07 July 2015

The Spirit of Greco

Should aspiring chess players study the games of players who have been dead for more than a century? In an interview conducted while he was World Champion, Vladimir Kramnik answered in the affirmative.
I think that if a player wants to achieve much, he should live through the entire history of chess in his thoughts. I can't explain it from a purely logical standpoint, but in my opinion, you have to experience the entire history.
Vladimir Kramnik, 2004*
The interviewer probed further, asking whether it was useful to go back as far as Gioachino Greco. Kramnik did not think Greco was necessary because Greco's games are only the basics of chess, but he thought aspiring players should know the games of Philidor, Anderssen, and Morphy.

Max Euwe expressed a similar view of the importance of chess history. He asserted in The Development of Chess Style (1966) that an individual player's development and chess history follow parallel courses. The longest and most difficult is the first stage, which Euwe characterizes as "excursions with the pieces" (1). Players succeed when they take advantage of the opportunities presented by opponents, opportunities, "such as winning a piece" (1). Greco embodies this first stage, he suggests.

Euwe annotates two of Greco's games. In another 300+ volumes in my library, I look in vain for annotations of Greco's games. Several books make passing reference to his collections, usually by noting that some tactical idea or opening move "has been known since Greco." Garry Kasparov, My Great Predecessors, Part I (2003) is a notable exception. On the first page of chapter 1, he presents a synopsis of Euwe's argument (without attribution) and four Greco games. In two of the games, he offers a small number of suggested improvements. But Kasparov offers no verbal annotations, no detailed analysis.

Euwe also offers one game by Andre Philidor. Philidor's games, too, are mostly absent from other books. In Philidor's case, however, many more writers mention his contribution towards understanding the centrality of pawns to chess strategy. Kasparov offers one game fragment from Philidor with annotations. His views align well with Kramnik's concerning the merits of Philidor.

Last week, however, DHL brought an exciting new book hot off the presses that offers fresh annotations of the second of the two Greco games featured in Euwe's classic. This new book is Chess Informant 124. In this volume is the tenth installment of Mihail Marin's column, "Old Wine in New Bottles."**

Marin sets out to contextualize the explosion of information that we observe in this era of computers. He challenges a common belief that this explosion is without precedent. He recalls similar claims in opening monographs of the 1970s and 1980s. Even the first systematic opening reference, Handbuch des Schachspiels (1843) describes an explosion of information in its day.

Marin's does not stop at simply challenging perceptions that our age is unique due to a massive increase in the information available to us. He also traces the development of new ideas with the point of showing that they are not so new after all. Tracing the continuities between old and new offers an affirmation of the value of studying classic games.
In every game, there comes a moment when a novelty inevitably pops up, but one cannot be sure that the idea behind it has not been played before.
Mihail Marin, Informant 124, 82.
Marin's focus in Informant 124 is the Italian Opening, particularly the Giuoco Fortissimo. He begins with Nakamura -- Giri, Khanty-Mansiysk 2015.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.cxd4 Bb4+

White must either Block the check or move his king. Greco blocked with 7.Nc3 and these days 7.Bd2 is preferred. Nakamura, however, played a relatively rare move: 7.Nbd2, which sacrifices a pawn. I can find approximately one hundred instances of this move in my database.

Black to move

After 7...Nxe4, Nakamura shows that he is playing in the spirit of Greco with 8.d5, "fighting for space and an advance in development" (83).

After Nakamura -- Giri, Marin offers analysis of one of Greco's best games. Then, there is another game from Khanty-Mansiysk. Jobava -- Grischuk featured 6.e5 d5, which the author notes is reminiscent of several games played by Morphy and Anderssen. Jobava repeated his opening experiment in a later round of the same event, and Marin refers readers to the column by Sarunas Sulskis, where that game in analyzed in depth.

"Old Wine in New Bottles" continues with an instructive game when Marin lost on the Black side of the not so quiet Italian Game, and then a World Championship game where Karpov employed the quieter line with 5.d3 for the purpose of torturing Korchnoi. But this quieter line still permitted fortissimo in Bologan -- Marin, Bucharest 1990 (a friendly blitz game). Marin finishes the article with a third game of his own and then Dubois -- Steinitz, London 1862, which had been one of my study games a few months ago (see "Some Miniatures").

Marin's column offers a good mix of old and new, of famous games and those less well-known. His ongoing column builds the logical argument that Kramnik deferred in his 2004 interview.

*The interview in Russian in available at e3e5.com. There are several English translations online. Because the English is smoother, I have employed the one posted by Spektrowski on Chess.com.

**Marin's column first appeared in Informant 114 and has appeared in every issue except 121 since.

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