Jon Speelman: Sensible decision making

by Jonathan Speelman
1/21/2024 – Since we can’t hope to emulate the calculating ability of modern engines, what we must do is to plough a sensible course, in which we calculate as much as possible within the constraints of the time limit, aiming for positions to play in which we feel reasonably comfortable. There’s little advantage in going for some horrifically complicated line in which the machine is very happy but we feel seasick! | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Tata Steel Chess

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Ploughing a sensible course

[Note that Jon Speelman also looks at the content of the article in video format, here embedded at the end of the article.]

Robert HübnerThree decades ago, when I was one of Nigel Short’s seconds for his 1993 World Championship match with Garry Kasparov, my main sparring partner was Robert Hübner (pictured).

Nigel was taking Garry on in some incredibly sharp Najdorfs after 6.Bc4, and following our fundamental chess natures, Robert took on the role of matter, accepting material as Black and then defending himself while I represented energy, trying to blow him away. This was all before serious computer analysis took over — and the wonderful defender that he is, Robert very often confounded me.

When really strong computers did develop (and soon became available to all), the initial effect was to reduce our human belief in the power of attack, as they seemed to be able to hold almost any position. Much later, Alpha Zero and its cousins came along, and suddenly long-term attacks were all the rage. Though more recently still the pendulum has swung a little way back to defence as the best engines — which now combine both “classical” computer chess approaches and the AlphaZero “Monte Carlo” method — have reasserted themselves.

From a human perspective, we can’t hope to emulate the machine’s calculating ability (though the young titans do a much more thorough job of calculation than in my day). And what we must do is to plough a sensible course, in which we calculate as much as possible within the constraints of the time limit and our own energy levels and aim for positions to play in which we feel reasonably comfortable — there’s little advantage in going for some horrifically complicated line in which the machine is very happy but we feel seasick!

This means that I would much rather have a pleasant positional advantage with a safe king than be a piece up and completely winning according to our silicon lords and masters, but have to find some difficult only moves. But it’s only a personal preference, and if I were still a ferocious young player, confident in my calculating ability under pressure, then I might take the latter.

The important thing is to make decisions based both on the position on the board and your own preferences, and I’m looking today at a couple of examples of this from Wijk and my own very slight but still interesting game last Sunday at the 4NCL.

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Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.
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