Sunday, December 29, 2013

Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson's Insights About Magnus Carlsen

Scottish Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson, a three-time British Chess Champion (2004-06), has some fascinating insights about the specific traits that make World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen such a great player.

Rowson explains, "Carlsen is not an idealist or a performer like Kasparov, who loved the narrative, the drama, the quest. Magnus just wants to win. So while there is plenty of creative amplitude in his play, the underlying motivational vector appears to be relatively sombre and flat." Carlsen possesses what Rowson calls "depressive realism"--Carlsen has a very objective approach to chess and his play does not seem to be dictated by his emotions but rather by a detached, clinical evaluation of the position at hand.

Rowson vigorously disagrees with the contention that Carlsen defeated World Champion Viswanathan Anand not on chess merit but simply by virtue of being younger and more energetic. Rowson asserts, "Carlsen’s nettlesomeness lies in the difference between playing consistently accurate moves, and playing consistently accurate moves that also maximise the chances of inaccuracies from the opponent. The former style beats all but the very best Grandmasters, while the latter tends to beat them too."

How does Carlsen regularly dispatch the world's foremost Grandmasters in positions that are not only seemingly equal but also seemingly devoid of any semblance of meaningful winning chances? Rowson, who has faced Carlsen in tournament play, provides an interesting list of what he considers Carlsen's unique chess warrior attributes:
  • First, avoid errors yourself.
  • Second, play relatively quickly.
  • Third, see complexity where others assume simplicity.
  • Fourth, develop exquisite timing for when to change the nature of the position.
  • Fifth, navigate towards positions where there are no obvious moves.
  • Sixth, believe in your opponent's greater and ultimate fallibility.
  • Seven, keep going relentlessly.
  • Eight, be ever ready to pounce.
  • Nine, kill them without mercy.
  • Ten, smile for the cameras.
That 10 step program may seem simple but there is a real art and skill to playing chess in that fashion. Most strong chess players possess at least some of those traits--I call it "the art of doing nothing while accomplishing something," meaning that strong players can shuffle their pieces around without any obvious goal and yet somehow improve their position while not taking any serious risks--but Carlsen brings that entire tool kit to every move, every game and every tournament.

The first step, avoiding errors, is the most difficult one for chess players at any level. There are countless examples of elite Grandmasters blundering into checkmates, hanging their Queens and committing various other forms of chess suicide. Chess requires constant concentration for hours on end and for days at a time and even the smartest, most dedicated competitors have lapses.

The advantage of playing quickly is that it puts psychological pressure on one's opponent, who literally does not have a moment to rest; in tennis terms, the ball is always coming back over the net at him--and, assuming that one keeps the ball in play (i.e., avoids errors), this forces the opponent to send the ball back over the net as well.

Chess is a complex game that can sometimes seem simple, but even the quietest positions often contain a drop of poison. It takes imagination and concentration to sense danger in what appear to be calm waters.

A chess player is perhaps most likely to make a mistake when he is taken out of his comfort level; he thinks that he is going to be playing a pawn up middlegame but all of a sudden his opponent sacrifices the Exchange. What is the nature of this new, unexpected position? Such surprises often induce mistakes.

Carlsen has the ability to "do nothing" but most chess players lack the patience, board vision and understanding for such maneuvers. When there is nothing obvious to do, it is easy to go astray.

Confidence is so very important in all areas of life. I don't play chess at anywhere near Carlsen's level but even as a local/regional champion I can recall many games that I won mainly because I simply believed (sometimes erroneously) that I was winning and that brazen confidence boosted my spirits while perhaps rattling the confidence of my opponents.

No one ever won by resigning and no one ever held a lost position without displaying great tenacity. Carlsen just plows forward regardless of the situation; as Capablanca once said, the good player is always lucky.

Opportunity may only appear once in a five or six hour playing session but when that opportunity arises Carlsen recognizes it--and he does indeed "kill" his opponents "without mercy."

Rowson's last step is tongue in cheek--at least in terms of being a necessary trait for over the board dominance--but it no doubt has helped Carlsen to land many of his endorsement deals, providing him with more financial stability than most chess players enjoy.

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

Monday, December 9, 2013

How Computers Have Impacted Modern Chess

Old school chess preparation involved a deep understanding of the knowledge/techniques presented in classic chess books written by the sport's greatest players, intensive studying of the biannual Chess Informants and an awareness of the new ideas published in various chess periodicals. In The Cyber-Renaissance in Chess, David Goodman and Christopher Chabris argue that powerful chess playing engines and multimillion game databases have transformed chess and elevated the quality of play:

Once laptops could routinely dispatch grandmasters, however, it became possible to integrate their analysis fully into other aspects of the game. Commentators at major tournaments now consult computers to check their judgment. Online, fans get excited when their own "engines" discover moves the players miss. And elite grandmasters use computers to test their opening plans and generate new ideas. 

This wouldn't be very interesting if computers, with their ability to calculate millions of moves per second, were just correcting human blunders. But they are doing much more than that. When engines suggest surprising moves, or arrangements of pieces that look "ugly" to human sensibilities, they are often seeing more deeply into the game than their users. They are not perfect; sometimes long-term strategy still eludes them. But players have learned from computers that some kinds of chess positions are playable, or even advantageous, even though they might violate general principles. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas. 

Goodman and Chabris note that the rise of chess computers has been accompanied by a tremendous increase in both the number of Grandmasters in the world and the number of Grandmasters who have ratings of at least 2700:
When the first international rating list was published in 1971, the only player rated over 2,700 was Bobby Fischer. (In chess ratings, a 100-point advantage corresponds to an almost two-thirds chance of winning a match.) Fischer went on to beat Boris Spassky in their celebrated 1972 world championship match. In 1974 there were two players with 2,700 ratings: Fischer and his successor Anatoly Karpov. Even by 1997 there were just eight.

There are currently 50 players who sport 2700-plus ratings and Magnus Carlsen--who just won the World Chess Championship--has the highest rating of all-time, 2872. Computer analysis suggests that Carlsen and today's other elite grandmasters play more accurately than the grandmasters of previous eras did. Carlsen has been dubbed "the hero of the computer era" and his moves tend to mirror the top choices of the best computers even more than the moves of his chief rivals.

Does this mean that Carlsen is the greatest player of all-time and that he is lording over the toughest group of grandmasters in chess history? Not necessarily--while Carlsen's rating is higher than the best rating achieved by Bobby Fischer, Fischer was much further ahead of his contemporaries than Carlsen is: Carlsen's rating is 69 points higher than the rating of the number two player (Levon Aronian) but Fischer's July 1972 rating (2785, which stood as the record for 18 years) was 125 points higher than the rating of the number two player (Spassky). Fischer stood head and shoulders above even his greatest rivals and it is reasonable to assume that, given the opportunity to train with modern computers, Fischer's talent and work ethic would have similarly lifted him above today's players as well.

Such speculation does not in any way diminish the significance of Carlsen's accomplishments; Carlsen appears to possess better emotional/psychological balance than Fischer did, so Carlsen's talent, charisma and energy combined with the technological advances that enable average players to closely follow grandmaster games could help chess become more of a mainstream sport than it has ever been.