Interviews Jun 12, 2015 | 5:17 PMby Colin McGourty

Tukmakov on how Tal was right all along

Mikhail Tal, the “Magician from Riga”, was perhaps the most popular Chess World Champion, but he still has a reputation for brilliant but unsound sacrifices that succeeded only because his opponents couldn’t handle them. In a new interview, though, Vladimir Tukmakov explains that computers have "rehabilitated" Tal, showing his combinations usually worked. He laments, though, how computer live broadcasts have reduced our respect for the players and taken the art out of chess.

Vladimir Tukmakov at the 1973 USSR Team Championship | photo: RIA Novosti/Colta.ru

69-year-old Vladimir Tukmakov was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and had a long and successful career as a chess grandmaster, finishing second in the USSR Championship in 1970 (to Korchnoi), 1972 (to Tal) and 1983 (to Karpov). When he finished his active career in his mid-50s he switched to coaching, taking charge of Ukraine, Azerbaijan, SOCAR and the Netherlands, where he also became the personal coach of Anish Giri.

Tukmakov shows Anish Giri and his future wife Sopiko Guramishvili the way during the Shamkir 2015 tournament | photo: Evgeny Surov, Chess-News.ru

He’s also a prize-winning writer, and his interview with Mikhail Mayatsky for the website Colta.ru, takes as a starting point Tukmakov’s new book, “Risk and Bluffing in Chess”. The section we focus on here, though, is where the conversation turns to computers and their influence on the game:


Mikhail Mayatsky: People talk about the character, temperament or style (“an attacking style”) of a chess player, but what about talent and memory? Has the computer done away with those?

Vladimir Tukmakov: In my book I use the expression: “God created people strong and weak, but Samuel Colt made them equal”. It’s the same with computers. Overall they try (if you can apply such a human word to them) to lump all players together, seeing them all as closer to or further from the ideal i.e. themselves. But since people nevertheless differ from computers both in their flaws and their virtues a player preserves his individuality, although to a lesser degree than before the computer. You can no longer avoid listening to that “coach,” which quickly and flawlessly evaluates every move. The definition of talent has become diluted, but great talents (or “geniuses”, if you want to use that doubtful concept) nevertheless stand out even in this new situation.

You noted the advantages of a person over a machine. Name even one!

Intuition.

But isn’t intuition the ability to “brilliantly” guess a move which the machine knows anyway?

The machine doesn’t know. It can prompt you when choosing between a bad and a winning continuation, but when the choice is between five roughly equal continuations it struggles and needs times. A talented chess player, meanwhile, will simply pick up a piece and move it like this. And, most of the time, it turns out to be the right choice. Of course a very talented player doesn’t just make one strong move, but a whole series.

And were there great players, or players who were thought to be great, whom the computer dethroned, showing they often went wrong?

Mikhail Tal in Wijk aan Zee in 1982 tournament | photo: Rob C. Croes, Dutch National Archives/Wikipedia 

Certainly. But a more amazing example is of the opposite kind. Even people far removed from chess know the name Mikhail Tal. His reputation is also well-known: he was willing to risk and bluff, playing “incorrect” chess while still winning.

Yes, and what did analysis show?

Analysis – at least my analysis – showed that the majority of his combinations were correct (i.e. they guaranteed at least a draw), even those combinations that seemed like bluffs to his contemporaries, analysts and comrades-in-arms. That was a total revelation to me. You might say that Time, in the form of the computer, refuted the long-established image of Tal and his style of play. And, overall, it not only didn’t dethrone him but instead explained his strength.

As far as I understand it, if previously there was chess as a game and chess as a science - and those were two related but different things - the computer wrought the greatest havoc on science.

That’s not entirely the case. According to the old cliché chess is a trinity of sport, art and science. Sport – the focus on the result and playing to win. Science – preparing for tournaments and personal growth, based on literature which would indicate the next milestone in your development. And finally art, creativity: you create and the public enjoys or is outraged by your works. And that clash between the creator and the public strikes a spark which is called art.

So the changes weren’t limited to science?

Science, of course, grew to a colossal degree with the computer age, but it remained the same objective element of the game. In sport it’s true that little changed: that element will always remain. Art, though, has almost disappeared.

Why?

Now all tournaments have live broadcasts. Therefore packed playing halls, a hushed silence and whispering, “Oh! Tal’s sacrificed his knight!...” are a thing of the past. The internet audience is incomparably broader than the number who were personally present at tournaments, so empty playing halls aren’t so bad. The main problem is that all the moves are quickly accompanied by a computer evaluation, so the previous magic of creativity has almost vanished. A guy sits there, barely understanding chess, but he can easily distinguish +2 from -2! While that famous grandmaster is thinking…

…and the public already knows the best move.

And, of course, the program analyses a mass of games at the same time, so it does it fairly superficially. Due to that lack of depth it’s often wrong. And then, let’s say, a fan sees that with his move White, after 20 minutes of hard thought, changes the situation from +1 to -0.2. What opinion can that spectator form of such a boneheaded player? However, his opponent is no good either: after his move Black’s situation is evaluated at -1.5, and so on. The whole aura is shattered, and with it – all the former respect and admiration.

Tukmakov vs. Beliavsky takes centre stage at the 1984 USSR Championship in Lviv - beneath their board is a basket with flowers, and below that a sign reading, "SILENCE!" | photo: ChessPro 

But let’s say that the sporting element also previously included the realisation that chess players make mistakes…

Yes, but not so often and it wasn’t so rapidly assessed. A blunder seemed to be a fateful twist, adding drama to chess as a spectacle and an art. It seemed to the public that they rarely occurred, particularly in games at the highest level. And now it turns out they happen all the time.

So the problem is more one of frequency? Previously when games were annotated you might find one question mark somewhere: after this fatal error it all went wrong. Now, though, almost every step can be evaluated by the computer as an imperfection. The idea that a chess player could blunder existed, but post-tournament analysis or chess theory seemed to be an indisputable authority. With the advent of computers, though, the infallibility of theory has no doubt collapsed as well?

Undoubtedly. That same Tal for decades enjoyed the reputation of being unique but unsound, until the computer rehabilitated him. It often happens the other way around, though – from a “plus” to a “minus” sign. I experienced it myself: while preparing my first, autobiographical book, I selected games which struck me as my best. I’d already investigated them before, placing them in different chess publications with commentaries. But analysis – now by computer – brought me small and also great disappointments. It turned out I’d gone wrong all over the place, not only during play but also looking back after the tournaments, while even in the “objective” analysis that followed I hadn’t quite emphasised the right things.


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