Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Carlsen Retains World Chess Championship in Spectacular Style

Magnus Carlsen, the 16th linear World Chess Champion, retained his title by defeating challenger Sergey Karjakin 3-1 in a Rapid tiebreak match after the two competitors tied 6-6 in 12 games contested at a Classical time control. While Karjakin did not quite crack the Carlsen code, he pushed the Champion to the brink; Carlsen did not enjoy a lead in the title bout until he won the third game of the tiebreak match after the first two games were drawn. In game two of the tiebreak match, Karjakin displayed remarkable composure and grit as he held off the highest rated player of all-time to draw an endgame that was objectively lost.

The tiebreak match had extremely high entertainment value, culminating in the decisive move of the fourth game that compelled Karjakin's instant resignation: Carlsen's 50. Qh6+!, a beautiful Queen sacrifice that forces checkmate in all variations. While the climactic combination was not necessarily difficult for a player of Carlsen's caliber, it was still an impressive finish considering the stakes and the small amount of time that each player had remaining to complete the game.

However, from a chess purist's standpoint this was a terrible way to decide the World Chess Championship. As Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan pointed out, there are separate World Chess Championship titles for Classical, Rapid and Blitz time controls, so it make no sense to decide the Classical title with a tiebreak match using Rapid time controls. As he asked rhetorically, will the Rapid Championship now use a Classical time control if a tiebreak match is necessary?

Granted, even if the match conditions were decided purely on aesthetic and sporting considerations--which will never happen in the real world, when economics and logistics inevitably play a role in determining such things--there is no perfect format. An automatic rematch clause if the Champions loses--a perk enjoyed by Mikhail Botvinnik from 1948-63--is a huge advantage. Enabling the Champion to retain his title in the event of a tied match is also a significant advantage. In 1984-85, we saw the perils of a format that forces one player to win six games with draws not counting: Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov battled for 48 games before the match was suspended with Karpov leading 5-3.

All of that being understood, the 2016 format--a 12 game Classical match followed by (if necessary) a four game Rapid match, a two game Blitz match and a one game winner take all "Armageddon" battle with White having five minutes and Black having four minutes plus draw odds--leaves much to be desired. I agree with Grandmaster Seirawan's suggestion that an 18 game Classical match would lead to better play because one victory would not necessarily be decisive; in a 12 game match players tend to be cautious and steer toward the tiebreaks as opposed to fighting it out and possibly losing the one game that could spell overall defeat. The boring and quick draw in game 12 of the Carlsen-Karjakin match made a poor impression, no matter how understandable it was strategically given the circumstances.

In the 2016 World Chess Championship, Carlsen proved that he is a great Champion and Karjakin demonstrated that he is a worthy challenger who may very well wear the crown one day. I commend both players for their performances under great pressure. I just hope that in the future the World Chess Championship match will last longer than 12 games and will be contested entirely at a Classical time control.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Has Karjakin Cracked the Carlsen Code?

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen is perceived/described as an imperturbable performer but perhaps that is not the case--or perhaps challenger Sergey Karjakin has thrown Carlsen off of his game. Karjakin successfully defended worse positions several times as the two players drew the first seven games of their 12 game title match. Did this trend favor Carlsen--who kept getting advantageous positions that he failed to convert--or was Karjakin's tenacity wearing Carlsen down?

We received at least a preliminary answer in game eight as Karjakin not only refuted Carlsen's overly aggressive attempts to win but completely turned the tables to post the first decisive result of the match. Karjakin now "only" needs four draws to dethrone Carlsen.
Chess is a unique combination of science, art and sport. Becoming a chess champion involves mastery of many different skills and traits, not the least of which is managing nerves at critical moments. Carlsen has been justifiably compared with all-time tennis great Bjorn Borg; both players have nerves of steel and made their names by outlasting their opponents as opposed to overpowering them. 

It has been striking to see Carlsen's nerves falter not only at the board--several Grandmasters have described Carlsen's game eight play as uncharacteristic, if not completely unrecognizable--but afterward as well, when he blew off the mandatory post-game press conference. That petulant act might cost Carlsen 10% of his share of the prize fund ($40,000 if he loses the match, $60,000 if he comes back to win the match).

An important part of being a champion is to--in the immortal words of Rudyard Kipling, prominently displayed at Wimbledon--"meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same." I will never forget when Scottie Pippen of the three-time defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls made a point of congratulating Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks on the court after the Knicks dethroned the Bulls by winning a hard fought seven game series in 1994. That was a devastating loss for Pippen but he displayed his class at that moment; he did not run and hide like a little child who did not get what he wants. 

The image of Carlsen bolting from the press conference after game eight is equally indelible. At that moment he looked like anything but a great champion, even though he has not yet been dethroned. It is important to remember that previous title holders have bounced back from even more dire circumstances to retain the crown (perhaps most notably, Garry Kasparov won a must-win final game with black against Anatoly Karpov in 1987). If Carlsen wins this match, perhaps game eight and its aftermath will just be a footnote in chess history, but if Karjakin prevails while Carlsen crumbles on and off of the board then we may have to reassess Carlsen's place in the chess Pantheon. Is Carlsen--the highest rated player of all-time--really worthy of being mentioned with Morphy, Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Fischer and Kasparov or is Carlsen's high rating the product of rating inflation? If Carlsen's reign as World Champion lasts for just three years--with only victories against an aging Viswanathan Anand to his credit--then it may be reasonable to question how Carlsen would have fared against the all-time greats in a hypothetical match played under equal conditions.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Initial Impressions of the First Truly Post-Kasparov Era World Chess Championship Match

Although Garry Kasparov has not been World Chess Champion since 2000 and has not played in a top level rated tournament since 2005, the World Chess Championship match currently being contested in New York is the first such match to feature two players who both reached their primes after Kasparov retired. The 25 year old World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who won the World Chess Championship in 2013 and retained the crown by defeating former World Champion Viswanathan Anand in 2014, is facing 26 year old challenger Sergey Karjakin, who still holds the record for being the youngest player to attain the Grandmaster title (12 years, seven months). This is the "youngest" World Chess Championship ever in terms of the combined ages of the two combatants.

World Chess Championship matches traditionally have been held in a best out of 24 games format (with a win counting as one point and a draw counting as a half point) but economic and promotional considerations have led to the shortening of such matches to best out of 12. Obviously, the shorter the match the more likely an upset, so in that sense the change is unfortunate for those of us who would prefer that randomness be removed from the championship equation as much as possible. The shorter format also tends to lead to more conservative and less imaginative play, because one mistake could result in not just the loss of a game but very possibly the loss of the match.

After four games, the Carlsen-Karjakin match is knotted at 2-2, with neither player scoring a victory yet. Carlsen has pushed Karjakin to the brink of defeat in the last two games but Karjakin has defended tenaciously to salvage positions that most chess players could not hold against a regular Master, much less the highest rated player in the game's history. If an action movie were made about Karjakin, the tagline (delivered in classic movie announcer promo voice) would be "Sergey Karjakin is hard to kill."

Chess games and chess matches are as much about nerves and resolve as they are about brain power. Before the match, I expected a 6.5-4.5 result in Carlsen's favor (which is roughly what one would predict based on the rating differential between the players) but it will be interesting to see how these first four games are "spun" based on the final outcome. If Carlsen wins, the story will be that he put relentless pressure on Karjakin, who finally cracked after being worn down from repeatedly defending difficult positions--but if Karjakin pulls off the upset, then the story will be that Karjakin gained confidence (and Carlsen lost confidence) after he proved that he could withstand Carlsen's best shot, something that few other Grandmasters have been able to do in recent years.

Carlsen generally seems imperturbable but the reality is that under the pressure of World Championship match play he has blundered before; Anand missed a golden opportunity after Carlsen made a ghastly mistake in game six of their 2014 match and had Anand been more alert he could have made the score 3.5-2.5 in his favor at that critical juncture--but Anand, who never could overcome Kasparov when they were both in their primes, perhaps at some level did not truly believe that he could beat a powerful opponent who was barely half his age. In chess, if you believe that your opponent is better than you then you often do not "trust" that he can blunder. I suspect that Karjakin will not be so forgiving if Carlsen makes a mistake against him and that psychological dynamic should make the rest of this match very dramatic and intriguing.

Vladimir Kramnik was the only player of Kasparov's era to beat Kasparov in a World Chess Championship match in no small part because Kramnik was the only player from that era who truly believed that Kasparov could be beaten. I don't think that Karjakin fears Carlsen the way that other players of their generation do and that is perhaps the most compelling aspect of this battle of the young titans.