Zen and the Art of Chess Opening Maintenance

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PetroffIn two recent reports on the Grand Prix in Nalchik, my colleague-editor Michael Schwerteck wrote about how he hates the Petroff Defence - especially the way it's played by all these super grandmasters. All these boring draws - blegh. And Michael's clearly not the only one.

Let's consider what can be so hateful about the Petroff in the first place. I guess most critics of the opening as it's played on top level, would say that Petroff games have some or all of the following properties:
  • They feature too many theoretical moves
  • They often feature move repetitions or massive piece exchanges
  • They end too often in draws right after theory ends
  • They all look the same

It seems to me that these are very romantic arguments. Romantics - who, I believe, form the large majority of chess fans - like to see chess as an art or as a sport. For them, chess is beautiful when moves are either profound or spectacular, mysterious or begging to be executed. Chess is also beautiful when there has been a real fight: a clash between personalities, perhaps even a destruction of egos. Openings should be enterprising or sharp, preferrably both. The romantics usually dislike long theoretical variations and draws without a gentleman's fight. Most of all, they like chess when it's intuitive, or 'human'. They praise the talent and mock the hard worker. I believe they often prefer a spectacular but not quite correct sacrifice to a solid and safe computer continuation of the game. Hence their dislike of the Petroff, which usually features almost none of the above.

Is it possible to have a totally different - or rather: a complementary - point of view, albeit a minority one? I think it is. Chess rationalists take a much more pragmatical approach to chess. For them, what's beautiful is what works - doesn't matter if it means playing a dull move, some boring exchange or going for a symmetrical position without any dynamics in it. I think this is what Jonathan Rowson meant when he said in Chess for Zebras that it's possible to 'find beauty in ugly moves'. (Although, unfortunately, he doesn't define either beauty or ugliness.) The 'scientists' also emphasize that chess is a rational, finite game where intuition in the end must be inferior to brute calculation. They put great value in their brute calculation friends - chess engines. Cold preparation with a computer earns you points. It's a hard, dirty job, perhaps, but someone's gotta do it.

This pragmatic approach, however, is not the only aspect of this rational way of thinking. After all, if chess is a finite game, it means truth can be attained by ruling out possibilities in much the same way 'real' science works: by trial and error, by testing, making hypotheses and falsifying them. It's not only what works that's beautiful, it's what's true that is beautiful. And this truth can be anything: beautiful sacrifices, to be sure - but also boring exchanges and ultra solid opening lines.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceOf course, this distinction between rationalists and romantics is nothing new: it's as old as ancient civilization itself. Often, these views are thought to be opposed to each other, or even to exclude each other. One of the books that explore these two worldviews and in the end tries to reconcile them, is Robert M. Pirsig's 1974 road novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And since I was re-reading this book while seeing Michael's comment, some ideas in it took a life of their own when I started thinking about them in the context of chess.

In the book, the main character is making a motorcycle journey across America together with his son and his friends John and Sylvia Sutherland. He soon notices something funny with the Sutherlands. Although they love driving their motorcycles - brand new BMW R60's - they hate repairing them. Whenever something happens with their motorcycles, they just 'shut down':

[John's] eyes go completely glassy and he changes the conversation or just looks away. He doesn't want to hear about it.

Worse, instead of trying to solve their problems, they become stubborn and frustrated and angry. It is precisely this attitude - irritation and anger - that we also encouter in some reactions to the Petroff and other 'theoretical' variations. I must say I find this attitude very recognizable in many circumstances. For instance, I have exactly the same feeling when my refridgerator breaks down: it's just too technical! Too annoying! Most of all, it's just so damn uninteresting and ugly! I used to have the same feeling when I played with white and my opponent played something 'boring' like the Rubinstein French. I really hated this opening and out of sheer annoyance (and arrogance), I often played 4.f3?! instead of taking on e4.

The narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle takes a completely different attitute towards motorcycles. Instead of being afraid of it and bringing it to a mechanic, he takes his motorcycle apart himself and studies every tiny little detail until it starts to make sense. He takes great pleasure in this. To him, peace of mind comes when he's working on his motorcycle - not riding it. You can't understand the whole without understanding the parts. But in order to achieve this, you literally have to understand everything about the motorcycle - can't leave anything out. You have to see that technology isn't something scary or ugly - it just seems that way:

Technology is simply the making of things and the making of things can't by its own nature be ugly or there would be no possibility for beauty in the arts, which also include the making of things. (...) Neither is the ugliness inherent in the materials of modern technology. Mass-produced plastics and synthesis aren't in themselves bad. They've just acquired bad associations.

I hope you're starting to see certain similarities between motorcycles and chess - or at least chess openings. In chess, too, among the romantics there's a general dislike of 'technology' - computers, databases, hard-working seconds grinding meticulous home preparation on their state-of-the-art laptops during the night. But just like motorcycles sometimes have to be repaired, chess is a game where the 'ugly' is sometimes simply best.

The Petroff is a beautiful example. Why is this opening so universally hated? Because it's so effective, of course. Nobody hates the Latvian Gambit. But how can this be? It's because of the nature of the game of chess. I think the romantics are in a state of denial here: they just wish it weren't so. Deep down, they wish White would be able to just totally crush the Petroff (and a few other openings) and send it straight to hell. But chess just isn't that kind of game - just like life doesn't only consist of beautiful romantic rides through the countryside. Your cycle breaks down from time to time because the world is just isn't made for human fun. It's made of the stuff science studies: matter. It's made of bolts and plates and molecules and atoms. If you're not willing to accept this, you'll end up being frustrated about it for nothing.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a way to reconcile both these points of views is suggested:

The way to solve the conflict between human values and techological needs is not to run away from technology. That is impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is - not just an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. When this transcendence occurs in such events as the first airplane flight across the ocean or the first footsteps on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendent nature of technology occurs. But this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one's own life, in a less dramatic way.

Well, I suppose to some this may sound rather vague (it isn't), and there's much more to be said about it. Pirsig's book is one of the most difficult and rich treatises I've ever read, and I don't presume to make the comparison fit all the details. In philosophy and science, the differences between a rational (or 'Western', or Aristotelean) and a harmonic (or 'Eastern', or Taoist) point of view are still heavily debated.

Yin & YangWhat's important for the chess analogy is that I'm not saying the romantic chess view is wrong - just like a romantic way of life isn't wrong. This is actually one of the things the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who starts out as a classic 'rationalist', comes to realize and appreciate in the course of the book. It's not a matter of which view is more superior. That's the trap most people fall for. Both are equally valid ways of looking at things. Both are necessary, both are true. Together, they may form the sign of the Tao.

In chess, I don't think the romantic point of views needs much defending, so here I want to suggest the other way of looking at the Petroff. Look, my dear romantics! Black is fighting in this opening, too! He's fighting for his right to have an equal share in our royal game! Who can blame him? And for what? For playing 1...e5? For developing a piece and attacking a central pawn on move 2? For regaining it at move 3 and 4? For continuing to develop pieces in a harmonic way?

Playing and studying the Petroff is in fact one of the most principled ways of dealing with the nature of chess. It's also a very rewarding way - once you open your mind to it. It's great to be part of this great debate. In my case I realized this when I took on the hated Rubinstein French with black - and played so many interesting games (including the draws) with it! Everybody wonders: what is the evaluation of the beginning position? Well, unlike people who play, say, the Sicilian, Petroff (and Rubinstein) players are trying to find an answer to this question in every game! If the Petroff is a draw, then chess is a draw, or at least 1.e4 is. How is this not interesting? Doesn't it justify all this hard work, however superficially tedious it may be? This is the ultimate chess opening maintenance - we can't leave it out. So we might as well embrace it.
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