Risk, margins and speed

Anish Giri and Magnus Carlsen. Photo: Maria EmelianovaAnish Giri and Magnus Carlsen. Photo: Maria Emelianova

No, this article is not about trying to follow the cryptocurrency market, it is about the delicate art of winning chess tournaments. When I last left you, the 80th Tata Steel Masters (and Challengers) had just hit peak drama, with Magnus Carlsen winning a fine game … after blundering a piece vs Jones, and Santosh Vidit catching up to hot starter Anton Korobov in the Challengers.

Mind games

Gawain Jones was again a star participant in a key psychological duel/incident; like his game against Carlsen, the mental tussle overshadowed ‘the game’, this time totally, when the Englishman faced Shakh Mamedyarov in round 12.

Gawain Jones played a major role in two fascinating moments at Tata Steel 2018. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Gawain Jones played a major role in two fascinating moments at Tata Steel 2018. Photo: Maria Emelianova

At this stage the race for first was a feverish contest with local hero Anish Giri and the resurgent Carlsen. Shakh entered Rd. 12 in the lead with MC and Giri, thanks to an awesome miniature demolition playing black against Svidler a few days earlier:

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov is the new World #2 after a great performance in Wijk aan Zee. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov is the new World #2 after a great performance in Wijk aan Zee. Photo: Maria Emelianova

But in Rd. 12 Carlsen and Giri nursed their last whites of the event to wins, and moved ahead of Mamedyarov, who was expected by all to try and keep up by pressing hard against underdog Jones, despite having black; in the last round they would all face solid opposition, and Shakh’s white would come against nemesis Vishy Anand. The betting line was obvious, especially considering Mamedyarov’s reputation, inclination and previous black game. So … what happened?!

Mental arena

I tossed off the term ‘brainspace’ in my previous blog article to describe the abstract area where Carlsen and Jones coped with the former’s dramatic blunder in Rd. 8, and was intrigued to later hear a commentator – I think Ivan Sokolov? – discussing how players can influence each other subconsciously via their ‘meeting of minds’ during a game. I can attest to knowing what he means, as I am sure many others who have played chess at an intense level can – even though such testimony may not be worth more than reports from ‘haunted houses’. On a more practical level, the ability to get inside your opponent’s head, even before the game, is a useful skill. Listening to the two interviews after the Jones-Mamedyarov ‘game’, was very illuminating.

Mind reading

Photo: Maria Emelianova

Photo: Maria Emelianova

While I think it was far easier to understand Gawain’s train of thought, it is of course highly revealing that the game result turned out to be an unthinkable alternative from Shakh’s point of view. Jones argued that it was not his job to take chances, as a much lower-rated player trying to stabilize a rough patch in his first super-tournament. To Shakh, it was simply impossible that a fighter like Gawain would burn a white by early repetition. One has to wonder if the Azeri brawler has trouble weighing up a situation as seen through an opponent’s lens.

As fascinating as this off the board analysis can be, it was Shakh’s sudden attempt to explain why he chose to play the Petroff that demonstrated to me that there was a very basic mental miscalculation involved that day – he simply could not come up with an explanation for why he had picked a notoriously drawish defence. The whole incident – if you can call a near immediate three-time repetition an incident – was doubly mysterious when you look at how Shakh had handled his previous black vs Svidler.

Is Black OK?

It has been quite a while since Hungarian GM Andras Adorjan could turn his motto ‘Black is OK!’ into a cottage industry of neat theoretical ideas for the second player – so long that a sizeable percentage of my readers probably don’t know who or what I am referring to.

In the computer age, this topic might need to be revisited. Certainly the distance to being OK looks like a worrying topic when Black wants to play for a win. This is a particularly important topic in close races for a very big first prize, and when trying to max your result every day as a heavy rating favorite in open tournaments. As Tata Steel drew to a close and the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters got going, there was some fascinating evidence to consider.

The topic of course follows directly from the cogitation around the spotlighted Jones-Mamedyarov encounter, where the question of color was a subtext to the expectations of each player. The flip side could be seen in the final round, when the odd spectating fanatic bemoaned the solidity levels of Carlsen and Giri, despite them facing higher rated opposition than Jones and not needing to take risks to stay in the lead.

Acceptable risk

Hungarian Anita Gara upset the Armenian superstar, but that didn't stop him from winning the event. Photo: Sophia Triay

Hungarian Anita Gara upset the Armenian superstar, but that didn’t stop him from winning the event. Photo: Sophia Triay

On opening day at Tradewise, there was a very visible trend on the top boards, where the biggest ratings needed to deliver as Black against much lower rated opposition. This trio of big guns opted to use Pirc/Modern type setups to achieve the desired goal of non-theoretical sharpness, and things got badly out of control.

Big guns were Gib stuns, and arguably the best of the three opening phases for Black ended in the most spectacular upset of the day. Only one of the underdogs cracked, Tate’s odd methodical surrender of e4 ruining a promising start.

When considering what is a sensible way to conduct the black pieces nowadays, it is obvious that drawing quickly is widely accepted as a good day on the job. I submit people’s exhibit number 8.3 from Gibraltar, from one of the world’s strongest and sharpest players:

Russian Junior Gregory Oparin draws Levon Aronian. Photo: Sophie Triay

Russian Junior Gregory Oparin draws Levon Aronian. Photo: Sophie Triay

The risk levels as Black from Aronian needing a first round win to meeting a strong GM down the stretch have shrunk to roughly zero.

This speaks volumes about the expected returns of arbitrarily going ‘nuts’ vs. the world elite when not strictly necessary. My unavoidable conclusion regarding risk and the Tata race: Carlsen and Giri did what professionals do as black in the last round, and Shakh really shouldn’t have played the Petroff the day before. Playing ‘all-out’ for a win with Black is something all of these guys do when necessary, but it has become an increasingly tricky business.

Tradition and change

In the end, the remarkable 80th anniversary Tata Steel event spoiled some domestic success by, oddly enough, departing from tradition – choosing for the first time to decide the tournament winner at Wijk an Zee by tiebreak.

Anish relied heavily on banterese as the wait for the actual playoff went on. While never 100% serious (nor completely kidding?) I thought his angle was a bit off.

When an event as august and weighty as Tata breaks with its own traditions, it is time to admit that tiebreaks, playoffs, rapid and blitz are now undeniably a vital part of the game – they can and have decided even the classical world title. They are everywhere. The elite have to be multidisciplinary.

The Tata tiebreak was extremely closely fought, with Magnus conjuring up some high-speed technical magic in game one, and tightroping his way out of some very serious danger in the second. Once again he was the playoff king.

The blitz brought the world champion a record 6th title at Tata Steel. It ended a long (for him) drought of elite event victories, and gets 2018 off to an ideal start. His eternal number one rating is moving upwards at a decent rate again at last. But it is just January; can we already say ‘Magnus is back’? This is a natural question to ask, not just because he is winning ‘again’, but because of the way he played down the stretch and in the tiebreak. His magic seemed to be back, nano-advantages were synonymous with inhuman torture and full points again. It looked like vintage Carlsen, even if just for a handful of games.

Art, sport, science

I would categorize my blogging style as organized digression; I like to muse and wander off to unusual places. Thinking about the current state of Magnus, and the impact of this event on him, triggered a LOT of synapses, I hope I don’t lose too many people on this particular ride.


Carlsen has been trying to relax and set up residence in 'the zone' again. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Carlsen has been trying to relax and set up residence in ‘the zone’ again. Photo: Maria Emelianova

The way Magnus described his potentially traumatic blunder vs. Jones in Rd. 8, and the way his mood adapted to the situation, sounded very much like a kind of psychological or sporting death and rebirth. He went from the peak of public embarrassment to a feeling of total freedom, and talked about a resulting sense of liberation that he had been missing – and seeking – for ages. This manifested itself in very clear OTB terms – a sweeping reversal of fortune and form vs. Gawain, and soon thereafter the return of his dazzling technique – I might argue that the first game of the Giri playoff was in some ways the most impressive, given how quickly and organically it flowed.

Full house around the first playoff game in Wijk aan Zee. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Full house around the first playoff game in Wijk aan Zee. Photo: Maria Emelianova

I was not the only one to ponder this mix of Carlsen’s transformation and a range of metaphysical factors. GM, philosopher and chess psychology guru Jonathan Rowson was struck poetic, and summoned the grand mysteries in his reaction to the first technical display from Magnus renewed. And once you start on this path, there are so many possible angles to examine.


The whole transformation reminded me of a recurring and very obscure Norwegian debate about Carlsen and the nature of his talent. Full disclosure – I am aware of these largely because I came into contact with them via editing and translation work, which is my ‘day job’ – but they wouldn’t be easy to follow otherwise.

While there is a traditional discussion about whether chess is art, science or sport, and various world champions have chosen one or more categories as their answer, there is absolutely no doubt what Magnus believes – that the game is a contest, and he famously told reporters after game 12 of his title defence in NYC vs Karjakin that if they were looking for art they were in the wrong place.

On exhibit

Hikaru Nakamura. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Hikaru Nakamura. Photo: Maria Emelianova

A disagreement about this is part of the reason Magnus’ next event is the unofficial FischerRandom ‘title’ match vs. ‘holder’ Hikaru Nakamura in Norway next week.  The venue is an art center, and the games are set in a chess-themed photo exhibition. Photographer Dag Alveng, unable to convince Henrik Carlsen, or presumably any family member, that Magnus is an artist, decided to ‘retaliate’ by putting the champ inside his installation. IM Atle Grønn’s excellent essay on the discipline and the event is now available in English.

Mystical harmony

Besides the classical choice of art, science and sport, journalists and authors Arne Danielsen and Sriram Balasubramanian, a Norwegian and an Indian, co-wrote ‘The Wizards’, a truly unique world championship book, where they explored the psychological and spiritual aspects of the uniquely gifted players who contested the Chennai title match, largely via in-depth interviews with the players and those around them.

To be honest, I was very skeptical about a match record that virtually ignored the games and focused on abstract and spiritual discussion, but like a good digression, it raised all sorts of new and intriguing trains of thought. The layman’s starting point for plugging into this discussion is, I think, that very well known state of ‘being in the zone’ – where the mystical and sporting meet. Danielsen argues that Magnus relies very much on his Mozart-like natural connection to a greater harmony.  (see Rowson!) Arne too has not gotten much agreement from the Carlsens, but it makes (surprisingly?) fascinating reading – even for Magnus’ father Henrik.

The point?

For me, the pivotal moments at this year’s Tata have had a clear psychological theme, and to repeat an argument aired in the previous article, I think and hope that the human aspects of the mental combat of the game will grow in response to the ‘scientific’ computer age. I’m a bit surprised that some of the abstract aspects don’t factor more into Carlsen’s – and perhaps many of the other players’ – preparations.

Oh, is Magnus back? Bit early to say. Maybe if he pays more attention to ‘the zone’?


Anish Giri. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Anish Giri. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Giri was tweeting full-time during Wijk an Zee, and Magnus says that the social media banter with his Dutch rival is all a bit of fun. However, he chose to sidestep the duel by exiting the Twitterspace and delivering a lavishly warm and generous tribute to Giri in his official interview after the title playoff. Banter-loving Anish’s eventual response:

It is hard not to notch Tata Steel 2018 up as a super-tournament victory for Giri as well. No matter what your feelings about social media banter, a youngster who has relatively little fear for the world number one makes life more interesting. If he maintains this form, he will hopefully be in the Candidates again next time, and his indestructibility, like Karjakin’s, will make him a dangerous one. Apparently Anish has renewed work with his former and renowned trainer, Vladimir Chuchelov and Vlad’s magic touch seems intact. Giri’s chum Vidit was the smooth winner of the Challengers, and earned promotion to next year’s Masters.

Within minutes of the 2018 Wijk an Zee event ending, I tweeted that I missed it already.

This little parting gift from the tournament sums up why. It might be 80 years old, but you can do something hundreds of times without getting this good at it. Bring on the 2019 edition, Tata Steel is simply – classic.

And there’s more

This article is supposed to be a combined Wijk an Zee closer and Candidates preview, but one can’t ignore the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters, especially since it shared the themes of risks and playoffs.

Widely regarded as the premier Open event of the year, ‘GibChess’ is hopefully on its way to 80+ editions as well. A powerful collection of world elite, and a unique showcase of the best women’s players, the 2018 event featured an astonishing number of upsets. The tournament ended in a massive tie for first, and for the women’s prize, a deeply impressive victory for Swedish legend Pia Cramling, who seems to be enjoying a second youth rather than a veteran decline.

The sixth man

Tradewise featured another Candidate in action, perennial favorite Levon Aronian, who could have won the event clear by defeating the ‘owner’ of the tournament in recent years, Hikaru Nakamura, who wobbled in the final round. Instead, Aronian narrowly made the four-player tiebreak (on tiebreak) and emerged the winner of an insanely exciting playoff session.

Speed Demon Maxime Vachier-Lagrave beat Hikaru Nakamura. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Speed Demon Maxime Vachier-Lagrave beat Hikaru Nakamura. Photo: Maria Emelianova

I have never been a huge fan of watching high-speed chess, but the Nakamura-Maxime Vachier-Lagrave duel probably changed that for life. The fighting frenzy, calculated risk-taking, judgment, skill level and sheer velocity were simply astonishing. MVL is breathtakingly fast, while Nakamura seems to bend the laws of physics, making you wonder if he can make his clock run backwards. The fact is Hikaru played brilliantly in the playoff, but MVL magicked the match victory when it came time for hands to replace brains. In the first game Maxime seemed to be using a wand or laser cannon to vanish Nakamura’s apparently unstoppable wedge of promoting pawns, nearly faster than the eye could follow.

Aronian made it to the final by edging out young Richard Rapport, then once again denied his friend MVL in a tense match where the Frenchman was always fastest, but not always best.


Fabiano Caruana. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Fabiano Caruana. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Tata was a very encouraging event for 4/5 of the Candidates present at Wijk an Zee, and a disaster for Fabiano Caruana. Kramnik is back to 2800, making him suddenly one of the favorites; Sergey Karjakin expressed pleasure with his undefeated result, a stealth performance that was easy to miss completely, but which featured two deadly cobra strikes as White against Candidate rivals amidst a sea of quite drab draws. Earlier I summarized the previous challenger’s Tata as an undercover information-gathering exercise for the Berlin event in March, but the two wins turned an invisible performance into one very reminiscent of the formula for title match qualification.

Wesley So showed many of his trademark signs of form; efficiency with advantages and incredible resilience in adversity. And Shakh continued to impress and securely holds the world number two spot.

Is he serious?

Magnus Carlsen jakter sin sjette seier i Wijk aan Zee, men det vil nok Shakhriyar Mamedyarov forsøke å hindre. Foto: Maria Emelianova

The world’s top two. Photo: Maria Emelianova

I’ve spent a lot of time recently, ruminating about what is really behind Shakh’s run of success and how dangerous a Candidate he will be. His interviews at Tata were always a treat, full of honest confessions and minor revelations. Even with his more ‘mature’ approach, Mamedyarov still has a disarmingly strong fun-loving streak that makes it hard to believe he has the steel to mount a title challenge. It will be fascinating to see just how serious he has become.

That tweet was very seriously meant – like the occasional totally irrational sporting rout, a disaster can sometimes be easier to forget than a near miss. When you also factor in how the law of averages tends to even out the tournament success rate among the very top, you might say that now Fabiano is due a massive result, and we all now how high his max is…

Still hot?

Levon Aronian after his Gibraltar win. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Levon Aronian after his Gibraltar win. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Levon was the sixth Candidate in recent action, and his tightrope comeback from first round stutter to tiebreak glory didn’t reveal top form, but it did demonstrate something perhaps even more important – continuing steely nerves and success. A somewhat overeager treatment of his very superior last-round position vs Nakamura meant the difference between outright tournament victory and a tough tiebreak slog, but he still got there in the end. He had one very lively Aronian-y win, with powerful handling of a creative, unbalanced opening:

Berlin March

I can’t wait. Who knows what Grischuk and Ding Liren have been cooking up in the meantime. This Candidates should be the best one in ages, though with so much at stake the caution levels tend to be rather high in this tournament. But we can hope.

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