I noticed a great deal of commentary at various chess sites lately regarding the fact that younger players know little about chess in a historical context. I’m not talking about the game’s origins but about the many fantastic players that elevated the game to its current status. I decided to see just how little many (but not all) younger chess players know about previous generations of players by asking a room full of junior players to name some chess players from the past few centuries. Of course, Bobby Fischer was mentioned as well as Paul Morphy and a handful of other well known players (of course, Nigel Davies is always mentioned by my students). However, I was shocked that the list of names was so small. A parent asked me later, why a knowledge of chess players was important, after all isn’t it about just playing the game? While I had to shut my mouth to keep any snarky commentary from pouring out, I did think long and hard about this question. Here’s my answer.
If you want to really understand an opening, for example, you have to understand it mechanics. To fully understand those mechanics, you need to study the opening’s evolution. This means starting with the earliest incarnation of the opening and following it through its history. Here’s an analogy: When I purchased my first car it was used or previously owned. Sure enough, it broke down after about eighteen months. I took it to the mechanic who told me it would be $800.00 to fix. I knew nothing about cars, except how to drive one, so the mechanic could have been cheating me for all I knew. Chess openings are like cars. You may be able to drive your car but driving that car doesn’t give you any real insight into the underlying mechanics. Therefore, I took an automotive repair class. The teacher took us through the history of the combustion engine. Of course, someone asked why we were studying outdated and obsolete engines and our teacher sternly stated that you could not understand the complexity of a modern engine until you understood the basic mechanics of simpler engines, such as those from the past. The same holds true with chess openings. So what does this have to do with chess players from the past? Well, who do you think developed these chess openings and improved upon them? That’s right, many brilliant chess players from the game’s rich history.
In the classroom, we’ll spend two or three weeks looking at the history of an opening and the chess players that contributed to that opening, from early practitioners to modern players who refined it. I usually choose the Italian Game, one of the oldest known openings, because examples of this opening can be found from the late 1500s. It is also an opening that is played by master level players today. Here’s an example of an early game I use in our exploration of the Italian Opening:
The game was played in 1575 between Polerio and Lorenzo. I set the stage for this game by talking about what the world was like back then, especially as it relates to chess. Of course we talk about chess players from this time period. Chess players today are spoiled by the wealth of chess information available to them. I point out that simply acquiring a chess book in the 1500s was next to impossible. Chess knowledge was gained through playing the game. Early pioneers of the game had to gain experience in battle rather than refer to the theory books! While there are some rather clumsy moves made in the above game, we also see moves that lay the foundation for more modern versions of this opening such as 4.c3. In the above game, the move 4.c3 provides support for the eventual push of the d pawn to d4. After going through a few more games employing this opening from later centuries, we find ourselves playing through a more current game:
I remind my students of the first four moves in the first game we looked at, pointing out that even though over four hundred years has passed, the game’s initial four moves have remained the same. What does this mean to the beginner? It means that this opening has stood the test of time. While it may not be a Grandmaster favorite, it can work well for the beginner. We discuss the players of the above game, examining a few informative facts about each of them.
We compare each game we study with the previous game studied, looking at the evolution, in this case, of the Italian Opening. Surprisingly, my young students enjoy what might be considered a tedious task by less than enthusiastic adults because there is history involved. We look at the bigger picture while studying the smaller one. We talk about Italy in depth and the players that changed this opening into what it is today.
As a final examination of the Italian Opening, I set up two chessboards. On one board, we’ll play through the game from 1575 and on the other, the game from 2008. We play the games simultaneously, move for move. White makes the first move on board one and board two, then black. When we get to move four for black (on both boards) we see a parting of the ways so to speak. We look at the placement of the Queen in front of the King (1575 4…Qe7) and talk about the dangers of such a placement. We compare that to the smarter and more active move 4…Nf6 (2008). We continue to play through both games simultaneously, comparing moves. I’ve found that examining an opening from a historical perspective helps my students further understand the opening’s underlying mechanics and appreciate the players who developed them. Like my auto shop teacher said, you can’t understand a complex engine until you master the workings of a simple one.
I’ve also instated a new extra credit exercise in which my students have to research historical chess players and tell me a bit about them. The extra credit points can be redeemed for additional chess lessons from me. I don’t want my students to be ignorant of the many brilliant players that helped shape the game I love so much. I also encourage them to work at their game because one day they might be one of the game’s great players! They might become a part of the game’s history. Chess has a wonderful history whose great players have shaped. Let’s not let this history fade into obscurity. See you next week.