Sunday, December 23, 2012

Chess Year in Review: Anand is the Champion but Carlsen is the Story

It has been a very eventful year in the chess world. Viswanathan Anand successfully defended his World Chess Championship title for the third consecutive time and he is the only player to win the World Chess Championship in four different formats. Anand has consistently been a top player for many years--he ranked no lower than third on the rating list from 1996 to 2008--and the 43 year old is trying to prove that he can still keep pace with the new generation of rising stars.

Although Anand is the official champion, he is not the strongest player in the world (and he has not been for quite some time); that title belongs to Magnus Carlsen, the "Mozart of Chess," who recently broke Garry Kasparov's record for highest chess rating of all-time. Carlsen's 2861 rating is 10 points higher than Kasparov's standard, which had stood for 13 years; prior to that, Bobby Fischer held the record (2785) from 1972 until 1990, when Kasparov eclipsed Fischer and became the first player to achieve a 2800 rating. While Carlsen's accomplishment is impressive, it is important to remember that the significance of a chess rating is not determined by the raw number but rather by the rating difference between players. When Fischer ranked first on the July 1972 FIDE Rating List, the number two player in the world (former World Champion Boris Spassky, who Fischer defeated 12.5-8.5 in the 1972 World Chess Championship despite losing one game by forfeit) had a 2660 rating; rating classes in chess are separated by 200 point intervals, so Fischer was more than half a rating class ahead of the rest of the world at that time! Only 18 players in the world were within 200 points of Fischer's rating in 1972; that kind of dominance is unparalleled in modern chess history and perhaps only equaled by Paul Morphy's brief run at the top in the 1850s, long before chess ratings existed.

When Kasparov broke the 2800 barrier, he led Anatoly Karpov by 70 points and there were 32 players rated at least 2600; Carlsen is currently joined by two other players in the 2800 rating club plus there are an additional three players rated at least 2780 and there are more than 70 players who are within 200 points of Carlsen. Kasparov was a dominant champion but--at least based on ELO rating differential--he was not as dominant as Fischer, while Carlsen is clearly the best player in the world right now but he has yet to dominate his contemporaries in anything approaching the manner that Fischer and Kasparov stood above their contemporaries. Rating inflation has lifted all boats, so to speak, and Carlsen would have to separate himself from the rest of the fleet by another 70 points or so to match Fischer's Usain Bolt-like lead.

Carlsen won three major events in 2012: the Tal Memorial, the Grand Slam Chess Final and the London Chess Classic (the December tournament during which Carlsen broke Kasparov's rating record). He scored 11 wins, 15 draws and just one loss (18.5/27, an outstanding .685 winning percentage) in those tournaments. Carlsen has won three straight chess Oscars (a prestigious award given to the chess player of the year) and has a good chance to pick up his fourth such honor; only Kasparov (11), Karpov (nine) and Anand (six) have won more chess Oscars than the 22 year old Carlsen, who will likely set the all-time record in this category as well.

In many ways this is a golden age for chess: there are many great players who are playing excellent and exciting games, developments in computer technology have improved preparation/study techniques and elevated the level of play and Carlsen may have the right balance of genius and charisma to attract more sponsorship for chess in countries where the sport is not as popular as it is throughout Europe and Asia. It is unfortunate, though, that chess resembles boxing in the sense that someone who is widely recognized as the best is not officially the champion due to flaws in the bureaucratic structure of the sport; this is a problem that dates back to Fischer's era and continued during Kasparov's reign when several "official" champions were crowned even though Kasparov was clearly the best player in the world. Hopefully, Carlsen will participate in the next World Championship cycle and have the opportunity to join Fischer and Kasparov as official World Champions.


RileD, nwJ said...

GM Viswanathan Anand is the World Chess Champion - official and otherwise. I don't know of any unofficial World Chess Championship.

While GM Magnus Carlsen is the highest rated player in chess it remains to be seen how well he will do in match play at the highest levels.

Match play is clearly different from tournament play and more than a few superstars have been unable to truly excel at both.

I hope to see GM Carlsen play for the WCC against GM Anand or anyone else. He is obviously an incredible talent and has worked very hard to achieve what he has achieved. But being the top rated player is one thing, being the World Chess Champion is something els - and it is incredible when the two coincide as with Kasparov and Fischer among others.

David Friedman said...


The distinction I am making is between the linear champion (to use a boxing term) and the champions that FIDE crowned after Kasparov split with that organization and my expressed hope is that Carlsen will participate in the next World Championship cycle so that he can take his rightful place as the official World Chess Champion, joining an exclusive list of just 15 players starting with Steinitz and including Anand. Anand is a great chess player and a tremendous sportsman and the same can be said on both counts regarding his challenger Gelfand but Anand and Gelfand were not the two best players in the world when they squared off for the title a few months ago, nor did either of them defeat Carlsen along the way; Carlsen declined to participate in the FIDE cycle much like Kasparov and Fischer did in previous eras because Carlsen did not feel that the cycle is organized properly.

It is true that match play is different from tournament play but the larger point is that the championship cycle should be set up so that it includes the strongest players; FIDE's World Championship cycle has at times been held in countries that will not welcome Jewish and Israeli contestants and for a time the World Championship consisted of quick play knockout matches that many top GMs considered to be more of a lottery than a legitimate way to determine a world champion. I do not consider FIDE's "official" champions from 1993-2006 to be official World Champions for those reasons and--even more importantly--because none of those players beat Kasparov in a match. Kramnik beat Kasparov in a 2000 match and then Kramnik reunified the title by beating FIDE Champion Topalov in a 2006 match. It will be a tragedy for chess if Carlsen does not participate in many World Championship cycles over the next 15-20 years. I think that Carlsen's solid style, his ability to milk a small advantage and his even temperament are perhaps even more suited to match play than to tournament play.

RileyD, nwJ said...


In your reply said Gelfand and Anand were not the two best players in the world when they squared off for the title. But in fact we do not know if they were the best or not as Carlsen refused to participate.

However, they were the best of those who chose to compete. Of course they were not the highest rated and we do not know how either player would have done against Carlsen in match play.

Everything in Carlsen's past performances indicates he should do very well ... but it is still an open question in my mind. I have to wonder if Anand will, like Botvinnik rise to the occasion when it comes to the world championship. He has demonstrated the will do so in my opinion.

In 2008 he took Kramnik down 6.5-4.5. In 2010 he toppled Topolov 6.5-5.5 under circumstances that really favored Topolov. And of course in 2012 he drew the match with Gelfend winning in the rapid playoff 2.5-0.5. BTW - I really do not like the idea of rapid playoffs.
My point here is that Anand knows how to win at the very top in match play. That is a given.

Like you I think Carlsen "can" take Anand in a world championship match, but unlike so many, I am not so sure he will.

Thanks for your find writing and kind response.

RileyD, nwJ

David Friedman said...


At the time of the Anand-Gelfand World Championship match, Anand ranked fourth and Gelfand ranked 20th on the FIDE list. Neither their ratings nor their recent tournament performances suggest that Anand and Gelfand were the two best players in the world in May 2012. Yes, they both earned the right to participate in that match--Anand is the reigning champion, while Gelfand survived the grueling qualifying process in order to face Anand--but the system in place to crown the world chess champion is flawed and has been flawed for quite some time. That is a major reason that Fischer, Kasparov and Carlsen each declined to participate in sanctioned FIDE World Championship events at various times during their careers.

Botvinnik benefited from the rule that enabled him to play an immediate return match against anyone who beat him for the title; his challengers had to survive the grueling qualifying process and then beat Botvinnik twice in a match to retain the title, while Botvinnik could conserve his energy and focus all of his preparation on one opponent. Botvinnik was a great, strong-willed champion but he also benefited from the rules in place at the time--and he retired from championship play as soon as the return match provision was eliminated.

I think that Carlsen will beat Anand in a match if they face each other but, whether or not I am correct about that, my larger point is that I would like to see a championship system in place that is acceptable to the top players so that Carlsen and all other members of the top 10 regularly participate in it.