BBC Radio talks with John Nunn

by Albert Silver
4/11/2015 – The prospect of a game of chess over the radio combined with an interview is now an established success thanks to its revival by Dominic Lawson. Readers will recall that BBC Radio 4 has resurrected a concept dating back to Bobby Fischer with the series "Across the Board". Not limiting itself to it, Tim Harford interviewed John Nunn on math, computers and Lasker.

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In the 1960s,  BBC radio ran a series called Network Three with consultation games that included even Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Tal. Dominic Lawson, himself a chess player, dug up the story on these game, which we published here. In fact, the game was also recovered and subject to the expert eye of grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez.

Rare Fischer game analyzed in depth

1/6/2014 – After reading listening to the BBC Radio program "Across the Board" with great pleasure, a certain curiosity came on the previous chess effort by the British broadcaster, now only available in the book, "Chess Treasury of the Air". Though full of fascinating essays, player profiles and more, the crown jewels are the consultation games. Here is Bobby Fischer analyzed by GM Alejandro Ramirez.

In two years and two complete runs, it is safe to say the series has been a hit. Each episode brings together the interviewer with a personality with some form of tie-in with chess. Choosing a professional chess player such as Magnus Carlsen or Hou Yifan are easy picks, but others have included boxing legend Lennox Lewis, artificial intelligence researcher Demis Hassabis, and many more. All the episodes can be scrutinized here.

Intrigued and attracted by the concept, Tim Harford of the BBC radio program "More or Less" brought in John Nunn, a mathematical prodigy who attended Oxford at age 15 for maths, former Top Ten player, and prolific chess author, to name but a few of his accolades. Following Lawson's precedent, a game was played with some light banter, while Harford conducted an interview of Nunn on maths, chess, computers and Lasker. The banter regarding the chess game has been edited out, but the interview is otherwise untouched.

We encourage you to visit the site and listen to it as the experience is never quite the same

Tim Harford: So maths and chess, is there a link? Can you use maths to win on the chessboard?

John Nunn: I don’t think you can. I think there is a slight connection between maths and chess in that they both appeal to the same sort of person – people who have a problem-solving mentality – but between maths and chess themselves, purely as subjects, I don’t think there’s a close connection and I don’t think that studying one is necessarily going to help you perform better in the other.

So it’s a case of correlation then, not causation, so good mathematicians are the kind of people who might like to play chess, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that maths will help you on the chessboard.

I think that chess is something that’s worth studying for its own sake, particularly for school kids. You learn all kinds of things playing chess: not to make hasty decisions, not to be impulsive and to think about the consequences of things that you’re going to do, but I don’t think there’s a specific connection with mathematics.

There are certain disciplines that seem to breed child prodigies – we see it in music, we see it in maths, we see it in chess. Why is that?

I think it’s because these subjects are self-contained as they don’t connect with other parts of the real world. So, for example, you wouldn’t expect to get a great child novelist because to create believable and interesting characters in a novel requires an understanding of people and knowledge of how the world operates, whereas in mathematics and chess you’ve got subjects which have their own internal rules, which don’t relate to rules in other parts of knowledge. So because of their self-contained formal systems and therefore you can become an expert in them without having this experience of life that becoming an expert in other disciplines requires.

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Now I have to confront you with this interview from five years ago with the World Champion Magnus Carlsen. He told Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, “I’m convinced that the reason the Englishman John Nunn never became World Champion is that he’s too clever for that”. What did he mean?

I think what he meant, and a bit later in the interview he did explain it, was that I was interested in too many different things and didn’t focus sufficiently on chess in order to reach what he apparently conceives to be my maximum potential, although I should say I was at one stage in the world Top Ten, which isn't that bad.

Do you think that the situation has changed though, because computers have changed everything, and computers must have changed the relationship between human analysis and chess mastery?

I think computers have had a huge impact on the game, particularly at the highest level. Decades ago, when I was at my peak, computers were laughably weak and they were of no assistance whatsoever in analyzing openings or checking on your moves, but that’s completely changed now. Even the software that runs on phones is now stronger than the human World Champion, so you’ve got an oracle there that can tell you whether a particular move is good or bad, and not in every single case but in the vast majority of cases. So all the top players work extensively with computers and check all the moves they’re intending to play with the computer to see if there’s some kind of refutation of them. In fact Magnus Carlsen, the current World Champion, told me that he doesn’t actually have a chess set at home. He does everything on the computer screen.

John Nunn himself is no stranger to computers as can be seen here in the late 80s with an Apple ][

So if I had one of these oracles in my pocket, would it tell me it was my move?

It would.

Do you think computers have spoiled things a bit?

They’ve changed things enormously, but spoiled? That I wouldn’t really say. Certainly the chess world is completely different now because of computers, and one really negative consequence has been the possibility of cheating in chess. You know, people can go into the bathroom and analyze the position on their pocket phone, so steps have to be taken to try to prevent that kind of thing, but otherwise, it’s just a change. And in a way it helps because, for example, people can watch games on the internet now from tournaments all over the world live, and with the computer backing them up, they can have an evaluation of the position so they know what’s going on. It’s like having a continuous commentary, expert commentary, on the game. So from the point of view of chess publicity, and the general chess public, computers have in fact helped quite a lot.

What then about Lasker? Have I just got the wrong end of the stick that he used his logic to figure out chess positions? Or were things different back then?

Things were different back then, but it was the same game, it was the same chess that we play today. I think Lasker’s main strength, and what distinguished him from the other players of his generation, was his excellent psychology. He knew precisely which moves would discomfort his opponent, and without taking excessive risks he would cause situations to arise on the board in which his opponents were likely to make a mistake. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he was making deliberately bad moves, but he knew how to induce mistakes.

The great genius Emanuel Lasker, world champion for 27 years

So out of two good moves he could pick the one that would cause the most trouble?

Yes, the two moves might objectively be of the same strength and if you put them on the computer they would give the same evaluation, but one might be much more likely to cause an error by the opponent, and he would always go for that possibility.

So this is more a case of psychology then, than mathematics?

It is. I don’t think, although he was a good mathematician, I don't think that that helped him so much in becoming World Champion. I think it was his understanding. He had a very deep understanding of chess, and in particular, he had the ability to create deceptive positions on the chessboard, ones in which for example, his opponent looked as though he had the advantage, but in fact he didn’t.

Click here to listen to the interview at the BBC Radio site.



Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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Aard Aard 4/11/2015 08:47
Chess and mathematics aren't different areas. Chess is part of mathematics. John Nunn should know that!
In fact, if I play chess, I'm doing mathematics.
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