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.

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