Richard Reti on the Carlsen - Caruana match

Richard Reti on the Carlsen - Caruana match

Dec 1, 2018, 5:23 AM |

Well, of course I'm joking. Richard Reti wrote the article titled "Some Conclusions: Alekhine vs. Capablanca" in 1928 for Shakhmatniy Listok. Still, many of the things written 90 years ago seems still relevant today, so I think it's worth repeating.

Includes the second part as well now.

Some Conclusions: Alekhine vs. Capablanca

The most confusing thing for the laymen about this match is a lot of drawn games. To explain such a draw galore, the laymen give various reasons: that both opponents were overly careful, avoided open games, etc. etc. Such complaints are heard after most big chess competitions. So I think it's necessary to discuss this moment in more detail.

A chess player who accuses the world's best masters of being too careful has obviously never considerd the reason as to why these masters are playing much less risky and value marginal positional advantages much more than the second- or third-rate players. But the answer is simple. Only those players who carefully consider the smallest disadvantages and avoid senseless risks have a chance to develop into true masters, while for the ardent followers of Gutmeier, this path is closed forever. So, when one demands "to play sharper" from a master, most likely they mean they want the master to play worse.

There are also people who say that material considerations often cause the masters to opt for a guaranteed draw instead of risking to lose the game and the prize. Only one who is ignorant of truth can say that. Since the difference in chess prizes, from the first one to the last, grows quickly, by drawing each other, two candidates for a prize get a smaller overall sum than they would've gotten if one defeated the other. For each of them, the expected financial earnings in case of a win (instead of a draw) are bigger than the expected financial losses in case of a defeat (instead of a draw). So it's clear that any player, unless they're too tired towards the end of the tournament, would always be playing for a win. Let's not forget one thing: the style that's often dubbed "sharp attack to win" by coffeehouse players is perceived as "the quickest way to lose" by masters.

Considering Alekhine and Capablanca, we should conclude that in "being too careful", they showed the highest level of their mastery. Until somebody defeats them with a different playing style, nobody has the right to judge them for this style.

Now, let's discuss the closed openings. Those who call these openings "naturally drawish" forget that many brilliant attacking players, such as Pillsbury, Janowski or Marshall, have mostly begun their games with a Queen's pawn opening. Let's also remember that Lasker, both in their match and in New York 1924, used mostly Ruy Lopez with White against Capablanca, which brought him zero wins. Every expert knows that in open games, where White don't disguise their plans and quickly open up the center instead, they pose a less difficult problem before their opponents than in the closed games, and so open games between first-rate masters more often lead to draws than the closed games. It's a well-established fact that many games between masters are drawn. But blaming them for that, denigrating the quality of their play, means wanting them to play worse and make more mistakes.

The true reason of the "draw epidemic" was already pointed out by many masters who suffer from it themselves. The first one to get to the root of the problem was Lasker. The problem is the very rules of chess game, which - unlike other games, let alone real-life forms of struggle - accepts no degrees or shades of the victory, it only knows checkmate: you either win totally or lose totally. All intermediate forms, even when one partner's advantage in play and position is clear, are equated with a draw that gives both players a half-point. But in our time, when the intricacies of strategic planning have become public knowledge rather than a closely-guarded secret of the few champions (like it was, for instance, in Steinitz's time), the first-rate master is rarely able to outplay another first-rate master so greatly that it would be enough for a win. Much more often, a good strategy brings advantage that, by current rules, can only lead to a draw. The direct consequence of this is the recent change of the chess art's direction: from improving and refining positional game, like in Steinitz's time, it shifted to the direction given by Lasker - the one of psychological struggle. By studying the opponent's playing style, you become aware of their weaknesses and try to exploit them. And this, of course, works both for individual games and matches!


With this match win, Alekhine proved (even though we knew that before) that he's a better psychologist than Capablanca. Capablanca's weaknesses are known to the chess experts: first of all, his thinking is somewhat lazy, and this laziness can easily grow into shallowness (let's remember, for instance, his playing in the first half of the Moscow tournament!) Secondly, there's his pursuit of simplification, even when it's not dictated by the position's character. Already in New York 1924, he drew a cleanly won game against Alekhine due to premature simplifications. And in this match, he lost game 11 due to the same weakness of his, despite having a very good position for a very long time; this was the breaking point of the match.

Alekhine used Capablanca's weaknesses in a decisive way. For instance, constant repeating of the same opening made his opponent "sleepy" (I read reports that he actually fell asleep during one game!), encouraging his laziness and shallowness. Only with this shallowness we can explain why he failed to win game 27. Capablanca's second weakness - his pursuit of simplification, which is, by the way, caused by the same laziness - got him into difficult situations against Alekhine's combinational style, who, even when there's no immediately obvious way for that, finds some way for a combinational continuation, invents small threats and surprizes, constantly teasing and pestering the opponent.

So, we should conclude that Alekhine's win was completely fair and square. And we should emphasize that, so that the reader, based on our previous reasoning, wouldn't come to conclusion that Capablanca is essentially a stronger player than Alekhine, who is merely a better psychologist than he is. The thing is, this psychological pressure on Capablanca was only possible because of Alekhine's style, full of fantasy, seeking complications. Perhaps Capablanca plays better than Alekhine in one sense - he's reading the board easier, more fluently, in the same sense as there are some people who can very easily and fluently speak a language. But in his chess language, Alekhine speaks more profound and meaningful things thatn Capablanca, and so his win is well-deserved.

Six years ago, Lasker played Capablanca. Lasker is also a psychologist, perhaps even better than Alekhine. He crushed almost all of his rivals with this great gift. But his greatest art was allowing his opponents to play in a style convenient to him, provoking them into taking risks that suited their style, but ultimately brought them defeat. Let's remember, for instance, how in his match against Tarrasch, Lasker would use only defences that Tarrasch publicly called "inferior" as Black. But against Schlechter, a peaceful, undefeatable Schlechter, Lasker's art was powerless, and he was even more powerless against Capablanca, this calm, indifferent, nerveless lover of simplicity. Both these masters haven't allowed to goad themselves into risky business. And then Lasker, not as a chess master, but as a philosopher, posed a problem: how to defeat Schlechter, Capablanca, or, in general, a player who seeks to avoid defeat first and foremost, and only then starts looking for winning chances, if they present themselves?

Alekhine solved this problem. The win became possible only as a result of a long struggle with constant pressure of various threats, complications and combinations, such as only an artist with inexhaustible imagination - Alekhine - can come up with. Alekhine never allowed Capablanca an opportunity to resort to his favourite simplifications, make the game purely technical - Capablanca's technique is still the greatest in the world.

Capablanca, with his complete technique and, perhaps, lack of true depth in his playing, was several times compared with a clock mechanism. Trying to explain Lasker's loss, I also used this comparison; I was the one who wrote that Lasker's psychological method fails against a soulless mechanism. But now, an artist appeared and showed us that even without absolute precision, you can still create something better than a mechanism can do.

The "Capablanca problem" as posed by Lasker is solved. From now on, we've got a new problem: what new playing style can we use to defeat an artist?