Wednesday, August 23, 2006

What Happened to the Woodpushers?

Is it just me or are people playing chess a lot better than they did 25 or 30 years ago?

Since I've taken up chess again I've played maybe 50 games over the Internet, first mostly using Chessmaster 10 and lately at the Internet Chess Club ( I also played in only my second OTB tournament - an "Unrated Beginner's Open" (my only other tournament experience being another "Unrated Beginners" tournament I played over 25 years ago).

Now I'm not great stuff by any means, but it sure seems like I have to fight a lot harder to win a game nowadays than I used to 25 years ago when I played in the school lunchroom or even in the low key college chess club I ran. And the kids I played in the beginner's tournament were remarkably skilled - I played one 5 year-old in particular that could very well have beaten me!

Chess players seem to be just plain better than they were 25 years ago - at least in terms of beginners, students and casual players.

Why is this? My best theory is younger people (and everyone in general) today have so much more resources for playing and learning the game.

More games...

Thirty years ago I had a heck of a time just finding someone to play chess with. Now you can find thousands of opponents on-line day or night. And if you can't do that you can use any dozens of chess playing software programs.

Side Note: Speaking of chess playing software programs - they are so tough to beat at any setting I think those that persevere beyond the initial novelty of playing against the computer simply must get better or simply give up. I wonder what percentage of Chessmaster buyers immediately put the program aside because of frustration at losing. Let's face it - a computer just can't play like novice even as much as the programmer's try to throw in "human behavior" characteristics.

More Instructional Materials…

For the motivated student of chess there are dozens of excellent training software packages out there - so many I can hardly keep track of them. And they're a lot more engaging than trying to read through a 400 page chess book by a Capablanca or a Nimzovitsch. Years ago the best thing I had as a beginner was the "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess" book - thanks to a diagram on every page - but that was the closet we came to the likes of the "chess tactics" software packages of today.

More of Everything...

And my goodness - speaking of books, there were a good number of chess books back in the 70's but how many hundreds of thousands can you get now? But that is not the end to it. We have:

  • chess TV (DVDs)
  • chess radio (
  • chess web sites (thousands upon thousands)
  • chess databases (on-line and off-line CD and DVD's)
  • live Internet chess match relays
  • chess coaches (locally and on-line)
  • chess curriculums (for use in the schools)
  • etc., etc.
Good grief!

Information overload for most, but to a motivated player there has never been a time in history were such a wide array of learning resources were so available.

My conclusion is that because of this huge mass of chess material the average player is no longer an average player.

As for me, I'm still trying to work through Fred Reinfeld's "Complete Chess Course" that I purchased at age 10 and still haven't finished :-D


Raven said...

I know what you mean about the wealth of information... and I think more than just quantity, the quality of teaching is going up as well.

But I must respectfully disagree with you about playing against Chessmaster. Chessmaster 10 has "personalities" you can play against all the way from 30 to nearly 3000 rating points. I can quite effectively find an opponent that's slightly above my own ability.

Like your experience, when I first started playing against the computer several years ago, I got fed up with it because I didn't feel like fighting against an opponent that was guaranteed to beat me. But nowdays (after an eight-year hiatus, not quite as long as yours) I love playing against the "new" Chessmaster 10. Picking an opponent just a couple hundred rating points above my last win gives me a real challenge without making it impossible to win.

But lately I play correspondence chess over the web ( and find that to be very rewarding. It's more fun to win against human opponents than against the computer.

Rook Van Winkle said...

Thank you for your comment, Raven. I'll agree with you that Chessmaster 10 is the best version yet in terms of playing at different strengths, but I personally have found that Chessmaster adjusts its level of play in a very unnatural (non-human like) kind of way.
Perhaps that is because I have not played against enough of the programmed personalities.

I do think Chessmaster 10 is a great program worth owning. It has a lot great features – beyond its ability to provide an always available opponent – like the excellent tutorials, the opening books, the included game databases and its ability to analyze your games.

In the end, I think we still agree that chess is most enjoyable when it is a challenge of person versus person.