What's the Worst Move?

A column reprint from "The Gambit", of the North Carolina Chess Association September-October, 1990. Author: Robert Morrell. Reprinted with permission.

The Real Danger of Computers, Theory #1

One thing I have never heard said about chess is that it is a "window to the soul." Most indubitably it is not.

Chess is replete with quiet Walter Mitty types who tear onto the boards with bloodthirsty fury. And there also can be found high-rolling entrepreneurial folk who play slow, subtle, positional chess. My guess is that our chess styles tell us more about what we miss in our lives than what is really in them.

Nonetheless, I recently received a game from Mr. Jim Swicegood that I believe tells me much about his character.

I asked for bad games and Mr. Swicegood sent me this: Walter Alberts (white), Jim Swicegood (black).

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. O-O d6 5. c3 Nf6 6. d4 exd4 7. cxd4 Bb4 8. d5 Ne5 9. Nxe5 dxe5 10. Qa4+ 1-0

Now, this is your basic, staple kind of combination in E, D, and even C-level chess. No finesse, no sacrifices, no brilliancy prize. Just your basic bad move. And yet, from this game I think it is safe to say that Jim Swicegood is an honest man, with a strong sense of honor and self-reliance.

What makes me say this?

The above game was a postal game.

This means that Mr. Swicegood had ample time to punch his moves into a chess computer. That he did not is self-evident in the game, and shows more about the triumph of his integrity than it does about the defeat of his tactical skills.

When chess players argue about the threat of computers to the royal game, the argument is often countered with the automobile/runner analogy. Cars have not ended foot racing, so why should chess automatons threaten human play?

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning is seldom taken to its logical conclusion. Cars have affected foot racing: ask any of the major marathons bout the security measures necessary to prevent racers from hitching a ride in the middle of the course. The sport is replete with scandals of this sort. We in chess have been blind to this sort of thing mainly because the prize money and glamour of the game at the under 2000 level (where computers could easily clean up) aren't big enough to attract such schemes. Nonetheless, I have heard one D-level player confess to consulting a computer during a tournament. He retreated to his hotel room where his computer told him what he already knew: the game was a draw.

Such events are hopefully rare and probably get the cheater in trouble more often than not. I wish I had ten rating points for every time a book move landed me in hot water. Without a clear understanding of what is behind someone else's move (a book's or a computer's), you use them at your own risk. Once a computer reaches the world-champion level, the paranoia that infects that level (everyone remember the coded yogurt incident?) will demand a response. It may come to bathroom monitors (I heard a beep in stall one!) I imagine that once the final step is taken and the computer world champion comes out in pocket calculator size, things will really get complicated. Probably shortly after Fidelity, as a public-relations move, comes out with a braille version and is surprised by 10,000 orders, metal detectors at the doors of major tournaments will become standard.

Computers are not the only threatening technology. When I returned to chess after a sixteen year layoff, I was surprised to see so many Walkmans. I keep waiting for them to be banned after some beaten woodpusher discovered that his opponent's collection of Barry Manilow tapes was actually "Yasser Seirawan Reads ECO".

Of course, computers (and books) have existed peacefully in postal (and computer net) chess. I have found three separate attitudes towards them. There are those who do not use them, and do not wish to consider that others might, those who use them to check their moves for tactical traps, and those who view remote player chess as studies, and all resources as fair game. I might add a fourth group, that, knowing computer's exist, do not play postal or net chess. It is worth noting that people have been predicting the end of postal chess for years, yet the cards still fly.

If I sound cynical, sorry, but chess is a competitive game, played by humans, and where there is a way, someone will be cheating. Consider this, for hundreds of years, there was no real way to cheat in chess. Now there is. Tournament organizers who ignore this fact will be in for some rude awakenings in the future.

But in the meantime Mr. Swicegood, thank you for reminding me, however ingloriously, that there is some innocence left in the world.

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