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.

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