An unexamined life is not worth living.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The End of the Soviet Chess School

Flipping through “Learning from the Champions” by L.B. Hansen, I came across his comments about Kramnik losing the 2008 World Championship to Anand and Russia not winning the Chess Olympiad in 2008 the third time in a row. The author seemed to correlate the recent lack of successes from the Russian players to the fact that the methodology of serious preparation and methodical study of various aspects of the game advocated by the Soviet Chess school is somewhat out of date. Hansen claims that calculated risk and specific preparation are the new extra components that are often the decisive factors. He does have a point that the old methods are no longer bullet proof, even thought I am not sure if using the Olympiad serves his argument well. In 2004 the winner was Ukraine, and 2006 and 2008 – Armenia. Both nations were parts of former USSR (Soviet Chess School had impact outside of Russia). However, world champion now is Anand, and highest rated player until recently was Topalov, and now is Carlsen. Topalov speaks Russian very well, but none of these 3 players ever lived in the USSR.

What happened? I think the recent decade and the rise of a Norwegian super player show one thing: the Internet and computers happened. Any player has access to so much chess information and strong opposition that the concept of a “school” no longer plays such an important role, in the sense that living in Moscow does not give too many advantages over living in a small town. Hansen emphasises concrete approach, but that’s what Soviet chess school has been all about – concrete preparation. In my opinion there was nothing wrong with the Soviet Chess school as far as the ideas behind how you should study chess are concerned, it’s just that computers have taken it all to the next level. While Botvinnik made a study of a pawn structure, such as French Winawer, and Botvinnik Variation in the Slav defence, Alexandra Kosteniuk now prepares a novelty around move 30 that a computer came up with – check out her video with an example. In this position, Alexandra's computer gave here a little hint during preparation, and 3 moves after it was played over the board, it was all over:
image  Black to move r5k1/pbpn2pp/1p1pp1r1/5p2/2PP1P2/P2BPN1q/1P2Q2P/R1B2R1K b - - 0 18
Here are the things that computers allow you, and facilitate specific preparation without the need for a coach:
1) determine at least a rough evaluation of a concrete position, something that could take days before the mid 90s. The position may or may not be in the database, either way you have much better ability to get to its objective evaluation
2) store results of analysis and quickly retrieve it later, right before the game against the opponent who is likely to play it
3) play a ton of games against strong opposition without living in major city
4) practice a particular position against computer (even though it won't smoke cigarettes in your face, like Ragozin did for Botvinnik)

It is interesting that Kasparov, who always advocated the scientific approach to preparation, became even more stronger around 1999 –2001 when computer engines became very strong. Specific preparation with computers and calculated risk based on engine analysis were the exact logical extension of what Botvinnik came up with in the 30s, in his brochure about how he prepared for the match against Flohr. Some people would even claim that “Soviet Chess School” never existed. When I told this to a master from Saint Petersburg a few years ago, he laughed at me and asked: “Ok, then what kind of chess school existed? Maybe a Cuban chess school?”


  1. Roman,

    I agree with your observations. May I add one of my own: a key characteristic of the Soviet School of Chess was the policy of playing aggressively for a win with Black. This is probably another way of saying "concrete preparation" -- but it certainly made a big impression on me. See, for example, Botvinnik's comments to his decisive last-round game against Kotov from the 1939 Soviet Championship.

  2. Dan, yeah, I found it ironic that Anand's two Semi-Slav Black wins in the match against Kramnik in games 3 and 5 (and which the author uses to build up his argument) were in the same opening that Botvinnik popularized to do exactly that - play for a win as Black.

  3. I haven't read Hansen's book, but from what you've posted he seems to be on a different planet from the rest of the chess world.


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