Men and machines

FRUSTRERT: Magnus Carlsen var frustrert etter tabben i det 17. trekket mot Gawain Jones. Foto: Maria EmelianovaThe embarrassment phase. The world champion has just blundered a piece vs. Gawain Jones. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Drama Kings

The middle rest day is the closest thing to a half-way mark at the 80th anniversary edition of the Wijk an Zee tournament. This year’s Tata Steel Masters (and Challengers) continues a brilliant tradition of offering more than the usual 9 rounds, and a cleverly composed mix of world stars and hungry, dangerous outsiders. For me, this event is the highlight of the tournament year, with only the Candidates offering comparable entertainment when it rolls around – though that is due to high stakes rather than careful and colorful organization. I like some extra rounds and some new faces, preferably crazed with aggression. This event always delivers.

Top this?

Round 8 of this year’s Tata Steel, the last before the second rest day, will be a very tough one to top for drama, in either section. The absolute center of attention was the Carlsen-Jones game, which I assume has had so much said about it already, that it will be nearly safe to ignore in the course of this article.

Check out more of GM Jonathan Tisdall’s articles for Matt & Patt

"Everybody" were watching the dramatic game with Carlsen and Jones. Photo: Maria Emelianova

«Everybody» were watching the dramatic game between Carlsen and Jones. Photo: Maria Emelianova

The three key dramatic points of the round were: the Carlsen game, Giri’s dismantling of runaway leader Shakh Mamedyarov, and Vidit overhauling the rampant Korobov in the Challengers, thanks to another rollicking performance from Egyptian assassin Bassem Amin. There were a few other moments, but the theme of the day, and an emerging one for the event as a whole, is that thinking or even knowing you are winning can be a deadly distraction at Tata 2018. Opponents here are tricky and sometimes indestructable, often reanimating from apparently lethal damage to lurch forward yet again, like some Hollywood splatter film nightmare. The sporting truism that it isn’t over until it’s over has rarely been so evident as it has been here.

Shakh shock

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. Photo: Maria Emelianova

As I write this, the Mamedyarov magic may once again be being called into question, despite his very solid grip on the world #2 rating spot, and being the only person keeping Carlsen company over 2800 at the moment. My musing about why Shakh has never really been taken seriously as a world number two-ish type has become quite a regular topic of conversation after he charged into the clear lead at the Tata Steel, but his thud vs Giri might calm discussion down again.

I amended that tweet later to make it clear that Shakh had taken up marriage and occasionally playing like an old man, and only cut out alcohol. He has calmed down a bit, but somehow I doubt that alone explains his recent run of success. I began to wonder a bit if it is because of Shakh himself – that he just has never acted/presented himself like a serious threat, but more of a super-powered fun-loving type. He likes to joke about everything from being overrated now, to his success being due to him ‘aging’, all the while setting up base camp above altitude 2800. If he beats Carlsen once and erases his Nakamura-like curse against the champion, will that promote him as a ‘real’ title candidate?

Older? Wiser

It will exciting to see if he can resume his winning ways. The game against Giri in Rd 8 looked like a guy doing a very bad imitation of the things he has said he has been doing better lately – playing like an old man and ‘playing for a result’ – code for being amenable to a draw and less maniacal. The big challenge for him in the future will be keeping that delicate balance, because it is not an easy thing for a player with his pugnacious nature. But I suppose it is the chess equivalent of ‘keeping a clean sheet’ – the ability to just shut things down and be boring and unbeatable on certain days is part of becoming a contender. A Shakh that could shift gears at wills would be very scary indeed.


There have been a handful of dramatic reversals at Tata this year, and Carlsen-Jones made it the official theme of the event. Wesley So had a nice comment on the Carlsen game: Magnus got some practical chances after the blunder, and in Wijk an Zee even being winning isn’t a guarantee that you will get a draw. More on that later.


This tweet sparked some interesting conversation. Yes, I suppose it is true that in a way Carlsen’s tireless technical determination is also a form of psychological warfare. But torture and fighting spirit are not such unique factors – there are of course occasional wizards at maneuvering or grinding, but these skills have also been part of the daily toolkit of gritty professionals, from those on the weekend circuit to the legendary Soviet school of endgame superiority. But great technical champions tend to spawn dazzling tactical successors; Capa to Alekhine, Karpov to Kasparov, and … Carlsen to ? Presumably someone who will play like AlphaZero, on a human scale, an UltraTal. That is the idea I was trying to summon up.

Magnus Carlsen leaving after his game, while Gawain Jones gets comfort from his wife Sue. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Magnus Carlsen leaving after his game, while Gawain Jones gets comfort from his wife Sue. Photo: Maria Emelianova

The kind of mental sh*tstorm that took place in the Carlsen-Jones brainspace is very rare in modern top level chess. But anyone who has played seriously enough to have heart palpitations during a game, and has either speculatively sacrificed material or had material unexpectedly flung in their face, will remember the potentially dizzying psychological imbalance/excitement that resulted. Magnus was very honest about his blunder afterwards, and he said a few odd and revealing things. That he had felt uncomfortable and off kilter in the opening, and how completely free and unfettered he felt – relieved – once he had blundered away all hope. He felt a lack of pressure he had totally forgotten, and could just play again. And then, there was a bit of hope…

Human frailty

And anyone who has suddenly and shockingly had the prospect of wild and unexpected success crash through a window and land in their lap will know exactly how unsettling this can be. Jones’ mental preparation and state will have been completely fried by the turn of events. In a flash, the huge underdog has become such a favorite that all the pressure in the game’s dynamic shifts to his shoulders. The champion dies inside, and then soldiers on, completely free and relaxed. How often can someone like Carlsen play with nothing to lose, and everything to gain? I think we understand very well the psychological cataclysm that occurred when the champion pitched a piece out the window. We know that Jones’ situation wasn’t easy, and that the resulting drama was always a tantalizing possibility.


And why is it that when world champions blunder a full piece, it isn’t quite a full piece?

I am a huge fan of Rowson’s insights, and his unique examinations of chess matters psychological. His tweet sparked a few trains of thought – another component of his observation contains a kind of inherent law of compensation – even a blunder can result in practical chances if there is any price, particularly structural, to winning the material.

Unless you actually just take a major chunk of wood and just plonk it down somewhere it just disappears, chess has a funny way of tending to give you something for errors. That pawn you – or more often your opponent, you are rarely so lucky, I know I’m not – blunder away always seems to come with trouble as enemy pieces roar to life with it out of the way.

Magnus Carlsen speaking to TV 2. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Magnus Carlsen speaking to TV 2. Photo: Maria Emelianova

In Carlsen-Jones, the piece was not gratis – Black had to make some structural weaknesses and pay a pawn for it. For a move or two this was nowhere near enough. But these were the ingredients of real compensation, and it only took a couple of nervous sub-par moves for them to go from potential compensation to immense practical difficulties.

One last topic that occurred to me was how tricky chess/sporting psychology can be. I remembered an earlier encounter between these two players, at the London Classic I believe, where Gawain sacrificed his queen for ‘insufficient’ but very interesting compensation vs Magnus. This was a similarly intense, though inverse, duel of mental pressure, where Gawain managed to increase the already large burden of the heavy favorite.

The human factor

All of which brings me back to a new refrain of complaint in this computer age of chess. While so many games now are either duelling engines, or engine-built traps for frail humans, surely it is a matter of time until someone finds a way to reintroduce more human methods of doing battle? If not the UltraTal, then just finding ways to play and befuddle the man, detach the opponent from their machine armor?

Cynics will say these days are gone … but AlphaZero gave our previous engine overlords all sorts of material for gorgeous, long-term, mind-bending positional compensation. Surely some swashbuckling hero, knowing how confused sensitive human minds can be, will manage something on our scale, if only until the next iron technician arrives? To my mind Levon Aronian gives a bit of hope – he certainly seems to operate on a different piece value system than most people, and loves material imbalance, or at least what appears to us to be imbalance…

Double trouble?

Pardon my Norwegian focus here but: The engine-powered revenge execution of our World Junior Champion by his World Junior title rival, local hero Jordan van Foreest, in the Challengers in Rd 8 was a perfect example of the current oppression of humans. The Norwegian teenager wandered into opening preparation that was so deep, his opponent apparently only needed to think once, and that was to choose the most effective way of finishing Tari off.

Junior World Champion Aryan Tari. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Junior World Champion Aryan Tari. Photo: Maria Emelianova

This is a horrible occupational hazard of the modern game, but it also gave me a very unsettling thought – was Aryan in fact doubly handicapped by finding the best moves for so long? I am assuming that by never deviating (far?) from the booby-trapped prepared line he must have found an extremely high percentage of the engine’s main line(s). By working his way past less natural or perhaps slightly inferior options, he found himself with an ever narrowing path to safety as the position became sharper and needed machine-like precision, and with steadily increasing time pressure. If he had deviated down a sideline earlier he probably would have forced his opponent to think sooner. And might have found greater relative safety by accepting calculated inferiority.


My mind boggles a bit. Ah, the sooner we find ways to combat this kind of thing, and elevate the human aspects of the fight, the better. Did I mention that Norway is holding the unofficial world championship in Fischer Random next month?  Unofficial titleholder Hikaru Nakamura takes on Magnus Carlsen, who is probably a sizeable underdog, and by that I mean a smaller dog than you might imagine. One would guess that a lack of theory would favor Carlsen but the random start positions could also seriously scramble his positional intuition in the early phases of the game, and Magnus has not had great FR results in the past. Maybe he’s in training.

Muppets. Muppets!

On a lighter note, on the tournament’s Hilversum day, the venue included Muppets.

Magnus Carlsen surprised by Sesame Street Bernd's illegal move. Photo: Tata Steel Chess

Magnus Carlsen surprised by Sesame Street Bert’s illegal move. Photo: Tata Steel Chess

There is now a new reason that Wijk an Zee is my favorite tournament of the year. The world elite and muppets. This must become a regular thing. Hopefully Tata will also find something even more amazing next year…

The Candidates

Vladimir Kramnik. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Vladimir Kramnik. Photo: Maria Emelianova

In the Department of Experience there was a torrid start by Anand, but then a severe reversal at the hands of slightly younger rival Kramnik, this cycle’s wild card Candidate. I don’t know how the younger Candidates prepare mentally for the title cycle, but Kramnik looks just a few small calibrations away from top form. Of course those calibrations might include needing the stamina of a younger man…

I was struck by two observations about the former champion by young men at Wijk an Zee: commentator Robin van Kampen, who noted that Kramnik’s esthetic sense placed great demands on himself to create striking, perfect games; and Wesley So, who said that nowadays Kramnik seems intent on taking big chances to win every game in style. They are kindred opinions, and seem to brand Kramnik as a man putting a lot of pressure on himself to play like he’s younger than ever. Maybe their unspoken advice is that he should relax a bit and conserve some energy. Personally, I love watching the big man play, and appreciate his growing romantic streak (remember that game last year vs Harikrishna?). I fear that Shakh’s formula of learning ‘old man’ tricks might be the more practical approach though…

So dangerous

Wesley So is chugging along near the lead, and is no doubt very attuned to how intangible ‘winning’ can be here. As he observed after the Carlsen-Jones game, a decisive advantage is no guarantee of scoring anything, and he should know. Wesley performed two truly dazzling escape acts from horrific Black positions against Caruana and Wei Yi to kickstart his tournament rise. On the verge of defeat against compatriot Fabiano, So somehow generated so much counterplay that he nearly won. It is perhaps a testament to how bad his position was to begin with that picking up a massive amount of material in the race to time control was only enough to secure a draw.

Wesley So, here in the 8th round of Tata Steel Chess. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Wesley So, here in the 8th round of Tata Steel Chess. Photo: Maria Emelianova

China’s immense talent and equally huge time-pressure addict was less fortunate. He managed to fumble the whole point away to Wesley. I confess I had a strong feeling that Wei Yi was a world champion ascendant a few years ago, but in this day and age the clock is a weapon, like your engine, your brain, and your knuckles. He simply has to stop using so much time. Clock handling is a vital skill – just ask So. His resourcefulness has been orchestrated to the tune of his opponent’s clocks ticking.

Shakh also did some water-walking to race out to his temporary full-point lead. As Black vs. Adhiban, the Indian GM seemed certain to win, especially if you were distracted by an onscreen engine. On the board, there seemed to be many promising continuations, but always some mess involved. After the first time control things looked great for White, and machines were confident, but …

Fabiano Caruana. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Fabiano Caruana. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Fabiano Caruana has had a very frustrating event – I thought his London form was going to continue here but there seems to be something very slightly off – one is tempted to say he’s been unlucky, at least until Rd 8, when he managed his own bit of table-turning against Hou Yifan. If I had to venture a diagnosis for Fabiano’s misfortunes it would be chronic lapse of attention. Could very well be that part of his mind is distracted by the coming Candidates, and associated considerations about how to disguise things against his four rivals here. I’m still inclined to think that he’s keeping a lot in reserve for Berlin in March, and will be in the qualification race there.

Sergey Karjakin. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Sergey Karjakin. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Sergey Karjakin has been keeping a low profile. He broke a perfect set of draws with a White execution of a flustered Caruana, who seemed very distracted on the day. This is a grudge match, with that exact pairing deciding the  title challenger in the last round of the previous Candidates. Caruana had since avenged that game nicely with some Sicilian retribution. This story will surely continue in a few months time.

There are five action-packed rounds left. I’m already starting to miss this tournament…

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