Sunday, March 15, 2009

What's the hardest part for a chess master setting a new world record for simultaneous play?

A Bulgarian grandmaster appears to have broken the world record for the highest number of chess games played simultaneously, organizers said Monday. Kiril Georgiev played 360 opponents... [AP]
What was the hardest part for Grandmaster Georgiev in setting the new record? Not all the thinking involved in playing this intellectual game against so many opponents at once. A typical non-chessplayer sees a master playing 20 or 60 or 100 games at one time -- and winning! -- and is likely to imagine, "Wow, he's out-thinking all those other people together." But it's not true. As a former tournament player who gave a few small simuls myself, I can attest that the master is simply "out-knowledging" all the other players, "out-remembering" them.

For an analagous situation imagine, say, a "Chemistry Q&A Challenge" in which every contestant who gives a wrong answer to a question about chemistry is eliminated. Contestents are recruited randomly from the street -- except for one who is a PhD in chemistry. Who's going to win? Even if the PhD has to take on every other contestant head-to-head he's odds on to beat them all.

That's how chess simuls work. The amateurs at their boards ponder and analyze and work to come up with a move, the master walks by, glances, maybe thinks "yeah, yeah, that again", makes the right answer and walks on. He knows the move to make, he doesn't figure it out. The master is actually spending most of his time thinking, "Am I going to get out of here in time for dinner? ... Hey, is that girl over there into chess geeks like me?", or whatever.

A few games may prove challenging to the master since a few decent-strength "ringers" often sneak into such exhibitions in the hope of beating a name player -- to be able to brag for the rest of their lives "I once beat Grandmaster Bigshotski! (while his attention was divided among 74 other games)". But for the most part these simuls boil down to an unfair contest of one person's broad and deep knowledge versus everybody else trying to figure things out for themselves. It is far, far more mentally challenging for a master to play against one other master than against any number of amateurs.

So, if thinking isn't the challenge for the master in a simultaneous exhibition, what is? What's the constraint that is difficult to fight that limits the number of opponents that can be played, so there always is a record to be broken?

Man, it's the endless walking.

Just to get from the first board to the last meant walking some 500 yards. It took him six hours to complete the first eight moves. During the display, Georgiev was allowed to take breaks of five to 10 minutes every hour. He got head and leg massages...

Georgiev's training for the match began by running four miles a day for two months through a forest in his native Bulgaria....

He finished with 284 wins, six losses and 70 draws, scoring 88% ... after walking 12 miles. [GM Soltis]
GM Georgiev's physical training methods were entirely modern. One hundred-odd years ago the top British Grandmaster Joseph Henry Blackburne famously used another method to motivate himself to keep moving, to alleviate his boredom, and give his opponents a handicap advantage at the same time: He'd place a bottle of whiskey amid his opponents' boards and down a shot every time he walked by.