Thursday, March 30, 2006

Chess Restoration and the Usable Past

While waiting through my wife's daylong induced labor last week at the hospital, I had a chance to wade through the many unread magazines that had accumulated by the easy chair at home. I especially enjoyed a piece by Jack Turner titled "Green Gold: The Return of Absinthe" (The New Yorker, March 13, 2006) which tells the story of Ted Breaux's quest to recreate authentic absinthe using historical distilling methods. As absinthe is illegal to produce in the US (though not illegal to consume, in one of those many ironies of our drug laws), Breaux was forced to make his experiments in France, using some of the same historical aparatus as the earliest absinthe craftsmen. In reading Turner's account of Breaux's experience I could not help but draw parallels to historical chess explorations and opening analysis, which shares many of the same pleasures as other forms of "restoration."

In his quest to make authentic absinthe, Breaux discovered that "a recipe was useless without the tricks of the trade that distillers failed to include with their protocols, perhaps unwilling to write them down" (41) and that he had "to relearn everything" through his own experimentation. He was, however, aided by today's advanced tools and a greater understanding of chemical knowledge than the early distillers and alchemists could possess. Even with his tools and understanding, however, he discovered that brewing liqueur is as much art as it is science, and every twist and turn in the aparatus had a purpose that had slowly evolved in the liqueur's long development. His final product, which he sells under the Jade Liqueurs label as "the best absinthe," is handcrafted and finely made.

As I read about Breaux's adventures in brewing, I wondered what it was that so fascinated me about the article (besides my sudden interest in getting a bottle for myself, of course), and I realized that Breaux's quest to recreate absinthe was parallel to my own occasional quests to recreate some of the forgotten chess openings through research and analysis. What both come down to is a desire to make the past usable for us today. While part of the romance of the quest may be inspired by the mythologies that make particular opening lines (such as the Max Lange or King's Gambit) special for us (in a way not unlike the mythologies that make "absinthe" so mysterious and fascinating), the ultimate goal is to make them live again. The past does not interest me for its own sake. Rather, it interests me as a treasure trove of forgotten information with continued relevance.

Chess opening restoration is not much different from absinthe restoration. Those trying to revive heirloom openings begin with games and analyses, which are parallel to the brewer's recipes. What we lack are the "tricks of the trade" which get passed on, if at all, only by word of mouth (often from mentor to student) and so we must use our moden tools (such as Fritz and other chess engines) to relearn that lost knowledge. What we distill is not only useful for others but a pleasure for the explorer as well, as I discovered in my own quests to understand The Urusov Gambit, The Max Lange, and The Panther (among others).

Mark Morss makes a similar point about the value of the usable past in opening study in his wonderful essay "Lost Variations," where he begins by citing Edward Winter's remark that "historical ignorance of the openings is rampant, with writers regularly analyzing from scratch positions already meticulously examined in the past." As Morss shows in his article (which includes an extended analysis of the forgotten line 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. O-O d6) and in several other places (most notably in the wonderful appended analysis of the game Clark-Morss, where he discusses his attempts to recover and recreate Dr. Hermann Kaidanz's own 'lost' analysis of the Kaidanz Variation), we cannot yet substitute the calculations of chess computers for the long hours and brain work of past analysts.

Morss writes: "Winter is correct in his claim that forgotten theory would sometimes benefit modern practioners as much as the latest Informant. This is particularly true in some of White's older systems in the open game (that is, 1 e4 e5, and not to be confused with open positions, which may arise from almost any system). The King's Gambit and the various subsystems of the Italian Game, notably the Evans Gambit, once constituted the bulk of the theory manuals. While chess theory in absolute always expands, the relative importance of the open game has greatly diminished over time, and so has its claim to precious printed space. And even within the open game, the importance of the systems prevalent in the 19th century has diminished as the Spanish Game has ascended in prominence. Accordingly, the editors of the manuals have had to prune, prune, and prune again the old theory, and they have not always been successful in preserving its outlines, even if they could discern them in what they inherited from previous editors."

The "pruning" that Morss describes is rampant, of course, and not confined to the Open Games. As the writings of modern players also become lost to the dustbins of chess history, the lines that interested them are also forgotten. When we recognize that practically every opening book on the market these days is essentially a repertoire book, where the author has (either explicitly or not) left out anything he did not consider relevant (including a bibliography of sources!), we realize that "lost variations" will only multiply in the future....which means that those who take pleasure in chess restoration still have many treasures to unearth.


Newvictorian said...

Michael, what an interesting theme and a fine post on it. I'm linking to it.

Michael Goeller said...

Thanks. Just some more thoughts on a favorite theme.... I think I enjoy studying and talking about chess more than I enjoy playing it, which is a related topic I might take on some time....