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Immanuel Giel

Modern Morals of Chess

Strategy
"The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement." - Benjamin Franklin

I challenge any improving player to read Franklin's essay The Morals of Chess, since it teaches many character virtues which may translate to success in games and in life. However, advancements in technology (such as easy access to game databases around the world, opening training materials, and engines which can generate novelties and annotate games) are gradually reducing our beloved pasttime to a memory contest powered by razor-sharp tactics. What can one do?

  • Practice "trap" openings: not every opponent is prepared for an Elephant Gambit, although quickly you will find opponents who have solid opening repertoires (whether they dodge or challenge your traps).
  • Practice "top GM" openings: deep memorization doesn't preclude the need to be prepared for whatever the opponent might play (for example, 1. b4), although some openings are easier to prepare for than others.
  • Practice "master" openings: GM Alburt advocated for this in Pirc Alert! - amateur players do not need to study the world's sharpest openings in order to get a playable game. ICCF IM Parmet and FM Monokroussos, taught me the virtue of playing "real" openings (openings played by FMs or stronger) in order to rapidly improve. Sure, you might lose pawns or get inferior positions against strong opposition, but gradually building a solid repertoire is valuable.
  • Exercise: wellness of the mind and body helps, so you can focus on your game or at least recognize when you are unfocused and try to re-focus. Exposure to chess variants, puzzles, and other strategy games such as shogi can further expand the mind.

Honestly, what provoked me to write this entry has to do with shogi... there are many deeply profound proverbs which are poorly understood by the English-speaking world. With chess we have principles about how to activate all our pieces in the opening, how to castle and not push the pawns in front of our king, how pawn moves cannot be undone, etc.; but in comparison, shogi proverbs are practically "cheat codes" in terms of their ease of application across almost all positions, for example:

  • Rooks and bishops need open lines.
  • Begin tactical engagement with a pawn sacrifice.
  • Retreating is often worse than material loss, because it is difficult to activate retreated pieces (literally "think carefully about retreating moves").
  • Retreating from a fork loses both tempo and material (literally "do not run from a fork").
  • Separate the king, rook, and bishop (or a fork will happen).
  • If the opponent's pieces are undefended, you won't be lost looking for an attacking move (forcing the opponent to retreat). Therefore, shogi openings are both about activating your pieces (without hanging them) while securing your king in a castle (a shape where pieces and squares are defended).
  • A threat is almost always stronger than its execution (literally, "an early escape of the king saves eight tempi"; also, there are many proverbs about reserving pieces in hand such as "a pawn is worth a thousand gold generals").

I have taught many chess classes and I have read many chess books, yet to date chess lacks such prescriptive advice. Why might that be?

  • Chess is less strategic and more tactical than shogi, with opening memorization playing a large role (and with 32 overpowered pieces on an 8x8 board, as opposed to 40 weaker pieces on an 9x9 board).
  • Chess authors and coaches monetize their knowledge-work, and don't give away wisdom for free.
  • Existing books which attempt to provide prescriptive advice, even those written by masters, are either too generic to be helpful or are too specific to be generally applicable. Perhaps it is impossible to write advice which is both prescriptive in form and useful across broad categories of positions.

Whatever the case, it seems that I lack the capital to research that in depth, at least without monetizing my work (at which point I'd have no incentive to freely share my findings). I frequently see blogs, podcasts, and videos which market advice; and yet, I only trust one critic (linked above) to selflessly and generously vet these offerings.

For my own well-being, I need to learn to accept the current tragedy of the commons and move on.


Image credit: Immanuel Giel