Rook Dreams

New chess software makes it easier for younger players to reach the top of their game—and harder to stay there

This past fall, the world championship match in Bonn, Germany, wasn’t the only thing stirring up chess enthusiasts. ChessBase 10, a beefier new version of the massive database program that is the tournament player’s gold standard, had arrived.

In 1997, when IBM’s Deep Blue multiprocessor computer defeated the world champion, Garry Kasparov, rapid gains in electronic chess seemed likely to diminish the game’s challenge and glamour. Instead, the Web has built participation at the base and refined concepts at the summit. A new cohort of competitors is playing stronger chess than ever—but its emergence is changing the game in unexpected ways.

ChessBase, introduced for Atari in 1987, is now a compendium of 3.75 million games reaching back more than five centuries. Compiling statistics, including the results from games just downloaded from the Web, it also shows percentages of games won after various alternative moves. The heritage of chess thus becomes a vast, branching cave to be explored game by game.

Jon Edwards, a chess teacher and the 1997 U.S. correspondence champion, says that players still grow through hours of replaying great games; ChessBase just makes that process more efficient. Young Bobby Fischer huddled in the New York Public Library stacks with Russian magazines, constantly resetting pieces. Today’s contenders can play through new games online and onscreen, adding their own games to the ChessBase record and learning more rapidly from their mistakes.

Knowing thine adversary has never been easier. Even the victorious defending champion Viswanathan Anand has said he can’t afford to have a favorite opening. Under pressure because of efficient scrutiny through databases and analysis engines like Fritz (another popular high-level software program that works out new moves), top players must prepare more variations than ever.

Meanwhile, aspirants have overcome distance. Michael V. Cossette, a chemical-process engineer who became a state junior champion in high school, in 1973, recalls that the chess club nearest to his home was a full hour away. In 2008, free chess sites offer databases, online play, and tutorials worldwide.

Today’s initiates constitute the latest of three great recruitment waves. The first, in the 1930s, was prompted by the Soviet drive for prestige through chess victories. The second was inspired by Bobby Fischer’s televised defeat, in 1972, of the Russian superstar Boris Spassky. The third began in the early 1990s, with the rise of the Internet and the emergence of an underemployed intelligentsia in the former Soviet empire that found even modest tournament prizes in hard currency preferable to poverty.

This wave has generated more grand masters than ever, and they are getting stronger younger. Spassky had become one at a record 18, Fischer at 15; in 2002, the Ukrainian Sergei Karjakin was only 12. The Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, a grand master at 13, in 2004, is ranked fourth in the world.

The intelligence researchers William Dickens and James Flynn have suggested that when a generation of young people becomes serious about an activity—as black high-school students turned to basketball in the 1950s—a self-reinforcing “social multiplier” of institutions that recognize and develop talent emerges, raising performance. ChessBase and other analysis programs, and the virtual communities that have sprung up around them, have had a similar effect, according to Edwards and other masters.

But there is a catch. As computers have hooked more contenders and augmented their skills, preparation time has increased. There’s never been much money in full-time chess playing, and now the commitment needed to keep up with the game makes it harder to moonlight in a different profession. One of Edwards’s star students reluctantly gave up his promising pro career to attend law school. And some highly rated amateurs quit, too, as Cossette did in 2001. “It isn’t a sport anymore,” he observes. “It isn’t a game. It’s a research project.” For him and many other professionals, it’s too much like work.

Not all top recreational players agree. Many love computer-assisted analysis and exploration. As a teacher, Edwards believes youth chess is great preparation for college and life. But in chess as in life, technological edges can cut both ways.