Question: Do you think it's important to study the chess classics? Or do you think that the use of technology has made an awareness of the famous games of chess history superfluous?
Answer: I think it’s a matter of perception. Personally I always wanted to study classic games to find my own style. To find your individuality you have to seek out and get to know the classics. When you start to play chess you think you’re inventing something new; each player believes that, but in time you realise that a lot more has been played than you think. That process of studying games and finding something that can enhance your individuality is what I especially value in chess. And also its history: how, when and why it was invented fascinates me and I think that usually occurs with people who play it at a very high level. As for technology, it has changed the game a lot. It’s true that it’s caused a lot of people to ignore classic games, but I doubt anyone “at the top” can neglect that aspect of chess.
Studying chess history doesn't stifle creativity, because human beings don't have the cognitive wherewithal to master the game. Even if we someday create a computer that solves the game, that still won't be enough. (Don't believe me? Have a look at entry 393 here and ask yourself how likely it is that you could win that, if "perfect play" from move 1 somehow resulted in the starting position of that monstrosity. And if your opponent deviates somewhere in the first, oh, let's say 500 moves or so, what then?) All the same, I've heard from club players over the years that they don't want to study openings or look at great players' games because then they wouldn't be creative and wouldn't be figuring things out for themselves. Is there anything to this idea?
I think there's a nugget of truth to it, but it's mixed in with some mistaken ideas. Moreover, the part that's right can be extracted and transplanted into a context that includes learning from others. The bit that's right is that one should try to understand and figure out what's going on for oneself. The more we engage with the material and practice calculating and analyzing, the better we'll be, as long as we're getting feedback. And what's the feedback mechanism? A stronger player's analysis, whether that be from a human author (or coach, or some other competent player) or a chess engine. A test without feedback really isn't a test at all.
So when you're studying an opening line, you might start from a given position and spend thirty minutes or more looking at the board, maybe moving pieces around, seeing what you can come up with, what problems you suspect are there, what plans come to mind and so on. That's where you start. But that's not the end of the story. Then crack open the opening book and see how things square with your thoughts. Maybe you had a good idea, but it can't be implemented for one reason or another, and therefore players have had to move on to different plans. Or perhaps you overlooked your opponent's idea completely. Or maybe you managed to figure out the main idea of the position, or one of the main ideas, and your grasp of the variation is excellent!
Now, suppose your idea isn't mentioned, or it is but you think there's a good response to what the book (or article or whatever) says. Great: now switch on the engine and see what it comes up with, and continue your pursuit of the truth. You can do the same with studying classics, too: start the game at a certain point near the end of the opening, and go through the game in solitaire-chess style. Again, you're investing yourself, developing your skills and exercising your creativity, and once you're done you can compare your thoughts with those of the human annotator and perhaps with the computer.
This procedure lets us learn from others while still satisfying our desire to figure things out for ourselves, too...or rather, to try to figure things out for ourselves. As noted above, chess is simply too deep for us to figure it out even cooperatively, let alone as a solo achievement. Indeed, when even the world's greatest players from Fischer to Carlsen (and Caruana!), and far more so their predecessors, make imprecisions and even mistakes on a regular basis, how can the rest of us avoid them? (In fact, engines still manage to beat each other, and there are much, much stronger than the best humans. So it's obvious that even they still make at least minor mistakes.)
How can anyone think they can solve chess on their own? One interesting (and worrisome!) answer comes in the form of something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE). The nutshell summary is that people who are incompetent are often, maybe even typically, unable to recognize their own incompetence. (As we are all incompetent in many things, God help us all!) All of us who have watched "American Idol" and other "talent" shows have seen this in action when positively dreadful singers protest vociferously that they are really quite gifted. (Perhaps so, but it would be better if they gave their gifts elsewhere.)
The DKE has three "official" components, according to David Dunning & Justin Kruger. Citing Wikipedia, Incompetent people
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
- [and] fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
Bad news indeed, but there is a fourth claim that offers us a ray of hope:
- [Incompetent people can] recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.
All the more reason for us to train with an eye on what others have done. Study the classics, my friends!