Chess is No More a Game
A Forgotten Interview with David Bronstein
Amazingly, I couldn’t find anything more than few sentences in French as I wanted to check online any mention of the 2003 interview that David Bronstein (1924-2006) gave to Dmitry Stakhov on the Russian magazine site Ogonek.com.
Bronstein was one of most brilliant chess minds. He narrowly missed becoming World Chess Champion as he drew the 1951 challenge match with Mikhail Botvinnik.
By his peers he was described as a creative genius. An intuitive player, he often sought complications and played wild, imaginative games; in his own words, “I always try to vary my openings as much as possible, to invent new plans in attack and defense, to make experimental moves which are dangerous and exciting for both players and also for the audience.”
He wrote one of the all-time classics in chess literature and was a giant of moral integrity – his photos were grabbing headlines in the Western media in the 50s and 60s as he defied Soviet authorities. You will find his thoughts on chess in this first part of the Ogonek interview, apparently for the first time online in English.
STAKHOV: What is the meaning of modern chess?
BRONSTEIN: Just to take control over sixteen unoccupied central squares, the two central horizontals. Art of chess has long ago been reduced to a struggle for space. So following that logic, he who knows how to take up and use space is a chess pro, while he who doesn’t is an amateur.
STAKHOV: Chess players are so smart, with a stunning intellect and you think the meaning of chess lies only in these squares?
BRONSTEIN: Chess has lost its creative component. It is no more the game it used to be fifty years ago. The primacy of the struggle for space has led to the fact that chess ceased to be a game. Formerly, chess was entertainment to people of culture who played it in their free time. After chess has been reduced to a mere struggle for space, culture is no more relevant.
STAKHOV: But how about the “theater” of chess pieces?
BRONSTEIN: You may watch an interesting theatrical performance, or perhaps you leave the theater after a few minutes. In the past chess was sort of intriguing, pieces somehow get engaged and performance begins. Each actor puts forward his plan, mounts challenge, shows boldness. But only the result is important now. The relationship between chess players have turned into a relationship between boxers before a fight. They both stage various acts of psychological intimidation. Most importantly, everything the leading chess players have to study to get there has long been known in the special literature.
STAKHOV: And what about an amateur…
BRONSTEIN: The amateur is under illusion that there are many possibilities in chess. He looks at the board and it seems to him there are so many moves to make. But there are no moves. The pawn goes only forward, all other pieces are also restricted. It looks that there are billions of possible combinations, but these are mostly meaningless ones! Chess is a way of choosing one move from a pool of billions useless ones, some kind of a model for problem-solving. You have several ways out of a situation, but you can only choose one and each one has drawbacks. In real life, you can stall for time, but in chess you have to make a move, normally by taking into account how your opponents sees the situation. When computers arrived, it finally killed everything.
Exhaustive search for move selection rules chess out as a game of intelligence. Well, all solutions out of a situation have long been known and we know how to play various positions. If I say play e2-e4 and my opponent responds with e7-e6, that is the French defense, I already know well in advance how the situation will develop. Standard positions arise. It’s like a little tug of war. I find it funny when the chief engineer of a large plant says he does not know how to play the French game. He has ten thousand people under him, and he doesn’t know of such nonsense! It is ridiculous!
1. David Bronstein, 82, Chess Champion, Dies, New York Times, 2006
2. Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953, is regarded among the very best chess books ever written (the printing quality of the English edition is pretty low, so don’t judge it by its appearance). What makes this book special is how Bronstein focuses on the ideas behind the moves and deep strategic explanations rather than burdening you with tons of lines of analysis. Humans think in a different way from machines. This book shows a unique insight into how (creative) grandmasters really think as opposed to cheap chips’ brute calculation power. Here’s IM Jeremy Silman, “if you don’t buy and read this fantastic book you will be doing yourself a great injustice. Get it, hold it, sniff it, rub it on top of your head, place it under your pillow; this is simply the greatest tournament book ever written and it deserves to be in every self-respecting chess library.”
3. In The modern Chess Tutor, Bronstein names the two central horizontals as the zone of important squares.