When 24-year-old Magnus Carlsen won the recent Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee the next four players in the table were the same age or younger than him, while the Challengers was won by 15-year-old Chinese prodigy Wei Yi. In a new article Vlad Tkachiev uses that as a starting point for exploring the way the generations change in chess and how technology has affected that process. He’s come up with a fascinating characterisation of the seven generations that make up the current World Top 100.
The following article originally appeared in Russian at ChEsSay.
by Vlad Tkachiev
“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite!
That ever I was born to set it right!”
“The existence of almost universally
available digital and internet-related
technology leads – given active
engagement with that new technology
– to a clear generation gap.”
Exodus – that was the succinct biblical term Jan Timman used to describe the wave of players that flooded the West from the East in the late-80s and early-90s. Gelfand, Anand, Ivanchuk, Shirov – those were only the most famous, with dozens or hundreds of other previously unknown players, mainly from the Soviet bloc, beginning to occupy the top places in opens, round-robins and not only there: it came to the point that in 1992 second place at the World Chess Olympiad in Manila was taken by Uzbekistan, while third went to Armenia – I can still clearly recall the shock the others felt at seeing what had happened before their eyes. It’s no surprise that Magnus Carlsen, born in 1990, was barely out of nappies when he took an interest in geography – at that time it was first-rate entertainment, as in the days of Columbus and Vasco da Gama.
The chess world was shaken by tectonic shifts, but it wasn’t only the Great Migration that was to blame – at the same time we found out we weren’t alone, since another “intelligent entity” was taking a serious interest in chess. The computer.
The company ChessBase appeared in Germany in 1986, and in the following year it had already created the first program for processing chess data. Among its famous clients – Garry Kasparov and World Junior Champion Vishy Anand. A little later – in 1990 – a competitor emerged – ChessAssistant, initially attracting mainly Russian-speaking users. Finally a new technological breakthrough took place two years later, when the same ChessBase published one of the first widely available chess-playing programs with the catchy name “Fritz”. “Fritzy” was how it was affectionately called by the first black and white computer pioneers, as though it was a favourite pet. The silicon animal didn’t yet play very strongly, but it grew at a helter-skelter pace and had absolutely no inferiority complex. Then, in 1994, it went and claimed a win against none other than the World Champion Kasparov. For the time being, it was just in rapid chess, but the news nevertheless made headlines around the world. Human dominance of the most complex of games was coming to an end.
The subsequent episodes in the confrontation between man and
machine at the board are of more interest to marketers and PR specialists. It
was more significant that the “silicon friend” allowed a mass of young players
to make a qualitative leap forward in their preparation. The old guard of
players less receptive to technological innovations was swept off the
historical stage in only a few years. Remember Linares in those years: 1989,
1st place – Ivanchuk, 1990, 1-2nd place Kasparov and Gelfand, 1991 – again
Ivanchuk. The difference in the opening weaponry of the new and the outgoing generations
was stunning and the old rules were unable to keep up with the reality:
After the game was adjourned the knight manoeuvre f4 - g6 - f8 - h7 - g5 was found by Michael with the help of the program Chess Genius.
81. ♔e3 ♔e6 82. ♘f4+ ♔d6 83. ♘g6 ♘b4 84. ♔d2 ♘c6 85. ♔e3 ♘b4 86. ♘f8 ♘c2+ 87. ♔f4 ♘xd4 88. a5 ♔e7 89. ♘xh7 ♘e6+ 90. ♔e3 ♘c5 91. ♘g5 ♔f8 92. ♔d4 ♘a6 93. ♘e6+ ♔g8 94. ♔xd5 ♘c7+ 95. ♔xe4 ♘xe6 96. ♔f5 ♘c5 97. ♔xf6 ♘d7+ 98. ♔f5 ♔h7 99. g5 ♘c5 100. ♔f6 ♘d7+ 101. ♔e6
Many years later – the way Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Anish Giri, Wesley So and Ding Liren, led, as usual, by Magnus Carlsen, dealt with the older participants in Wijk aan Zee 2015 gave me a very strong feeling of déjà vu and the urge to grasp the reasons behind what had taken place. Was it a coincidence, or the dawning of a New Era? More likely the latter, and in that case it makes sense to reflect on the passage of generations in our sport.
It’s self-evident that we can’t get away from the generally-accepted division into:
But then again, why can’t we? Recall your own chess childhood and you’ll agree: you can only consider people to be in the same generation if they play in the same age category or at least had that opportunity. From there the conclusion follows: in our case the gap between two adjacent generations should be no greater than five years. Of course, there’s a problem with the falsification of the age of young talents to make them younger than they are, but we won’t look into that here; that’s a separate and fascinating topic. Let’s instead try to put together a table with the seven generations represented in the current Top 100:
As you’ll see below, among the otherwise male names there are also two women: Judit Polgar and Hou Yifan. Only the exceptional nature of their achievements forced me to forget decency and note the age of those fine women. I wouldn’t, however, dare to put together a similar scale for women’s chess.
Let’s look at the distinguishing features of each of the age cohorts:
Akopian and Shirov are pupils of the Botvinnik School, Gelfand – of the Petrosian School. When it comes to Ivanchuk everything is clear from my previous article , while Anand played his first strong round-robin tournaments in the USSR. The enormous influence of the Soviet School of Chess can be felt in everything that concerns this outstanding crop of players – from fundamental opening preparation to competence in handling endgames – after all, they were still in time to catch adjournments. Generation №1 undoubtedly ended up scorched by the glow of Kasparov, since his star was in the ascendency at just that moment, but it managed to hold on into better times when he quit chess. Where does such long-term stability come from? I’d note that the First League of the USSR Championship lasted over a month, so these guys have seen everything in their careers. And they’ll still see a lot more!
They were the first to explore new methods of preparation while still preserving the “timeworn recipes”. Some of them also recently adapted to the latest novelty: cloud computing when analysing the opening. How else can you play a World Championship match?
Many of those in this category stunned the world as prodigies: Polgar, Kamsky, Kramnik, Svidler – which is no surprise. The borders had only just opened up and natural talent was no longer cramped by artificial barriers. I find this generation appealing for the way it seeks out innovative approaches to chess theory, although not all of them, alas, managed to achieve the desired results – economic difficulties played their part. Nevertheless, let’s not forget that almost all of them came from Eastern Europe. This is the period that gave us the conqueror of Garry Kasparov – Vladimir Kramnik, and the old-timers still remember what that meant. Much more than the World Championship title alone.
In their training methods they turned out to be very similar to their predecessors, which is logical: how else could you expect three pupils of Mikhail Botvinnik, two of Mark Dvoretsky and their peers to act?
These players weren’t spoiled either by financial well-being or an abundance of round-robin tournaments, so have become associated above all with the knockout system, opens and the role of second. Street fighters in a time of stagnation who settled down in analysis rooms. Their greatest achievement – Kasimdzhanov’s victory in Tripoli in 2004, though there are a lot of less significant ones.
The technical opportunities that opened up to them encountered a lack of grounding in fundamental knowledge (where could they get that from?), and failed to offer the most impressive of prospects to these players. Talent isn’t everything.
Note: there’s just one player born in those years to which none of the above applies – Peter Leko. But that “super-prodigy” of his time can be more logically allocated to Generation №2.
But this was the Big Bang! It was breath-taking to observe the successive spurts put on by the leaders of this movement: first, in the late 90s, Etienne Bacrot, then Grischuk in 2000, Ponomariov in 2001 and finally Aronian in 2006. They continue, as before, to move chess forwards and exchange places on the rating lists. As before, they haven’t shown everything they’re capable of. The blame for that, it seems to me, is the overwhelming wealth of temptations of the digital era that suddenly opened up to them: poker, online betting, live internet sports. The result – a lack of focus bordering on slovenliness. As before, I believe they can produce a classical World Champion – they’ve picked up all the other titles.
Fierce professionals. Dangerous and tenacious. But something seems to have gone wrong for those born in this period, and the result is that a lot of them followed in the footsteps of generation №3, helping out leading players. Should an explanation be sought in the effect of the financial crisis in 1998, the collapse of start-ups at the turn of the century or the fall of the Twin Towers, as sociologists claim? I don’t know.
It seems they were the first leading chess players to be active on social networks, thus laying the foundations for the “Digital Natives” who would follow them. That’s a separate topic…
*(Ger.) Spirit of the times
Welcome to the Winners’ Club! Blessed are those who were born in these years for the Kingdom of the Present is theirs! If it’s appropriate to talk about a sense of the spirit of the times in chess, then it’s these guys who now possess it – a combination of practicality with assertiveness, computer and old-fashioned methods of preparation, athleticism away from the board and enviable concentration during games. They’re successful and attractive for sponsors and tournament organisers. They’ve been chosen as both role and top models.
This is also the first truly international generation, with
many coming from different corners of the world. The reason for that is obvious
– the accessibility of information technology, levelling the playing field the
same way Mr. Colt and the railways did in the Wild West.
For the record, in case anyone has forgotten:
Skype became widely available in the mid-2000s, Facebook in 2008, with Twitter and torrents appearing at about the same time. Explaining the significance of Skype for online study and torrents for finding free books and DVDs is no doubt unnecessary, just as there's no need to explain the importance of those two platforms for finding contacts. You can add the appearance of low-cost airlines, smartphones with chess apps and tablets that are convenient to take with you everywhere… The dawn of the Golden Age of universal chess education couldn’t help but lead to the growth of abundant new shoots.
I predict a period of unprecedented popularity for our game. When electronic machines start to play chess, and successfully, it will be such an important event that every schoolboy will want to get to know about them. In world history it will be of comparable significance to the discovery of fire. The young will be bound to study not only computer technology and programming but also chess itself. And when hundreds of times more young people start studying chess and many of them devote their lives to it – then we’ll have a real chance for a new generation of Spasskys and Tals.
Mikhail Botvinnik, 1968
Botvinnik may have been wrong about a few things, but overall he anticipated the future: the current Top 10 features four of this generation, the Top 20 has eight. They hold the World Championship title and the 1st and 2nd places on the rating list. Will there be more? It seems as though the next column has lined up behind them…
I was eleven or twelve years old. I used a computer to prepare for tournaments and play on the internet. Now children start to play chess even sooner and learn the rules on a computer screen. In that sense, I’m old-fashioned. Technological progress leads to the appearance of younger and younger top players all around the world.
Before writing this article I asked an elite player how he’d explain the way the current early developers have grown so rapidly. His reply was short and to the point:
What do you expect? They’ve all got the world’s best coach, whose play is incomparably stronger, and he’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week!
I didn’t try to find out the name of the mentor.
There are probably few people nowadays for whom the computer plays as important a role as it does for chess players, particularly young ones. It’s a teacher, guide, advisor and friend. Almost a part of their body or, in any case, disconnection from the internet can be a very hard blow for an awful lot of people. And the main thing is that the computer is the bearer of Truth. In that sense, the chess world today is nothing but the arena for a great anthropological experiment. You don’t agree? Ok, how comfortable would you feel watching an online broadcast without an engine evaluation? That’s what I’m talking about!
The computer answers questions but it’s incapable of asking them.
The best ideas, never mind conceptions, are still the fruit of human imagination. The 0.00 that flashes up on the screen isn’t too great a help, so you need to get away from it and pay no attention. Is everyone capable of that?
Among the challenges for today’s teenagers is – despite the “copy-paste” syndrome and multitasking (every minute the telephone rings, you get an e-mail or a message on Skype or Facebook) – to preserve a creative spark and the ability to establish contacts not only on social networks.
As advice from the sidelines I’d note that the representatives of the super-successful 6th wave didn’t break off contacts with the custodians of “age-old wisdom”: Carlsen is helped by Nielsen, Caruana by Chuchelov and Giri by Tukmakov. But what am I talking about? It’s all going to work out for the teens in any case – it’ll just be interesting to observe how.
In late 2012 I once again travelled to my beloved Jakarta to play an open tournament. Apart from myself there was no shortage of European grandmasters with a rating of 2620 +/- 50 points; all of them, in one way or another, with hopeful plans of picking up a substantial prize – all thwarted by the time the race was run. The factor we hadn’t taken into account was the participation of a group of still very young Chinese adolescents who thrashed us all – during worried evening meals the only topic of conversation was those hooligans. Many of them have since made a name for themselves: Lu Shanglei at the blitz tournament in Dubai (beating Carlsen, Mamedyarov…), Bai Jinshi won the London Chess Classic Open, while there’s no need to talk about Wei Yi… The future of the second chess superpower arranged a worldwide premiere just for us, with a clash of generations, civilisations and philosophies. And here’s what left the deepest impression on me: the way, whether it was evening, afternoon or morning, they would gather in the lobby of the Grand Sahid Hotel, connect to the free Wi-Fi and spend hours immersed in surfing the internet. They didn’t talk to one another. They didn’t drink anything. They paid no attention to their surroundings. They were off on their notebooks, tablets and smartphones – somewhere very far away.
They say we fear the unknown. For us, seasoned professionals, it was terrifying.
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