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The Parallel Histories of Chess and Soccer Strategies

August 14, 2013

Slate recently published an article adapted from The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, a new book by Chris Anderson and David Sally.  In the article, Anderson and Sally look at why soccer teams scored far more goals-per-game in the past than in the present.  They note that modern teams tend to concentrate players in the defending half, whereas past sides would use up to seven strikers. According to Anderson and Sally, this signifies a fundamental shift in how managers approach a soccer match:

Where soccer was once purely an attacking sport, it is now focused on a symmetry between scoring and not conceding.  It has grown into a more balanced game of offense and defense.  When tactical changes produced teams that were more defensive but still won (or perhaps won even more), their opponents adapted their playing styles in response.  Over time soccer was discovered as a game that is fundamentally about avoiding mistakes and punishing the other side for theirs.

The authors’ description of the change in soccer strategy reminds me of a similar shift in another game: chess.  With that a mind, here’s a simplified history of modern chess.

In the mid-19th century, not long after the rules of the game were standardized, top-level chess was all about attack.  Pieces were sacrificed with abandon.  The king was under constant duress.  Flashy tactics were all the rage.  “Romantic chess” was best exemplified in the games of the German chest legend Adolf Anderssen.  Anderssen’s skill won him the London 1851 chess tournament, but an unofficial match against Lionel Kierseritsky is the era’s most enduring legacy.

The “Immortal Game”, as it is called, embodies the attacking style of chess, and the way Anderssen checkmates Kierseritsky after sacrificing a bishop, both rooks, and his queen is mesmerizing.  But no one would say they made the best moves by today’s standards.  Just look at the board after move 10 (Anderssen has the white pieces).

Anderssen and Kierseritsky have been turning up the pressure, but their positions have obvious flaws.  Both players have developed just two pieces each.  Neither play has developed their queenside at all.  Both kings are precariously close to the center of the board.  They are like soccer teams with seven strikers: poised to score but full of structural problems.

It’s no surprise that when Wilhelm Steinitz adopted a more positional approach to chess–one which balanced the needs of attack and defense–he rose to the top of the chess world.  The more modest goals of Steinitz’s play, such as control of the center and efficient development, were codified in the writings of Siegbert Tarrasch and were often taught as dogma.  The “Classical” style was more successful, but it came at the expense of raw excitement.

But much like soccer strategy, chess strategy keeps evolving.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the “hypermodernists” improved upon the work of Steinitz and Tarrasch to breathe new life into the game.  Post-WWII, the Soviet Chess School encouraged rigorous study of the game, and in the present age, chess computers allow players to find greater and greater possibilities.

To recap: chess players were originally attack-oriented but later adopted a more effective strategic style.  Rather than stagnating, chess has remained vibrant as new methods are required to conquer similarly-minded opponents.  This is a fairly close parallel to Anderson and Sally’s take on soccer strategy.

Given that chess and soccer followed similar paths to their current preferred strategies, we may learn something about the nature of games.  When a formerly high-scoring or aggressive game becomes more methodical in nature, the game is not dying, but maturing.  And in the race to gain an edge on opponents, strategy is always changing.  One day, someone will find a crack in the Spanish passing system, or a weakness in the Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defense.  That day will not be the end, but a new beginning for the game.

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