Grandmaster Genna Sosonko is widely considered the best living writer about chess, but his books have been focussed on the lost world of the Soviet chess era. In a recent interview to mark International Chess Day he explained why he’s avoided writing about modern chess players, while also talking about the role of the computer and arbiters in chess.
Sosonko was interviewed for the July 20th issue of Porto-Franko, a weekly newspaper published in Odessa, Ukraine. He explained what had changed in chess to discourage him from writing about recent events:
Previously people talked about masters like Lasker – a Doctor of Philosophy, Botvinnik – a Doctor of Technical Sciences, Smyslov, a serious vocalist… But modern chess is an extremely intensive form of sport that demands many hours of daily, time-consuming work. In order not to fall behind on theory the young generation has to study chess almost from morning to night. It’s impossible to increase the time available, so other ingredients of success fall by the wayside.
There used to be living legends in chess, but you can’t apply that concept to today’s situation. Imagine I had to write about Magnus Carlsen – and he’s top of the world rating list. I can say he’s an outstanding player, that he prefers to play such and such openings and that he likes football… but there’s nothing else I can say about him.
Sosonko was asked why post-Soviet players had failed to dominate the post-Soviet era:
The Soviet Chess School had wonderful coaches who worked constantly with the young. That was its defining characteristic. Compare that to the 1960s and 70s in Holland, for example, when there weren’t any professional coaches. But the computerisation of that sphere has made it possible to rapidly learn what previously required months and sometimes even years. In many ways that explains Carlsen’s success as well. The best coach now is the computer, if you use it correctly. I doubt Carlsen has read Nimzowitsch’s books. He learns from the games he replays.
Yes, computers teach people, but it’s people who play. And that means you get a psychological battle, which the computer can’t teach you about.
As the football coach Mikhail Yakushin said, in football there’s only one strategy: if we’ve got the ball we take it and score a goal, while if the other team has it we need to defend our goal. So I don’t think the role of psychology in sport should be exaggerated.
What’s your opinion on the role of arbiters in modern chess? Previously the main function of an arbiter was to observe. Now the rules are being changed and you need an outside party. Why have such changes been introduced?
Previously there was just Botvinnik’s time control, which everyone promoted: two and a half hours for forty moves. Now there are lots of different formats. The arbiters resolve disputes. One Dutch grandmaster told me that the function of the arbiter was to order coffee and sandwiches, but nowadays arbiters think they play an important role in chess.
Sosonko: “Imagine I had to write about Magnus Carlsen”