to overtake your opponent: beat them! That's why in a match, the struggle is always very intense, until the last possibility. A match gives you ample opportunities for fantasy, daring search, risk. That's why the titans of chess - Steinitz, Chigorin, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine - preferred matches. Euwe, Botvinnik, Keres, Flohr also played a lot of matches...

Do you want to know my preferred world championship system in detail?

Of course...

Every three years, a FIDE committee, based on sporting and creative achievements (notice - not solely tournament results!), nominates 24 best players in the world, who are freed from participating in pre-zonal and zonal tournaments.

Other players take part in the usual cycle, and, after determining the top 24 players of that cycle, FIDE arranges 24 matches between the seeded "top stars" and qualifiers. Then, 24 winners continue the knock-out tournament: first, only 12 players remain, then only 6. These six players are joined by the loser of the last Candidates' Final three years ago and the loser of the last World Championship match. And the winner of this 8-player knock-out tournament earns the right to challenge the champion.

Isn't it too complicated?

It looks like it at first. But essentially, there's nothing too difficult. I think that it's important that the masters would get a new kind of stimulus: to be added to that "top star" group because of their bold, brilliant playing. The organization of such grand tournaments and matches itself would give us great opportunities...

I think that the one-on-one struggle - in a match - is chess in its purest form. Tournament playing looks somewhat like a game of tag: you run up to someone, tag them and run away. You can take your revenge for a loss, sometimes totally undeserved, only in another tournament, a year or even more later. The match is very different: the desire to avenge a loss can be satisfied almost immediately, mere days after the previous game.

Also, in tournament, a lot of things depends on the draw: often you get Black against your strongest opponents and White against your weakest ones. This problem, again, doesn't exist in matches.

There are double round-robins...

Yes, there were even quadruple round-robins, but they are rare. Such a tournament is one of the possible solutions, but, sadly, such competitions tend to be too long. There's another interesting idea: play two games per day, one with White and one with Black, with small pauses between the games, say, for a cup of coffee.

And, of course, with different time controls?

Yes. Both partners get an hour for the entire game... But this is a purely technical question that can be easily solved if needed.

But won't the qualify of the games suffer if the players get less time?

I don't think so. Look, even in five-minute blitz, there are many good games that get published in magazines. On the other hand, there are many examples when the partners have to blitz out their last 10 or 15 moves before the "normal" time control! Still, this idea is too far from being put into use, this is just a project. A more realistic and beneficial idea would be timekeeping for all big, important tournaments.

What do you mean?

Timekeeping means recording the exact time spent by partners on each move.

This might seem strange for you to hear, but I'll say it: timekeeping is the crucial element of the modern chess competition. This is true: you cannot truly appreciate the subtlest turns of human thought if you don't know at which speed, in what rhythm were the bold decisions, amazing combination ideas, brilliant concepts born. We ceaselessly praise many chess masterpieces, but we cannot precisely replicate these masterpieces, for instance, in a chess theater, if we don't know the timing of the moves. We can draw a comparison with music: an orchestra effortlessly and fully recreates a musical piece using the composer's score. Isn't chess a type of "thought music" too?

Tell me please, were there any efforts made in that direction?

There were, but they haven't become the norm yet. For instance, there's full timing available for the matches Botvinnik - Smyslov, Tal - Botvinnik, Petrosian - Spassky, and so these games will give food for thought both to chess fans and chess scientists. It's not just interesting, it's very important to know when, how and why a chess player thinks what they think.

Who should be keeping time? The players themselves?

No. We need personnel for that. By the way, I think that players shouldn't even be recording their games themselves, because this distracts them from the main activity (by the way, that's exactly how it was in the old times: the game score was kept by the players' seconds). Nobody expects, say, a basketball player or a boxer, after a good throw or punch, to run to the arbiter and update the game card themselves? I know a lot of players who record both their moves and thinking time. Aleksandr Zaitsev recently sent me such a record for his match against Lev Polugaevsky, and so I can now fully appreciate their thinking in the competition. By the way, here's a "game cardiogram" I made: you may publish it if you can, I think that's interesting. In creative pursuits, during home analysis, such cardiograms can both help you remember the psychological aspects of the struggle and reflect on the motives of your own mistakes and your opponent's mistakes; in other words, they help you to hone your skill.

Cardiogram of the Spassky-Petrosian game (Soviet Spartakiad, Moscow, 1967). Thinking time is show in brackets.

David Ionovich, now that we touched upon that topic, what's your opinion of our young chess players, their potential?

I think that the excessive emphasis on the sporting side of chess created the main disadvantage: the overall chess culture of our youth is too low. The youngsters don't develop a feeling of continuity of chess tradition, they aren't taught to love chess. On the other hand, young players are striving to score as much points as possible by any means possible. They waste so much strength and energy on memorizing the opening variants! This is just a primitive memory training, maybe that's the stage where we're losing talents...

Many Young Pioneers' Palace teams are memorizing variants to defeat the neighbouring district's chess team. The target is met, but it's a very shallow target. In a very broad sense, these "coaches" are little more than state-backed team sponsors...

I think that we should start with basics, with careful study of individual elements of chess game, with reading of various chess books, with analyzing various games, you have to kindle the young players' interest for chess history - in other words, the youngsters should be taught the art of chess thinking.

And it's not necessary for everyone to become champions...

That's right. Take, for instance, the casual chess fans - everyone loves chess in their own way. Chess in the family, or during the meal break, or in travels, in happiness or even in moments of grief; one fan would visit a tournament only once, the other one would go to all playing days... However, modern chess is less spectacular: the games of grandmasters and champions now look dull and boring, dozens of visible combinations have gone off the board. In actuality, every master lives through hundreds of complicated combinations in every game, but an average spectator doesn't notice them at all, because the master's opponent prevents all those combinations before they can even take place.

There's probably no remedy against that. The defensive technique is now too strong.

I think that we can do something about it. For instance, we can revive the gambit tournaments! The character of the opening will force the partners to play more openly, with, should I say, visible sacrifices and combinations. It's not an accident that the casual chess fans like Mikhail Tal's style so much!

We can organize tournaments with a pre-arranged opening repertoire. For instance, King's Gambit in round 1, Sicilian in round 2, English opening in round 3, etc. There are some King's Indian fans, for instance, who wouldn't even look at the Nimzo-Indian. Just think: does a person go to the theater or a concert randomly? No, they know exactly who's performing today and which genre they perform in. Perhaps the art of chess needs a similar approach? A match between Keres and Tal is one thing, but a match between Botvinnik and Petrosian is something entirely different. The world champion [now the ex-champion - Ed.] Petrosian defending a French fortress is different from a Petrosian playing a Queen's Indian. There's a lot of nuances.

A very interesting idea indeed!

Let us dream a bit, perhaps? Listen to me! A programme of the International Chess Art Festival. Notice this: chess art! Similar to movie festivals. Why not?

Here's an approximate programme. Participants: 1) The champions of the world, Europe, America, Australia, all countries; 2) The winners of latest big tournaments; 3) The authors of new chess books; 4) The outstanding chess organizers; 5) Chess social workers and federation officials; 6) The world's original players; 7) Committees that oversee the various issues with chess creativity; 8) The yearly awards for new ideas, for beauty and depth of play, style elegance, etc., for creating new masterpieces (Morphy, Capablanca, Chigorin, Staunton, Philidor awards); 9) Yearly showcase of chess creativity.

Those who want to may play in a small match, or tournament, or a casual game, together with scientists, we can discuss the issues of chess pedagogics, psychology, sporting regime, chess longevity.

How great would it be to get an award at such a festival! That would be the gold standard of true creativity!

I have another dream: to visit a chess theater. The poster might have looked like that:

Theater performances, fragments of games, the re-creation of, say, the penultimate round of the famous Hastings tournament, the replay of some Tal phenomenal combination (with the author as a creative consultant!) A two-part review: Grandmaster Salo Flour in Journalism (on the pages of the Ogonyok magazine, written by Salo Flohr). Famous games by famous champions! Capablanca's rook endgames! Savielly Tartakower's humour! Simultaneous displays, international discussions!

Such a theater could work non-stop in the world's capital of chess art, Moscow. An opportunity for a transit passenger to play a chess robot at 5 in the morning. To take a part in the electromagnetic quiz "Do you know these moves?" Or just to play some casual games.

...And imagine that: chess lectorium in Moscow. Chess cafe. Thematic tournament without adjournments and easy draws. A specialized shop for chess literature, chess equipment, posters, programmes - in the very center of Moscow! Each Saturday, each Sunday - a top-class chess event! A column "Today in the Central Chess Club" in every newspaper!

Long ago, there was a famous chess cafe in Paris. Why don't we create a similar tradition in our youth cafes: two cups of coffee, a chess board, chess pieces? This wouldn't cost too much!

Or a specialized store for everything chess-related, called Check and Mate! Who wouldn't want to take a chess set autographed by world champions from Moscow? Or elegant ebony chess clock with a small engraved plate: "We wish you every success in learning chess strategy and tactics! Nona Gaprindashvili, Mikhail Tal"...

What if all this comes true?..