Perils of Preparation

Bobby Fischer once joked, after his retirement, that the top players of the computer era spent so many hours in front of the screen that they spoiled their eyes and, as a consequence, had to wear very thick glasses. Not everything Fischer said in his later years could be taken on trust, and when I tried to find out if there was a grain of truth to this statement, I found that though computer eyes are indeed a medically recognized affliction, simple things like blinking now and then or looking at the sky outside will help a lot. But who will look at the sky when a sharp Grünfeld is on the screen?

Some years ago Vladimir Kramnik, the great opening innovator, explained that the many new ideas he was able to show did not just fall from the sky. Hard work was necessary; every week he quickly went through all the games that are collected on Mark Crowther’s site The Week in Chess, between 2,000 and 4,000 games per week. Most of these were useless for his purpose, but occasionally even an unknown amateur would come up with something that might be usable.

Kramnik had become very efficient at this chore. One or two mouse clicks were usually enough to conclude that he could discard a certain game, but nevertheless it was hard and mind-numbing work. After that, the creative work of thinking for himself could begin.

When much later Alexander Grishchuk mentioned a newspaper report about Chinese prisoners who had to earn points in computer games so that rich Chinese could use these points to enter the game on a higher level, I thought of Kramnik, though of course there was an important difference. Kramnik wasn’t beaten with plastic pipes when he didn’t fulfill his targets.

Anish Giri, the strongest player in the Netherlands, is 19 years old. He was born in St. Petersburg. His father is a Nepalese engineer, his mother is Russian. As the family stayed a few years in Japan before returning to Russia and then settling in the Netherlands, Anish is truly a man of the world. At home he speaks Russian, at school Dutch – but recently he finished school and will now concentrate on chess for the next few years – and in the Dutch chess world he speaks English, even though his Dutch is excellent

You cannot say that he has integrated into Dutch chess life. His young Dutch colleagues have integrated with him, to the extent that I have seen them speaking English with each other, even when Anish was not around. On the world rating list he is number 20, the highest junior. The future of Dutch chess is in his hands.

He is always well-prepared in the openings, so it was quite strange that in the recent FIDE Grand Prix tournament in Beijing he lost twice right from the opening, against Wang Hao and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. From his own comments after these games, it became clear that it was not a case of lack of preparation, but rather of such deep computer-assisted preparation that at the board he couldn’t exactly remember everything he had seen, and had become mixed up in the web of variations that he had woven.

In particular, his preparation against Mamedyarov had been impressive. Still, in that game he already was lost after 15 moves. His game against Wang Hao, when he was also well-prepared, lasted only 22 moves. I was reminded of a ritual saying during blitz games at the chess café where I spent a big part of my student days: “His great learning has driven him to insanity.”

Such a joke is easily made, but in fact the load of information that a modern top player has to sift, study and remember, is truly staggering. I think analysis done with real pieces on a wooden board would be better remembered than when it’s executed on a computer screen, but that is just not feasible anymore. Much too slow. There is a lot of work to be done and now and then a fuse will blow.

Annotated Games: Simply click on the game to play through it.

Mamedyarov,Shakhriyar - Giri,Anish

Wang Hao - Giri,Anish