Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Magnus Carlsen Convincingly Retains World Chess Championship

In November, Magnus Carlsen--the highest rated chess player ever--defeated former World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand 6.5-4.5 to retain the World Chess Champion title. Last year, Carlsen dethroned Anand in a 6.5-3.5 rout on Anand's home turf in India. After the final game of the most recent match, Carlsen told Leontxo Garcia, "I do not know if nerves were the key factor in general. But in the last game, nerves definitely had something to say. But I think nerves are a part of your strength and weaknesses as a chess player. If you have bad nerves, it is unfortunate but it is no excuse. In that game showed I have stronger nerves, probably because of the age difference."

Shortly after Carlsen defended his crown, Garry Kasparov (the 1985-2000 World Chess Champion who held the rating record that Carlsen eclipsed) offered his typically blunt (and insighftul) comments:

This year's match between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand proved that time doesn't run backwards. It is extremely difficult to overcome a gap of a full generation between the players. I believe Magnus Carlsen is a special talent, and even though he didn't play his best and Anand played better than he did last year, Magnus won. The score was a little closer than last year mostly due to Carlsen's nerves in a psychologically difficult rematch after he beat Anand so easily last year.

Did the run of the match surprise me in any aspect? Before the match began I predicted [to a number of newspapers and to Frederic Friedel of ChessBase] that Carlsen would win by two points. Magnus had one important advantage on his side: he is the better player. But it was atypical for Carlsen to not make the most of his chances in several games. I blame that on tension. For him this match was psychologically not easy, after he had beat Anand so decisively in 2013.

Championship level chess requires intelligence, resourcefulness and energy but it also requires prodigious amounts of confidence/psychological strength. In "It's Just a Question of Nerves": Anand Defeats Topalov 6.5-5.5 to Retain World Chess Championship, I discussed the emotional fortitude that Anand displayed in his first title defense since becoming the 15th classical World Chess Champion:

During an an interview conducted shortly after the match with Topalov ended, Anand provided some insights about the mentality that is required to win such a competition, stating, "It's just a question of nerves." In this high tech, computer dominated era, elite chess players prepare their opening moves to a greater and deeper extent than at any time in chess history but during the games they are under great pressure to remember this preparation while also being ready for any possible surprises (known as theoretical novelties) that their opponents might unleash. Topalov won the first game of the match when Anand got confused about the correct order of his prepared moves, an error which gave Topalov a crushing attack against Anand's exposed king--but Anand showed great psychological resilience by striking back with a game two win to level the score.

While Anand demonstrated strong nerves versus Topalov--and in several other high level encounters--he has now faltered twice against Carlsen. It is obvious that Carlsen is the stronger player but it is fascinating to observe how that superiority manifests itself not only in the moves that Carlsen plays but also in the way that Carlsen's strength affects Anand. Anand demonstrably lacks confidence against Carlsen and at times Anand's play is unrecognizable as he struggles to figure out how to fight on even terms with his much younger rival. If chess games were purely decided at an intellectual level then Anand would play very well and Carlsen would just play better but what we have seen in both matches is that, at key moments, Anand either blunders outright or at the very least he lacks the confidence to pursue the best path, to play the moves that he might reflexively play against a less intimidating opponent.

It is very difficult to play against Carlsen for reasons that extend beyond his chess talent. Carlsen is a chess warrior who has great and commendable fighting spirit: "More people have to change their attitude. Too many have seen chess as a scientific process where you exchange ideas in openings and midgames and if there is no clear advantage you agree a draw. But you have to fight until the end. I’ve stopped agreeing draws--it's not a natural part of the game. I think others will do the same thing." Carlsen insists that "a modern sportsman" must "fight until the last moment every day, in every tournament. Being tired is no excuse for making mistakes."

As a young player, Anand relied on his tactical acumen and his exceptionally fast rate of play to steamroll most opponents; now Anand is not as sharp tactically nor does he calculate so quickly and thus he has evolved into a player who prepares his openings very deeply and thoroughly in order to guide the game onto terrain that Anand expects to be comfortable for him and equally uncomfortable for his opponent--but Carlsen is largely unaffected and unimpressed by Anand's computer-assisted preparation. In Magnus Carlsen, an Unlikely Chess Master, Grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen (one of Carlsen's seconds) explains, “Magnus believes in his pure chess strengths. You shouldn't be able to do that in today's world and none of us thought it was possible. Luckily, we were wrong.” A recent Financial Times article notes that Carlsen is refuting the notion that chess is played out because the silicon beasts know all and see all:

Whereas computer analysis has raised the relative importance of the opening for most players, Mr. Carlsen has relegated it. He looks instead to win a game later on via the steady and patient accumulation of sometimes almost imperceptible advantages.

"The space that chess occupies is so gigantic that in spite of all the computer work done today, you can get out of it," says Mr. [Frederic] Friedel, who occasionally chaperoned Mr. Carlsen at tournaments when he was a teenager. "Magnus goes off into sidelines . . . then he just outplays people. It is extraordinary and amazing."

After beating Anand for the second consecutive time, Carlsen commented that this is two down and five more to go, a reference to his goal to surpass Garry Kasparov's total of six successful World Chess Championship matches. Carlsen's next title defense will take place in the United States in 2016. The United States has hosted the lineal World Chess Championship six times (winner listed first, defending champion in bold): 1886 (Steinitz v. Zukertort), 1891 (Steinitz v. Gunsberg), 1894 (Lasker v. Steinitz), 1907 (Lasker v. Marshall), 1990 (Kasparov v. Karpov), 1995 (Kasparov v. Anand). In addition to those six matches, the United States also hosted FIDE's 1999 World Chess Championship event in Las Vegas but that tournament did not include the reigning, undefeated champion Kasparov--who captured the lineal title in 1985 and retained it until losing a match to Vladimir Kramnik in 2000--and thus should not be considered part of the authentic, lineal title chain.

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