Beyond the System
Could the lessons of chess show football the way to an exciting new future?
“Conjure a mental image of the Parthenon,” our philosophy teacher instructed us.
So we did, remembering a postcard, an engraving, or, for the lucky ones, a trip to the Acropolis. We could picture the fluted columns, the frieze, the azure sky above the surge of stones.
“Now — count the columns at the front of the building, and tell me how many there are.”
The best we could do was to hazard a guess. The crystal-clear images had dissolved into a blur. Focusing was impossible. The point of the exercise was to understand what makes eidetic memory — the capacity to recall an event or a concatenation of particulars with the precision of a camera which can be positioned at will — an almost-incomprehensible concept for those who aren’t blessed or damned with it. My own mind swam for moment. How could I see and be blinded at the same time? I was drowning in an image I’d thought I owned, but was incapable of deconstructing it, experiencing the same kind of nausea I’d felt at a chess board when lost in what is called a ’tree of variations’, when the shape of that tree explodes into an infinity of branches, each of them carrying an infinity of leaves, where every spurt of wood is a crossroad leading to an infinity of paths which lead nowhere but to estrangement from oneself, and fear.
I was a decent chess player, good enough to compete at regional level satisfactorily, a diligent trainer who spent his six hours at the board every day and subscribed to the Soviet magazine 64, from which I cut out every single game played by my hero, the Jewish ‘Wizard of Riga’, Mikhail Tal, after whom I optimistically modelled my own reckless brand of ultra-attacking chess. What attracted me to Tal, apart from the brilliance of his combinational play, which has never been and will never be surpassed, was that even a moderate pawn-pusher could elevate his understanding of the game by re-playing his moves, to such a degree that structures of bewildering complexity suddenly acquired the clarity of sunlight pouring through the high windows of a cathedral. There were many other reasons to love Tal. On one occasion, while in Belgrade, he sacrificed a piece ‘speculatively’ to ensure a swift conclusion to a game (which he lost), in order to watch the end of a USSR-Yugoslavia football match on television. Misha, as we all referred to him, was born with three fingers on his right hand and a dodgy kidney (which had to be removed); he was a chain-smoker, an Olympic-strength vodka and whisky drinker, a dazzler of women, as well as a fine pianist and an authority on the satirical plays of Ilf and Petrov.
Tal’s capacity to make the less-gifted feel as if they shared his own enjoyment and understood his own perception of the game was exceptional, but not unique, and is not restricted to chess. In football, from high in the stands, you can see the ‘right’ pass, the ‘right’ off-the-ball movement which will unbalance a defence that is perfectly organised to repel expected threats, but cannot cope with a sudden transformation of space. Dennis Bergkamp could do that, with a cross-field pass which might not have looked that special on a television screen, but had the power to define a new, unexpected dynamic which, to the spectator, answered all questions at once. Technique was a pre-requisite, but not the determining factor; spatial awareness was, of a kind which defies mere analysis, could not be reduced to computation, and yet, could be revelled in by ordinary mortals.
It is commonly thought — outside of the game, it should be said — that it is the power to ‘see’ and calculate variations several moves ahead that distinguishes the exceptional players from the merely competent. When Sol Campbell once compared Thierry Henry to a chess grandmaster, this is precisely what he had in mind. What, to his Arsenal teammate, made Henry special was his ability to weigh the consequences of the choices that were offered to him before he’d even received the ball, and, once he’d identified the correct decision (almost instantly, which might explain why we feel that great sportsmen have the power to bend time at will) to shape his body in order to execute the right move to perfection. It is a tempting simile, but it is misleading, as the train of thought of chess players follows a different track, one, indeed, that is much closer to that of footballers than you’d think.
It was once accepted, in the so-called ‘Romantic’ age of chess, which more or less coincided with that of Richard Wagner in music, that the supreme gift of grandmasters lay in their capacity to conceive long combinations that could not be refuted by their adversaries and led to an unavoidable win. The announcement of mate in so many moves, which, if correct, signalled the end of the game there and then, was considered the finest and most elegant demonstration of the chess player’s artistry at the board. Such a notion would be dismissed today. A number of experiments conducted with skilled amateurs and world-class practitioners have demonstrated that the power to visualise a sequence of forced moves is not what distinguishes the two classes of players. When presented with an identical position, more often than not, they’ll make the same suggestion. Chess, just like football, requires constant practice from a young age, even if, in the case of chess, most of that practice consists in the assimilation of theory — particularly of openings and endgame technique — to the point when choosing a particular move becomes as natural as the placement of the standing foot when executing a free-kick on the training ground, or the pass that you know will find a teammate you cannot see, as it’s been drilled into each member of your squad that such-and-such a run should be attempted in such-and-such a passage of play. As the Secret Footballer has put it, “football at this level is very chess-like, maybe not to those outside of football but certainly to those inside”, which makes me think that Secret Footballer is no stranger to the laws of the ‘sport of kings’. Automation. Memorisation. Execution. Victory.
But memorisation, be it the programming of mind, or body, or both, these experiments concluded, was not the secret of success, though some succeeded that way. Memory certainly played its part. Chess history is replete with prodigious mnemonic feats: Tal once ad-libbed a full (and accurate) tournament review on the telephone, complete with diagrams and variations, for his Latvian magazine despite having forgotten he had a column to write that evening, without the help of notes or game-sheets. The capacity to regurgitate information that had been acquired by study alone could lead to crushing victories over opponents whose preparation hadn’t been that thorough. This is hardly surprising when you think that most popular openings have been analysed beyond the twenty-fifth move, with the help of computer software which is far more sophisticated than ProZone and its competitors in football. This was seen as a sure sign that chess, as a sport, was, if not dead, then entering the final stages of its agony. Gone was the golden age of Tal and his peers of the great post-Second World War Soviet school, who, reacting to the so-called scientific approach of the regime’s favourite world champion, Mikhail Botvinnik, played chess characterised by its daring and its imagination. We were entering an era of men-machines, super-computers in suits, the assassins and undertakers of a once-glorious game which could not survive that onslaught of algorithms. Moneyball on sixty-four squares. But we were wrong.
The outstanding player of this age, the Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, who recently took Wisthanatan Anand’s world title in a crushing manner, has contributed to this reversal of values and convictions more than anyone else. Carlsen knows his stuff. He has, like thousands of others, instant recall of what happened when X beat Y with a ‘new’ move in a tournament contested years ago. His laptop is packed to the gills with a myriad games and variations. What distinguishes him is his combativity, his desire to find life in what would be considered a ‘dead’ position by lesser, less hungry competitors, in which he is the heir of Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941), a world champion for whom chess had more to do with prize-fighting than with crossword puzzle-solving. Carlsen also possesses, to a supreme degree, the quality that the experiments I mentioned above highlighted as the key difference between the good and the great: the holistic appreciation of potentialities within a stasis. He is at one with the eidos. He does not lose himself in ‘trees of variations’. He seldom calculates sequences of more than two or three moves (Tal was the same), unless that sequence is in itself indicative of the nature of a position, and reveals weaknesses he can exploit should play develop in unexpected fashion, as far as the actual moves are concerned. His objective is to present his adversary with questions he will struggle with and ultimately fail to answer, sometimes deliberately aiming for ‘dead’ positions to which his opponent’s mistakes will give a faint pulse of life. This, is turn, would be impossible if he didn’t have an all-encompassing, but not omniscient grasp of the board. That distinction is key, and if you think I’m drifting further and further away from football, please think again. Carlsen is Bergkamp, but he’s also Bergkamp’s manager. It is one thing to be presented with a map and be able to read it, the finger following a planned itinerary; it is quite another to perceive it as a single (and, in the case of chess, football, or any other sport), coherent entity. When presented with the equivalent of dots and staves, chess masters and great football players do not decipher a score, they hear it. They conduct it too. As to how they do it, even to themselves, it is a mystery. They will insist on the necessity to rehearse, to repeat the same exercises over and over until they become second nature, instinct, intuition; but that, surely, is only a starting point, or, more accurately, the point at which talent or genius can take wing. Wayne Rooney put it beautifully when he described the pitch as a place he could picture in his mind, with ‘22 tiny people dancing on it’. I’ve been told this quote was apocryphal, but refuse to believe it. The secret must be there, surely. Blue is not just a mass of photons, a primary colour which can be explained away by the prismatic deconstruction of light. It is, first and foremost, blue. A poet might be better qualified to write about it than the chap mixing chemicals at the local Dulux centre.
Where chess has moved on, albeit relatively recently, football stalls. Analysis, some of it revealing, most of it arid, repetitive and oddly conformist, has taken over. The questions we ask when confronted with the chaos of a football game, and how we witness it, and re-assert some sort of authority (same root as ‘author’, not so incidentally) are questions which have been at the forefront of chess theory for decades. Similes between the two games are easy to come by. At least one book has been devoted to them, and I can think of many other correspondences which could be called upon. It’s a pity (perhaps), that ‘Zugzwang’ has yet to be used in a football context, for example. In chess, this word is used when an opponent cannot make a move without weakening his own position and suffering from the fatal consequences thereof. We could summon the spirit of the ‘boa constrictor’ Tigran Petrosian, the Armenian Jew whose own game was based on subtle, yet relentless pressing; or of Viktor Korchnoi, who was the first player who systematised the wilful relinquishing of control and possession in order to counter-attack at speed. You could also equate rooks positioned on the seventh rank with wingers about to cross the ball from the corner flag, bishops zooming across the board like so many Platinis searching for and finding so many Bonieks, and so on. Such comparisons are thirteen a dozen, and quite fun to make too. We might as well throw in Norway’s own CB Fry in the mix, Simon Agdestein, the only man ever to represent his country at both football (nine caps) and chess (seven appearances at the Olympiads). What larks!
However, if chess has anything to teach football, it is not through correspondences. It is through the way it has outgrown a sterile, almost suicidal acceptance of systematicity. Revealingly, one of chess’s most influential treaties remains Aron Nimzowitch’s Mein System (My System), published in 1925. Nimzowitsch, another Riga-born Jew, never won the world title, but opened the game to new ways of thinking much as Hugo Meisl did for football in the coffee shops of Vienna at the same time. Mein System is still a revolutionary tract. It was the first in a series of five brochures which were never meant to become parts of a manifesto or Ur-text of a new way of apprehending chess. But there is not a single serious chess player on the planet, patzer or grandmaster, who hasn’t read or been influenced by it. Many of its fundamental precepts are now accepted in much the same way as Newton’s laws of gravity are in physics, not as God-given truths any longer, maybe, but as a jolly good effort to enunciate them, still looking for improvements which are not that obvious to come by.
Chess, while it still reveres Nimzowitch, has, however, grown out of systems, insofar as systems have evolved from mechanisms supposedly designed to guarantee dominance to modes of organisation open to investigation and, sometimes, rebuttal. I should clarify at this point that what football describes as ‘tactics’ would be characterised as ‘strategy’ on the board, chess ‘tactics’ being the equivalent of combinational play on the field, and ‘strategy’ on the board the equivalent of ‘tactics’ on the pitch. It wouldn’t take much effort to find almost perfect mirror images of 4-4-2, 4-2-4, 3-5-2 et alia on a chess-board in terms of deployment and use of forces. Chess conceptions such as control/domination of the centre, invasion of the flanks, prophylaxy, could easily be used in the context of football. Conversely, some of football’s modern terminology (gegen-pressing, transitions and the like) could just as easily find a use in chess analysis. But those jeux d’esprit would not amount to much more than an exercise in futility. Take tactical diagrams. In chess, a diagram is the game, no more, no less, in its true form. In football, it is either an illustration of players’ median positions and general direction of play, or a snapshot of movement, often simplified into untruth (the movement of the opponent is hardly ever taken into account, as if this opponent was of no import). It is possible to play chess without a board — it is easier than non-players might think — but I defy you to play ‘mind football’ that is not pure fantasy. What is not fantasy is that, as football drifts more and more towards systematicity, it encounters problems with which chess has been familiar for a very long time indeed, has a far deeper understanding of, and treats with much less dogmatism than is to be found in the rather (to me) bizarre world of football analytics.
Whereas football is now obsessed with numbers when it comes to the management and organisation of space, chess has moved on and found renewed vigour in systems that were considered obsolete a decade ago. When I say ‘systems’, I mean ‘openings’: the way we set ourselves when we kick-off. As black, push your pawn to C5 in response to E4, you define a ‘Sicilian’ dynamic, well-explored, two-edged but still risky if you’re playing ‘away’ (as Black); should you answer pawn to G6, you give yourself time to define the nature of the struggle. Chess is as fluid, if not more fluid, than football. Having stayed away from competitive chess for a long time, I’m surprised to see lines I’d been told were fundamentally inaccurate being used again by top grandmasters, as if some hipster manager had brought the 1880s Scottish passing game back into fashion. The Scotch? Bah! Why not the King’s Gambit? The old giuccio piano, described in sixteenth century manuals, adopted by Carlsen and others? Joke. But systems which were supposed to be antiquated can be re-born. All it takes is a new move. Is surrendering the initiative a bad thing? Not necessarily so. Openings, that is tactical systems (in the football sense), are no longer chosen solely because of their intrinsic soundness, but because of the player’s affinity with the type of positions they lead to, and the problems they create in their opponents’ mind. This is Carlsen speaking: “Above all I like to resolve unconventional tasks at the board. Perhaps that’s why I don’t really like studying the openings — everything starts from the one position. If I don’t have a training session and there’s no upcoming tournament then I don’t study chess at all. And my fundamental chess understanding was formed without machine involvement. That was [my] idea of the struggle. Probably that mood has an effect on my opponents. Mistakes are a consequence of tension.” On one level, Carlsen challenges the views of those people who believe that Wynton Marsalis’s big band is superior to Duke Ellington’s because it is better recorded (I know of one such eccentric); this idea of progress is more commonplace than reason would suggest it, and ridiculing it can’t be a bad thing. More seriously, it is the supremacy of systems-driven thinking that he questions. In a tournament held in the Netherlands at the beginning of 2013, Carlsen, the highest ELO-rated player in the history of chess, adopted the venerable Ponziani opening (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 c3?!) against the grandmaster Pentala Harikrishna and subsequently won. This was far more than a gesture of bravado, far more than Zdeněk Zeman having almost all of his outfield players perched on the halfway line at kick-off like swallows on a telegraph wire. This was the equivalent of Bayern playing Herbert Chapman’s W-M in the Champions League, sticking to the outmoded system throughout the entirety of the match, and winning.
Carlsen is not the first truly world-class chess player to have challenged orthodoxy that way. Tal sometimes chose opening lines (‘tactics’) which were considered dubious at best in order to unbalance opponents whom he knew struggled in unexpected positions, forcing them to think on their feet, time ticking away. Gary Kasparov resurrected the Evans Gambit, a hair-rising variation which had been, or so was thought, analysed to death (its own) in the latter part of the nineteenth century. These greats hadn’t waited for the experiments I mention above to understand that it was their exceptional eidetic perception of the board, comprehension of the dynamics within and capacity to uncoil them with irresistible force which made them champions (as well as their fearlessness and stamina). Carlsen is different is that he has systematised anti-systematicity in a game whose eras could be defined in terms of the pre-eminence or fight for pre-eminence of one type of system over others. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that he has ‘re-invented’ chess, as the principles which guide his play were, as I’ve said already, also that of Lasker’s a century ago. But he has demonstrated the validity of these principles in a game that had been transformed by the accent put on constant use of analytical software and memorisation. Doing that, he has, almost single-handedly, opened up a new age which could be dubbed ‘post-tactical’, in which the once-prevalent notion of system obsolescence has been pushed aside to be replaced by a continuous process of re-evaluation. The ‘new’ moves which breathe life in forgotten or discarded systems often are old ones which have re-acquired relevance through analysis of a more modest kind than previously. Football could learn and profit from a similar type of humility.