The eternal argument

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Chess, of course, is an abstract game. Its ultimate, objective truth is probably more mathematical than intuitive. Still, the game has so many subjective sides that it's almost impossible not to have arguments about the relative aspects of chess, such as the value of moves, variations and even rules. Which is just great.The Creation of Adam, a section of Michelangelo's fresco Sistine Chapel ceiling painted circa 1511 In a recent blog post on ScienceBlogs, evolutionist David Sloan Wilson compares creationists who "protest that it is unfair for them to be ignored" to a chess player who "insists on continuing after his king has been taken." After all, according to Sloan Wilson, science, like chess, is a "contest situation":

The idea that it is unfair to be declared a loser and to be made to retire from the field profoundly misunderstands the nature of fairness in all contest situations. (...) In the ideal scientific contest, alternative hypotheses make different predictions that can be tested with empirical observations. When the predictions of a hypothesis are not confirmed, it is declared a loser and is made to retire from the field. New hypotheses are always welcome to enter the competition, including modified versions of rejected hypotheses, but science without losers would be as pointless as chess without checkmate and basketball without the final buzzer.

First off, I wholeheartedly agree with the above reasoning in principle: a discussion can actually - despite possible good intentions - be lost on pretty objective grounds. It's possible to rule out a perspective even though that perspective may be, in the eye of the beholder, noble or even religious dogma. Even so, I couldn't help thinking of the numerous times I've heard chess players (including myself) proclaim a win (usually by the opponent) to be totally "unfair". I've always felt that declaring a win to be unfair is a bit like declaring that losing itself can be unfair. The truth is, of course, that chess players -much like creationists - continuously lose despite good intentions. In fact, they often lose despite superior play! Imagine the last time you threw away a beautifully played game by one silly inaccuracy and you know what I'm talking about. The difference, I think, lies in the fact that chess, while ideally comparable to science in certain key aspects, is most definitely not only an objective enterprise at all. It is also a game of human emotion where justice and fairness can take on different meanings. (There are even chess players who claim it's "unfair" not to resign in a lost position.) In fact, I consider this one of the greatest beauties of playing chess: the constant tension between objectivity and subjectivity. Of course, it's easy to dismiss any talk of "unfairness" after a (lost) game as simply being a case of cognitive dissonance. After all, the winner is always right, no? Well, that's a valid point of view to a certain extent, but it's also a rather one-sided perspective. I once read an article by the philosopher Bill Martin in which he claims that if a chess player wins with the theoretically "absurd" move 1.h3, the result somehow makes this opening move less "absurd": an extreme case of the "winner is always right" position. Any chess player, of course, knows that things just aren't that simple. A more realistic approach would be the well-known assertion that he who makes the last mistake loses, but in any case, I think "unfairness" in chess is not such a straightforward concept as Sloan Wilson assumes it is. The idea that the course or the result of a game can influence our perception of its past is, of course, quite common in chess, and it's often a useful approach in the development of opening theory (though not when applied in the manner Martin applies it). But there are also wonderful situations in chess where the past and future are so intermingled that it's impossible to make a distinction between the two. The type of study where this idea plays a central role is retrograde analysis. I first got acquainted with this type of chess study after reading Tim Krabbé's superb book Chess Curiosities. The following position is featured in his book. Mate in 2 W. Langstaff 1922 In chess studies, castling is in principle allowed, unless it can be shown to be illegal. However, capturing en passant is only allowed if it can be demonstrated to be possible. Langstaff's study is based on this principle. White would like to play 1.Ke6 followed by 2.Rd8 mate, but then Black plays 1...0-0! and there is no mate. But wait, if Black can still castle, then what was his last move in the diagrammed position? It couldn't have been with the king or the rook (otherwise he wouldn't be able to castle!) so it could only have been 0...g7-g5 (the pawn had to come from g7 because from g6 it would check White's king.) So, White can just play 1.hxg6, right? Then 1...0-0 allows 2.h7 mate. Not so fast. After 1.hxg6 Black simply says his last move was 0...Rh7-h8 and there the legality of the en passant capture cannot be demonstrated. This of course shows White could have played 1.Ke6, but then Black simply castles and claims 0...g5 was his last move, ad infinitum. In Krabbé's words:

This leads us to the baffling conclusion that if Ke6 is the key, hxg6 isn't - but if hxg6 is, Ke6 is not. If White attempts one solution, Black has a defence which shows the other would have worked. Or to put it differently again: it is perfectly true g7-g5 and Rh7-h8 cannot both be Black's last move, but White (or the solver) has no way of determining which one was. Whoever feels giddy now should consult his local syllogism breaker.

(Langstaff's problem is actually filed under "partial retrograde analysis." The most famous composer in this genre is no doubt Nenad Petrovic, whose crazy 1965 study is heavily discussed in Krabbé's book. Those interested in retrograde analysis should definitely try to get their hands on Raymond Smullyan's two books The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes (1979) and The Chess Mysteries of the Arabian Knights (1981). They may also want to take a look at the Retrograde Analysis Corner website.) The relative side of chess is also felt, in a more mundane way, in chess annotations and publications. When does a move deserve an exclamation mark or a question mark? In the light of the "ultimate truth", it's tempting to assume a move is either losing, drawing or winning. A different point of view would be that a move either maintains the current status quo, or changes it, and that the degree to which the move changes the evaluation of the current situation determines whether the move should get !, ?, !?, ?! or even ? or ??. Others maintain that the symbols we attach to moves should also be used to explain entirely subjective aspects of the game: in this case, a perfectly normal move can be "bad" even though it doesn't spoil a winning position, simply because it makes the win harder or because it allows the opponent to set one final practical trap. (Yet another perspective is the one often chosen by kibitzers on internet chess servers, namely to attach question marks to any move not directly recommended by their engine.) In the end, it's all largely a matter of taste. Indeed, this is what makes chess such an attractive game for me: we're all allowed to have our own opinion on these matters. Personally, I think a chess commentator should try to be as "objective" as possible while not neglecting subjective or psychological aspects of the game's progress - but it has to be done with caution, and in moderation. People who reward their own moves with many exclamation marks and their opponent's moves with many question marks, and somehow manage not to win the game in Kasparov-like style, are definitely suspicious in my book. But there are many exceptions - some have to do with the credentials or the credibility of the commentator, some have to do with style. Alekhine and Karpov, for example, have a reputation for praising their own moves more than the ones made by their opponents. It's easy to forgive them, but with lesser gods we may not be so lenient. (I tremendously enjoyed a recent discussion on ChessVibes about this very topic, even though the commenters didn't reach a conclusion in the end.) Things seem to become less personal - less subjective - however, when the rules of the game are involved. Aren't the rules of chess fixed and undebatable? Not really. Anyone who's ever read International Arbiter Geurt Gijssen's column An Arbiter's Notebook on ChessCafe should know this is another huge misconception about chess. A rule may be fixed in that it is written out in the FIDE Handbook, but its interpretation is often subject to heavy debate. Bogolyubov-EuweChess rules have evolved over time, too. What's now considered to be rude or even against the rules may once have been perfectly acceptable. Just a few days ago I saw a great example of this phenomenon in a video released by the Dutch TV broadcast corporation VPRO showing Max Euwe and Efim Bogolyubov playing blitz in 1928. I noticed that not only did the two giants forget to press their clocks on several occasions, but that they also - shamelessly, we would now add - used both hands while moving the pieces and pressing the clock. Next time someone complains about this as a clear case of bad sportsmanship, it might be an idea to refer him back to the habits of the Fifth World Champion. Even some of our chess rules are largely subjective. Isn't there anything objective in chess, then, except its ultimate (and hitherto unknown) Truth? Surely the massive body of chess opening theory based on knowledge accumulated since the early 1500s - arguably the most impressive achievement in chess history - radiates more objectivity than anything else? But even here, things become fuzzy once you start thinking about it. What do we really know about chess openings? Can we finally say that the Ruy Lopez is "better" than the Italian or the Scotch? Isn't it all, again, just a matter of taste? Many years ago, a World Top Ten player told me the Ruy Lopez was "just a draw" after 3...a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Bc5. This was, of course, the latest fashion then. I'm sure he thinks differently now. How many times has the King's Indian Defence been declared refuted? Doesn't the QGD always turn up in World Championship Matches, despite its unpopularity in tournament practice? Isn't it just a matter of time before the elite starts playing the Nimzowitsch Defence (1.e4 Nc6), as one of my club members likes to say? I don't want to belittle the progress we've made so far, but it seems to me those favouring Fischer Random chess are simply wrong when they make the argument that modern opening theory has killed our ancient game. There's still plenty of room for creativity and, indeed, subjectivity. Why don't they all just start playing - well, perhaps not 1.h3, but 1.Nh3 which, contrary to what Bill Martin thinks, doesn't strike me as "absurd" at all. The well-known Dutch master Philip DuChatel was quite successful with this move in the 1970s and 1980s. Surely the fact that nobody plays it currently, doesn't mean it should be regarded by definition as inferior? I think anyone who annotates it with ?! either isn't being objective or is simply being unfair. And the good thing is: we can keep arguing about this for as long as some supercomputer doesn't solve the game for us. What a great thing to look forward to.

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