Columns | January 15, 2010 18:15

Time travel in chess

Time travel in chessHow would you fare as a chessplayer being transported back in time? Would your contemporary theoretical opening knowledge pay off? Would your understanding of modern ideas in chess strategy trump older concepts about chess?

These questions came into my head as I read a recent article on the Aardvarchaeology Scienceblog called The Fear of Time Travel. Consider:

First, imagine that you're dropped into a foreign city with only the clothes you wear. No wallet, no hand bag, no money, no cell phone, no identification. Pretty scary, huh? But still, most of us would get out of the situation fairly easily. We would find the embassy of our country of origin, or if it were in another city, contact the local police and ask to use their phone. A few days later we would be home.

That's not the scary scenario I rehearse. Imagine that you're dropped into the city you live in with only the clothes you wear. No wallet, no hand bag, no money, no cell phone, no identification. And it's 500 years ago.

You don't know anybody and nobody has any loyalty to you. You're wearing extremely strange clothes. You speak the local language but with a really strange accent and a completely outlandish vocabulary: many of the words you know have completely different meanings. You'll have a very hard time just explaining where you're from, which the authorities will no doubt ask. You know little to nothing of how society works, things like what polite manners are and even how to count the denominations of the local coinage if somehow you get hold of money. You're in a violent, patriarchal, disease-ridden place with no concept of the dignity or equal value of all humans.

(If you're interested in time travel and language problems, here's an interesting post on Language Log about it.)

In response to this fascinating thought-experiment, fellow blogger Orac wrote about the consequences for his own profession:

It would be very, very difficult for a surgeon of 2010 like me to recreate much of anything that I do now in the year 1710, even if I were dropped into Boston among the most learned physicians of the age. No one there would have any idea of germ theory (and thus sterile technique, both of which were 150 years away), anesthesia, or much of basic physiology. Indeed, at that time, diseases were thought to be caused by imbalances in the four humors or miasmas, for the most part. If I were to try to explain these concepts to the learned men of the time, assuming I could master the dialect of 300 years ago, they'd assume I was either mad or a witch. It would be a good thing for me that the wave of witch hunts and executions was pretty much over by the early 18th century.

How would a modern chess player do if he were transported back in time? Suppose a decent GM is thrown back hundred years, to the year 1910, and were to play a game against a player of his own level. The first interesting challenge would be to play with old-fashioned pieces and clocks. Have you ever tried thinking normally with those funny pieces that do not look like Staunton pieces at all? It's not that easy at all.

Alekhine (l.) vs Capablanca

Also, it was quite normal that the audience practically sat next to the players - pretty distracting if you ask me. (It also sheds an interesting light on the nowadays often-claimed 'right' to silence and good playing conditions.)

Rubinstein (l.) vs Mieses

Still, I think he would do reasonably well, especially as the game moved towards the middlegame and endgame. But then again, without a laptop, database, chess informants or Rybka it wouldn't be so easy to prepare for a guy like Spielmann, who played all sorts of now-offbeat lines of the King's Gambit. It also wouldn't be quite so easy to get hold of the latest chess publications with old-fashioned, difficult-to-read font types and badly printed diagrams.

I also wonder how our time traveller would deal with the chess mentality of someone like Marshall, who was known forhis ferocious attacking concept quite unheard of these days. Anyway, I still predict a relatively easy win for our local hero here.

Let's move a little further back in time. Despite conventional wisdom saying chess players get better as history progresses, I wouldn't be surprised if the chess version of Marty from Back to the Future would find it rather difficult to play against someone in the year 1810. These were the pre-chess clock days, when games would sometimes take days and players would think for hours over one move. It would be quite tough physically, apart from the even weirder opening choices of some players. I doubt Marty's thorough knowledge of the Sicilian Najdorf would be of any use when facing the openings of these days. You don't believe me when I say the ancient opening lines are perhaps not so easy to understand for modern chess players? Have a look at this position.

Anderssen-Mieses, Breslau 1867 and Morozevich-Adams, Wijk aan Zee 2001
Anderssen-Mieses, Bresla 1867 and Morozevich-Adams, Wijk aan Zee 2001

Here's a little riddle: Which of the two white players played the best move in this position (12.Ba3), good old Adolf Anderssen or young superstar Alexander Morozevich? You'd be surprised to learn it was Anderssen.

Also, let's not forget Bobby Fischer's statement about Paul Morphy:

A popularly held theory about Paul Morphy is that if he returned to the chess world today and played our best contemporary players, he would come out the loser. Nothing is further from the truth. In a set match, Morphy would beat anybody alive today.

What about even going further back, say to 1610? In these days, modern chess was already being played very actively, meaning queen and bishop already moved the way they do now. Piece of cake to beat these ancients, then? Well, not exactly. Our time-travelling grandmaster would have real trouble taking into account the complex rules of castling, and even capturing en passant was not universally acknowledged back then. Think about how tricky it would be to calculate lines in which you had to disregard castling or taking en passant, as well as all sorts of stuff like minor promotions.

Lucas van Leyden: The Chess Players (1508)

In medieval times, the rules of the game were even more different than that. I think a decent player from those days would probably beat any GM in medieval chess, with its slow progression of pawns and lack of dynamics. Don't forget that even world level grandmasters are vulnerable to very simple oversights in Fischerandom chess.  (I once saw a Fischerandom game in which Gata Kamksy blundered an exchange on move seven.) Arab chess, with its fantasy pieces, would be an even bigger problem. Its fair to say the skills acquired in modern chess would be totally useless against the best players of those days. Our current GM title would simply be meaningless.

It's a humbling thought that all of our efforts in modern chess, the countless hours or preparation, training and excercise, are so dependent on the moment we live in. Perhaps in chess there is no reason to be quite so pessimistic as with medicine or some other disciplines. But I agree more with the author of the above mentioned blog when he points out that

...if there's one thing this little thought experiment has done for me, it's to make me realize how much of what I do depends on hundreds of years of history and science and any achievements I may have in my career rest squarely on the shoulders of giants.

We often take it for granted that the strongest chess players of our age are automatically the strongest players that ever lived. But strongest at what? At most, they are best at playing the game we play under the current circumstances - circumstances that were quite different just hundred years ago. Take away some of the conditions and everything changes instantly. And this, of course, is the very basis of all science fiction based on time travel. Change the past and you change the present. No Morozevich without Anderssen! Great Scott!

Share |
Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


eso es's picture

Arne Moll:

De nada ... van Leyden's pic also proves that Courier Chess was being played regularly in 16th C Netherlands ... a time of war and strife, armed standoff with the spanish Flanders etc. .. time travellers, ahoi......

Jens Kristiansen's picture

It is beyound doubt that Barcelona FC 2010 would beat Real Madrid 1960 convincingly. As well as Federer 2010 would beat Rod Laver 1962 and Anand 2010 would do the same to Aljekhine 1930. Neither would Einstein be able to dispute with some 1.grade students in physics nowadays. It is as simple as already Newton put it: "I have only reached so far because I was standing on the shoulders of giants". Ok, perhaps an insufficient metaphor, but anyhow...
But...we can not get a definite proof as we do not have any time machine and, most likely, will never have them. But IF we had time machines, a far more interesting experiment would be to "teleportate" (or what ever it is called - Star trek?) some of the old chess geniuses to our time and see what they could do, OK, after some due time to adapt. Some of them, Philidor, Morphy, Capablanca, Lasker, Pillsbury amo. was able to reach a comparatively high standard of play in spite of very little chess culture around them. It could be they were in some ways genuine and some over all chess geniuses (what ever that is) and would be able to adapt to modern play. But...we will never know...speculate, speculate...(nice pastime).
BUT..we have another way to meassure the impact of time when it comes to chess. In the development of technology there are also some skills that are decreasing. Fi.: After I got my first PC with WP installed in 1991, I am sure that my typewriting skills got slowly worse and worse. I still know some elderly women who are unbelievable fast and PRECISE at the tabs, using TEN fingers! But they are dying out...
Ok, folks, when it comes to chess skills you can meassure yourself against the oldtimers in ANALYSIS. . Can any of the young and strong GMs of nowadays make an analysis (of course without the aid of a comp) of an adjourned game as fi. Botvinnik could do it? Or could you analyse an endgame and come up with some general guidelines as fi. Troitsky and Cheron amo. could do it?
For this we do not need a time machine. Just try the task for yourself - it could even be it would be to benefit of your your general play

Yvonne's picture

I like the photo Rubinstein (l.) vs Mieses is there a date for this picture?

Castro's picture


Morphy or Alekhine would lose a handfull of games to a present-day very good (and opening expert) GM, but very VERY soon they would be playing at least at his level.
Not to mention if we provided Morphy or Alekhine all present-day theory, some week before the encounter! In that case, look out! Our modern GM maybe better be not that modern, but instead be some guy dead a year ago, and burried in Iceland!
Otherwise he might not stand a chance... ;-)

Jim Scott's picture

We have seen top GM perfom not well in open tournaments because they don´t play the usual lines in closed tournaments. Old players played better chess because they didn´t have to memorize the game. I agree they could play better 960 chess than the actual ones.

GroteG's picture

Arne, I understand and agree with the latter part. I wasnt really referring to the column itself. However, several replies above seem to suggest that past GMs could in fact compete today were it not for massive amounts of opening theory, and i think the Nunn chapter might refute that suggestion a little.

Castro's picture

Fischer would almost everytime win against whoever and in whatever opening. That's the little detail.
Experimenting, understanding and using old ideas (and, in the process, putting down lots of chess dogma) was merely one of his many ways.

Guillaume's picture

There's a great science-fiction book I'd recommend: "Doomsday book" by Connie Willis. It tells the story of a young historian accidentally stuck in the 14th century she was set to study. This turns out to be quite far from a stroll in the park for her.

Kazzak's picture

The people commenting in that time-travel link suffer from a lack of imagination, and from persecution mania. ;-)

Tom's picture

Interesting post. I have a team-mate who plays very well in the romantic style; I sometimes wonder if 150 years ago, he would be one of the world's best players. I also think that whilst Capablanca is usually regarded as a better player than Lasker, if they both time traveled to today the pragmatic, dynamic, flexible latter would be in the world top ten - whilst the lazier, positionally-categorical former would not.

bogies's picture

Great post, i have often wondered about this myself but you fleshed it out really well.

Meppie's picture

What do people have with timetraveling? It will never happen, so why spend so much time about it?

Arne Moll's picture

Probably the same reason as why people spend time on chess, Meppie: it's fun!

jazzkoo's picture

One thing to consider here is that today's theoretical best player is taken from a pool of 6 or 7 billion humans whereas the best players from the past come from much much smaller pools. One could hypothesize reasonably that they would more likely be smarter or more clever or whatever it is that makes some players better than others.
Also, haven't humans developed physically over the years, even recent years? Are our brains more developed? I know, must not be very developed considering the way the world is but perhaps still moving forward...

ceann's picture

@ jazzkoo
If you are representing 'so called' better developed people then heaven help us all...
Capablanca will kill most of todays players still with no theory knowledge.
He was a CHESS PLAYER unlike the jouneymen of today (exception...Ivanchuk and Kramnik)

Rob Brown's picture

I noticed that the board depicted in VanLeyden's painting is 8x12, another complexity for our modern time traveller.

eso es's picture

8 x 12 - no complexity at all - waht is shown is a game of Courier Chess, an older version much played in northern Europe in the 16th to 19th C - and still in use... check on www.

jazzkoo's picture

@ ceann
"If you are representing ’so called’ better developed people then heaven help us all…"
not to worry. i'm not "representing" anyone. you're safe...

David Herz's picture

thank you, both diverting and intriguing. With our overriding obsession on ratings and rating points, the discussion often going so far as to push the game itself into the background, just to see how they played in the old days, to win, or for beauty, and not to accumulate points, is refreshing. Can you imagine Botwinnik (or Fischer) worrying about points? ...Fischer's comment is fascinating, did he elaborate? Or was it something on the level of Morphy had such consummate natural talent that he would be up to modern snuff in no time?

eso es's picture

8 x 12 - also - this fellow Rick Knowlton has actually reconstructed the chess pieces on Lucas van Leydens' painting, makes and sells them for Courier Chess enthusiasts...

Jack's picture

I think many of the great players of the past would cringe at the massive amount of theory they would have to master in order to play high level competitive chess today. Some, such as Alekhine, could do it, but I suspect Capa, Lasker, Morphy, and Pillsbury would give up the game because of the study grind. I mean, how much fun is it to whip out 24 moves of theory in the Semi-Slav? This is not the kind of chess the past greats enjoyed. Yeah, there was some opening theory back then, but compared to what they would have to assimilate would be torture for them to become competitive.

Pablo's picture

Es un análisis inútil; este texto -demás está decir- es meramente ficcional. De periodismo tiene apenas unos yeites, y nada más. La hipótesis de partida -un ajedrecista de buen nivel de la actualidad que viaja en el tiempo hacia el pasado- es un juego cerebral que no construye; es un pensamiento de mero entretenimiento.

Desde la estética el artículo es correcto, desde la ideología este tipo de periodismo es difícil de justificar. Teniendo recepción -es decir, una audiencia, un conjunto enorme de lectores-, teniendo capacidad crítica, ¿qué necesidad hay de hacer un análisis de esta envergadura? ¿No hay críticas concretas que puede elaborarse hacia el ajedrez? ¿Disfuncionalidades? ¿Injusticias? ¿Maniobras de poder que "envenenan" el juego? ¿Dónde está la causa del periodismo? ¿Dónde está el eje social en estas notas -y en casi todas las notas de este periodista?

Este artículo es entretenimiento, vale. Es divertido ("it's fun!"), vale. Es distracción, vale. Y es, de la misma forma, completamente funcional. Esto -con perdón del redactor- es periodismo inútil. A la sociedad, además de entretenimiento, no le aporta nada. Y si el periodismo tiene que aportar sólo entretenimiento, entonces -ahí sí-, estamos en un problema. Un problema ideológico. Claro.

No quiero remontarme a críticas mucho más importantes, críticas de base. Ya mismo en el ajedrez hay un montón de reflexiones pertinentes, de críticas posibles; hay una estructura viciada. Y este periodismo, desde un punto de vista social, es falso periodismo. Antiperiodismo. Es una parodia. Y a buena porción de la población -justamente (y no casualmente)- le gusta.

Sorry if I wrote this analysis in spanish, but my english is really bad. No way i can make a serious anaysis in that language.

Castro's picture

We're on "chess culture", or "chess thinking" grounds here, NOT necessarily on chess journalism. (BTW, the obvious answer the editors would give you is that this is filled under "columns", and not under "reports").
I'm very critical on some of the journalistic tendences here (and Arne's in particular), but I find this kind of matters largely pertinent, regardless of if one could call it "journalism" or not.
By the way, this kind of matters (chess culture and thinking) interests me a lot, and ChessVibes has been having many interesting columns.
The absolutely imaginary premises for this particular column has even the advantage that it is not easy to distort facts. Just have different imaginations and beliefs.
That said, I think it's far from Arne's best takes, but the issue is completely pertinent, and it's good someone took on it!
I think a good present-day GM would have lots of successes against (say) the 1890's chess elite, but not for long (unless he'd be a, say, top 10 today).
Being, for instance, a 2650 GM, if he could be strait away paired with Steinitz or Lasker for a world title match, probably he'd be WC. But if he had to run the usual tournament road for becoming a recognized master, ALL the opening theory would have a completely different course, from then on (that's the power of travelling time :-) ), but THEY (the then super GMs) would master HIM, not the opposite!

Markus's picture

Nice article Arne, entertaining. I think the players of the past would have big difficulties even with a sub-elite GM because of the opening theory the later would gave them a real advantage to start.

Not to say past masters were inferior, far from the truth. Is like saying today's average scientists are smarter than say Einstein or Newton. In the same way Morphy or Alekhine still would have his natural talent to compete. But regarding preparation today GM are much more advanced. Later in the game the most talented player could prevail with his skill. So probably the results would be like this:

Past genius chess master player vs. present average GM: 1/2 or 1-0
Past genius vs. present genius: 0-1

kuanchaiken's picture

Regarding the last part of your article, when you say the farther away we move from present rules the harder it gets for trained professionals, I think we can use a concrete comparison from nowadays, without having to elucubrate too much: How do you think a GM would perform when firstly exposed to the rules of chinese chess?

Grant's picture

Yvonne: It looks like this game, listed only as "Berlin, 1909":

Confucius's picture

Seriously, I think in 960-Chess some of the old masters could compete at the mainz chess classics.

Arne Moll's picture

@eso es, thanks for the info on the Van Leyden painting. Fascinating stuff!

GroteG's picture

I have this tactics book by John Nunn in which he has included a chapter called "test of time". In this chapter he describes computer checking some 1920 or 1930 GM tournament and i thought (not really sure - i dont have the book here)his conclusion was that the level of play was far worse than modern day, based purely on tactical mistakes.

Arne Moll's picture

GroteG, comparing past and present masters is obviously impossible, even in the 'objectíve' way Nunn tried to do it. And of course this wasn't the point of my column. In fact I tried to do the opposite: even if we ignore all purely chess-related knowledge, practical aspects would probably dominate in any hypothetical scenario.

bruce's picture

consider the old masters being teleported to today, and without preparation, being put in a tournament with today's best. I feel it's quite possible that the old guys' lack of opening knowledge might even work in their favor. They would be trotting out old openings that have long since been gone from the modern GM's memory, or openings so out of style, that our guys would have trouble with it. Isn't that what Fischer used to do? Trot out some old antique of Steinitz, and win games?

Arne Moll's picture

Yes indeed, bruce, that was what I tried to imply, too, with my example of the Anderssen/Morozevich game.

Latest articles