Friday, June 19, 2015

Science versus Art

"What is chess do you think? Those who play for fun or not at all, dismiss it as a game. The ones who devote their lives to it, for the most part, insist it’s a science. It’s neither. Bobby Fischer got underneath it like no one before him and found at its center…art." - Searching for Bobby Fischer (movie)

I alluded to a debate that sprung up after I had won my most recent game. I was proud that I had produced a near-flawless game with an interesting pawn sac and exchange sac. The problem? I had memorized the first 17 moves in home preparation including the moves for the pawn sac and the exchange sac. At home I had delighted in how the evaluations given by Stockfish continued to tilt in White's favor and I had studiously tried to understand the many, many side variations that a potential opponent could try to complicate with. In my game, I still had to find 16 good moves after my 17 memorized moves. I had studied hard, played the right moves, used my brain to create technically sound moves over the board, and had gotten the win.

A friend who is also an expert seemed muted in his praise, basically stating that computer analysis distorts chess and that at least for him, playing chess with so much emphasis on preparation and results instead of creativity was likely not fun. Partly out of annoyance that my win was not being celebrated as the pure and good thing that I felt it deserved, I launched into a screed about how chess has a rich culture of named strategies (Minority Attack, Marshall Attack, Yugoslav Attack, Greek Bishop Sacrifice), and now openings deeply analyzed with computers, but this is the game we have chosen. To deprecate opening study is to stunt your own growth in a discipline that requires it of you. I attribute, perhaps wrongly, my recent ascent from a floored expert now to a middling expert as a result of my opening study system. At the very least, it serves as an enthusiasm engine so that I don't get into a weird love-hate cycle where I want to quit chess.

As part of his argument, my friend showed a game where he came up with several interesting moves over the board. Agreed, they were interesting concepts backed up by tactical bon mots, but I wanted to push back. To further my argument, I said, "But you can only create that move once. After the first time, it is knowledge, not creation." I went over the moves of Caruana-Carlsen from the Norway Chess supertournament. I'm certain that Caruana is a theoretician and his win in an endgame arising from the Ruy Lopez Berlin Defense was pleasing to replay. When a grandmaster catches another in a prepared opening variation, should we reject that as "not chess"?

Admittedly, I am also in it for the art. Why else would I adopt Gufeld's Search for the Mona Lisa as shorthand for one of my chess quests? But I include the science and knowledge and computer tools of chess as integral parts of my pursuit. I'm trying to be a Renaissance Man like Leonardo Da Vinci. It's not science versus art, but science AND art.

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