The Calm between the Cups

NOT HIS YEAR: Carlsen tries to digest his fateful blunder vs. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess TourNOT HIS YEAR: Carlsen tries to digest his fateful blunder vs. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour

A vintage year.

by Jonathan Tisdall (Twitter: @GMjtis)
Jonathan Tisdall. Photo: Rolf Haug/mattogpatt.no

Jonathan Tisdall. Photo: Rolf Haug/mattogpatt.no

We’ve been spoilt with top quality and drama in this chess year so far, at least it seems that way to me. 2017 has rocketed by, and this is a good time to take stock, as we hurtle past the always riveting Sinquefield Cup, and prepare for the most exciting FIDE World Cup ever. Yes, I said ever, and I don’t even expect to get much argument about that superlative. For the first time a reigning world champion is taking part, and this was so unexpected that the organizers hadn’t even considered the possibility when preparing their pre-event information. But first, the buildup.

2017 – The Year of not-Carlsen

Things have not been great for the undisputed champ and number one this year. There have been signs of his frightening, nearly superhuman potential in the faster disciplines, but 2017 has been noteworthy as a year free of classic tournament victories for the Norwegian. Debate points are predictable: Is he in crisis? Is it temporary? Is he jaded? Distracted? Over the hill, even?

I still stick to my stance that he is simmering, and in the process of becoming stronger than ever. The longer this last bit fails to appear, the harder this is to argue, but the idea goes like this.

Magnus appears just as determined and motivated as ever. (I think I have seen this with my own eyes.) He has been broadening and sharpening his opening repertoire for some time, answering a main critique against his style. His rapid and blitz form show signs of domination I associate with the alpha champions Fischer and Kasparov. His classical form has become peppered with odd errors – relatively crass blunders, and fumbling in the kind of technical positions that were his greatest strength. This last item is most significant to me.

Players don’t forget how to do the things they do best. This sudden storm of atypical bumbling is very commonly seen when a player is concentrating hard on other aspects of their game. You see this often in young players just before a sudden leap in strength. So I am expecting the same from Carlsen. It might just take some kind of focal event. A new challenge. Something like … the knockout format of the World Cup?

One other possible factor in the Carlsen doldrums – perhaps everyone else is just getting better. The rating gap between Magnus and his rivals may be shrinking largely through his own lull in form, but breaking the 2800 barrier is becoming an increasingly popular sport. Will having more guys near him make it easier to eventually start earning major Elo points again, or does it mean that dominant results are a thing of the past?

Nearly Carlsen

OPPLØFTENDE: Det var lyspunkter å hente for Magnus Carlsen i St. Louis. Foto: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour

ALMOST: A world champion-like performance was not enough to win in St. Louis Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour

The champion’s result at Sinquefield was finally better than his expected rating performance. His ability to squeeze and conjure dynamic advantages from nothing was back, but … tournament victory was decided in a blunderful encounter that summed up the arguments above. In what would prove to be the pivotal game of the event, Magnus did his old trick of magicking up a crushing position, only to throw the entire point away to Vachier-LaGrave with his new trick of erring on the verge of victory. To his credit, he managed to shrug this off with a successful ‘rage win’ the next day, unsettling an out of form So by taking manic risks with black, and put pressure on MVL by beating rival Levon Aronian in the final round. This last game was an important statement, with Levon’s steady and majestic return to the world number two spot having included a series of wins over Magnus.

Shaken?

There was one subtle moment in St. Louis that did make me wonder if perhaps the harrowing defence of his title in New York may have put a lasting dent in Carlsen’s psychological armor, though. After the MVL-So sequence of decisive games, Magnus said something in an interview about these results balancing each other out. Chessplayers often do this kind of abstract math when seeking mental calm after particularly turbulent results, but I had several problems with this equation coming from the champ. Did he mean he should have beaten MVL and lost to So? Or did he see both games as likely draws, but which had included unnecessary swings? But most of all, the comment seemed out of place for the maximalist Carlsen that was pushing the heights of 2900 a few years ago. Wasn’t it really ‘normal’ for him to create something from nothing, as he did against MVL and then cash in, and take big risks with black and succeed against Wesley? I really wonder if the 2014 version of Carlsen would have seen two games with chances for him as ‘balancing out’ at 1-1, no matter the adventures involved.

Annotating games?

In my day – those days known as olden – annotating games was one of the key ways to build your chess character – and strength. It was something that took ages, as much time and effort as you were willing to invest. It taught you about the hidden depths in positions, it put you on public record. Your work was scrutinized by your peers and betters. It could provoke fascinating discussions that could go on for months or more, as ever more people delved deeper and more inventively into a game’s mysteries.

Now, anyone can just flick on their engine of choice, and they’re an expert. A guru even. I often wonder about the point of annotating games at all in the age of engines, except to argue about hardware and cores and such. Today’s superhumans reveal just how much they need to prepare, remember and calculate – which is fascinating – but how does the engine-armed public digest this, when they can so easily think they know even better, and are gradually forgetting how to think for themselves?

To me, there are still a few useful angles to tackle, and they all relate to not using engines: examining critical moments; pointing out the natural human considerations; and discussing why people tend to think the way they do. I assume that readers in general want to improve, and to beat their fellow humans. Who else is there for us to beat?

ANAND RESURGENT: Is retirement overrated? Vishy sparkled in the Sinquefield Cup. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour

With this in mind, and with the proliferation of excellent sites, commentators, and video reporters, my ‘coverage’ of events will try to fill the philosophical and psychological gaps in the market. I’ll check my actual variations with engines, but try to come at the games and events from unusual angles, and keep the human aspects central. They will be the key factors, at least until the singularity.

Speaking of cyborgs

Which is not to say that I totally hate the intervention of engines. It’s fascinating to try and gauge the way they are changing the frontiers of the game. I don’t want to go into too much detail all at once about my theories of the different ways there are of working with engines, and how various top players tackle this differently, but I will say that I have a feeling that Aronian’s recent surge back to his familiar spot right behind the world champion on the rating list is because he’s the best cyborg. Hear me out.

First, a graphic demonstration of the level of current opening preparation, which reflects the man-machine fusion. The following game was played without real hesitation by White, though Karjakin took ages starting around move 26. From the comments of other elite players it became quite clear that this position – or game – was an open secret to them. That is, the line is so topical that they had all worked it out with their engine/team, and were expecting a draw with correct play. Sergey eventually explained that he was thinking only due to his shaky recall.


Karjakin on his opening prep vs MVL, after a memory refresher.

I’m not going to digress about how terrifying and depressing I find this. I may be grizzled, but I accept that this is where time and technology have taken us. What interests me instead is how different players approach this. Carlsen is clearly capable of taking part in this particular arms race, but prefers quiet alleys and hand-to-hand combat. His wins at Sinquefield were excellent examples of him achieving this again. MVL strikes me as a player with a scientific approach, who likes to explore his preferred openings profoundly with his mechanical assistant, collecting solutions. Caruana at his best – the brilliancy against Nakamura in the appendix below – seems to wield the engine, steering it into places it might not want to go at first, using it in conjunction with his intuition and hunting for well-hidden gold.

PRAKTPARTI: Levon Aronian med magi på brettet i første runde. Foto: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour

EASYGOING: Can being ‘friends’ with your engine bring unexpected dividends?

Watching Levon Aronian’s comeback, there have been several moments when his openings appear to me to be the result of a fully harmonic man-machine collaboration. Levon looks to have a large bag of tailor-made weapons. Running them through an engine doesn’t seem to produce an objective advantage. But the positions they reach are pure Aronian, sharp and baffling. He aims to get the advantages of comfort and surprise, while exposing his adversary to danger. I may be crazy, but this looks like real fusion, using enhanced intelligence not for sheer number-crunching, but to achieve very human aims and advantages. So – Levon is the best cyborg.

Another example comes to mind, where the opening idea could easily be forgotten due to the romantic violence of the game itself.

Kasparov’s ‘comeback’

NESTEN: Garry Kasparov fikk en drømmestart på oppgjøret mot Hikaru Nakamura, men måtte kjempe for livet i sluttspillet. Det endte til slutt remis. Foto: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour

LEGEND: Kasparov had no fairy tale return to the board, but showed signs of his true class. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour

No wrap-up of recent events can omit a few thoughts about the very temporary return of a great champion. How I wish we could see more of Kasparov; but the effort required for the modern game strains even the young. I was hoping for a bit more from Garry, if I had a real gripe it was that he seemed surprisingly respectful. Or perhaps sensibly respectful. His rust showed in a lack of speed but his class showed as he visibly improved day by day. The final day of the blitz gave grounds to argue that it would be fascinating to see him extend his comeback for a while.

I saw a complaint or two in the twitterverse that Kasparov’s lackluster result had tarnished his legacy. I don’t see this at all – this was hardly a serious comeback and there were clear signs that his strength even now could be restored to a very, very high level. The guy’s old and rusty after all, and the game has changed. But I think I understand the background to the complaint. It can come from a place of deep respect, and it reminds me of something I learned about chess lovers, and the heroes of yore.

I had a regular correspondence (paper and envelopes, kids) late in the life of the greatest Dane, Bent Larsen, after he had moved to Argentina. His health had prevented him from competing in tournaments for years. We had a written conversation where I mentioned that I’d seen Taimanov in a few events and was a bit saddened – meaning that it hurt a bit to see age reducing such a player’s level so much. Larsen just couldn’t understand what I meant, and asked me if Taimanov was ill, and it took a few letters back and forth before it dawned on me that for this breed – Smyslov, Taimanov, Larsen, etc. – there was simply no greater joy than playing. Larsen couldn’t even comprehend any regrets attached. The latter two didn’t even have their zeal dampened by being scarred for history by a merciless Fischer. Lesson learned; the love of the game is the only consideration for those who truly love it.

The World Cup – no predictions

After watching one of my picks for each recent major event combust and drift away as a cloud of ash, I will not be making any bold predictions for the World Cup. I know it’s irrational, but the stakes are too high to see how strong my jinx game is. But there are a few things I can’t help mulling over as the event draws near.

The champ

It is hard for me to avoid a disclaimer of pro-Carlsen bias when the guy has been on my club team as a kid, is a national hero where I live and is, in my view, the greatest positive force for the global popularization of the game ever. Having said that, nothing prevents me from having massive respect and admiration for many other players. And trying earnestly to reveal and discuss potential Carlsen weak spots can be both an interesting and useful pursuit. An honest attempt at constructive criticism or analysis doesn’t mean negativity or disrespect – about anybody.

With that out of the way, what is up with the champ and his plunge into the World Cup, with its crazy, haphazard knock-out dangers? Perhaps the most controversial thing Magnus has ever opined is a belief that this apparently random system is the best way to actually determine the world title. He likes the more wide-open field, rather than the very closed elite system that dominates top events, and feels this is more fair by nature. I assume he also likes the fact that all speeds – classic, rapid and blitz – are involved, and that it tests more facets of a player’s strength. In a few weeks time, we’ll see if he also enjoys the frightening randomness of two-game matches, and the incredibly high price that a single error can command.

I don’t see the point in making predictions about Carlsen. His record and his ratings make him the favorite, in everything, always. So what are the factors to weigh and watch?

Is taking part a good decision by Carlsen?

I’ve already hinted that I think it is an inspired choice. It is not as though he is actually putting anything on the line. Not only can he scramble the plans of potential challengers here seeking to secure a candidates spot in the classic title cycle, he can add another world title to his collection, and at this point in his career, all methods of inspiration are valuable. Barring some sort of horrible embarrassment, he has very much to gain. And being the favorite and ‘needing’ to win – well, that is the pressure he has been living with every time he plays.

FREE HITS: Sergey Karjakin (left) can relish being a candidates spoiler at the World Cup. Photo: Maria Emelianova

That Karjakin fellow
Everyone is on about Carlsen’s shock decision to play and how he can affect his eventual title challenger, but I haven’t heard so much talk about there being another guy who can influence the championship cycle with the advantage of easier nerves – previous challenger Sergey Karjakin. He’s safely qualified for the candidates, and can try to damage the hopes of a dangerous rival or two along the way. When having fun poring over the possible routes and clashes that the tournament tree contains, special attention should be paid to the players directly in the way of these two.

There are few things chessplayers like more than scrutinizing rating lists and knockout tables. Here are a few more things to consider after working out how many potential candidates can have their ambitions ruined by Carlsen or Karjakin.

Thoughts for the World Cup

Nothing seems more popular these days than arguing, especially via the internet. There is never a shortage of topics, but if you run low, here are some suggestions. For civilized discussion. Is Aronian, who has been criticized for choking on the biggest occasions, finally becoming ‘best when it counts’? Is it now or never for the swashbuckling world number two?

I picked MVL to surge at Sinquefield on very simple grounds – the top players don’t stay down for long, and it was about his turn for a new success. So, is Nakamura highest on the ‘most due for success’ scale now? It has been a while. Or is he distracted these days with things like finance? Compatriot Caruana – how ‘due’ is he? Does his chance to qualify directly for the candidates by rating calm his nerves or dull his focus?

Never forget the champs, veterans and KO specialists: Anand, Kramnik, Svidler… Adams?
Darkish horses: The Chinese ‘quarter’ (the contingent is bunched up in the same part of the table); Giri; Shakh Mamedyarov?

I know I left out several major names here, they are only safer from potential jinxing. I can’t wait for this one to begin. Let’s talk about this, soon.

*****

Appendix:

  • Øyvind J. Karstad

    «In a few weeks time, we’ll see if he also enjoys the frightening randomness of two-game matches, and the incredibly high price that a single error can command.»

    Accurate prediction there.