Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Anand Shows That He is not the Retiring Kind

After Viswanathan Anand lost his World Chess Championship title to Magnus Carlsen, some commentators speculated that Anand might retire from top level chess. The 44 year old Anand had slipped to eighth in the world chess rankings and it seemed like he did not have the necessary energy and/or motivation to seriously challenge the 23 year old Carlsen. Anand's tournament record in the past few years has been less than stellar and prior to losing to Carlsen he had only narrowly fought off past his prime World Championship challenger Boris Gelfand. Levon Aronian, the 31 year old second ranked player in the world, seemed poised to emerge from the eight player Candidates Tournament to battle against Carlsen.

However, a funny thing has happened on the road to Anand's retirement/Aronian's coronation: Anand has turned back the clock to produce three sizzling victories, a 6.5 score and a 2883 performance rating after 10 rounds in the Candidates Tournament, while Aronian is in second place with a 5.5 score. Anand scored 1.5/2 in his head to head encounters with Aronian and there are just four rounds left in the double round robin event, so--barring a total collapse--Anand will surprise the chess world and earn the right to reclaim the World Chess Championship.

Anand is not be as consistently dominant in tournaments as he used to be but he is a crafty veteran of World Championship play--winning the title in more different formats than any other player--and it is inspiring to watch an "older" player rise to the occasion against the world's elite. If Anand finishes off the Candidates Tournament in style and gets a second opportunity face Carlsen in the World Chess Championship it will be fascinating to see how Anand adjusts his approach; the first time around, it seemed like Anand failed in at least three regards: (1) his opening preparation did not yield much, (2) he lacked the confidence to go for the kill on the rare occasions when he had a potential opportunity to do so and (3) during long games he clearly suffered from mental and/or physical fatigue, resulting in disastrous blunders. During the Candidates Tournament, Anand has demonstrated that he can still get the best of top notch players like Aronian and former World Champions Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov--but can Anand defeat a much younger foe who seems to enjoy psychological and physical advantages against him?

Carlsen is not only the World Chess Champion and the highest rated chess player in the world but he is also the highest rated chess player ever. Just qualifying to challenge Carlsen will be quite a feat for Anand but if Anand dethrones the man who at least some people believe to be the greatest chess player of all time that will be the biggest achievement of his already highly decorated career. Anand would be a heavy underdog against Carlsen--and he did not manage to post even one win in their previous match--but he was not considered a serious contender in the Candidates Tournament until he raced out into the lead and never looked back.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Marv Levy: Champion Without a Ring

It is a paradoxical reality of the sports universe that if one never makes it to the big game one can still be perceived as a winner but if one makes it to the big game repeatedly without winning it then one is generally perceived as a loser. Coach Marv Levy led the Buffalo Bills to an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls (1991-94) and if the Bills had won just one of those games then history would view Levy much more kindly--but the Bills lost all four, including three blowouts plus one game decided on a last second field goal missed by Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood, and thus it is unlikely that Levy will ever get the full credit that he is due.

Rick Telander, a narrative non-fiction master, realized that there is much more to Levy than those four Super Bowl losses; in an October 17, 1994 Sports Illustrated article titled No Joke, Telander explained why Levy is not only a great coach but also a well-rounded human being. Levy possesses the intelligence and determination to succeed in just about any field but the Harvard history major fell in love with football, a decision that did not meet with the immediate approval of his father. When he told Sam Levy what he planned to do, the elder Levy considered the matter in silence before saying simply, "Be a good one."

The stereotypical football coach breathes fire and instills fear but Marv Levy rejected that approach: "I hear sometimes that to be a good coach you have to be mean. I disagree, because the essential quality of a coach is to be a good teacher. Just because my personality is different from, say, Mike Ditka's doesn't mean a thing. What I always say is, 'Plan your work and work your plan.' If you have everything prepared, the rest takes care of itself.'"

After that fourth Super Bowl loss, Levy offered a defiant response when asked if the Bills could make a fifth straight trip to the Super Bowl: "Is our goal to win? No! Our goal is to develop our team, to earn what we get, to learn, to develop unselfish attitudes. If we achieve that, the result is that we'll win."

Those words may sound trite but coaches who have won multiple championships--including Phil Jackson and John Wooden--said very similar things: competing in sports at the highest level is about the process, about doing your work the right way and about having the proper mindset: those things do not guarantee championships but they guarantee that you can look in the mirror and know that you, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, filled "the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Peter Svidler on the "Mystical Quality" of Chess

Seven-time Russian chess champion Peter Svidler recently was interviewed by Rustam Kasimdzhanov, the 2004 FIDE World Chess Champion; in Part I, Svidler offers a very candid appraisal of his chess career:

I still think I'm primarily a chess player, but the question can perhaps be phrased: "Have I been as much of a chess player as I should have been over the course of my career?" And I think to that the answer is no. But once again, by now that's probably unfixable and I'm probably more of a chess player right now than I was three years ago--so I'm trying to do something about it. 

I have been somewhat...relaxed towards my chess career in general over the past decade or so. Who knows what could have happened...but the whole, "what would have happened with him if he'd worked on chess for 12 hours a day," is completely pointless, because I don't see myself working 12 hours a day whatever I do. It's a non-starter. I know of some people who do that, but I can't imagine changes in my life which would lead me to that.

It is fascinating that even someone as accomplished as Svidler believes that he does not have the work ethic or focus possessed by the very greatest chess players. Svidler both recognizes this shortcoming and accepts that it is fruitless to wonder what might have been had he taken a different approach; he knows that it is just not in his nature to have the monomaniacal devotion to the sport displayed by Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen, three World Champions who have each permanently inscribed their names very prominently in chess history. Svidler is well aware that he never came close to reaching their level: "...I will be listed as a bit-player in the era of Kramnik. Maybe not exactly a bit-player, but still--there are people out there who shaped the chess world to a certain degree. I don't see myself as one of those, but I'm a decent player."

Although Svidler failed to establish himself as an all-time chess great, in Part II he explains why chess captivates him (and millions of other people who are spellbound by the beauty, wonder, mystery and horror of chess):

I think it's an incredibly beautiful game. It can bring you a lot of joy if you study it and begin to understand it. You do need to put in some work because the "problem" with chess is that you do need to get past a certain level to begin appreciating just how beautiful it can be...

It has a somewhat mystical quality for me. In its best aspects it's like music or literature. It can create a feeling of wonder and beauty--obviously not every day, but it can. That's the reason I'm still happy I'm playing it because every now and then you create something which makes you think, yeah, that really was something which will remain. It's more than a game--at least I like to think so...

Success and recognition and all those things are important, clearly--who doesn't want those?--but this feeling that you get every now and then that you're completely in control of what you're doing over the board and the pieces listen to you and do what you say… For me that's absolutely fantastic and what I'm searching for--what I'm playing for.  

Svidler nailed it: chess provides both a means to express oneself artistically and a way to at least have the illusion of exercising control in a world that often seems very chaotic and unpredictable.