Paul Morphy was a New Orleans born chess genius who wowed the world (or at least that small and geeky portion of it that cares about chess) with his aggressive and imaginative play in the decade before the Civil War. The hallmarks of Morphy’s play were aggresive attacks and complex sacrifices and combinations. It makes for exciting chess and people still study Morphy’s games as much for the wow-that-was-a-cool-series-of-moves fun of it as anything. No serious chess player, however, actually plays like Morphy any more.
William Steinitz is the reason why. Steinitz became the World Chess Champion in the decades after Morphy, and is credited with discovering what is called positional chess. The idea of positional chess is that rather than focusing on the intricacies of tactical combinations and attacks, one should focus one’s attention on the structure of the board. Steinitz convincingly demonstrated that very small and seemingly insignificant moves — the placement of a few pawns early in the game for example — could have dramatic long term consequences later in the game. Put another way, Steinitz showed that deep strategic thinking could generally beat brilliant but unfocused tactical fireworks.
This is an oversimplication, of course. Steinitz and other positional geniuses like Jose Capablanca were exceptionally clever tacticians as well. Furthermore, there have been a lot of post-Steinitz players known for Morphy-esque attacks. (Mikhail Tal comes to mind.) Still, no one seriously denies the importance of positional play in chess.
In some ways this is unfortunate. Today, grandmaster level chess is basically boring. The vast majority of the games end in draws or resignations after one side gains a tiny strategic advantage, e.g. the capture of a single pawn or the mere undermining of a defensive position. The focus on position has placed ever greater emphasis on the opening of the game, which is the part of it that is the easiest to control and predict. The result has been long lines of memorized moves. GM’s will play games where twenty or more moves will be entirely memorized, with each player making moves identical to those made in some previous game that both of the GM’s know. The sheer mental ability required to play at this level is amazing, but the games are dull as dirt.
It strikes me that the fate of chess illustrates a certain logic of mental development. Harold Bloom developed a theory of literature based on the anxiety of influence, the overwhelming sense that one can never escape the shadow of past masters and recapture the pristine originality from which mankind has fallen into the darkness of inevitable cliche. In a slightly different vein, Neal Maxwell was fond of contrasting “exciting exploration” with “plodding implimentation.” (Oh how I missed the alliterations and assonances last October!)
I have been mulling over some the ideas thrown about in comments on my last post on Mormon studies. My facination with someone like Joseph Smith, Orson Pratt, or B.H. Roberts does not lie in their status as iconoclasts or intellectual dissidents, although to a greater or lesser extent they were these things. Rather, it is the fact that they were the Morphy’s of their corners of the universe. They did their work when the world was young and open, when queen sacrifices and combinations could still carry the day. Perhaps, however, as some of the commentors argued, we are too late in the day for this sort of thing. It may be that there is nothing but Stenitz left, and we have entered into the era where even Mormonism must be inevitably subjected to the slow and incremental progress of scholarlly professionalism. There is a great deal of force to this argument. To the extent that I dabble in legal scholarship, this is a world that I recognize. The jurisprudence of contracts is thick and old. Progress is slow, incremental, and interstitial.
One may still hope, however, for a Tal from time to time, a player who declares “there are sensible sacrifices, and then there are mine” yet still goes on to win.