Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Magnus Carlsen Retains World Chess Champion Title After Sweeping Fabiano Caruana 3-0 in Rapid Tiebreak

After the first World Chess Championship match that did not have a single decisive game, Magnus Carlsen won three straight games against Fabiano Caruana in the Rapid Tiebreak to retain his title. Carlsen squeezed Caruana in the first game and then almost let Caruana escape with a draw before relentlessly punishing Caruana's endgame mistake in time pressure. Carlsen won game two convincingly and then took game three as well after Caruana went for broke, as a draw would have produced the same match outcome as a loss.

Carlsen was heavily criticized for offering a draw in a winning position in game 12 of the classical portion of the match and there was much speculation about why Carlsen failed to push for a win but it seems that the simple answer is that--based on the skill sets of the players and the match format--he decided that his best strategy was to steer the match toward the Rapid Tiebreak. While these two players are evenly matched at slow time controls, Carlsen enjoys a clear and significant advantage over Caruana in faster time controls. Carlsen's game 12 draw offer is therefore understandable--his job is to win the match/retain his title, not satisfy the expectations of others--but perhaps reveals that the match format is flawed. One thing that can be said in favor of the current format is that the faster time controls to some extent deemphasize the importance of computer preparation and thus reintroduce human elements of natural talent, calm nerves and fighting spirit that are not as evident during slower time controls in this computer-dominated era.

Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik did not like Carlsen's game 12 draw offer. Kramnik declared after game 12 and before the Rapid Tiebreak that in order to prevail Carlsen must get over his fear of losing the title. This is reminiscent of the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert's Dune, which states "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." The ability to control one's fear/nerves plays a huge role in championship level play, as I noted in "It's Just a Question of Nerves": Anand Defeats Topalov 6.5-5.5 to Retain World Chess Championship (my recap of the 2010 World Chess Championship match in which Viswanathan Anand defeated Veselin Topalov, 6.5-5.5), but the Litany Against Fear can be meaningfully applied in many areas of life.

Kramnik conceded that Carlsen should be considered the favorite in the Rapid Tiebreak but he cautioned that Caruana has legitimate practical chances if he has proper opening preparation.

Kramnik's comments make sense, but it seems a bit hypocritical for him to criticize another player's alleged fear when he dodged a rematch with Garry Kasparov, as mentioned in the interesting article Garry Kasparov: King without a Crown. While there is no question that Kramnik earned his match victory against a stubborn and complacent Kasparov, there is also no question that Kasparov deserved a rematch and should not have been forced to play in a qualifying event to get that rematch. As Kasparov stated of Kramnik, "He made new discoveries and pushed chess towards new horizons. It was not the most attractive style, but that does not matter. He came up with a strategy that took me by surprise and it is important for the development of chess that I was forced to make corrections to my style. I had been winning too many tournaments. You can't learn from your wins, only your defeats. It was a very painful defeat, but I deserved it because it taught me that I needed to change. It took a long time for me to do this--and I am still in the process of doing this--but I am winning while learning."

Kasparov retained his highest rated player in the world status even after losing to Kramnik and Kasparov absolutely dominated the subsequent tournaments. He even finally beat Kramnik's fabled Berlin Defense. "All my claims for a rematch and that I was the best player would have been weakened had I failed win," Kasparov noted. "Kramnik should play me anyway, but my victory sent out a very important message. I finally broke down the 'Berlin Wall.' I believe it is the duty of the world champion to defend his title against the most dangerous opponent. When I beat Karpov in 1985 I was forced to defend my title against him within eight months. The organizers and the public believed that Kramnik was the most dangerous opponent, so I had to play him--I had no choice. Kramnik knows this and now he is champion he must prove to the world he is 'real,' by facing his most dangerous opponent--me. In the last six months I have proved I am still the world number one and I beat Kramnik recently. But now Kramnik, who was not made to win a qualifier to play me, implies that I must qualify to play him. I don't want to diminish the importance of his victory. He deserved to win. But it is Kramnik's turn to prove Kasparov didn't go mad in London. The public need another match to prove Kramnik is the real thing."

The point of this tour down memory lane is that, while Kramnik has the right to express his opinions, it should not be forgotten that at the peak of his career as World Champion he displayed fear, if not outright cowardice. At least Carlsen embraces the opportunity to play against the second highest rated player in the world; Kramnik ducked a Kasparov rematch and eventually Kasparov retired in frustration, still the highest rated player in the world.

Interestingly, Kasparov shared Kramink's viewpoint regarding Carlsen's game 12 draw offer and Kasparov predicted that Caruana would win the Rapid Tiebreak because, according to Kasparov, the most important trait in Rapid is strong nerves and Carlsen had demonstrated that his nerves were shot. While it does appear that Carlsen's nerves or fighting spirit may not be quite what they were at the start of his reign, his performance today suggests to me that Carlsen really was just being very calculating and practical. He has enough self-awareness and enough knowledge of his opponent to understand that they are basically equal in slow games but that there is a big difference in their skills at faster time controls. It was once said of Jack Nicklaus in his prime that he knew that he was the best golfer in the world, his opponents knew and he knew that they knew. There is more than a trace of that psychological warfare in Carlsen's match strategy: he knows, and he knows that Caruana knows, that Rapid and Blitz immensely favor Carlsen.

This is the second consecutive time that Carlsen defended his title by winning a Rapid Tiebreak--he defeated Sergey Karjakin 3-1 in the 2016 World Chess Championship Rapid Tiebreak--and this is Carlsen's third title defense overall.

The World Chess Champions who dominated their eras for a long time and/or were significantly better than their contemporaries include Paul Morphy (unofficial World Champion but clearly the best player of his time), Wilhelm Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker, Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Carlsen, who has achieved the highest chess rating of all-time and won World Championships in Classical, Rapid and Blitz formats, deserves to be included in that group. Is he better/greater than those players? Would he have beaten them in a match? Those questions are impossible to answer, because of the differences in eras, rules, computer preparation and so forth. My opinion is that Fischer is the greatest player of all-time because he was further ahead of his contemporaries (based on the official ratings) than anyone else has ever been. It is worth mentioning that Fischer thought very highly of Morphy, who was far ahead of his contemporaries in an era when chess ratings did not exist. Carlsen's current rating, which is dozens of points below his peak rating, is still higher than Fischer's then-record 2785, but when Fischer was 2785 he was 125 points ahead of everyone else, which is more than half a rating class (a rating class is 200 points). That is a staggering margin. Caruana is currently just three points behind Carlsen and no one would put Caruana in the same sentence with Morphy, Steinitz, et. al.

2 comments:

Eric said...

Hi David,

I think you meant to write "Carlsen" was criticized in the very beginning of your second paragraph, not Caruana.

Anyways, this set of rapid games definitely showed more excitement than the draws we've seen this month, although some of the games were very entertaining with neither player breaking through. I agree with your assessment in a previous post that it's silly to decide the Classical World Chess Championship through Rapid and Blitz time formats. Perhaps for future championships we may see updates? Or is the game of classical chess almost dead due to such intense computer preparations now?

I'm excited to see if this championship stokes Magnus' fire to improve his chess even further, particularly in the classical format. Will we see Caruana challenge Magnus in 2020?

Aside, I'm excited to see how our current online correspondence game plays out. I'd love to play a blitz game maybe someday on chess.com with you.

David Friedman said...

Hi Eric,

Yes, that was a typo. Thank you for pointing it out; I corrected it.

Carlsen mentioned in the post-match press conference that he thinks that there should be more games at Rapid and Blitz time controls, though he did not specifically say that this is how the World Championship should be decided.

I do think that in terms of human play we are going to see more of the faster time controls and less of the slower time controls, for a variety of reasons--including sponsors wanting to shorten events and know for sure when the events will end, plus the faster time controls lead to more "human-like" chess and less regurgitation of computer-checked lines.

I hope that this match inspires Carlsen the way that you suggested.

Our current game is interesting. I don't play a lot of online blitz right now but maybe we will get in some games at some point.