Yesterday I wrote a post on how football has in some ways reached the same “dead end” as chess, with regard to the rigid, drilled sequences in play that mark the professional side of the game. I wrote, in response to a Jonathan Wilson post in the New Statesman, that:
“…players are so well-drilled at the club level, what seem like instinctual passes to team mates to the observer are in fact the result of intentional, drilled practice. Hence, the common viewer refrain of “Who was that pass for?” when a teammate is unexpectedly taken out of the play. The player is just following a routine.”
I likened this to Bobby Fischer’s remarks about how “old chess” (ie the conventional form of chess) was “dead’ because the first phase of the game were now long, memorized sequences that yielded higher win probabilities or suited a particular style of play over another.
Many commenters opposed this comparison. Here’s a representative selection:
“I get that set-pieces and certain basic moves can be memorized but the idea that the majority of the action is the product of rote memory seems highly improbable (every game would look identical if that were the case).”
“The possibilities of football I think remain too complex in all but set pieces to be constrained to repetitive actions.”
“I don’t think the analogy of football to chess holds, primarily because football introduces additional variables – the rapid pace of action and the differences in physical ability.”
To bring this all back down to earth a bit, let’s return to the original article that sparked my comparison to chess: Jonathan Wilson’s piece for the New Statesman.
Wilson argues there is no longer an element of unpredictability when two major international sides (club or country) meet each other in competitive play. This has to do with the homogenization of tactics brought about by television, digital media, and the increasing internationalism in the game, with elite leagues hiring players from around the globe. But it’s also related to the fact elite players are drilled on very specific sets of plays for their clubs in specific that they cannot readily reproduce with their country, and are therefore reduced to predictable, defensive, “conservative” formations.
It would be absurd, however, to assert this kind of systematization altogether erases any space for improvisation and creativity in the game; rather, it reduces it to more limited set of particular circumstances. Lionel Messi’s individual artistry Barcelona is in part supported by a a heavily-drilled, possession-based approach from the entire side that affords Messi the time and space to run into.
In many ways this is precisely similar to the affect that memorization of countless opening variations has had on chess. The glory of chess, as many players will tell you, isn’t the opening or the end game but the middle game, when both players have developed their pieces and must make the moves or combination of moves that will lead to either a mate, or more often, the resignation of the opponent. It involves risk, creativity, art, and it’s still very much alive and well.
Even so, the variation in play is drastically reduced because of the extensive memorization involved in conventional openings, which in some cases reaches far into the middle game.
In football, there are obviously still moments of incredible creativity, risk, variation, individual brilliance, otherwise Zlatan Ibrahimovic would be out of a job. But the intensification of drills, seamless passing exercises, and uniform formations at the club level has arguable taken its both on international football, reducing the options of managers and perhaps even affecting the ability of players to adapt to “unfamiliar” positions, which in some cases involve a matter of moving several meters (James Milner out wide anyone?).
And in that sense, the comparison to the evolution of chess in recent years is still very apt.