Happy New Year – and welcome to 2018!
This article summing up 2017 has a lot in common with my view on New Year’s resolutions – they can just as well arrive a bit late, and we’re already looking ahead while the struggles from the year before are quickly fading from memory. Now is the time to reflect a bit on the year gone by, and to think about what the next 12 months will bring – and even if we are clueless about the future, we can be sure this is going to be a rich and eventful chess year.
Matt & Patt proprietor Tarjei Svensen suggested a basic set of ‘Best of’ categories for 2017, and these seem like a good place to start. I thought that ‘Man of the Year’ would be a traditional way to begin, for reasons I hope will become increasingly clear. Why my chess career turned towards training, teaching and writing instead of playing should also become increasingly clear in the course of this article – even when I start with a decisive viewpoint, and am doing so as a monologue, the result quickly becomes a web of complications… and more variations than decisions arise.
Man of the Year
My choice for Man of the Year 2017 might not be yours, but I was positive it had to be … Armenian #1 Levon Aronian. While 2017 was not quite uninterrupted success for the swashbuckling GM, it was a collection of impressive tournament victories and sparkling attacking games. He steadily regained his ‘traditional’ spot of world number 2, won the GRENKE Chess Classic, Altibox Norway Chess, St. Louis Rapid & Blitz and the World Cup, the latter result securing him a spot in the 2018 Candidates and keeping his lifelong world title ambitions alive. He seemed completely comfortable in his own skin again, playing with the kind of flair that has made him so popular with fans, and delivering top form consistently during the most important events. And he got married. Who could compete with a year like that?
Hang on a second
I originally viewed that as a rhetorical question, but one of my many argumentative internal voices quickly seized the opportunity to shout out a feisty alternative; What about a fierce competitor from a thorny rival nation? Have you had a look at the CV of Azeri #1 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov?
Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help feeling that leading his national team to the European Championship, soaring up to and maintaining a roughly 2800 rating and qualifying for the Candidates has gone relatively unremarked – and not in a nonchalant, ‘oh finally’ kind of way. Despite this incredible surge, a berth in the critical stage of the world title cycle, and the kind of high-energy aggressive play that usually wins legions of supporters, ‘Shakh’ isn’t a name that people kick about when discussing potential title challengers.
Not just kids
I don’t know if it’s because he is a bit ‘older’ than the cool kids younger than Carlsen, or that he has blossomed slightly later than they have; maybe his poor record against the world champion has led people to write him off the way they doubted Nakamura’s ambitions and chances. But whatever the reasons, the man had a blistering 2017, and I hotly dispute my own certitude that the obvious candidate for Man of the Year is Levon Aronian. (I still vote for him though.)
For a fascinating interview with Levon, where he touches on subjects from the Armenian-Azeri rivalry, to the prejudice against late bloomers – Aronian was one too – I highly recommend ‘We should all be like wolves’ at the Chess24 website. My favorite nugget of wisdom from the interview: «When you think a lot about how you have to win, the opposite happens.»
One Aronian highlight from 2017 was this inspired bit of sacrifical chess, and a ferociously hard-fought duel that brought him victory in both game and event against the world champion on his home turf.
Woman of the Year
Here again, for me there is one crystal clear candidate. The fierce internal debate about this category revolves around the reason I think my winner is a shoo-in. Because that is a cauldron of emotive arguments that I don’t really want to get involved with, so I will just sum up the array of viewpoints that I wrestled with, and that I hope would turn up in a heated, but civilized and diverse debate about the matter.
Mixing sport and politics is a very tricky business, and to me, a highly personal decision, though I am sure the most impassioned will argue that there is – are?! – right answers. Sport and sportspeople can create impact by refusing to get mired in politics, by insisting on protest or boycott, by participating and promoting sport, or by participating and then protesting. To me, these are all viable options, depending on the range of variables around an event, and what one hopes to achieve. The weight of this decision is not the same for everyone, either.
For example, Magnus Carlsen’s choice weighs heavier on him, and impacts the outside world more than the stance taken by his rivals. His decision to participate in the World Rapid and Blitz championships in Riyadh was criticized; his statement afterwards that an event that denied full and open international participation could not be repeated was very welcome, but only ‘takes effect’ if/when he makes some clear gesture of protest if something similar happens again.
Sacrifice and protest
For me, the 2017 Woman of the Year is Anna Muzychuk, who made the very painful and principled decision to boycott Riyadh, and used the occasion to make one of the most visible possible protests on behalf of women and women’s chess. This came at great personal cost – she forfeited the defence of both of her world titles, and almost certainly one of the richest paydays of her career by turning down the wealthy Saudi event.
Instead, she racked up results like feature coverage in leading international newspapers. This kind of attention is much harder to come by for the ‘women’s game’, and it requires a much higher cost. Double world champion Anna was willing to pay, and I submit that this was the sacrifice and performance of the year.
Game of the Year
There are all sorts of potential arguments around picking a game of the year, but once again, I immediately had a choice that I was willing to argue was a worthy winner. Even though this is a trick category – but more about that later.
No matter how strong you get, or sophisticated your chess tastes may become, there are some chess pleasures that are universal – that you never grow out of. This game is a poster child for that kind of pure, gleeful chess enjoyment. When I saw this game, my first thought was this was the Evergreen Game for modern times, and this sentiment was widely shared. Nothing is better than a continuous cascade of sacrifices, starting with a queen – and a prolonged, uninterrupted king hunt. From another man who might have been considered guy of the year, Ding Liren – crowning 2017’s World Cup final and Candidates spot with one of the loveliest games ever played.
I have punctuated the score a bit, and tossed in a few key variations, but this game is best enjoyed (as are all games really) by switching off your engines and getting out the physical 3D board and pieces, and working your way through this masterpiece.
Player of the Year
Wait a minute, what do I think I’m doing now? Well, there was a reason I used ‘Man’ of the Year before. There can surely be no argument whatsoever that the undisputed Player of the Year 2017 was the talented infant, AlphaZero, who completely dismantled former chess deity Stockfish, scoring 28 wins, 0 losses and 72 draws, after the application of nine hours* worth of artificial intelligence. Nine hours? Artificial?
(*Four hours was widely cited, but this was the amount of time the AlphaZero team estimated it took for their kid to become stronger than Stockfish.)
The Wikipedia article, and Chess.com’s excellent coverage of the match, raise questions about the ‘fairness’ of the event – several factors were disadvantageous for Stockfish – but given the magnitude of the defeat, and AlphaZero’s prior performances in Go and Shogi, it is fairly safe to conclude that we have seen the contours of supreme power/perfection.
I had the usual assortment of random thoughts firing around my head after this staggering display. What kind of a rating should this AI monster have? A sharper head than mine informed me that this wasn’t so important, since we had to remember that the thing is improving with every game. It was intriguing to have new viewpoints to muse about regarding our former engine overlords: that they were now tainted with inferiority due to being programmed by humans; would their vocal legions of admirers now lose faith and mock engine assessments while they wait for their pocket Alphas to arrive? Do Stockfish and kin have dreams of electric humiliation, bullied by Alphas kicking sand in their circuits?
Games of the Year
Forget the year, forget the complaints about the match conditions, the few games we have been allowed to see from the AlphaZero-Stockfish match are the games of all time. The most famous is already being called the new Immortal Zugzwang Game, and there were two others that I found arguably even more impressive. What they all have in common is a supernatural ability for hyper-coordination and domination that seems to render material absolutely irrelevant.
I couldn’t help thinking about the early days of chess computer programs, where the mechanical imbeciles naively grabbed all material and got manhandled like Count Isouard and the Duke of Brunswick, to the quantum leap when offering them the slightest asset meant inevitable (human) defeat. Now we have come even further, and the new terminator is a sublime romantic, offering pieces and rooks in order to achieve the most profound form of harmony as compensation, then dismantling a 3400 player with this abstract concept.
What remains is to see what would happen if Stockfish could have rematches under conditions optimized for its performance. This would be fascinating, and provide final evidence – if any is needed after AlphaZero has been ticking away in the corner in the meantime, growing stronger by the nanosecond…
The game below completely blew my mind. I intend to play through this as many times as it takes to be able to do it without going slack-jawed. A sacrificial attack involving a long-winded maneuver to get the White queen to h1? Seriously?
I don’t like making predictions. Facts are nice. This is going to be a great chess year, because we are just a few months away from the Candidates. They are Karjakin, Aronian, Ding Liren, Mamedyarov, Grischuk, Caruana, So and Kramnik. Anyone can win it. Yes, they can. And then later in the year there will be a title match. It doesn’t get better.
As an old person, I have to confess that I would like to see Aronian get a title shot before it is too late. Not that this is his last chance, but you know what they say about not getting younger. Kramnik is past his Best Before date, but I wouldn’t rule out a man of his experience being a very unpleasant challenger for Carlsen. Karjakin seems to be designed for close matches. Anybody younger than Carlsen has to be a danger for the champ biologically speaking, and I know some worried Norwegians who wonder if Magnus has already peaked…
Do I have to make a prediction? I think that it is essential that the victorious Candidate has prior experience from the Candidates. Psychological strength and sporting wisdom are necessary ingredients, after that – good form and some luck. I’ll narrow my picks to Aronian and Caruana. There’s no point in picking just one, I’ll only start finding arguments for more.
There was originally going to be a Norwegian version of this article as well, with that in mind I will add a local category, and readers can suggest their own domestic hero of 2017. For Norway, lets give that honor to Aryan Tari, who won the World Junior to give Norway its second World Champion, and third world titleholder for 2017 (including Magnus’ Blitz title).
Local boy Magnus Carlsen himself will surely not look back on 2017 fondly, even though he more or less maintained his rating and status and added more titles to his collection in a sub-par year. He will need to solve a few of his lingering problems of form by the time of his title defence. He remains most vulnerable in Classical chess, but I believe the greatest danger he faces is underestimating his eventual challenger.
Veteran of the Year
And finally, a biased category for appreciation of the successes of experience in an increasingly younger man’s game. The legendary Vishy Anand added another World (Rapid) title to his large collection, and took a bronze in the Blitz. His finish to 2017 is a reminder that youth isn’t always everything, and that is something veterans as young as Mamedyarov and Aronian, and as old as Kramnik, can take to heart. Here is a cautionary tale, and a reminder to a most promising youngster, that even old tigers have sharp teeth.