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V.Bazhenov. “A.Shashin and the modern theory of the chess game“.

27.07.2004 V.Bazhenov. “A.Shashin and the modern theory of the chess game“.

"Should I measure someone's footprints? These won't tell me anything. But show me handprints and I will guess why someone was walking on his hands. I'm the one of those insane, who frequently walks on hands”.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


In the eighties of the nineteenth century the first chess champion - Vilgelm Steinitz developed his famous position doctrine. The chess became a science. During 130! years both critics and supporters of Steinitz have not suggested anything essentially new. In the middle of the twentieth century supporters of the scientific approach almost gained “the final victory”. There were only two who clouded a clear sky - Victor Korchnoj and Michail Tal. Both played not according to Steinitz - and how they played! Unfortunately for many chess amateurs, it was possible “to get settled” everything with Tal rather quickly. "Boring" variants with early exchanges of queens were set against the flashing attacks. Tal had to change his tactics – that was Steinitz’s triumph! The situation with Korchnoj turned out to be more difficult. The pawns which seemed to be "poisoned" at first sight appeared to be quite edible. “Greedy” Korchnojin many respects has anticipated the playing of modern computers, having become the best chess "defender" and the only disturber of the chess peace for many years.

But there came computers.

And what about the position theory? The Steinitz's theory which had taken a turn for the worse in the middle of the twentieth century, started to go to pieces when the computers came. Many good chess players realized, that main principles of the position game should certainly be observed. At respectable chess schools children are still taught according to Steinitz's theory- it is good to have open files, but not doubled pawns. But in practice, having forgotten about Steinitz, and severely criticizing “Fritz” and "Junior" (they understand nothing in chess), grand masters started to master the infinity on the personal computers.  

It is known, that the practice is the criterion of the truth. Due to computers the "specific" methodically started to kill the "general". Computer chess have indecently "mutilated" some classical openings. Inexorable "Fritz” has found gaping "holes" in many historic games. Positional ideas have ceased to live their independent life - all and everything undergoes the computer anatomization.

Mark Tajmanov made an interesting remark about the game of two grand masters who confidently have played Botvinnik’s variant of queengambit: “Opponents had made almost 30 moves and came to a surprising position, where White had two extra rooksagainst only two black pawns, but these pawns were really at the price of gold! That’s really out of sight! The following events appeared to be well matched to the previous, eight moves later this unusual fight ended... in a draw by repetition of moves... Having glanced in the score sheet, one could retrace a kaleidoscope of events and ... be surprised even more.

(See also M.Tajmanov's article “Radicalismand conformism in debut philosophy, which is being prepared for  publication at our site).  

If it is not the crisis of the theory (position, debut), then what is it? The creators of the chess programs who are obviously not anxious about lofty topics place the emphasis on the primitive variant searching and the quick operating of modern computers. The procession of grand masters march in the track of them. The chaos triumphs celebrates its victory.

Is there a spot of light at the end of the tunnel?

It is time to pay attention of the readers to the hero of this article. Alexander Aleksandrovich Shashin became the USSR chess master in 1967. He is the classical chess player, a disciple of V.Zak. He has been working as a professional coach in the famous Leningrad “Pioneer Palace” since 1979. At the same time he is a talanted physicist, who gave up his career to serve Kaissa. He is a tireless theorist, who is extremely devoted to chess and dedicated in recent years his life to the chess researches. His idol is Capablanka. Evidently the love for "dry" beauty of the great Cuban's games has determined Alexander Aleksandrovich’s destiny.

The game Capablanka-Treibal (Carlsbad, 1929.) still amazes me.In this game Capablanka purposely had changed the structure of the pawnsfour times!!!! That resulted in considerable change of the position. There is a question, - Did Capablanka play according to a plan?”


Long before computers have impudently burst into the settled chess world constructed by Steinitz Alexander Shashin, had analyzed thousands and thousands of games of the best grand masters, trying to find something general, that have the won positions. Pondering upon the heritage of Steinz's followers, A.Shashin came to a conclusion that classical position theory has almost not changed during the last century. (Is it possible to call "changes" the introduction of such concepts as - «dynamic balance»?). Euwe, while developing the ideas of Steinitz, had counted eleven characteristics describing a position. Before Euwe Tarrashinsisted that there were up to 30-40 of such characteristics. And nowadays, according to Karpov it is considered that there are only 7 of them. The persistent many years' analysis multiplied by the scientific talent of the physicist, has yielded the fruits. At first there was just a guess – “it is necessary to give up all characteristics of the position estimation according to Steinitzand to substitute them for essentially new ones! But which?

In his time Steinitz understood, that every position can be described as some aggregate of characteristics (development, centre possession and open files possession, “good” or “bad” pawns, king’s location etc.). It was necessary to have the courage to give up the classical estimations, which are so habitual and native for every chess player. Alexander Aleksandrovich as a professional physicist suggested instead of purely chess estimation criteria of Steinitz to use not chess, but physical criteria. Here are the main, the most important physical characteristics of the position, which were suggested:

- Mobility of chess-pieces (the number of possible moves in the current position for White and Black) analogue of kinetic energy in modem physics;

- Chess pieces packing density (in other words concentration degree of white and black pieces in any place of the chess board) analogue of substance packing density in physics;

- Center of gravity of chess pieces (defines the general disposition of white and black pieces, for pawns should be calculated separately) analogue of center of gravity in physics, for pawns - analogue of potential energy.

Certainly, each chess player, who faces this approach to the position estimation for the first time, at best has doubts about the possibility of using all this set of characteristics in practice, especially during the real game. It is possible!

But before let us try to take in the arguments of Alexander Shashin in favour of the new approach to the chess position estimation.

Chess is a very complicated system. It includes pieces (material objects), which are situated on the board (in a certain space) and can shift and interact move by move (in time) lso that the analogue with the model of some physical world arises. Then by analogy with the modern physics we have such notions as mass of pieces, i.e. chess material; potential energy defined by the centre of gravity pieces coordinates; kinetic energy defined by mobility of pieces and also pieces packing density, i.e. concentration degree of pieces on a certain place of the chess board. How does this physical model work? What is good in it and what is bad? It is good first of all when there is a lot of material, the more, the better. The material we count as usual: a pawn – 1, a knight - 3 etc. It is also good when our pieces have more mobility (kinetic energy) than the opponent’s pieces. If we have White, we need to watch closely our white pieces to have more variants of moves than Black. For example, in Sicilian Defense White has mobility 30 after its first move and Black after its first move has only 22, it’s good for White. It is good also, when our pieces stand more compact, i.e. occupy less space having the same number of pieces as opponent. One more example: in French defense after 1. e4e6 Black occupies less space than White and it’s good for it. Though in this case Black has another disadvantage, it is weaker according to another characteristic, the centre of gravity as White has moved farther to the promotion squares than Black and its integral energy, connected with potential of pawn promotion, more than that of Black’s.

Thus according to Shashin during the game it’s advantageous to have pieces standing more compact, to move forward as far as possible and to have more mobility than opponent’s pieces. The recipes are really not so difficult. Here the indignant chess public can claim not without reason: it’s not a big deal! Any skilled chess player knows without any theories that it’s necessary to surpass the opponent in developing, to occupy the space and to gather the pieces close. After that the position will certainly be preponderant.

In response to that the new theory calmly states:

1. Surpassing in development does not provide the assured higher mobility.

2. You can occupy the space an even concentrate the pieces on one wing, but in that case your opponent will have a higher packing density of pieces than you.

3. In case of outward appearance of advantage, nevertheless count the characteristics. Most likely, that the calculation will show that your position is worse or at any rate not as good as it seems to you.

4. And lastly, the main thing. If you estimate a position according to the new method, please, give up all the estimations of Steinitz. It’s better to work within the limits of one scientific theory.

To estimate a position according to Shashin you certainly need learn to do it automatically, subconsciously. Chess players who will try to do this almost at once in some game most likely will fail. The author of the method himself has been studying it for several years. Although there are already first disciples, followers and adherents, who easily use such categories as mobility and packing density and don’t take into consideration double pawns, open files and holes.

The theory of Alexander Shashin takes initial steps. On this interesting way there are a lot of vague things. For example, how to calculate packing density correctly? And for computer realization of the new method it’s necessary to introduce at least two physical criteria: potential field and internal connections. (The opinion of V.Bazhenov)

It is also interesting to compare some of the views of Steinitz with the statements of the new theory. “Steinitz…gradually came to the supposition that the game of chess must obey certain logical laws. And logic can’t depend on a mere incident…” (It should be mentioned here that the overwhelming majority of chess professionals are also sure that it’s possible to plan the game of chess according to a certain logic). The research of A.Shashin is contrary to such problem definition. A.Shashin in his article “Shall we play according to plan?” states: “The game of chess is basically illogical, i.e. unplanned”. Contrary to V.Steinitz who considered that “The plan must always be based on estimation”, the new theory suggests that the choice of the best move or of the algorithm for playing, which are not identical with the notion of plan, must be based on the position estimation.

Depending on numerical position estimation A.Shashin suggests to choose one of three possible algorithms of the game: the algorithm of Tal (attack), the algorithm of Capablanka (the game with gradual rising of the positional advantage) or the algorithm of Petrosian (defense).

“The conception of planning” in the game of chess is theoretically non-constructive. According to A.Shashin one should choose certain continuation from several equal (by “physical” criteria) variants in a random way, not following any specific plan.

The Steinitz’s thesis that “the one who has an advantage must attack under the threat of losing this advantage” seems to be not always correct from the point of view of the new theory. As appears from the theory you should attack (to play according to the algorithm of Tal) only when the numerical characteristics of position exceed some threshold values, e.g. correlations of mobilities in case of equal packing densities exceed 25%.

In the beginning of the way.

Alexander Aleksandrovich Shashin suggested more general and therefore more universal method of position estimating. It has far less criteria than Steinitz’s method, they are more objective and it is easier to cope with them. As a rule, the position estimation criteria according to A.Shashin do not conflict with the criteria of Steinitz. For example it’s advantageous to occupy open files and diagonals – mobility increases; it isn’t advantageous to double pawns – mobility decreases (and internal connections decrease – V.Bazhenov); pawns in the opening cross border line – packing density considerably decreases; it’s advantageous to occupy the centre – mobility appreciably increases, the centre of gravity shifts; castling – local packing density and mobility increase etc.).

Isaac Newton described the structure of our world and cleared the way for solving many real-world problems by simple laws. Albert Einstein didn’t abrogate Newton's laws, he suggested the model, which included all Newton's laws as a particular case. Einstein suggested the model that solves more real-world problems than the model of Newton. On the Earth Newton's laws are mostly sufficient, but in the outer space we can’t manage without Einstein’s laws.

Chess is a complicated world with its own fundamental laws. V. Steinitz “discovered” the laws, which were good in precomputer age. A.Shashin suggested the model of the chess world, which works at the human level, but the greatest achievements can be reached by application of the new theory to computer programs. We will see the further course of events.

I congratulate Alexander Aleksandrovich Shashin on his sixtieth anniversary and wish him and his theory many happy returns of the day.

I must beforehand apologize to A.Shashin and also to all the readers for those inaccuracies, which were inevitably made in mypopularizing of the main ideas of the new positional theory.

All the staff of CJSC “Intellectual games” joins to the congratulations and looks forward to new publications of A.Shashin on the pages of the web site www.e3e5.com.

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