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    Entries in Grob (1)

    Monday
    Feb212011

    Play Like Grob?

    Over on the ChessBase site there's a curious article by IM Andrew Martin. It's largely a tribute to IM Henri Grob, and there's nothing to scratch one's head about there. Indeed, it's nice to see articles praising the interesting figures of the past, especially lesser-known ones who are usually neglected. What is curious, or strange, or at least not clearly defined is the broader lesson Martin seems to want us to take from Grob.

    The headline of Martin's essay is "Anyone up for the Grob?", which refers not to the man himself but the opening that starts with 1.g4. Martin becomes the article like this:

    The difference between a professional and the other 99.99% of chessplayers is not always appreciated. Funnily enough, the refusal to accept that one is not a professional can form a barrier to improvement. For the amateur it is completely useless to try to play like a grandmaster, yet how often do we see this among our chess-playing friends. They keep up with the latest theory, assiduously study games from the latest GM tournament (or they think they do) and fail to make a single step forward in their playing strength.

    The article concludes similarly:

    My main point this time is that you should think very carefully before trying to emulate the randmasters. You don't have the time, you don't have the talent and you probably don't have the energy, unless you are under 20 years old. But what you do have is discretion and experience and those are invaluable tools which can be used to help you to get stronger at chess. Know your limitations and play to your strengths. That's what Grob did!

    In between, the bulk of the article presents three of Grob's games, two where he's White and wins with 1.g4, and one where he wins with Black using the Englund Gambit (1.d4 e5 2.dxe5 Nc6 3.Nf3 Qe7 etc.). But is Martin suggesting that we use these openings? At one point, he says of the Grob that "1 g4 is not easy to meet, especially as there is a tendency to overreact when confronted with nonsense like this."

    Now, this really isn't borne out by statistics. In ChessBase's online database, 1.g4 scores a dismal 47.7%, and an even lower 46.1 in Mega2011. If one only includes games with players 2300 and up, White's score falls to a catastrophic 26.1%. One might be inclined to say "Aha, that proves his point! Strong players have no trouble with it, but that's precisely not his audience! Filter out the games with serious players, and then White scores well." There's probably something to this, but less than you might think. There are only 69 games involving 2300+ players, while Mega has a total of 1593 games when the filter is off while the online database has 3049. The overwhelming majority of the games feature players in the rating range you'll find at a medium-sized chess club.

    Additionally, Martin offers no fewer than four lines for Black that at least seem to be worthwhile from the way he speaks about them. And when we turn to the Englund Gambit, an interpretation that suggests Martin is in any way endorsing these openings becomes even harder to sustain. Theory has long had it in for the Englund, and he presents the known prescription and freely states that it "seems to place Black's whole idea into question."

    Well, okay, but then what is the point of the article? Is it nothing more substantive than to avoid copying the (elite) GMs who spend hours and hours working on absolute main lines? That point could have been made without referring the avant-garde Grob (both the man and the opening). Or is it that we should, like Grob, jump off the deep end in our openings? If so, more of an argument should be supplied in its justification, for reasons I give in the next two paragraphs.

    Perhaps the reason it's foolish for amateurs to copy GMs in the opening, assuming that it really is foolish, is not that there's something wrong with the opening but that they're spending their time on openings the wrong way, or spending too much time on openings, period. If that's the case, there isn't even the beginning of an argument for playing something like 1.g4.

    Suppose instead that the, or at least a, reason why it's wrong to copy GM openings is that they are too conceptually rich for amateurs. Better they should know their limitations and play something simpler. Ok, suppose that's true. (I don't think that follows either, but let's pretend.) How does one get from "Don't emulate super-GM openings" to "Play gimmicky, positionally unfounded openings that score poorly"? In short, the connection between "Don't Copy GMs!" and "Play the Grob!" (or openings of that ilk) is somewhere between tenuous and non-existent.

    Maybe Martin just means that we shouldn't spend, or even try to spend, the overwhelming majority of the time we have for chess trying to develop and memorize theory in the opening lines chosen by elite players. (Unless it's what we like to do for fun, of course.) If so, I would agree with him there, especially as one goes down the ratings & experience scale. But nothing follows from this about what openings one should choose! Someone might read Martin's article and think "Ah, he's right! I'm going to spend my time working on the Latvian (or the slightly better 1.f3 + 2.g4 Attack)!" This looks like the exact same error, except that one is choosing inferior and less rich openings to spend their time on.

    Finally, unless Martin believes that IMs are untalented hacks, at least relative to GMs, there's something absurd about his suggesting that we not emulate GMs in all of their glorious talent, but should emulate IM Henri Grob! What happened to knowing our limitations? A common sense response is that we should follow Grob in some respects and not in others. Fine, but are we forbidden from using common sense to follow GMs in relevant ways, too?

    In my experience, encouraging amateurs to leave GM openings behind doesn't usually help them improve. It just encourages them to get addicted to quirky openings, and to replace one set of growth-impeding habits with another. (It does make chess book publishers happy, though.*)

    * Note: I have nothing against quirky openings. Some of my best friends are quirky openings. I DO have a problem with claiming that amateurs ought to play quirky openings rather than traditional ones. Occasional dabbling in weird, even dubious lines is fine for a little variety, to be forced to improvise and to expand one's sense of what's possible, most definitely. But as a staple of one's "diet"? No way.