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On Chess: Innovation Or Tradition?

Charlie Solorzano | via pexels.com

Most chess players and fans of the game can be divided into two categories: purists and innovators. Purists are traditionalists who believe that serious chess should be played at long time controls and have little to no variance in format.

Innovators, on the other hand, are always looking for ways to push the envelope. They are quick to embrace rapid and blitz time controls — chess variants such as Fischer Random — and are always looking to spice up the game with different tournament formats.

Of course, few people fall completely into one category. Even most devout purists understand that never-ending time controls and adjourning games until the following day is wildly impractical, and this practice was pretty much scrapped by the mid-'90s.

The most daring innovator who believes that Fischer Random is the future of chess can still appreciate a hard-fought and high-quality classical game. Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that the difference stems from how both parties view the game of chess itself.

Purists tend to think of chess as largely an art form. While they have no wish to dispense with the competitive aspects of the game, the priority is on creating high-quality games. This means that the traditionalists usually prefer tournaments with longer time controls, one game per day and a world championship that is based in match play.

I don’t mean to lump all purists into one group, but ultimately their preferred emphasis is on ensuring conditions under which chess can be played at its highest possible level.

Innovators, on the other hand, tend to view chess as more of a sport. Their focus is on maximizing the action, cracking down on the lifeless draws that can occur in high-level classical chess, and ultimately on making the game more viewer-friendly.

Rapid games often have far more mistakes in them, but the action unfolds much quicker than in classical chess, and the likelihood of a decisive result is far greater. Alternative formats such as Fischer Random dispense with openings, and this also forces the players to solve more problems early on.

It often seems as if the two viewpoints have little in common, but I’m of the opinion that both are necessary. In fact, there needn’t be much conflict between them at all. Innovators realize that chess needs to evolve in order for it to thrive. There are far more rapid tournaments than there used to be, and Fischer Random has been coming on strong in the last couple of years.

These events have drawn a lot of attention and, hopefully, much viewership to the game. Having more of these kinds of events — both for audiences and for players — can only be a good thing. On the other hand, I think preserving classical events is also important. World championship matches don’t occur often, but when they do, it is a completely different type of viewing experience, and watching any game played at that level is special.

In some cases, I think combining the two schools could be interesting. For example, I would enjoy watching and playing Fischer Random at classical time controls, something which I don’t believe has been tried. This allows for plenty of fresh ideas but also gives players a chance to play quality games in these unknown positions.

In short, I think chess is doing just fine, and it wouldn’t be if either of the two sides went unchecked. 

Grandmaster Josh Friedel is the 2013 U.S. Open chess champion. He lives in Milwaukee. He is also a member of the St. Louis Chess Club, a partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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