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Modern Ideas in Chess by Richard Rèti

44. Reform in Chess

When Capablanca in his championship march with Lasker gave us at the beginning a very large amount of drawn games, he is said to have expressed himself as follows to a newspaper reporter. Chess technique and the knowledge of the openings have progressed to such an extent to-day that it might, even against a weaker player, be difficult to win a game. As a remedy he proposed a reform in chess. He suggested a change of the opening position and as an example the interchange of the positions of Rooks and Bishops. I think that perhaps Capablanca’s fears are exaggerated. For even the new ideas described in this book, relating to the execution of the game, take games out of the ordinary rut, and to effect a draw through technique alone is not as easy as it was formerly. But in principle Capablanca was certainly right. In order to enforce a mate one must at the end have at least the preponderance of a Rook. We may have played better than our opponent and have wrested from him material or positional preponderance without being in a position to comply with the obligation of mating him.

It is the same as if with a race it has been agreed that a small difference of time, say a second, should not decide the race and that it should count as a dead heat. Such a result according to Capablanca would be that the best runners could not beat each other. But Capablanca’s suggestion for effecting reforms in chess clearly does not go to the root of the matter.

The obligation to mate still remains. We still adhere therefore to the illustration of the foot race, and the useless second of time which was not to affect the decision, as being pertinent. Undoubtedly for some years the study of the openings in the suggested new opening positions would not be matured and so we should get fewer drawn games. But such results would only be obtained through mistakes in the openings, that is to say through weaker play, not through progress but rather through retrogression. Every true chess lover must be averse to Capablanca’s casual suggestion.

The question arises: Haw has the fact of having mated an opponent given rise to the proof that the player so mating has played better than his opponent? In chess of the middle ages the moves of pieces were more limited as compared with those of to-day. The Rook was by far the strongest piece. The Bishop could only move two squares at a time and the Queen was weaker than the Bishop. The usual kind of victory at that time was by taking pieces (elimination of material). Such a victory was attained when one player had taken from the other all his pieces except the King. A stalemate occurred much more seldom and was therefore the more highly prized. To win by a mate, that is to say by one player actively mating the other, was, on account of the weakness of the pieces, well-nigh impossible. So to effect a mate it was necessary to acquire too great preponderance of pieces. It occurred almost only in problems. If a mate was once brought about in a game, it was usual to note it as a matter for everlasting memory, and in consequence of its rarity would be highly treasured, even to excess.

It was at the commencement of modern times that the present moves of the pieces became customary. Henceforth with the greater powers of the pieces, especially those of the Queen, it was somewhat easy to effect a mate when one had an advantage; for the small positional advantages of to-day, which can only with the greatest trouble be made use of, were not known at that time. A pawn, more or less, played then no great part. Seeing that a win by a mate was in the middle ages valued as the best form of a victory, naturally nobody who had obtained an advantage was content with a win by taking pieces or by stalemate. Those who were so content became later penalised, inasmuch as a rule sprang up that the King should not have his last piece taken from him, and then another to the effect that he who caused his opponent to be stalemated should suffer the penalty of the loss of the game. At that period they had not learnt that there could well be preponderance, sufficient to enable a player to bring about a stalemate to the other side, but not sufficient to permit of that player enforcing a mate.

Those were romantic times for chess. To-day, when chess technique is in a such condition of refinement, what is there more natural than that we should revert to the original rules. Lasker has made such a proposal with which I associate myself with full conviction. In order to prevent the decay of chess by the frequent occurrence of drawn games finer nuances of difference of execution must show themselves in the result, and stalemates should be considered and counted in the estimating of scores for tournament purposes, wins by them to count less than enforced mates. It would be a matter for congratulation if the managers of such tournaments just for once decided as an experiment to promote a tournament on these lines.