Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Where Should Magnus Carlsen be Ranked in the Chess Pantheon?

It is interesting and fun to try to rank the greatest practitioners of all-time in a given field but, no matter how conscientiously one attempts to be objective, such selections are inherently subjective.  My Pantheon series honored the 10 greatest retired professional basketball players of all-time, while also providing some recognition to four active players whose career arcs seemed destined to launch them into Pantheon territory. While I am proud of the work that I did on that project, there is a certain charm and elegant simplicity to Julius Erving's take on this subject; he has not changed his all-time starting five since he was in high school: Erving explained that his quintet "was, is, and always will be Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, with Connie Hawkins coming off the bench as my sixth man to play guard, forward and center."

Erving has reiterated his philosophy in multiple recent interviews that he has conducted as part of his tour to promote his autobiography, Dr. J. Erving has made it clear that he is in no way disparaging the accomplishments and/or skill level of players such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James but he strongly believes that the evolution of the game and the emergence of new stars do not diminish the greatness of the game's pioneers; each great player should be appreciated for what he accomplished in the context of his era. In Erving's view, those who operate at the highest levels of greatness are part of a continuum, not a hierarchy: Erving does not believe that his high-flying escapades eclipsed those of Baylor and Hawkins but rather that he continued down the mid-air path that they blazed, much as Jordan, Bryant and James have subsequently continued down that path as well.

Erving's approach could also be applied regarding a chess Pantheon. Olimpiu G. Urcan notes that recently crowned World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen has evoked comparisons with many of the sport's most highly regarded champions because of his ruthlessly efficient playing style, cool nerves and ability to convert the slimmest edge into a win:

Our personal observation took in verbal contrasts and juxtapositions with no fewer than seven of Carlsen's great predecessors, including Paul Morphy, José Raúl Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Bobby Fischer, Vasily Smyslov, Anatoly Karpov and, of course, Garry Kasparov. Occasionally, commentators offered variations on this theme. One very notable one, in seeking an adequate Carlsen comparison, yoked together two previous world champions. On November 15, 2013, Kasparov tweeted that he "once described him [Carlsen] as Capablanca with the will of Alekhine." Another pundit, Susan Polgar, one of the commentators during the live broadcast of Game 10, made use of commercial product language, the lingo of soaps and cell phone sales: she described Carlsen as "an improved version of Bobby Fischer."

Perhaps Carlsen is an "improved" Fischer in terms of relative psychological/emotional stability--and those traits are certainly important elements in maintaining one's status as the world's best chess player--but both the chess ratings and the anecdotal evidence suggest that Fischer towered over his contemporaries in a way that is unmatched by any other player except, possibly, Morphy. How can one compare Morphy to Fischer, let alone to Carlsen? Carlsen is a full-time chess professional who has a team of seconds at his disposal, plus access to computer technology that has changed the very nature of the sport. If such computers had existed in Morphy's day would they have leveled the playing field or would Morphy's genius intellect have enabled him to process extra information more rapidly than his rivals? Morphy's style inspired the players who came after him, much like Fischer inspired a generation and much like Carlsen is inspiring a generation. Erving's continuum of greatness can be readily seen when making these comparisons.

Carlsen is already the highest rated player of all-time and the second youngest linear World Champion, narrowly trailing Kasparov for the latter honor. Where should Carlsen rank in the chess pantheon? Carlsen, to this point, has not been as dominant as Fischer but Carlsen shares Fischer's will to win/fighting spirit. There is also more than a whiff of Capablanca's elegant, deceptive simplicity to Carlsen's games; Carlsen's ideas often seem obvious in retrospect but the fact that he consistently beats elite Grandmasters proves that his ideas are not at all obvious until he executes them over the board.

One important element is the test of time. Erving has a "10 year rule": a player should not even be considered for all-time great status until he has logged at least 10 professional seasons (Erving has mentioned that Gale Sayers is perhaps the only exception he will make to this rule). Fischer once declared that he would regularly accept challenges for his World Championship title but he never played an officially sanctioned game of chess after winning that title in 1972; at the other end of the spectrum, Wilhelm Steinitz stood atop the chess world for 28 years, Emanuel Lasker reigned as World Champion for 27 years and Garry Kasparov wore the linear World Championship crown for 15 years.

Whether Carlsen reigns for three years like Fischer or nearly three decades like Steinitz and Lasker, he has already permanently etched his name in chess history by virtue of the quality of his games, his record-breaking rating and his decisive victory against Viswanathan Anand, a great champion in his own right. An old school chess "starting five" analogous to Erving's basketball "starting five" might include Morphy, Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine. That quintet will always be special--and it is possible to make room for Fischer, Kasparov and Carlsen without either forgetting the past or dismissing modern players as products of superior conditions and/or technology

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