Time travel in chess
How 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.
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!
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