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    « A Review of Frank Brady's _Endgame_ (A Bobby Fischer Bio) | Main | Reggio Emilia, Round 7: Vallejo Caught by Gashimov »
    Tuesday
    Jan042011

    Einstein's Theory?

    One chapter in Frank Brady's Endgame, a forthcoming biography of Bobby Fischer, is entitled "Einstein's Theory". As those of you familiar with Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games know, this refers to a comment Mikhail Tal made after losing to Fischer in Bled in 1961: "It is difficult to play against Einstein's theory."

    This has bothered me FOR YEARS, because I haven't got the foggiest idea what Tal could have meant by this. If he meant to say that Fischer was some sort of chessic Einstein, I'd sort of understand*, but Einstein's theory? Fischer is some sort of relativity? Maybe there's a Russian speaker who can reverse engineer the statement into something that makes sense?

    * I would only sort of understand it. In 1961, Tal was more of an Einstein than Fischer, both in terms of proven results and in his energetic, almost ferocious creativity.

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    Reader Comments (15)

    I've always interpreted it as Tal implying that 'relative' to Fischer everyone else is weak. It would be interesting to see the original context of the quote though.

    January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNate Criss

    I've wondered the same thing. The only way I could make any sort of sense of it in my mind is that he's saying Fischer was more an unstoppable cosmic force than fallible human. That's pure uninformed speculation, however.

    January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKen

    Easy Dennis. He was referring to Einstein's red shift in the general theory of relativity. Fischer was busy proving that Soviet 'reds' were not on his wavelength.

    January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarc

    I always thought of it as meaning, how can you challenge the laws of the universe(such as Einstein's theory). As if Fischer is going to win is a law of the universe, which cannot be challenged. Since you mentioned that this was at a time when Tal was still superior to Fischer, maybe he meant this as an inevitability. Like it was always inevitable that Fischer would become too strong. I have no good reasons to back this up, this is just my take on it.

    January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommentercheVelle

    I haven't seen the quote in its original context but it sounds to me as though it refers to that particular game, that Fischer was unbeatable that day: "you may as well fight against gravity as try to beat him today" or something.

    January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCiaran

    My take is similar to cheVelle. Einstein's theory (actually theories) is both very sound and very enigmatic. A hundred years later the theory are as sound as when he proposed them. But it is also enigmatic as it is not very intuitive and takes very deep thought to gain any real understanding of it. Einstein formulated his theory with great insight and with the genius to synthesize the many various physical phenomena that until then were known but simply not understood as being coherent.
    So comparing Fischer's play to Einstein's theory could address two aspects of his style. First his accuracy of play and second how his genius took many known ideas in chess and synthesized them in his games so that he gave them meaning and context. A perfect example of the latter is how Fischer created and used outposts for his knights to develop winning positions. At times his play seems effortless yet it is really the result of his innate abilities and his devoted study of the game.
    Einstein personally was more like Tal than Fischer. He often was willing to put forth his theories even when all the steps on deriving them were not clearly worked out. Some what like a Tal sacrifice.
    Anyone wanting some insight and context to Einstein's theories without wading through the math (tensor calculus is not for everyone) I would suggest a very readable book "Einstein's Mistakes" by Hans C. Ohanian.

    [DM: Of course Fischer was very strong, but we're talking about 1961 here. Discounting his youthfulness at the time, Fischer was simply another strong GM. At that moment, there was no reason to praise him more highly - or really, even as highly - as Botvinnik, Tal, Petrosian, Keres, Geller, Korchnoi or Bronstein.]

    January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLarry L

    I have to disagree with your assessment of Fischer in 1961. Yes he was relatively inexperienced compared to the others, and more importantly emotionally immature, However, he was only 19 years at Bled in 1961 yet still came second to Tal, was undefeated beating both Tal and Petrosian who was third. He also came ahead of Keres, Gligoric and Geller and a few other GM level players as well.
    A year earlier he tied with Spassky for 1st at Mar del Plata 2 points ahead of Bronstein and winning 13 out of 15 games. The quality of his games and his amazing tournament results were very distinquishable even then.

    [DM: I'm not sure what you're disagreeing with. I'm only putting him behind a very small, privileged segment of the chess world, but with good reason. You can cherry-pick his best results, and second in Bled along with winning Stockholm the next year looks (and was!) great. On the other hand, Buenos Aires in 1960 was a disaster, the drawn match with Reshevsky earlier that year wouldn't have terrified the top players, and his 1962 results in Curacao and the Varna Olympiad (an even score in the 11 games he played in the finals) were nothing special by the standards of an absolute top player either. Also, this game - and Tal's comments - came after round 2, well before Stockholm and the end of this tournament, for that matter.]

    January 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLarry L

    Sometimes people say enigmatic things because the enigmatic poetry is available to them. I know I do, and it sometimes takes restraint not to.

    January 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKenneth W. Regan

    The following quote from a comment at chessgames.com sounds plausible *if* he said it at all. Since Fischer was usually a 'client' of his, I doubt he meant anything even close to some of the flattering interpretations here.

    "The Russians thought that Tal had fallen into a prepared trap; that's why Tal said that it was difficult to play against Einstein's theory, that is, great theoretical preparation." - http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1008404&kpage=7

    [DM: Except that the loss had nothing to do with theoretical prep: Tal committed a fingerfehler in the opening, mixing up the moves of a line he knew perfectly well. (One story has it that Tal had gone for a little walk after his move, saw the demo board of his game and was surprised that the player with Black had goofed up the move order, only to realize that it was his game!) Fischer capitalized excellently, but it wasn't a matter of prep.]

    January 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTalJechin

    Interesting discussion. I might venture that Tal's meaning might have something to with how Fischer's play could be both sound and nearly impossible to understand. It reminds me of a famous story about Arthur Eddington, the first astrophysicist to provide observational evidence in favor of general relativity, who, when someone suggested that he was one of the three people in all the world to understand the theory, replied "who's the third?" (the other, of course, was Einstein himself). I suppose, then, that I'm mostly in agreement with cheVelle and Larry L--but would also like to agree with Dennis that it couldn't have had anything to do with his later juggernaut rampage over the competition. It wouldn't have had to do with how much Fischer was winning, but rather why he was winning at all. If my theory about "Einstein's theory" is correct, it would have been extremely high praise from Tal indeed, that is, to admit--albeit in a roundabout way--that he might not understand Fischer's play, or how to approach it strategically.

    [DM: Several comments. First, it would be an odd description of Fischer's style, as he has generally been praised as an advocate for clarity in chess. It was Tal's style that caused mass befuddlement in that day, not Fischer's. Second, Fischer had hitherto not been a difficult opponent for Tal: they had two draws, and Tal won the other four games. Nor had Fischer's most recent results been anything to frighten a player of Tal's caliber. Third, the "later juggernaut rampage" was Tal's: Fischer won that game in round 2, and it was Tal who subsequently caught fire, passed Fischer and won the tournament. (Of course Fischer did great too, but Tal was even hotter.)]

    January 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEwell

    This quote intrigued me greatly and I went googling around to see what else I could dig up. The only other quote I could find is pure internet conjecture but I thought it offered a logical explanation since I agree with DM's view that Fischer was not yet really deserving of such high praise from Tal who regularly defeated not only Fischer but also the very top GM's in the world.

    "The Russians thought that Tal had fallen into a prepared trap; that's why Tal said that it was difficult to play against Einstein's theory, that is, great theoretical preparation."

    I think it's much more likely that the quote originated from Tal feeling like he walked into a well prepared trap than to equate Fischer as so good it was like challenging the laws of the universe. Anyway, good subject for a blog! Keep up the great work.

    [DM: An interesting quote, but an odd one, as Tal reported that he had simply and accidentally mixed up the moves in the opening, playing 6...Nf6?! rather than 6...a6. In fact, according to Karsten Müller's recent book on Fischer's games, Tal had even written 6...a6 on his scoresheet before playing 6...Nf6!]

    January 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErik

    Maybe the move mix-up offers another explanation for the quote. Maybe it was Tal's way of saying the result was inevitable after the mix up. At that point the "reality" of the position rather than Fischer himself was like playing against Einstein's theory.

    January 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErik

    Tal's quote was pretty clear in its meaning. By "Einstein's theory", he was not referring at all to general relativity (which is what Einstein is most famously known for), but rather to the field of quantum mechanics, which was being actively developed around the time of the match. Einstein was of course one of the founding fathers of quantum theory.

    Without getting into too many technical details, in the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics, the state of a system at any given time is determined by a probability distribution.

    In essence, what Tal meant is that it is difficult to play against the laws of probability, i.e. it is difficult to play the same opponent many times and never lose. A simple analogy would be tossing a coin 50 times, attempting to get a sequence of 50 heads. This is of course very difficult to do, due to the laws of probability.

    Hope this clears up the confusion.

    [DM: Not really, no. For one thing, quantum theory was already very well established by 1961. Second, it's not "Einstein's theory", if anything he was very unhappy about quantum mechanics. Third, while quantum mechanics involves probabilities, your version of what Tal said relies only on probabilities and not on anything having to do with quantum theory itself. Fourth, such an interpretation would make Tal guilty of a trivial fallacy, as four "heads" (his 4-0 lead in prior decisive games) doesn't make heads any less likely the fifth time around. And fifth, while I guess this interpretation might be logically possible, there's no obvious basis to think it's true either, or at least I haven't heard any and you haven't supplied it here. It's possible that someone who knew Tal, or maybe saw him say or write something similar on another occasion, could corroborate such an interpretation.

    Too bad - it looks like whatever Tal meant has gone with him to the grave.]

    May 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterqushe

    In response to your comments, I would say that first, while it is true that quantum theory was well established by 1961, it was certainly not considered to be solved by that point. Second, while it is also true that Einstein was very unhappy with the probabilistic aspects of quantum mechanics in the earlier part of his career, he was nevertheless a great contributor to the theory. The reason that he is known as one of the founding fathers of quantum theory is probably due to the paper he published in 1917, which proved to be particulalrly influential. Because of these reasons, it is not too implausible to believe that in 1961, quantum theory was considered to be "Einstein's theory", even though today this would not be the case.

    I believe that Tal made the mathematical fallacy which you pointed out. But if you do not condition on past events, then of course the probability of n wins in a row converges to 0 as n tends to infinity. It is likely that this is what Tal had in mind. You make the fair point that I have not supplied any corrobating evidence. I myself came across this interpretation of Tal's quote a long time ago, but unfortunately I have no recollection of where. However, a quick google search reveals that I am not alone in believing such an interpretation.

    http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1008404

    Richard Taylor's post on the 2nd Dec, 2010 in the above url appears to agree somewhat with my statements. Maybe he can provide further insights.

    Thanks.

    May 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterqushe

    I think Erik is really on to something. I always interpreted it in a similar way. Fischer was known in part for his sound understanding of opening theory and once Tal deviated from the theory Fischer was immediately able to capitalize. Tal's post game comment might suggest that Fischer is the "Einstein" of opening theory and any mistake will make the rest of the game very difficult because Fischer won't miss it.

    [DM: Well, it's true that Fischer capitalized well on Tal's opening error. But still, there's a lot that is difficult about this interpretation. First, for all of Einstein's genius, it's hard to see what exactly the analog would be to opening theory. Second, it was a known error. Tal relates that he had gone for a little walk, and when he saw the position from his own game on one of the demo boards he was surprised to see that someone had mixed up the opening with Black - only to realize that he was that someone. Third, back in 1961 Fischer wasn't considered more of an openings specialist than any of the other top grandmasters; probably less, actually. Fourth, none of this explains why Tal would say it was tough to play against Einstein's theory, as opposed to playing against Einstein. What does the "theory" part of the quote mean? Anyway, it's clear that Tal is offering some sort of compliment to Fischer, so any interpretation along those lines is going to make some sense. But it doesn't really explain it.]

    May 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChris

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