Ah, the world championship match. Remember that? Carlsen. Karjakin. Manhattan. The tension, the drama, the thrills. The evergreen finish that ended the tiebreak and the contest, and finally supplied the glittering sacrificial sparkle that increasingly demanding fans want all the time. That nearly sounds Christmas-y.
by Jonathan Tisdall
I hope you remember that, and the entertaining finale that helped push the usual complaints into the background for a while. And now that the traditional moan about changing the rules because chess has a lot of draws, and even matches are close, and every game isn’t a classic – is over, we can start to look ahead.
For one thing, those two antidotes to classical chess, rapid and blitz, are about to have their own world championships. And Magnus, Sergey and all their friends and rivals will be there too. This should give spectators what they are clamoring for: constant thrills and violence, and even a slightly forgiving mood for mistakes, since it is all happening so fast.
But before we forget it for at least two years, what about the impact of New York 2016?
Well, since I am in Norway and this continues to be the chess fever capital of the world, there is still a lot of coverage from here. The adventures of Kirillos Zangalis (Karjakin’s manager and Norwegian cult hero) still attract attention, and state broadcaster NRK devoted a text feature to rising chess temperatures in Russia, where Sergey’s title near miss has rekindled wider passion for the game.
As chess pundit, IM and Professor of Russian Atle Grønn noted: «Russian sports papers have plastered their covers with chess. Throughout November Carlsen and Karjakin were the most quoted persons in the Russian press, alongside their their new national football trainer. That says something.»
The article observes that, post-match, Karjakin and Zangalis are going full Carlsen and Agdestein, with all sorts of high profile public appearances, including a Russian version of Carlsen’s opening kick for Real Madrid in 2013.
Skeptics have noted that Karjakin does not seem as clued in about the sports he attends (Carlsen is a rabid sports fan and diehard Real Madrid supporter) but the important thing is surely that Sergey is also doing his part to ‘make chess cooler’ where he can?
And of course Norwegian state TV network NRK will be broadcasting the World Rapid and Blitz live from Doha. The fright generated by the threat to the local boy’s world title has given chess interest in Norway a boost as well, restoring it to previous delirious fever levels. (Sometimes I wonder if Norway is good at livening up chess on TV because of their odd fascination with slow events, having broadcast unedited train and boat journeys, and finding the art of chopping wood worthy of bestseller bookdom. Even now, a 7-hour show of Christmas pork ribs slow-roasting in an oven in real time is planned for the holidays…)
One of the first places I went to look for a chess fix after the end of weeks of bleary-eyed late night title dramatics in Manhattan was the German Bundesliga. My attention might have been slightly selective, but perusing the weekend’s action of rounds 5 & 6, I certainly felt that the usual world championship impact was visible. Zukertorts and Italians and d3 Spanishes – no matter how much people complain about the openings in a (Carlsen) title match, everyone seems to try what the champ is having as soon as they can.
With that lazy thought in mind, tuning into the London Classic turned out to be a shock to the system. As I said at the time, that super-tournament seemed to be a protest event aimed at NYC 2016.
People were sacrificing queens, playing both sides of the Bg5 Najdorf, taking insane risks …and moving into position to ambush Magnus on the rating list. There were several excellent advertising ploys for a new title match in Manhattan.* (* There are currently two declared bidding factions for the 2018 match to be in Norway – the Stavanger organizers of Altibox Norway Chess said this was a goal for them when interviewed in New York, and the city council of Oslo has financed a bid process from the Norwegian capital.)
The US trio of Nakamura, Caruana and So provided top entertainment and plenty of bruising, attractive decisive games. Even though Hikaru showed the most knuckle, his rivals impressed even more. Wesley So won both the tournament, undefeated and untouchable, and the overall Tour. He also comfortably broke the 2800 barrier. One interesting aspect of So’s success was occasional veiled criticism for relatively conservative play – the combination of ruthless efficiency and lack of any errors is the deadly recipe that makes people call Carlsen boring too…
Caruana: "I don’t see anything terrifying in So's play. What he’s doing, avoiding mistakes, is not something that’s impossible to overcome"
— chess24.com (@chess24com) December 18, 2016
Compatriot Caruana finished second, but more impressive to me is that his rating continued upwards. Not only does he seem to have stabilized well over the magic 2800 mark, on the live rating list he has moved into touching distance of Carlsen, a very rare occurrence.
One stat worth noting is that although Magnus’s year end Elo of 2840 may be low by his standards, it is higher than it was last December – he seems to dip at year’s end. Karjakin did a lot of damage to both Carlsen’s confidence and rating, and one of the big questions now is when, or whether, the champion can restore the usual intimidating gap above his potential challengers, and push up towards 2900 again.
To me, the most surprising revelation at the end of the New York match was learning how shattered Magnus’ confidence had been by the threat of losing his title. His unique combination of confidence and supreme sporting insight had convinced me that he was nearly invincible psychologically, and that he would always find the necessary balance and strength to switch into top gear. And top gear would be enough.
One might argue that this is what happened in the end, but from his own confessions about how troubled and confused he had been, I now get the impression that the usual recipe of friendly and family relaxation might not be enough to help him recover in a future crisis.
Congratulations to @MagnusCarlsen with defending the World Champion title. But you can and you should play better next time! https://t.co/9QmZluKWlt
— Ruslan Ponomariov (@Ponomariov) December 7, 2016
Ponomariov’s blistering assessment of the match is well worth reading, and he sees Magnus as having stagnated, and in need of a scary rival with a large boot planted in the Norwegian’s backside.
Bubbles and zones
Norwegian athletes have amazing faith in what they call ‘the bubble’. This quiet space that shields them from all distractions during major events is where they seek to enter that other mystical sporting place – ‘the zone’. Magnus has specialized in creating an atmosphere around himself where friends and especially family allow him to unwind, and to connect with the sense of fun that he finds essential to playing his best. With this in place, he then fully invests his energy into the daily game, and this delicate formula allows for a cycle of maximum performance and recharging.
Norwegian author Arne Danielsen, who has written a handful of insightful books about Magnus and is particularly fascinated with this mysterious ritual that has always produced success for Carlsen, shocked me recently by wondering if we might have already seen ‘Maximum Carlsen’ – and that the near future would be an uphill fight against his onrushing rivals. Norwegians rarely air such heretical thoughts.
Max or Bobby?
I subscribe to the idea of a looming ‘Bobby Carlsen’. There is plenty of time for new heights from Magnus, and extra motivation, in the shape of various Americans and scary youngsters, can only be a good thing. To my trained, though possibly myopic eye, there were signs in 2016 of Magnus being capable of Fischer-like, total domination of the game. Particularly in the rapid and blitz events of the Grand Chess Tour. The only problem is that these bouts of supreme strength were punctuated by spells of incredibly sloppy blundering. This would cause anger and what I called ‘Hulk mode’, when Carlsen would shred all opposition like Bruce Banner’s shirts. And then blunder a few times.
The contours of monstrous new strength, versatility and motivation are there, I believe. The problem of 2016 was that this sloppiness persisted. This weird combination is often seen in players who are on the verge of a real leap in strength – so my diagnosis, optimistic though it may be, is that Max Carlsen is in the future, not the past.
And so, on to Qatar. Champions are acquisitive types, and I have no doubt that Magnus will be highly motivated to start bolstering his number 1 status by holding all three titles again. If the Chess.com GM Blitz Battle Championship had been FIDE rated, Carlsen would hold all three top rating spots, easily. Some official titles would be at least as good.
And since he just defended the classical title – by playing rapid chess – the motivation to assert his authority in Qatar must be even greater. I think he will do it. I also worry a bit that if he doesn’t, then he may indeed need some help motivating himself. But I suspect the near-death experience of New York will be the inspiration and major impact of the 2016 title match.