Study of the Month - Jan Sprenger: Philosopher and Problemist

by Siegfried Hornecker
9/25/2022 – Last month, we talked about themes that blurred into the philosophical, but also into insanity. Jan Sprenger combines both: His profession is philosophy, his recent mastery of endgame studies is insane. Yours Truly sent a few questionnaires to Jan Sprenger, the results of the interview as well as a selection of his studies is presented below. | Photo: Pixabay + Wikipedia

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Jan Sprenger: Philosopher and Problemist

First, however, we will outline the biographical information: Jan Michael Sprenger (born in 1982), finishing school with Abitur in 1999. First he studied mathematics from 1999 to 2005, while also serving in the military from 2002 to 2003. As a chess player, he was in the "Sportfördergruppe", the section for athletes. He obtained his diploma (roughly equal to Master of Science) with distinction for mathematics in 2005 in Bonn, then went to graduate studies in philosophy. After obtaining his Dr. phil. (PhD) summa cum laude in Bonn in 2008, worked from 2008 to 2017 at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, first as Assistant Professor (2008 to 2013), then as full Professor and from 2014 to 2017 as Director of the research institute TiLPS (Tilburg Center for Moral Philosophy, Epistemology and Philosophy of Science). His main research area is philosophy of science. His and Stephan Hartmann's research monograph "Bayesian Philosophy of Science: Variations on a Theme by the Reverend Thomas Bayes" was published by Oxford University Press in 2019.

The information was taken from his website, partially from the CV there, that is named after the pair of bishops: http://www.laeuferpaar.de (you can find some of his games linked and some of his endgame studies at http://www.laeuferpaar.de/chess.html, including a 2002/2003 Bundesliga win against soon to be FIDE World Champion Rustam Kazimdzhanov).

In the preview of the book we are presented with an interesting choice: There is a sack of balls, of which 50 are red and 50 are black. We are given the choice of winning 100 dollar for each red (gamble A) or each black ball drawn (gamble B).

Another choice is given: There is another sack of balls, where the same colored balls are in unknown proportions, again totaling 100 balls. We can win 100 dollar for each red (gamble A2) or each black ball drawn (gamble B2). Given the choice between those bets A and B, or bets A2 and B2, people tend to be indifferent within each of the two choices (A and B, or A2 and B2), but prefer the first choice, between gamble A or B, to the second choice, between gamble A2 and B2, to avoid ambiguity.

Afterwards, there is another choice: There is a sack of balls of which 30 are red and 60 are black and yellow in unknown propotions, so the sack is totaling 90 balls.

Two choices are given again. The first choice is winning 100 dollar for each red (gamble A) or black (gamble B) ball drawn.

Additionally, the choice is given, with the same sack of balls, between winning 100 dollar for each red or black (gamble C) or black or yellow (gamble D) ball drawn.

Here people tend towards choosing gamble A, which is a certain 30 wins instead of 1 to 59 wins, and D, which are a certain 60 wins, over C, which could range between 31 and 89 wins. This seems to violate utility principles however based on the idea that if a player thinks he is more likely to draw black than yellow balls, he would choose A and C, and if he thinks he is more likely to draw a yellow than a black ball, he would choose B and D. The finding, called the Ellsberg Paradox, points towards eliminating ambiguity instead of sticking to the choice made. This is preferred to risk aversion, as the risk would be the same for A and C and for B and D.

One theory thinks that people might be afraid of being deceived by the experimenter, even though he has no way of influencing the sack of balls after offering the gambles.

This is explained in detail in the book and the Wikipedia article on the Ellsberg Paradox, better than Yours Truly would be able to explain it.

Due to the nature of this month's article, or rather interview, the text this time is longer than usual. We will return to shorter texts again next month.

The interview

I likely annoyed Jan by sending first a bunch of questions, later formulating a questionnaire, in three parts, instead. Jan kindly replied to the questions, and was also allowed to strike some he didn't want included. The results are shown below, thankfully he replied in English already, so I only had to translate some of my questions and reorder the questions when this improved readability. The first part was meant to be about the personal life and chess, the second part more about chess composition, and the third part about philosophy and other questions. Of course, those overlap at times. The replies as well as a file with his endgame studies was received on 8 September 2022.

In the following text, the questions of Yours Truly are in bold, the replies by Jan Sprenger are in standard typeset. Additional information by Yours Truly is in Italics after Jan Sprenger's text. Where Jan indicated it, we included a fragment from one of his games. The full game and others are at the end of the article, as well as a selection of his endgame studies.

Part 1: Person and player

You were born in 1982, so you will turn 40 in a few months. I was born in 1986, played chess since 1992, started composing in 1998, first published study in 2003. You started composing much later. When did you start playing chess and how did your career develop? 

I learned chess at the age of six years or so, and quickly made progress in the local chess club (Klub Kölner Schachfreunde 1967, known as KKS). Like many talents in Germany at the same, I studied basically by myself, though I had also lessons at the club until the age of 14. Later, I was invited to training weekends organized by the state chess federation (i.e., of the "Bundesland" NRW, not at the federal level) together with other kids. 

My sort-of-breakthrough was the Cappelle la Grande open tournament in 2001. I was an 18-year-old 2300+ player like many others, but in that tournament, things just worked out for me. I made my first IM norm with a 2500 performance. With exuberant self-confidence, I played even better one month later in Bad Wörishofen and at the end of the year, I became an International Master. 

Bundesland is comparable to a state.

You represented Germany internationally in 2002 in over-the-board play. This is a great honor and responsibility that you took a year after gaining the FIDE title of International Master. How was it for you to play the Mitropa Cup in Leipzig 2002?

I was very happy to play, of course. The team was stronger than usual because Germany was the host nation and I played with Lutz, Hübner, Graf and Döttling in the same team. I was about to enter the German Army for one year in the athletes group, and federal coach Uwe Bönsch invited me to play on the reserve board. It was great to be in a team with all those strong players. Moreover, conversations with Robert Hübner in particular are always interesting regardless of the topic!

How did your play develop from there?

My progress was rather slow and I struggled to push my rating over the 2500 threshold. Strong players started to take me seriously, prepared better and took less risks than before. Moreover, I always had trouble to beat weaker players. I gained some rating points year by year, but more slowly than I was hoping. 

Only in 2005/2006 the quality of my play increased significantly, and I scored my first GM norm in the Bundesliga, beating for example Alexey Shirov and Bartosz Socko. I also had good results in individual tournaments and my rating was clearly over 2500 for a long time. But then I squandered the chance for a second GM norm in the last round of the 2006 ECC against Hannes Stefansson. I sensed that there was a forced win, but failed to discover it, invested too much time, and later barely managed to hold a draw. 

 

This was unfortunate because after that tournament, I was increasingly busy with my PhD and played very little. The Bundesliga season 2007/08 turned out to be a complete disaster: 1,5/10. I was not very motivated anyway and of course, the high number of losses destroyed my self-confidence and I played even worse. 

At that point, you moved abroad to the Netherlands. From 2008 to 2017, you were working at the University of Tilburg, and afterwards (since 2017) in Turin. It seems that these responsibilities were also conflicting with your chess career and prevented you from making further progress. Is that correct?

Yes and no. Even as a full-time professional player, my “ceiling” would probably have been around 2600. But a professional career was nothing I desired. When I moved to Tilburg in 2008, I had seen enough and wanted to focus on my career as an Assistant Professor in philosophy of science. So I played few games a year, and most of them in a local team which was more motivated by having fun together than by results (De Stukkenjagers, Tilburg).

Despite this, you became a Grandmaster in 2018. How much did you keep working on your chess to reach said title?

I changed attitude when Jan-Willem de Jong, a Dutch IM whom I know well, asked me in 2013 to join LSG, the Leidsche Schaakgenootschap. Probably I would not have become a grandmaster without that team. They were passionate about playing and even more so about preparing openings (something I never understood...). With their help, and the support of Arthur Pijpers in particular, I managed to overhaul my opening repertoire and started to play more aggressively again. I also played more tournaments. And so my results got better and I achieved the GM title in 2018, achieving the two missing norms at the ECCs in 2016 and 2017. 

When you had major increases in strength, what were the secrets or methods to increase strength (such as books, training methods, etc.)?

I started out as a purely tactical player and so it was definitely useful when Guido Kern, an IM and  regional coach in the federal state of NRW, showed us kids the books and methods of Dvoretsky and Jussupow. Finally we learned about prophylaxis, second weakness and other things. Today they appear elementary, but back then nobody at my club knew about them. Later, I benefited from books focusing on complex middlegame problems, strategic and tactical, with exercises. Of course, I also studied endgames and worked on my openings. But the middlegame was always my favorite part of the game.

Generally, I was making most progress when I had other people of similar strength around me, with whom I could do joint training or play tournaments. Christian Seel and Dennis Breder in Germany, later Arthur Pijpers, Robin Swinkels and Edwin van Haastert in the Netherlands. I was never good at working by myself, or perhaps I did so in an inefficient manner. Input from other strong players, by contrast, or playing with them in a team competition, inspired me a lot. 

Related: Yours Truly has an Elo around 2000 and will never get much higher, as he retired from trying to achieve greatness in practical play. If he was still 18, same Elo, and wanted to get stronger, what would be your advice? Which kind of training or books would you recommend?

Well, if I were 18 again, I would do other things than trying to improve my chess. ;)  Jokes aside, anything from Dvoretsky, Marin or Aagaard is great, and I also liked Popov’s “Chess Lessons” as a systematic training book. 

What are your current and future plans for your practical play?

None. I am struggling to find the energy and the motivation required for practical play at high level. I still play reasonably well, but I make too many gross blunders. Missing concentration and mental discipline. This is extremely frustrating. Moreover, I have stopped to spend time on maintaining my opening repertoire, but of course, this is nowadays essential at high levels. I have therefore made the decision to withdraw from practical play. Perhaps I come back at some point, who knows.

Practical play is tense, produces high levels of adrenaline. In some positions, every move is a walk on a thin path. There are many beautiful combinations in practical play. Are there any favorite combinations you want to show to our readers, be they well-known or lesser known, from own games or those of others, recent or long past?

Of course, I will be happy to show some enjoyable combinations from my own games. The all-time classics can be found in a good book.

 

Gleizerov-Sprenger, 2011

 

 

Sprenger-van Wely, 2016 (Dutch Team Cup)

 

 

Sprenger-Sadhikov, 2017

 

Unfortunately, most full points in chess are not gained by a beautiful combination, but by grinding down an opponent over hours, or simply by “unforced errors” and blunders.

We included those games in the game list at the end.

When did you start composing? According to hhdbvi, your first published endgame study was in 2012. Is that correct?

Yes! It emerged from the analysis of a rook endgame after a team match in the Dutch competition. At the time, I had no idea of principles of composition. The result was so-so, but Yochanan Afek accepted it for publication in “The Problemist”, probably out of kindness.

In the following years, I was focusing more on practical play, as explained above. Only after I obtained the GM title in 2018, I returned to composition. But my skills were extremely limited. Captures, exchanges, and technical pawns all over the place.

The breakthrough came in the first Covid lockdown. I had more time for chess and sent some of my studies to Michael Prusikin, a strong German grandmaster and occasional study composer. Michael referred me to Martin Minski who told me that my works were rubbish, but not completely devoid of interesting ideas. And he taught me how to compose! Martin’s advice was invaluable to my development as a composer. We also composed several studies together.

Do you only compose endgame studies, or do you also create works in other genres?

I have composed a handful of direct mate problems, but completely without ambition and just for entertaining some chessplaying friends of mine.

Chess history might have gone a different way if Smyslov was accepted as a full time opera singer. There is the story that he would have stopped playing hcess in 1950 if he would not have been rejected by the Bolshoi Theatre. We would have wondered if that famous baritone might ever have become World Champion. As it is, he published his CD that translates to "Operatic Arias" in 1997. To me, such little stories around chess make it such a fascinating game even aside from the board. Do you also enjoy such stories, or do you rather focus on the game itself?

I love such stories, too! 

If you enjoy such anecdotes, let us know a few of your favorites, please.

Nothing that comes to mind immediately. Probably I should just open one of Sosonko’s books and remember.

As a Grandmaster in Germany, you are in a long tradition spanning from World Chess Championship contender Bogoljubow---Lasker died before the title was created---to young masters like Rasmus Svane. Many of those masters have "personalities" they are known for (at least to Yours Truly) apart from their long games: Jepischin as the rapid chess player, Hort as the TV commenter, Hübner as a Greek philologist and as a “scientific” chess author, Tischbierek as chess journalist, Prusikin as youth trainer and endgame study composer. You establish your name as philosopher and also endgame study composer. Internationally, many masters of practical play also composed and compose endgame studies, be it Yochanan Afek, Genrikh Kasparyan, or even world champions like the aforementioned Emanuel Lasker and Vasily Smyslov, who doubled as a great opera singer.

It is of course nice to stand in this tradition, but let’s be clear: nobody will remember me as a chessplayer. I hope that some of the work in philosophy of science and some of my studies will remain.

One comment on Kasparyan, since you name him: he is recognized as one of the best composers of all times, if not /the/ best, but he was also an amazingly strong practical player, almost on a par with the world elite. In Pärnu 1947, for example, he finished with +2 in a tournament featuring almost all of the Soviet elite of those days. 

https://www.chessgames.com/perl/chess.pl?tid=41687

It would be interesting to see what would happen if one of the top players---perhaps an imaginative player like Richard Rápport or Levon Aronian---stopped practical play and devoted himself to chess studies. Perhaps we can also convince Judit Polgár to return to composition. At the moment she does a great service to the community by organizing various endgame study events. 

There is a study by Aronian, Sumbatyan and Pervakov from 2015, so Jan's wish might come true one day. Who knows...

Part 2: Endgame studies and problems

As a composer, what fascinates you about endgame studies?

I was always fascinated by endgame studies and used to solve them a lot when I was more active as an OTB player. To solve them, you need fantasy combined with precise calculation and stamina, and the result is often very rewarding. As a composer, I like the combination of aesthetic and scientific elements and the challenge of finding the optimal form for a given idea.

How exactly does the creative process work for you (it is different for everyone)? What exactly happens until the endgame study is completed?

The hardest part is having a good idea. An idea which could be the core of a good study, and which is not too trivial or anticipated by others. When I stumble on such a good idea, I am restless until I have found the optimal form for it. I try different versions in order to check where I can solve a technical problem or find a thematic introduction, and so on. Usually this works quite well. It is tougher to finish off a study based on an idea which is too good for the trash bin, but too mediocre for a real gem. Then a lot depends on your skills as a composer.

Your first endgame study in the database of Harold van der Heijden is from 2012. Two questions about it: What was the reason to compose an endgame study? What gave the idea for the rook manoeuver at the beginning?

This very first study was the product of an analysis of a game of my teammate Mark Clijsen again Josefina Paulet in the Dutch team competition. I composed it without having any idea of aesthetic principles or the history of the endgame study, apart from knowing the studies I solved as an exercise for practical play.

The next study in the database is from the year 2018. It seems that only then you really begun to compose endgame studies?

Yes, in 2017-19 I turned from time to time to study composition, still as an absolute amateur and without ambition.

There seems to be a strategic dual, i.e. it can be won slowly instead of tactical. Is there a correction of the 2018 study?

Absolutely. John Nunn, the judge for the “Problemist”, cooked the study, but gave me the chance to save it and I found a correction. The corrected study is also aesthetically more appealing, but still nothing special. Commendation level in my view, but I also understand that Nunn did not include it into the award.

Then in 2020 your production seems to have been exploded. Was there a special reason?

The answer is simple: Covid. I happened to be at my parents’ place when the first lockdown started, and since restrictions in Italy were much stricter, I had no incentive to leave. Since research collaborations slowed down due to the pandemic and meeting friends was difficult, I had more free time for chess. And so I started to compose seriously and to really work on my compositions.

One study names R. Swinkels as co-author, this likely is the Dutch GM Robert Swinkels. How did this cooperation come to pass?

Robin is a good friend of mine from my time in the Netherlands. He is also interested in endgame studies (and he has talent, in my view), but he devotes less time to it. From time to time, we exchange ideas or help each other on schemes.

Sadly there is no thematic try with bKg4 instead bKg5, leading to stalemate. But this would be asking for too much in a study with two phases. Did this study originate from a game?

That would be asked too much since the main idea of the study concerns the fight of the two rooks against the queen. The final with rook against pawns is essentially a “Nachspiel”. It is good that the play is pointed, but I would not look for a thematic try.

The next study from the traditional magazine "Československý šach" shows a known positional draw in two forms. The variation 1.-g1Q shows a form that was new to me. What was the inspiration for the study?

I wanted to show something with the bishop pair since I always loved it as a practical player. I even chose “www.laeuferpaar.de” as the domain for my personal homepage. I liked the study back in the days, but now I got a bit disenchanted with it. The construction is heavy and it is all about the unexpected key move. 

The final study in the database won the 2nd honorable mention in the FIDE World Cup. It seems to be in classical style, nicely built. We see a high evolution in your composing despite only few studies. Is there a secret, or was this luck when it works out exactly as intended?

This is the best study I composed before Martin taught me composition and before I started reading articles and books about it. But there is a lot of crap from that period which ended up unpublished, and rightfully so. Or later Martin took the original scheme, cleaned it from all the rubbish and made it into something new and interesting. Like our honorable mention at the Nadeirishvili MT. Compare the original and the final version in order to see which difference he made!

[Jan removed a question about another of his studies.]

My sources say you still work together with Martin Minski. He regards you very highly. How does your cooperation go? [Question shortened compared to what I sent to Jan.]

In the beginning I was just suggesting ideas and Martin did the rest because I did not have the necessary technical competence. Nowadays the exchange is on equal footing, involving discussions about in which priorities we want to set (originality, elegance, economy, solvability, …). It is always interesting to work with Martin, but my style has developed into a direction which is different from his, which means we often have (friendly!) clashes of opinion.

What classics did you study? Which composers, books, etc. influenced your study composing?

As a composer, I am very much fascinated by the Latvian composer (and extremely strong OTB player) Herman Mattison. He always prioritizes content and originality over effect, and he also has a great technique and capacity for rigorous analysis. Moreover, they are very instructive, which I appreciate as an OTB player. Some of his studies are very deep, especially when considering that they were composed without computer. Similar things can be said about Kasparyan. I really like his selected endgame studies, published in German as “Zauber des Endspiels”.

How would you describe your style of composing?

Classical. Up to the point that some experts like Serhiy Didukh tell me that my works “smell of old times”. I am following the rather classicist principles laid down by Abram Gurvich in his book “Etyudi”. Like Gurvich, I am skeptical of original achievements or “breakthroughs” which come at the price of ruining the economy of a study. My favorite type of material is 9-10 chessmen with 3-4 pieces (plus the kings). I also have some miniatures I really like [=studies with exactly seven pieces], for example the pawn ending from EG or the fourth prize from the Pervakov-60 JT, but for some reason, I have not been composing them any more recently.

Sometimes you also judge study tournaments. What is important for you as a judge?

I do not like studies without a clear guiding idea and without original components. I also hate it when a study is comprehensible only to computers. Finally, I do not like violent play, heavy construction and studies where a non-thematic introduction takes a lot of space. This sounds very strict, but nonetheless, I like a lot of studies! From the recent WCCI, Oleg Pervakov and Serhiy Didukh’s no. 1, and Steffen Nielsen’s no. 6 have impressed me a lot. Also less known composers have made excellent studies recently.

After the interview was conducted, Steffen Slumstrup Nielsen won the current WCCI. I will have to write more on those tourneys in a future issue of this column.

Chess composition is a wide field. On those (not always) 64 squares uncountable adventures in all colors and forms can be experienced. Do you completely stay at endgame studies, or do you try to compose in other genres?

I am sometimes composing simple mates in 3 or 4 for my chessplaying friends. But Martin Minski assured me that I should not try to publish them. ;)

Part 3: 42?

Your occupation is philosopher, as I understand?

Exactly. I graduated in mathematics, but during my studies I became interested in philosophy of science---specifically, mathematical models of scientific reasoning---and so I decided to do a PhD in philosophy of science, too. Since I found the questions I encountered intellectually challenging, and since I like to work autonomously, I opted for an academic career.

- In the past you answered for ChessBase, i.e. this project "Study of the Month", questions about aesthetics in chess. Did anything change about this answer since then? (The mentioned article.)

Yes, I was---and still am---afraid that the cultural aspects of chess, such as knowledge of history and  sportsmanship, but also appreciation of aesthetic elements, are giving way to a purely competitive mentality where it is all about the winner. Of course chess is a competitive game, but there is more about it than the result! Studies are a nice way to see this, but we need to reach out more to the general (chessplaying) public! Fortunately, there are people like Yochanan Afek, whose latest book tries to promote enthusiasm for chess studies among normal players. 

Jan had also written an interesting article in the German magazine "Schach" in 2020 where he expressed this fear.

Philosophy is a science of the mind tat seemingly has no directly useful results in other sections of science. In mathematics, however, there are often unexpected interconnections that surprise even the mathematicians (an example is how Fermat's Last Theorem was solved). That philosophy has interconnections to itself, is clear, but how are the connections to other sciences?

Within my discipline, philosophy of science, there are many connections to the sciences. First of all, because we study scientific reasoning in all its forms. Second, because there subfields like philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of medicine, and so on. They investigate foundational questions of the respective disciplines (e.g., the nature of spacetime, the definition of what is a species), but also deal with applied issues, such as how we should conduct clinical trials in medicine.

One of the questions bothering Yours Truly since childhood is the simple: "What is time?" Science still seems to have no sufficient answer to this question, despite having some knowledge about it.

My friend Alexander George runs the website askphilosophers.org from which multiple books spawned. Such a project, allowing everyone to ask their questions to philosophers and receiving a public reply, found positive resonance worldwide. Would this be possible in other languages as well (if there are enough voluntary philosophers answering questions)?

Of course! English is our lingua franca, and it has the advantage of being clear and widespread, but there is nothing that ties philosophical contents to a specific language.

Who are revered philosophers that you don't necessarily agree with, but sho shaped you or whose personal studying would also be recommended to non-philosophers? Personally I was impressed by Thomas Nagel's essay "The Absurd".

I disagree with a lot of what Karl Popper wrote, but he launched a number of important ideas: what distinguishes open from closed (totalitarian) societies, the idea of piecemeal engineering as opposed to utopian reforms, and so on. He is the example of a philosopher of science who also tried to apply his insights to more general societal questions. His “The Open Society and Its Enemies” was an influential book back in the days and it may deserve a renaissance.

At the end we want to have another chess question: Which questions, where philosophy and chess intersect, should be known by everyone, and what - if applicable - are the answers?

I don’t think they exist. However, playing chess is a school for life, and many lessons you learn as a chessplayer---how to prepare for an important encounter, how to deal with defeats, how to keep your composure, etc.---are also questions which have always been addressed by philosophers, from the Greeks onwards.

Yours Truly refers readers to "The Morals of Chess" by Benjamin Franklin for a small discussion about chess by a philosopher. Other books about philosophy and chess exist, such as "Philosophy looks at Chess" by Benjamin Hale. But judging from Jan's answer, this seems to be rather the exception?

I promised it to our readers: The music group "The Killers" asks in one of their songs: "Are we human, or are we dancer?" How can this question be interpreted, what is the answer? Is the human indeed only a human where he plays, as Friedrich von Schiller once said?

I would need more context to understand the question clearly, and I don’t think it makes sense, if asked so generally. There is no experiment or observation which could settle the question once and for all. That’s a boring answer, of course, but we philosophers of science try to do philosophy with a scientific mindset. Leaving behind my professional background for a moment, however, I can tell you that I like dancing!

You gotta learn to dance before you learn to crawl, as Meat Loaf once said. Yours Truly thanks Jan Sprenger for patiently answeing all the questions!

With this we coclude our interview and also this month's article. More information about Jan Sprenger can be found on his "Läuferpaar" website which was linked thrice in this article, if you include this sentence. The site is in English.

 

Links:


Siegfried (*1986) is a German chess composer and member of the World Federation for Chess Composition, subcommitee for endgame studies. His autobiographical book "Weltenfern" (in English only) can be found on the ARVES website. He presents an interesting endgame study with detailed explanation each month.

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