Most chess books are more or less the same. An opening treatise, an instructional book on endgames or middlegames, a training book on tactics. Of course there are differences in quality and exposition, but in a general sense the subject matter is homogenous, and the message consistent: The author tries to shove instructions down our throats to help us become better players, and we, in turn, try to swallow it. These days I find the majority of books to be too doctrinal, often pontifical, and generally predictable. Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoy reading chess books (why else would I review them?). But it’s hard to get really enthusiastic about a new release.
But every once in a while, there’s an exception. Something fresh, something different. And there’s one book I’ve been looking forward to reading in 2016: “Insanity, Passion and Addiction: A year inside the chess world.”
“Insanity” is essentially the autobiography of a year in the life of Danny Gormally. You’ve probably heard of ‘the Gorm’ before, and likely for not the most flattering of reasons. The English grandmaster is a controversial figure in the chess world, with his reputation forever tainted by a regrettable incident at the 2006 Olympiad. I don’t know Danny well, but it’s perhaps unfortunate that one alcohol-fuelled moment of madness can define a man’s reputation in the way that it has (by the way, yes, he does discuss it in the book). Danny certainly continues to have his detractors, but from observations at many tournaments we’ve both attended, I’ve noticed that most English chess players treat him with a certain fondness. Perhaps this is because Danny has a combination of two traits that are relatively rare among the grandmaster community. He is blindingly humble (to the point of extreme self-deprecation) and painfully open about his personal life. Such a personality can be awkward at dinners. It also makes for the ideal autobiography. “Underneath this brash South London exterior I’m this very insecure, shy kind of person”, and “I’m a washed-up drunk”, and “Failure’s an emotion I’m used to, that I’ve grown comfortable with.” That sort of thing.
Life as a sub-2600 grandmaster is a paradox. On the one hand, we are revered, admired, often envied within the chess world. On the other, it’s hard to justify such veneration for ‘journeymen’ who don’t even figure in the top 250 for their narrow profession, and this is reflected in how hard it is to make a living from chess. The juxtaposition between the proud GM façade and the quality of life day-to-day is something that is rarely revealed, like the unmasking of a ruined aristocrat. Danny’s book promised to pull aside the curtain and expose the brutal struggle of life as a chess professional for what it really is. Combine that promise with Danny’s heart-on-sleeve personality, interesting personal predilections and lack of a literary filter, and you can understand why my expectations were high. I could hardly wait to get my hands on what vowed to be a cracking read.
Unfortunately, it missed.
But before I explain my disappointment, I should state at the outset that, paradoxically, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. I expected “Insanity” to be a blend of indecorous anecdotes, chess analysis and personal philosophy, and the book ticks all these boxes. It’s an easy, light read while being quite informative at times, and the way it shines a light into the mind of one of the most atypical and intriguing chess personalities is fascinating. I think that many chess fans (but over the age of 16, if you please) will greatly enjoy this book as a unique chess publication that’s hard to put down.
As far as a literary product goes, however, it’s a disaster. The book reads as a 12-month extract of a personal diary, which is probably true to some extent as it seems to be based on Danny’s blogs over this period. This is fine as a literary style and is a popular mode for novels, but it should be just that: a style, and not an exact representation. There seems to have been barely any editing, polishing and dare I say planning in translating Danny’s thoughts from mind via blog to the final book.
For one, “Insanity” is littered with typos and grammatical errors. But perhaps more significantly, there’s no structure to the chapters and overall work. There are interesting themes of chess improvement, relationships, making ends meet etc., but they are not only jumbled in amongst each chapter, but also follow no consistency throughout the book. It reads like Danny’s just written down a running transcript of his thoughts at any given point in time, which, while intriguing in its own way, doesn’t make for a cohesive story.
And that’s a real shame, because the thoughts are hugely entertaining, and his explanations and descriptions, whether about chess improvements, computer cheats, girls, Carlsen, drugs, alcohol or general life choices, are compelling. I particularly enjoyed his occasional monologues about sport psychology, a topic he seems to know quite a bit about. Each chapter is made up of a collation of mini-chapters that typically (but not always!) follow some consistent theme. Reading these bite-sized pieces in isolation is the best way to approach the book, as one would a blog. Scattered throughout each chapter are a bunch of annotated games Danny played around the time of the events he recounts. Sometimes they are relevant to the story and sometimes not, but they’re all worth playing through. Surprisingly, I learned a lot. Just like with every other topic, Danny’s chess commentary is a real window into the inner workings of his mind, and one thing that comes through is that he is quite a gifted player. One might point to several factors to explain why he never ‘made it’ as a top grandmaster, and Danny himself highlights several of them repeatedly (motivation, health, work ethic, alcohol…), but talent doesn’t seem to be one of them.
I found this out first-hand a few weeks after I read “Insanity”, when Danny wiped me off the board in the British league. Fortunately, that game was played too late to make it into his book; on the other hand, Danny does include my victory over him a year earlier. It’s natural that others won’t find this chapter as fascinating as I did, but for me one of the most surprising moments was to discover that Danny had been horribly hungover during out game. I remember him looking downcast, but that’s his go-to expression while playing chess; I never suspected he was “very bleeping far from ok”, as he puts it.
The end of this mini-chapter is a good example of the way that Danny’s thoughts can jump from topic to topic without warning, though in this case I must admit that it actually reads surprisingly well. After a few paragraphs about his thoughts during and immediately after the game, he writes about his pep-talk to himself that evening:
I need to start again and cut out all the silly games and terrible chess. Start with a clean slate.
That night I had a few strange dreams. In one I was walking in the Alps, near the Matterhorn. I ran into this beautiful American girl and she said something about how ‘the mountains are much nicer in Crombie’ whatever that means…
And then the chapter ends. Random, huh? That’s quite typical for the book, but as this excerpt shows, sometimes Danny’s disjunctive style makes for pleasurable prose. There are plenty of examples of this, but perhaps the more entertaining of them aren’t appropriate to be recounted here for a wider audience. That leads me to repeat my comment above by offering a rare age-restriction warning for a chess book: This one’s not for the kids!
I could highlight my favourite anecdotes in the book, or perhaps try to delicately skirt around describing some of the more risqué topics Danny covers. But perhaps the best way to give you an overall taste of the book, and whether or not it might be for you, is to list the following peculiar questions to which you can expect to find the answers in “Insanity”:
Why shouldn’t you put a grandmaster who has never driven before in the driving seat of a car in the French Alps?
What is a grandmaster’s “inner chimp”?
Why shouldn’t you bet on sports during a chess tournament?
How much does the average grandmaster make a year, at 2550, 2600, 2650 and 2700+?
Was Capablanca rubbish?
How did Danny catch a pedophile in Amsterdam?
Should the Berlin defense be banned?
How do you tell if you’re playing a computer cheat?
What did Danny do to a fellow hotel guest to “scar her mentally for years to come”?
How does a player avoid the “chess yips”?
What makes the Chinese players so strong?
Do drugs and chess mix?
What’s the meaning of life?
Danny even recounts – in excruciating detail – his fantasy of what the world would look like if chess became as popular a sport as baseball or tennis. Suffice to say, it involves cameos by Carlsen, Kasparov, President Obama, David Letterman, Tania Sachdev and black sheer pantyhose. His stories are more often than not harmless, but occasionally the narrative drifts into inappropriate and borderline offensive territory. Remarkably though, the vast majority of the time the main victim of his derision is himself: there is this putrid self-loathing that at times is uncannily captivating. One can’t help but admire the honestly and bravery required to put these thoughts to print, and just like with many antiheros from books and films (Deadpool comes to mind), the reader finds an unconscious empathy with the protagonist. “Insanity” is definitely not going to be shelved in the motivational section of the bookstore. Thus, given the dark humour that permeates the pages, the final lines of the book are almost laughably upbeat. But I won’t spoil it for you.
I’m not sure how well this book will go in the market. It’s unlikely to find fans in readers whose sensibilities are easily offended, nor in those who demand good writing and quality editing, and it’s certainly not for children. And even if you don’t fall into one of those categories, you might be disappointed in the knowledge that the book really could have been better, given the quality of the subject matter available. Having said that, “Insanity” is undoubtedly one of most unusual chess works I’ve read in a long time, and I had no lack of motivation to read it cover to cover – perhaps this was some schadenfreude at work. If you’re looking for something fresh, interesting and more than a tad offensive in your next chess book, this might be the one for you.
How many seconds have you been alive in your life?
Seriously, take a guess. Just pick the closest number that feels right. What did you think? One million? Ten million? A hundred million?!
This question is hard. As humans, we’re not used to calculating or even guessing big numbers. We’re not programmed for it; after all, it wouldn’t have been much use to our ancestors. Really big numbers, really little numbers, and probabilities: these are things at which humans, quite frankly, are rubbish.
Behavioural economists and psychologists use this as an explanation for why many people take part in lotteries. Their models might show that it’s mathematically rational to take part in the lottery if the first prize is $100 million but not if it’s under $80 million, for example. While the math works, personally I doubt many people are thinking this way when they buy a ticket – “Oo, I’ll only win $80 million; might wait til it gets a bit higher…”. Actually I think the real reason many people take part is not because they’re ignorant that it’s irrational (this fact gets shoved down our throats in high school math class), but rather because there’s some extra enjoyment from being part of something, some big social event, that connects us in an abstract way.
But before I digress too far, let’s get back to the question at hand. If you guessed 1 million, or even 10 million, I’m afraid you passed that milestone long before your first birthday. And unless you’re an extremely bright three-year-old reading this, 100 million was also off. It turns out that 1 billion is quite a close ballpark estimate for the number of seconds in one’s life, a milestone which a person hits before their 32nd birthday.
(Incidentally, one of my friends guessed a trillion, which would make him former chums with the first homo sapiens around 30,000 BC.)
I brought up this topic because, as many of you know, I hate birthdays. But I love symbolism, and silly math. I’m the sort of person who, on my friend’s recent 27th birthday, wished her “a long and happy life well beyond your next cubic birthday.” And so it was that, having bugged my mum to dig up the timestamp on my birth certificate, I was (I presume) one of the few people consciously aware of the milestone when I ticked on to my one billionth second on earth.
(Want to work out when’s your billionth second, or your own arbitrary milestones? You can find a calculator here.)
Someone, breaking time down into its smallest practical unit adds a weird perspective on things. As in, we can physically note the passing of time if we count the seconds – you are getting older now, and now, and now. Depressing. A cheerier question is: What was the most memorable second in your life to date? Not moment, or event (though it’s likely part of one), but second. What was the scariest? The happiest? Can you remember your angriest second? Which of your seconds had the most impact on another person’s life?
Perhaps I’m just in a philosophical mood. After all, I hit the big ten-digits yesterday. Unfortunately, the moment was during a seminar at work so I couldn’t whoop for joy or interrupt the invited speaker to pronounce my new-found ancientry. (Cool word, huh? You learn these things when you get to my age.)
But I look forward to discussing all of these questions over coffee in half an hour, when I am forcing my colleagues to celebrate the landmark with me. I’ve copied the invitation email below.
From: David Smerdon
To: CREED mailing list
Abstract: There will be some cookies (of dubious quality, but free consumption) available in the kitchen at 11:00.
At the beginning of Alexander’s seminar yesterday afternoon, I must confess I was watching the clock. Only briefly, mind you; I was watching it until exactly 16:05.40, and then I turned back to the speaker (“What about guns?”, you may recall I asked, in a desperate attempt to cover my distraction).
Why this exact time? Well, as many of you know, I have limited enthusiasm for birthdays, and I abhor my own. But at this moment, I passed a milestone that we each get to achieve only once in our lives: I had been alive for one billion seconds.
Unfortunately, as I discovered last night, with great wisdom does not come great baking prowess and my efforts to replicate the Anzac biscuits of last month were a bit of a disaster. They look like the earwax of a giant with dandruff. But I offer them to you anyway, along with an invitation to a short coffee break at 11:00.
Now I know some of you will question this achievement. You may want to ask how I exactly know the precise second I was born. You may also protest that the issue is more a philosophical one about when life begins, or quip with glee that one billion is itself quite arbitrary – “After all, we get to achieve each new second only once in our lives!”
No, I’m not talking about my girlfriend (though she also counts). Last weekend was the final installment of the German chess league, which is the strongest in the world. After each weekend I can’t resist quickly going through the 64 games (which is where I found that weird endgame coincidence I blogged about recently). Sometimes, thanks to my engine, I stumble across some really cool games that I otherwise wouldn’t read about.
There were actually a few little beauties that either occurred or could have occurred in the games. But two pretty ones came from the same match, with a Polish connection. In Dresden-Hamburger, the all-Pole clash on board one was instrumental to the match result. Both these guys are super creative players, and Gajewski’s pawn sacrifice on move 18 was inspired. He can’t really be blamed for missing 28.g6!, which he would have had to see in advance!
This turned out to be a decisive game as Hamburg scraped through to win the match 4.5-3.5. On board three, age comprehensively beat youth in Rasmus-Socko, with the Pole again showing very good technique. However, there was one moment right at the end when young Svane could have tried a remarkably unlikely swindle:
It’s weird that I’ve never seen that fortress before. A hidden gem, but one I’m going to remember.
Recently someone asked me what I did “when you’re not playing chess.” I found the question quite comical because I’m not playing chess the vast majority of the time. Still, occasionally I get mistaken for a professional player (albeit a weak one).
Those who’ve read my blog before won’t be surprised to read that I’m a researcher. I’m currently finishing a PhD in economics, with a focus on social and psychological topics. Recently I got the chance to present my current project at the General Sir John Monash symposium, held in Oxford. My work’s about finding the best ways to resettle refugees smoothly and efficiently into the community.
The presentation was pecha kucha style, which was weird but fun: 20 slides, 20 seconds each, no control over the speed. The organisers have made the presentations available online, so if you want a quick glimpse at what I do when I’m “not playing chess”, check out the video below.
Here’s a quick little chess coincidence from the weekend. As I was strolling around to look at the other games in the German Bundesliga matches in Mulheim, I noticed a cute endgame finish in the Dortmund-Emsdetten clash. Black seemed to be holding the position for a while, but unwisely swapped off into a knight-and-two versus bishop-and-one endgame that’s lost. White dominates the light squares and his knight runs rings around the black pieces.
When I got home, I decided to check some of the other Bundesliga match results. It turns out that at exactly the same time that this endgame was being played, a few hours away in Griesheim my friend Jean-Pierre Le Roux was suffering on the black side of a remarkably similar ending…
The World Chess Candidates tournament was awesome. Action-packed, drama-filled, and suspense-ridden right up until the end. I’ve read a lot of reports from the chess side, and naturally about Karjakin’s fabulous win. But I haven’t read anything about the more human moments from the final day, which is a shame because they’re rare gems in the chess world and worth spreading. So here are the top five moments from yesterday that shed a more personal light on the tournament and its participants.
5. What j’adoube?
Aronian and Nakamura, two of the pre-tournament favourites, played out a hard-fought draw to both finish on 50%. Usually both these guys like to put up a bit of a wall in interviews during an event, masked by just a touch of bravado and indifference. But the wall broke down after their final game, and the last-round press conference with the two was refreshingly open and, to be honest, quite emotive. Hikaru was composed and philosophical about his tournament, humble about his second-half recovery, and very gracious towards Aronian. There was no sign of ill-feeling between the two after their earlier round six controversy, which was exactly what the chess world needed to see. For me, the most touching moment was Aronian’s answer to the stock question of how he was feeling. “Honestly, I’m heartbroken,” he replied, which was a nice invitation to chess fans into the pressure and tension that these sorts of events demand. It was perhaps the single most endearing phrase he could have uttered.
4. He ain’t half bad
Poor Anish. You’d think the youngest competitor in the event would receive heaped praise for also being the only undefeated player, but alas. Instead, the Dutchman received his own hashtag: #girijokes. And some of them were, to put it plainly, awful. I’m sure there were no ill intentions, but the constant barrage of online and even in-person interview jabs at his drawing record would have grated on even the most thick-skinned of competitor. But Giri took it all in his stride. His reply to yet another irritating draw-related question in the final press conference was apt: “The subject is fine, but please, make them funny.” He followed this up with the perfect Twitter comeback: “Missed far too many chances, now time to draw(?!) some conclusions.” What a good sport.
3. A graceful fall from the Top
Beside Giri in the press conference was Veselin Topalov. The former world champion has suffered a tough fall from 2800 this year and finished the candidates dead last. But he was calm and pragmatic as he answered the obvious questions after the game. Topa reflected on Karpov’s declining strength as he aged, and mentioned other greats (“Lubo”), and humbly conceded that he should not have expected anything different to happen to him. After what must have been a rough fortnight for the former champ, it was refreshing to see him relaxed and humorous. I also think he was being even a bit too dismissive of his form slide; his analysis in the post-game interviews was absolutely superb and hinted to me that he’s still much, much stronger than his score in this tournament suggests. I wouldn’t be surprised if the remarkable Topa story has another chapter left in it.
2. At least there’s still cricket
All four press conferences on the final day were well-tempered and relaxed, but perhaps none more so than Svidler and Anand. The two chatted like old pals in a pub, which is how we’ve come to expect these guys to be. But the round before was a different story, with both players extremely fatigued and straining to keep their emotions in check in their respective interviews. Svidler had just had to defend a gruelling seven-hour endgame against Fabi and Anand had signed away all chances of first place with a tough draw against Giri, and the stress and lack of sleep was clearly evident. But yesterday was a different story, and it was nice to see, because it left fans with a cheerful and good-natured final impression of both players, which is fairer. And with India destroying Australia in the quarter final of the cricket world cup, there’s still something for both players to look forward to this week.
1. Cool as a Caruana
While Karjakin deservedly ended up winning the tournament by a full point, the score is a little flattering. Caruana had to take unnecessary risks in the final round due to what most chess fans (Sergey included) believed to be an unfair tie-break system. You’d think this fact, combined with the raw truth that yesterday’s game cost him half a million dollars, would leave Caruana just a tad upset. But he somehow maintained his pleasant, imperturbable demeanour right until the end. Unbelievable! Caruana played incredible chess throughout the tournament and showed remarkable composure despite some painful setbacks (twice missed wins against Topalov, a crucial missed RB v R win against Svidler, and yesterday’s blunder). He was as cool as a cucumber during the games, immediately afterwards, and in all interviews. Humble, pragmatic and collected, Caruana was an outstanding example of professionalism and sportsmanship throughout such a high-stakes event.
Overall, not only did the candidates tournament end up a success for the organisers and us spectators, but the ‘fateful eight’ did a good job of endearing themselves to chess fans. Can’t we do another one next week?
Having preemptively decided that I’m not going to get any work done today while the chess is on, I’m going to do a live blog again. It worked pretty well last time. Tune in below to hear my random thoughts (and perhaps those of another GM or two) about the fourteenth and final round of the World Chess Candidates match. Or for the official broadcast, go to World Chess.
Book Review: “Playing 1.e4 e5 – A Classical Repertoire”(Nikolaos Ntirlis, Quality)
You’ve probably not heard of Nikolaos Ntirlis. But you should! Ntirlis may not have a FIDE rating (at least as far as I could tell), but he has quietly built up a strong reputation as one of the most thorough opening researchers around. His credentials include a strong correspondence rating and opening consulting gigs for several grandmasters and the Danish Olympiad team. This is a good sign, but it’s his collaborations with Jacob Aagaard that have impressed me, and particularly 2011’s The Tarrasch Defence. It was a class work, and their 2013 book on the French Defence was also well received.
I know from my friends and colleagues that there has been a lot of anticipation for this solo work by Ntirlis, which is a complete 1.e4 e5 repertoire for Black. This ambitious project has been undertaken by several authors over the years (e.g. Bologan, Davies…) so I was curious and also a little skeptical about seeing how Ntirlis would handle things. Could a correspondence player really offer a practical over-the-board repertoire for the club player?
The short answer is yes – for the most part. Ntirlis often advises against the strongest theoretical continuation (as championed in correspondence chess) in his repertoire, instead taking sensible practical considerations into account. A good example is the King’s Gambit. Instead of ‘taking it on’ with 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5, Ntirlis suggests an easy fix with 3…Nf6, the Schallop Defence. This is a really good idea in my opinion! As a KG player, I can assure you that use aficionados of the romantic gambit learn 3…g5 inside and out, which leaves little time to focus on the rarer, but still eminently decent, alternatives. Another example is in what Ntirlis calls the Improved Morphy Attack, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.0-0. Despite having played this myself for two decades, I’d never even heard of his recommendation: 5…Nxe4 6.Re1 d5 7.Bxd5 Qxd5 8.Nc3 Qd7!?. This has only been played a handful of times before, but after analyzing it myself, I concur that it’s simpler and no worse than the main lines, and equalizes with little difficulty.
Ntirlis sticks quite close to his promise of a ‘classical repertoire’. He proposes 3.Bc4 Nf6, as I mentioned, and doesn’t shy away from the main lines here. The backbone of the repertoire, however, is the Breyer, perhaps the most ‘classical’ of Black’s Spanish options. I think this is an excellent choice. The reader gets the impression that in these chapters Ntirlis seems most at home, and indeed the author offers a lot deeper positional and strategic insights than in the non-Spanish sections. I was especially impressed to see Ntirlis dress Anand’s 8.a3! with an exclamation mark, as I believe this is one of White’s most promising routes to an advantage against the Breyer. He handles this topical and complex variation with distinction, although I don’t know how often most club players will face it, if at all. It’s more the sort of thing played by Anand, Svidler, Caruana, and even Wei Yi:
Of course, as the Breyer is a topical battleground even among the world’s elite, the theory will continue to develop. However, as opposed to sharper variations where the computers have more of a say, the Breyer is a defence where ideas and understanding is more important than being up to date with the latest theoretical novelties, and Ntirlis does a great job of preparing the club player to wield this weapon with confidence. For someone looking to build a solid, high quality 1…e5 repertoire with black, these chapters in particular are an excellent place to start.
I have to say, however, that Ntirlis does fall into one of the most common opening author traps in some of his non-Spanish chapters: He is too optimistic about Black’s chances. In fact, reading the seven chapters of the open games, one gets the impression that White is struggling to achieve equality if he doesn’t venture 3.Bb5, given how often one sees the evaluation “slight advantage for Black” at the end of a main variation. To be fair, Ntirlis’ assessments are usually very accurate; it’s just that one sometimes has to dig back through the sidelines to find White’s best continuations. In my opinion, it should be a cardinal rule of chess opening authorship that the best moves for both sides be given as the main line in a variation. As you can tell, this sin of variation ‘window-dressing’ is a bit of a pet hate of mine when reading opening books, so bear in mind that it may not bother you. And given that this is a repertoire book for the second player, it’s quite reasonable to allow some literary licence for the author to put a positive spin on Black’s positions, up to a point. But just keep this in mind as you go through the first half of the book.
For example, a first read of the 3.Bc4 King’s Gambit, the Four Knights with 11.Na4, and even the (Spanish) Exchange Variation chapters gives the impression that Black is better in the main lines. This could potentially be true for the KG, but even here, buried in a small note to move 10, Ntirlis gives an improvement for White that secures equality. And it’s surely not true for the other lines! Like I said, this is not a big drawback for the book (and a very common one for chess in general), but make sure you read the chapters thoroughly and don’t skip over the notes.
The repertoire is pitched at a high level, but perhaps not quite at the aloof levels of the Negi/Kotronias books. That will be welcome news to many readers, including the majority of those from chess.com . Having said that, it’s a guide that is both practical and theoretically robust, and it will be of interest to grandmaster readers as well as amateurs.
Overall, I found the book to be thorough, high-quality and surprisingly easy to read. I say ‘surprisingly’ because, as I mentioned, I half-expected Ntirlis’ correspondence background to hamper his efforts to recommend a practical repertoire, but he’s really done a good job. Despite having read several books on 1…e5, this is the first that almost convinced me to take it up myself. And who knows…!
EDIT: Good work Dave; today’s a rest day! Oh well. I’ll pick up again tomorrow (Tuesday) at 12.oopm GMT. Also gives FIDE 24 hours to tell me if I’m doing anything wrong
There’s been a LOT of controversy about the World Candidates tournament in Russia, which plays its fourth round today. The issue revolves around the organiser’s decision to threaten to sue any chess sites that broadcast the live games, which is contrary to what current practice has been to date. I have no idea how this will all play out, as several sites have decided to ignore the legal threats, but things are definitely going to get ‘interesting’. For more background, check out this article.
Anyway, the main consequence is that chess fans around the world have missed out on getting a rewarding broadcast experience. There is live video commentary on the official page, in case you are interested. It requires (free) registration and the commentary can be a little dry, in my opinion, but it’s not bad.
But as I’m going to be watching the games anyway, I’ve decided to blog live about the games (also because I wanted to test out the plugin). From midday GMT (1pm Amsterdam, 3pm Moscow), you can see the moves and computer evaluations of the games themselves without registration at this official Norwegian broadcasting site, and I’ll be sharing my thoughts in the blog below. Let me know what you think!
I generally try to avoid the Chessbase news site, as experience has demonstrated that reading its articles generally leads to me hitting my own head more than is considered healthy. But this morning I stumbled across what on the surface seemed an incredible article. Azlan Iqbal, a senior lecturer at the Universiti Tenaga Nasional in Malaysia, wrote an article claiming to have found evidence that women play less beautiful chess than men. He recently presented his scientific findings, based on his own advanced computer software, at the reputable International Congress on Interdisciplinary Behavior and Social Science.
Readers will know that I’ve previously weighed in on the “gender in chess” debate (see here, and in a more academic sense here). But I like to keep an open mind about things, especially if they are backed by scientific evidence, and so I made myself a coffee and sat down to dissect the groundbreaking research of “Azlan Iqbal, PhD”, as he himself writes under the title.
Despite my general rule of distrust for anything written by someone who feels the need to write “PhD” after their name, the fact that his paper was accepted at an international conference was heartening, and Iqbal also provided the slides from the conference and the academic paper for reference. The Chessbase article summarized the main findings, which seemed to conclusively demonstrate that women play less aesthetically than men in his exhaustive analysis of Chessbase’s “Big Database 2015”. It seems somehow absurd on the surface that this result could even be measured, let alone whether it has any truth, but I pressed on, eager to see the real analysis. As the coffee slowly made its way into my system, I decided to start with the conference slides and then move on to the more technical scientific article.
The introduction of the presentation starts with the smiling photos of Magnus Carlsen and Mariya Muzychuk, together with their ELO ratings and the comment that “Statistically, a player rated 2882 has an 88% chance of defeating a player rated 2530 in a game.” Of course, every chess rating system only gives the expected score in a game, and says nothing at all about the chances of winning. Not a great start, but an easy mistake to make and so, excuses made, I moved on. The next slide started with the bold statement “Research suggests that men are better at chess than women.” Ugh! As I (and many others) wrote about extensively, this is certainly not the academic consensus. But everyone’s entitled to their own opinion – even though in this case it was hardly framed as one. I quickly moved on, and – ah! – the next slides have actual chess diagrams in them! Iqbal presents a simple example of a famous mate-in-three:
Seen this before? Of course; it’s a beautiful and famous chess puzzle. Unfortunately, Iqbal’s next slide, purporting to show the solution, begins “1.Nxh6+”. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Naturally we can excuse this as a simple double-typo, although the little errors by now were beginning to accrue.
I hastily moved on to the real analysis. Iqbal describes his methodology as follows: He wanted to compare all mate-in-three sequences by men and women in the Chessbase database of games, ranking them with his patented software ‘Chesthetica’ for aestheticism. Now you might immediately be struck by one obvious questions here, as I was. What evidence is there that executed mate-in-threes can reflect general beauty in playing chess? Unfortunately, the only justification given is that three-move mates give the most consistent testing results from his software. The natural follow-up question is then to ask: how do we know Chesthetica is really measuring chess beauty? Ah, but here Iqbal preemptively counters with that often-used and curiously vague ‘get out of jail free’ card: Chesthica has been “experimentally validated”!
Confused? Never fear; now we get to the real data. Of the 6.3 million games in Big Database 2015, Iqbal extracted a sample of 1069 games by women and 115 games by men. Wait, what? Less than 1200 games out of over six million, and only 115 games by men? What’s going on?! There’s nothing in the slides to explain this inconceivably small sample, so I finally delved in to the full academic paper. And that’s when things got strange.
The first incomprehensible feature of the data collection is that Iqbal extracted only the games where White checkmated Black. This shortcut immediately threw out half the sample. The only reason I can possibly think of for this is that he didn’t want to have to modify his Chesthetica software to be able to flip the colours when it analyzed the Black-checkmating-White games – although given that Iqbal’s profession is computer science, this seems highly unlikely. I honestly have no idea why half the games would be discarded in this way, especially as Iqbal goes on to make the excuse many times in his paper that the analysis suffers from too few suitable games.
But how is it possible that he ended up with fewer male games? Well, the second baffling component is that the sample was split by gender using an incredibly rudimentary method: by filtering for tournaments with “women” or “men” in the game data. And surprise surprise, there were very few men-only events. I have to say that this seems like an astonishingly lazy way to filter the data. Why not just cross-reference the sample against any standard database of female players? Or hey, even just sort manually over a day or two? After all, I guess this is what Iqbal next had to do anyway, because he goes on to write that his team “managed to identify enough additional games between males to bring the 115 set to 1,069 as well.”
I found the term ‘managed’ a bit comical, seeing as he would have had literally tens of thousands of candidate games to choose from. How did they select the games? Were they random? And why limit this to exactly 1,069? Any basic statistical comparison can handle uneven numbers in the samples, and practically always in science, ‘more data is better’ from an academic perspective. It it very strange to say the least to limit one’s sample to an identical match (and highly unlikely that this came about by chance).
The eagle-eyed observer, however, will have noticed an even stranger term in Iqbal’s last sentence: “between males”. And indeed, closer inspection reveals that the database includes games by males only against other males, and games by females only against other females. Why?! Is Iqbal testing whether women play more beautifully against other women, perhaps as an extension of the famous Maass, d’Ettole and Cadinu paper of 2008? Well, no, and in any case, this would still require a sample of checkmates by women against male players.
I can think of no sensible explanation for this restriction, except that perhaps this was what came out of the primitive “women” and “men” tournament search. The result of this piece of academic lethargy is a bit more serious than just reducing the size of the data sample, as in the above cases. It adds an extra potential bias to the data, which is most likely a serious one given that – as Iqbal himself quotes in the paper – research has shown that women play differently against men than they do against other women.
By now I was on to my second coffee and getting slightly worried: I hadn’t yet reached the main results of the analysis and already the data set was (a) unnecessarily small and (b) most likely corrupt. With more than a degree of trepidation, I turned to the slide with the chief experimental results, and breathed a sigh of relief:
“Elo & Age Independent”! Yes! That was a huge relief to see; after all, the average Elo, a crucial component to aesthetic chess, is most certainly different between the male and female samples, and there’s almost certainly an age difference as well (although how relevant age is to chess beauty is debatable). But the fact that these factors had been excluded was absolutely necessary for the results to have any worth at all.
But I did begin to wonder how Iqbal had done this. After all, it would have required a reasonable (though not infeasible) amount of work to extract these variables from the Chessbase dataset, and all evidence so far had suggested that he was against excessive effort if it could be avoided. I turned back to the academic paper to find out the details. I took a sip of coffee, turned back to the paper, and almost spat it out as I read in black and white:
“There was no filtering based on age or playing strength as this study is concerned more with gender differences and aesthetic quality of play…”
At this point, I considered whether I should even bother to read the rest of the article. It was of course possible that Iqbal had run multiple econometric regressions to try to control for the influence of age and Elo. But this would have run into all sorts of technical problems, such as the relationships between gender, Elo and age, as well as what we call ‘endogeneity’ – for example, one would have to prove that trying to play ‘beautiful chess’ in all your games doesn’t affect your rating. There are econometric techniques to deal at least in part with many of these concerns. None are mentioned. In fact, the explanation about Elo and age independence is curiously missing entirely from the scientific paper.
Not to worry; we shall persevere! I continued reading. Iqbal’s next result is to show that checkmates by strong players (Elo 2500 and above) are statistically more beautiful than average, according to his software. I doubt this surprises anyone. A major problem with this analysis is that checkmates that actually appear on the board in games are far more likely to occur in much weaker level games. It is very well ingrained chess etiquette for GMs to resign before checkmate is delivered, especially if it is forced (and forced checkmates are the only types Iqbal considers – don’t get me started about this).
So when might a forced checkmate actually be seen in a GM game? You guessed it: when it’s exceptionally beautiful. That’s the only time chess etiquette dictates that a player shouldn’t resign but allow the mate to be played out, if he or she wants. So this means that testing the relationship between Elo and checkmating beauty is inherently, inseparably flawed. GMs allow other GMs to deliver mate only when the checkmates are already beautiful – unless of course it happens during blitz, but no sensible study would include those games.
Well…it turns out Iqbal’s sample does include blitz games. And rapid, and exhibition games, and also – wait for it – games from simultaneous exhibitions.
I could go on, but you are probably already at the limits of your endurance. But allow me to leave you with just a few pearls of wisdom that can be found buried within the discussion in the paper. Iqbal is obviously proud of his main finding that females play less beautifully than males, as he extrapolates this to an insight into the psychological preferences of women, writing:
“Do the results then imply that women have less artistic appreciation of the game? Perhaps.”
He also suggests some keen intuition into the depths of – you’ll like this – the psychology of computers.
“This suggests that computers, regardless of their playing strength or ‘experience’ (if any), …perhaps [have] just no conscious or unconscious appreciation of art…”
All I can say to such shrewd perceptions is: thank God we have men.
It is not all bad news for females. Iqbal does, in a rare concession for the paper, offer the following caveat to his analysis:
“Logically, it would also follow that there are likely domains where women fare better aesthetically than men.”
One or two do come to mind.
Reading over what I’ve written above, I feel a little guilty for the harsh and dismissive way I’ve criticized Iqbal’s work. So let me conclude with a positive note: In general, I am optimistic and supportive of scientific efforts to use chess as a tool to analyze different questions. There have been several interesting academic works in recent years that have done this, and I genuinely think that Iqbal’s Chesthetica software has its role to play in the future of chess research. But such research has to be conducted in a thorough, industrious and attentive manner, especially if it purports to lofty claims in areas such as gender. If not, the methodology is prone to stern aspersion or, even worse, outright dismissal.
I finished my second coffee just as I came to the concluding paragraphs of Iqbal’s paper. And here, finally, I agreed wholeheartedly with one of his generalized statements, and so it’s a good note on which to finish this rebuttal:
“In general, what we have demonstrated should not be taken too seriously…”