Monday, October 6, 2014

Great Chess Performances at the Elite Level

A great athletic feat inevitably brings to mind the accomplishments of performers from previous eras; when Kobe Bryant authors a streak of games with at least 45 points, educated fans recall an even more prodigious Wilt Chamberlain scoring streak. Similarly, Fabiano Caruana's fantastic result in the Sinquefield Cup--winning his first seven games in a row en route to an undefeated first place score of 8.5/10 against the highest rated field in chess history--has inevitably drawn comparisons to some other tremendous winning streaks/first place results. Bobby Fischer won 20 consecutive games en route to capturing the World Championship in 1972. He won his last seven games in the 1970 Interzonal, swept Mark Taimanov 6-0 in the Candidates Quarterfinals, swept Bent Larsen 6-0 in the Candidates Semifinals and won the first game of his Candidates Finals match against former World Champion Tigran Petrosian (Fischer lost the second game but won the match 6.5-2.5). In a 2005 article, Jeff Sonas--who has developed his own chess rating system to compare players from different eras--declared that Fischer's sweep of Larsen is the greatest match performance in chess history. According to Sonas' 2005 calculations, Anatoly Karpov's Linares 1994 triumph is the single best tournament performance in chess history, followed by Garry Kasparov (Tilburg 1989), Emanuel Lasker (London 1899), Garry Kasparov (Linares 1999), Mikhail Tal (1959 Candidates) and Alexander Alekhine (San Remo 1930). Based on official FIDE ratings, the three best tournament results are Fabiano Caruana (3103 performance rating, Sinquefield Cup 2014), Magnus Carlsen (3002 performance rating, Pearl Spring 2009) and Anatoly Karpov (2985 performance rating, Linares 1994).

While Fischer's 20 game winning streak is an unparalleled feat considering the stakes and the caliber of his opponents, Fischer actually had an even longer streak (24 games)--albeit against relatively "weaker" players--from 1963-65, punctuated by his unprecedented 11/11 sweep of the 1963-64 U.S. Championship. Fischer scored 25.5/26 in 1963! Fischer only played one tournament game in 1964, a final round victory against Anthony Saidy to top off his perfect score in the U.S. Championship. Fischer skipped the 1964 Interzonal and the 1964 Chess Olympiad because of his disputes with the way that FIDE organized international chess. Instead, he went on tour throughout the United States giving simultaneous exhibitions. Imagine LeBron James leaving the NBA for a year to play in the Rucker League or go on tour with streetball players and you get some sense of what the chess world lost in 1964 (not to mention what was lost when Fischer abruptly left the sport in 1972).

Mikhail Tal, who stormed the chess summit in the late 1950s and early 1960s and became the youngest World Champion (23, a record since broken by Garry Kasparov), enjoyed a revival in the early 1970s after battling some serious health problems. Tal put together the two longest official elite level undefeated streaks: 95 games (46 wins and 49 draws from 1973-74) and 86 games (47 wins and 39 draws from 1972-73). Tal's streaks are even more remarkable when one considers his deserved reputation for spectacular attacks and combinations; clearly, Tal was a much more well-rounded and consistent player than many people may realize.

Any list of great chess streaks must mention Jose Raul Capablanca, who went eight years without suffering a loss (1916-1924), including his successful 1921 World Championship match against Emanuel Lasker. However, Capablanca only played 63 games during that span.

Is Caruana's recent performance a sign that he is poised to become World Champion? It will be interesting to see if Caruana is able to dethrone Magnus Carlsen, the highest rated chess player of all-time.

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