Friday, November 29, 2013

Anand Agonistes

It has been said that athletes die twice, with their first death coming at the end of their sporting careers. Perhaps the greatest athletes in a given sport die three times: first when their primacy is challenged/overthrown, second when they are no longer capable of playing competitively at all and third when they pass away in the same fashion as all other mortal beings. If this is true, then Viswanathan Anand--barring a highly unlikely rise back to the top of the chess world--has experienced the first of his three deaths.

Anand was the undisputed World Chess Champion from 2007-2013, winning or defending the linear World Chess Championship four consecutive times (2007, 2008, 2010, 2012). The 22 year old Magnus Carlsen dethroned the 43 year old Anand in a 6.5-3.5 rout that will likely be remembered as a changing of the guard moment in chess history. Carlsen seems poised to enjoy a long reign at the top, while if Anand continues to play competitively his rating will inevitably follow the inexorably downward path previously traversed by all other former World Champions who remained on the scene.

It is worth remembering that before becoming an elder statesman Anand was once a wunderkind--and that despite his tactical acumen and dazzlingly fast rate of play there were some doubts if he possessed all of the necessary qualities to become the World Chess Champion. Anand convincingly refuted his skeptics by winning the 2007 World Championship Tournament and then by defending his crown in matches against Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov and Boris Gelfand.

Cathy Forbes' 1993 Inside Chess Interview with Anand provides a fascinating, time capsule view of Anand before he reached the chess summit. Here are some choice excerpts (Forbes' comments and questions are set in regular type, while Anand's answers are set in bold); the first three paragraphs are taken from Forbes' introduction, while the remaining passages are taken from the interview itself:

Vishy talks the way he used to play chess--like a machine gun. His play may have slowed down, but not his speech. Never has my tape-recorder been so strenuously rewound for fear of missing some pearl of this great player's wisdom.

He radiates warmth, self-confidence and self-containment. His facetious, but gentle, sense of humour surfaces frequently, his giggle is infectious; incredibly enough, he seems happy.

Where is the eccentricity, the pain, the paranoia, the surliness, the arrogance, the obsessiveness of the top chess man? Surely he must be too good to be true?

People have said that Anand's play is all tricks.

I don't deny that tactics play a part in my game, but I'm a changing player, I've been changing a lot over the last few years. I think my style now, compared with 1990 or 1991, has changed quite a lot. I'm playing a lot more solid openings...on the other hand, I've lost some of the, let's say, sangfroid (laughter).
Nothing is happening in my chess career that I'm worried about, let's put it that way. There's still lots of scope for improvement, this is clear. I'm not the best player in the world at the moment, nor am I clear number two or three, but I'm one of the top players, my chess is improving and life's going well.
Tell me how you study.

Generally, I read a lot, but always in a very disorganized way. I never think, "What are my repertoire problems, and how am I going to work them out?" I just kept on reading, and a lot of it came in handy. Where I come from, India, this approach is normal. Indian players don't think about this guy's weaknesses, how to avoid all these transpositions--you don't think like this in India. Only in the Candidates Matches did I start to get some picture about how these things work. Then I did some really serious work on the opening.

I got ChessBase at the end of '89. I've been carrying it around since the Interzonal. It's almost indispensable, because without it at a tournament, the reality is that you won't know what your opponents have been doing recently and everyone else will have it.

If Kasparov came to one tournament without his computer, he could probably get away with it. But if he started to do it regularly, then the gaps in his information would start to pile up.

You need the computer to make some preparation, basically. If you want to study something, you still have to do all the studying yourself--the computer won't help you. It will just give you information on hand. The only thing the computer saves you is reinventing the wheel. I mean, if some great idea has already been played before, you're wasting your time.

Is chess a sport in your view?

Absolutely! Clearly! The sporting aspect always comes to the fore...If you asked me, would I like to be the most beautiful world champion in history or the most successful one, I'd choose the latter...most chess players would. There's always going to be a trade-off between success and beauty. Beauty is nice when it comes along, but...

Forbes also presented some longer Anand statements that he made in response to more general questions. For instance, here is part of Anand's take on the chess politics of the late 1980s and early 1990s:

I wasn't really involved in the early struggles of the GMA, but already in 1988 I realized one thing: you need some non-chess players knocking some sanity into all these Grandmasters. Chess players generally live in a world of their own. Even though they dislike each other, hate each other, like Karpov and Kasparov, Karpov and Korchnoi, they have very enjoyable analysis sessions and postmortems. It's very nice that they can talk about chess, but on other matters they can be a bit wacky. Just completely out.

For instance, among many players there is an almost ingrained hatred for rapid chess, which I find very annoying. Look what one-day cricket has done for cricket. You need to change with the times.
Finally, Anand's take on how the underdog Nigel Short should approach his upcoming World Chess Championship match against Garry Kasparov is fascinating in light of the uphill challenge that Anand just faced against the heavily favored Carlsen. The strategy Anand described is the one that he attempted to use against Carlsen--avoid disastrous mistakes, keep the score close, hope that the favorite gets nervous the longer that the outcome of the match remains in doubt--but both Kasparov and Carlsen demonstrated that their brute playing strength and cool nerves were too much for their respective opponents to overcome. It is reasonable to assume that Anand applied the same logic to his own situation prior to the Carlsen match and came to the conclusion that he had very little practical chance to beat Carlsen; before the match, Vladimir Kramnik declared that Anand "is somewhat intimidated" by Carlsen and the result backed up that analysis: Anand's timid, error-filled performance even in equal or superior positions versus Carlsen supports the theory that Anand lacked confidence that he could prevail against a younger, stronger and more consistent opponent.

Here is how Anand regarded Short's chances (Kasparov ultimately won, 12.5-7.5, the most lopsided linear World Chess Championship match by winning percentage [.625] since 1950 until Carlsen posted a .650 winning percentage against Anand) :

Well, Gazza is clear, clear favorite, no doubt about this. First of all, compare his performance in Linares, winning here this year, with Nigel's performance [last place] last year--not interesting. There is absolutely no doubt that if things go normally, Garry will probably win. But put yourself in Nigel's place. For him to give up now, to accept this view, is suicide. He has to, at least, keep the idea that he has a chance. And I believe he does have some chance. Kasparov is almost 200 rating points ahead, Nigel has a score of minus ten against him.

But Nigel doesn't have to go into the lead. What Karpov did against Kasparov in New York was brilliant. He was not leading, and Kasparov was really going for him, but Karpov always recovered, and Kasparov got very wobbly in Lyon before he eventually pulled himself together. If Nigel can learn something from this, I think he can, without too much difficulty, make it a close fight.

I believe, with some effort, Nigel can avoid getting wiped out. If he is well prepared, if he is in the match at the half-way stage, say only one point down; if he has produced some chances, Kasparov can get very edgy. If you play someone who is much weaker than you, and you're fighting for your chances, it can feel very uncomfortable.

For Nigel to win the match would be enormously difficult. Everything before, the Candidates, even the Candidates Final--will seem like a picnic. He has to look at his chances realistically, and be prepared to fight, but he has done this everywhere. In tournaments Nigel gives the impression that he couldn't care less, but in matches, he always manages to pull himself together.

For instance, there's a big difference even between drawing the match at 12-12 and letting Kasparov keep the title, and winning it 12.5-11.5. That's much, much, much more than half a point. The day Kasparov thinks he's about to lose the match, he's going to have everything put into it. He's going to fight with every bone in his body. If you cut his arms and legs off, he'll fight with his teeth.

I think I can speak for Kasparov when I say that he likes being World Champion. He'd be pretty upset about not being World Champion anymore. I don't think he can imagine life without being World Champion.

If Nigel comes to the point of beating Kasparov, he will really be working for all the millions he's making. He won't have gotten anything free. Okay, it's not a likely scenario, but let's imagine Nigel a point up with four games to go. Those games would be nightmares for Nigel--but pleasant nightmares, of course. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Magnus Carlsen Captures the World Chess Championship

"One man alone cannot fight the future."--Conrad Strughold, "The X-Files: Fight the Future"

"The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's how the smart money bets."--Damon Runyon

Magnus Carlsen displayed brilliance, patience, energy, stamina and steady nerves as he defeated Viswanathan Anand 6.5-3.5 to become the World Chess Champion. Carlsen, who previously established himself as the highest rated player in chess history, is the 16th linear World Chess Champion, joining an elite group started by Wilhelm Steinitz and including the two chess players who even most non-chess players know about: Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer.

Prior to the match, some Anand supporters suggested/hoped that Anand's vast match experience and his success in winning world championships in various formats/time controls would give him an edge over his much younger challenger but in chess--as in most sports--it is inevitable that youth will eventually be served: Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan all fell victim to Father Time, in the guise of the next generation of competitors eager to enjoy their time in the sun.

After the players opened the match with four straight draws, Carlsen delivered a knockout blow by scoring consecutive wins. Anand fought hard to draw games seven and eight but then he blundered in game nine to give Carlsen an insurmountable lead. Carlsen comfortably drew the 10th game to clinch the match victory. Carlsen seized the title with two games to spare in what will be remembered as one of the most lopsided championship battles in chess history; this is the first time in Anand's distinguished career that he did not score at least one win in a World Championship match.

Carlsen stayed true to his relentless, uncompromising approach throughout the match; in the final game he eschewed a potential early draw that would have dethroned Anand, instead seeking victory while also risking defeat and forcing the champion to tenaciously defend for several hours before the position simplified to a clear draw. Carlsen is both a quintessentially modern player and a throwback to previous eras; in the opening he obtains deceptively simple--and at times unorthodox--positions in order to render useless any pre-game computer preparation undertaken by his opponents but in the middlegame and endgame he is a relentless competitor/cool calculator in the mold of Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. When you sit down to play Magnus Carlsen you must expect a fight to the bitter end, even if the position seems devoid of winning chances and even if a draw is as good as a win for Carlsen due to the tournament/match situation.

Anand was a great champion and a gentlemanly competitor during his reign; chess lovers hope and expect that Carlsen will take the sport to even greater heights thanks to his youth, his appeal to non-chessplayers and the lyrical virtuosity of his games--a quality that has inspired GM Lubomir Kavalek to dub him "The Mozart of Chess."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Reggie Jackson Laments How the PED Users Defiled MLB's Record Book

Reggie Jackson ranked sixth on MLB's career home run list with 563 home runs when he retired in 1987 but he has now dropped to 13th--largely because of the influx of PED users, the horde of barbarians at the gate who have defiled and destroyed baseball's once sacred record book. In a recent interview with Keith Olbermann, Jackson agreed with the fans who are justifiably upset and disappointed by how a few unscrupulous, greedy cheaters have caused such great damage to baseball. You can watch the entire interview here:

Here is the specific Jackson quote about PED users and their impact on the game: "I think that my editorial, my response, is the same as everybody's: embarrassed, feel terrible about it. I remember telling stories about it five, six, seven years ago and tears would come into my eyes because I happen to be a baseball fan that was a pretty good player and got to hit home runs as a fan, OK? So the things that Mays and Ruth and Aaron and Koufax and Duke Snider and the great players did, I just thought that they were part of American folklore and I never really wanted them changed. I think that I feel the same as any other fan does."

Friday, November 8, 2013

Luck and the World Chess Championship

"I don't believe in luck. I make it, and I take it, but I don't stand around waiting for it to happen."--Vinnie Terranova, "Wiseguy"

Like fictional Organized Crime Bureau undercover agent Vinnie Terranova, I do not believe in luck--particularly in arenas where skill can and should prevail. Matthew Wilson's three part series for titled Are the chess World Champions just lucky? examines the margins of victory of various World Championship matches and attempts to ascertain whether the championship winners displayed statistically significant dominance or if the winners were "lucky" (meaning that there is at least a reasonable probability that the objectively weaker player won the match).

Max Euwe's 15.5-14.5 victory over Alexander Alekhine in the 1935 World Chess Championship does not look decisive either to a casual chess fan or to a statistically-minded observer, particularly considering that Alekhine prevailed 15.5-9.5 in the 1937 rematch. Wilson reaffirms the widely held view that "it is unlikely that Euwe is his equal."

Wilson concludes that Bobby Fischer's 12.5-8.5 victory over Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship is statistically significant; based on the players' pre-match ratings, Wilson calculates that there was only an 8.3% chance for Fischer to win so decisively (Wilson actually used 12.5-7.5 in his analysis, disregarding the unplayed game that Fischer forfeited). In marked contrast, the official FIDE World Championship titles won in knockout-style tournaments by Alexander Khalifman, Ruslan Ponomariov and Rustam Kasimdzhanov in the late 1990s and early 2000s "were denounced as being little more than lotteries and FIDE overhauled the championship cycle." The big difference is that the short knockout-style matches introduced tremendous randomness into the results; the best player will almost certainly win a lengthy match but a weaker player has a puncher's chance in a short match with fast time controls, much like a recreational basketball player is highly unlikely to beat LeBron James in a one on one game played to 21 points but the amateur could prevail in a game played under the condition that the first made basket wins.

What about the epic Garry Kasparov-Anatoly Karpov duels from the 1980s and 1990s? Kasparov only enjoys a slight overall edge in terms of the aggregate score but Wilson looks at the matchup from a different statistical perspective: "Starting from 1985, what is the probability of winning 3.5 matches out of four against Karpov?" Wilson says that this probability is less than 20%, a number that "is still not statistically significant. But if we combine this information with Kasparov's numerous tournament victories and his long reign as the #1 rated player (there are only two rating lists from 1985-2004 that do not have him at the top), then it is easy to persuade yourself that Kasparov truly was the best player in the world at his time."

The next World Chess Championship match begins on Saturday, with World Champion Viswanathan Anand defending his title against Magnus Carlsen, who sports the highest rating in chess history.
Carlsen outrates Anand by more than 80 points. Wilson ran thousands of simulations under various conditions but no matter how the numbers are tweaked Carlsen emerges as a huge favorite; even if generous statistical assumptions are made on Anand's behalf, Carlsen wins more than 77% of the simulations. The probability that Carlsen triumphs by a statistically significant margin--defined by Wilson as 7-3 or greater--is much larger than the probability that Anand prevails at all. Of course, rating differences and statistical simulations do not take into account match experience and other psychological factors that can be very important in any high level competition.

The Anand-Carlsen match is scheduled for 12 standard length games and if the match ends in a 6-6 tie then the championship will be decided by the outcome of successively faster tiebreak matches, starting with four rapid games. Is this the ideal format to prove who is the world's best chess player? Wilson suggests that the length of World Chess Championship matches should be determined by what he calls "The 50 Point Principle," namely "If one player's strength is 50 rating points above his opponent's, then the match has to be designed so that the better player wins 90% of the time...The shortest way to satisfy the 50 point principle is a 26 game match with a two game tiebreaker if the match is drawn 13-13. Fortunately, the traditional 24 game matches were very close to respecting the 50 point principle...So to answer the question asked in the beginning, most of the world champions are not just lucky, since the better player will prevail in a large majority of the standard 24 game matches."