November 23, 2013

World Champion Magnus Carlsen Ushers in a New Era

Magnus Carlsen is the new Chess Champion of the World! He defeated Vishwanathan Anand on Anand's home turf in Chennai, India and did so in style. Not only is Carlsen the highest rated player of all time, but more importantly, he has cemented his spot in history as the 16th World Chess Champion.

Carlsen earned $1,350,000 for taking the title, while the previous champion Anand got a $900,000 check for his efforts and a respite from the paparazzi. Carlsen defeated comedian Steven Colbert in a rock, paper, scissors death match, and was named one of the 2013 Sexiest Men Alive by Cosmopolitan magazine.

Magnus Carlsen celebrating his new title
Anand will no longer have to read article after article in the chess media about his being the match underdog against the 22-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. Chess journalists will no longer focus on Anand's worsening play as he ages, and he will no longer feel the target on his back. Anand has the freedom to remake his style and to fall in love with chess again without the pressures of being the world champion.

If he chooses, he can retire and focus on raising his two-year-old son Akhil. After living in Spain to be closer to the European chess circuit, I expect Anand to spend more time in his native India and continue to tweet about his passion for astronomy. Anand will be remembered as a great champion and one of the nicest guys in professional chess.

The Chess World Championship title was born in 1886 when Austrian Wilhelm Steinitz beat German Johannes Zukertort. Steinitz's style of play was antithesis to the violent attacks that ruled in his day. He was the father of a new kind of chess style in which imbalances in the position proved most important.

This "positional" style was new in that the previous "tactical" chess style was not concerned over pawn structure, space, or whose pieces were better placed. Tactical, aggressive chess was considered gentlemanly and sacrifices were the order of the day. Steinitz changed this forever.

Emanuel Lasker, a German PhD, was a mathematician who wrote books and magazines about chess, Go, bridge and even created his own game called Lasca. He defeated Steinitz to become the 2nd World Champion in 1894 with a match purse of $4,000 ($500,000 in today's value).

He remained champion for 27 years which is the longest reign in history. He further developed chess style by beating his opponent by playing moves that would make his opponent most uncomfortable rather than looking for the objectively best move.

José Raúl Capablanca the 3rd World Champion was a Cuban born chess player who wrested the title from Lasker in 1927. Following the first two world champions, Capa's style was positional, but it was the simplicity of his moves that made him so great. He went undefeated in a chess game for eight years which is completely unheard of in the chess world.

He played with the accuracy of a computer and his machine-like brain made him one of the greatest endgame players of all time. Like Steinitz and Lasker, Capablanca moved to the U.S. and ultimately died in New York City. While watching a friendly game at the Manhattan Chess Club, Capablanca collapsed due to a hemorrhage in his brain. Due to his 220/160 blood pressure, his brain exploded.

Chess player or mafia?
Alexander Alekhine got his PhD in Law at the Sorbonne in Paris, France and wrote his thesis on the Chinese prison system. He was born in Moscow on Halloween in 1892 and was a raging alcoholic. Though he had never previously won a game against Capablanca, he won the title +6 -3 =25 in a first to six wins marathon chess match.

He had one of the most breathtakingly sacrificial and tactical styles of any top chess player and deeply influenced Kasparov and brought life to the game. Alekhine's calculating ability and creativity will live forever in his games and will be studied until the end of chess.

Max Euwe won the 5th World Chess Championship and held it between 1935-1937. His short tenure as champion and being crushed by Alekhine in a return match make him one of the least respected of the world champions. He earned a PhD in math from the University of Amsterdam in Holland.

Euwe was the President of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) from 1970-1978. He was considered the best President FIDE has ever had due to his moral decisions which were often politically unpopular by the Soviet chess machine. After Euwe, the Soviet Union dominated the world of chess. Excluding 1972-1975, Soviet Grandmasters held the World Championship title from 1948-2007.

Mikhail Botvinnik was the 6th World Champion and built the Botvinnik Chess School which raised future champions Karpov, Kasparov, and Kramnik. Botvinnik was a professional engineer and taught a structured and disciplined approach to openings preparation that continues to rule chess until today.

Vasily Smyslov became the 7th World Champion in 1956, but lost the title back to Botvinnik a year later. He had a positional style and was known for especially precise endgame play. Smyslov was talented baritone opera singer though he failed to make it into the Bolshoi.

Mikhail Tal (#8) is arguably the coolest World Champion of them all. He was an artist at the chessboard and was affectionately known as "The Magician from Riga." Tal was unafraid to sacrifice his pieces to obtain the initiative and created some of the greatest chess masterpieces of all time. He had a twinkle in his eye and an intense stare. His opponents would have to avert their eyes so as not to be hypnotized.

Look into my eyes, you are getting sleepy!
An inveterate drinker and smoker, Tal suffered health problems later in life but continued to play, often against his doctor's orders. If I had to recommend one chess book to anyone, it would be Tal's autobiography "The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal." It is a hilarious account of some of the greatest chess games and writing genius that I have ever read. I have travelled with the book for thousands of miles and have reread it to the point where overuse has destroyed the binding and the pages are no longer attached. It is a desert island book for sure.

Tigran Petrosian the 9th World Champion's chess style was so defensive that he was possibly the most difficult opponent to beat in chess history. He cautiously shuttled his pieces back and forth until his opponents lost their patience and began to attack. Petrosian's position would be so solid that he could easily defend, then take advantage of his opponent's overextended position.

Boris Spassky's universal and adaptable chess style helped him become the 10th World Chess Champion, but it was his match with Bobby Fischer that he'll be most remembered by. Spassky was a product of the Soviet chess machine during the Cold War.

The Soviet Union's government believed that their utter dominance on the world's chess stage proved their intellectual superiority over the West. The USSR had held the World Chess Championship title since Botvinnik in 1948. They continued to pour money in the Soviet chess program and the pressure to win may have been a factor in Spassky's loss to Fischer.

Bobby Fischer was a product of a fatherless upbringing and an absent mother. He spent most of his time devouring chess books in his apartment in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York. At age 14, he won the US Championship and at age 20, he won the Championship with a perfect score of 11/11 with no draws. This feat had never happened before. A perfect score at the US Championship may never happen ever again.

Fischer lived in a black and white world in which he chose not to play in tournaments where he felt his conditions weren't met. He repeatedly chose not to show up for the 1972 World Championship match with Spassky. To the American media, the match was a proxy for the Cold War and the result would have lasting effect on the battle between freedom and communism.

It looked as though Bobby would simply forfeit the match until Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Fischer that he had to fight to save the world from communist destruction. Fischer got on the place to Reykjavík, Iceland, crushed Spassky, and won the future.

Anatoly Karpov became the 12th World Chess Champion when Bobby Fischer forfeited his title in 1975. Though he fought to make the match happen, Karpov felt the need to prove his title meant something. He went on to dominate professional chess tournaments for the next ten years until Garry Kasparov came into power. Karpov's style is positional in nature and he loves to slowly grind out tiny advantages and win in the endgame.

Kasparov was Karpov's complete opposite when it comes to chess style. Kasparov's style is aggressive and tactical harking back to Alehkine and Tal. The clash of titans could not have been between two more different players than Karpov and Kasparov. The two played five world championship matches in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1990 including 144 games. The matches were incredibly close and the score was 21 wins, 19 losses and 104 draws in favor of Kasparov whose reign went from 1985-2000.

Vladimir Kramnik won the 14th World Championship title in London and successfully blunted Kasparov's razor sharp play while creating positions that were more toward his style. Kasparov's mother was ill at the time, and Kasparov seemed uncharacteristically distant during the match. Kramnik later lost his Championship title to Vishwanathan Anand who held the title until 2013.

Anand's style growing up was tactical and he was considered one of the greatest rapid chess players of his generation. After winning the championship, his style became less fiery and he became more of a match player which requires more opening preparation and allows for more draws. One win and drawn games for the rest equals a won match. A player focused on winning tournaments must accumulate a number of wins. Accepting draws is more likely to put a player more toward the middle of the pack.

At age 43, which is considered old for professional chess players, Anand has been slowing down. He was the considerable underdog in the match with the young and energetic Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. When making predictions, pundits would mention Anand's considerable match experience so as not to seem excessively one-sided, but everyone in the chess world thought the match would be Carlsen's to lose.

Magnus Carlsen is the best player and world champion. The face of chess is changing. 20-somethings have begun to take over the top spots with the American Hikaru Nakamura, Italian Fabiano Caruana, and Dutchman Anish Giri. Opinionated tweets are pervasive. This is a far cry from the sixty years of zipped lips by Soviet players who know not to rustle any feathers. Not only are the top players swapping out for the young and daring, there may be a changing of the guard in chess politics.

Look for Kasparov's candidacy for the Presidency of the International Chess Federation. If Kasparov wins, he will start a revolution in the chess world like you've never see before. Grab that chess set hiding in your dusty attic and give me a holler, it's your move!


  1. I hail from Chennai and live in the neighbourhood of Anand.

    I agree with your comment in Huffington - the major singular reason why Anand lost was that he had to play in his "home" town (he almost never played in India and lives mostly in Spain).

    However, he is too good natured to grumble about it!

    - Siva

  2. I agree about Anand's good nature and that in public, he won't mention the pressure of the hometown crowd getting to him. His Indian fans would flip out if he complained about the match being in India.

    I think Vishy felt burdened by being the World Champion with the extra attention on him. His chess games in the last year reflects this. If he remains on the chess circuit, we may see his play become more lively as we did with Kramnik after he lost his title. Anand used to be exciting to watch with his screaming tactics and fast-paced play. I hope we get back the old Anand!

  3. The pressure on Anand was massive.

    It was clear that he would have to play at his peak capability, when meeting a challenger that was the highest ranked ever. There was even a sense of not being the favorite, in spite of holding the title. This would've been more than enough pressure, without the added weight of not disappointing the home audience.

    I saw a press conference where Anand apologized to the Indian people for losing. There may be cultural differences that makes that less extraordinary than it would be in the in the West. Still, it must be crushing to not only loose the title, but also have the sense of having failed one's country.

    I can certainly imagine that the match would've been closer without it. On the other hand, we shouldn't underestimate Anand; he's handled his nerves well enough in plenty of matches before this. Maybe it had no effect. What's for sure is that we'll never know.

    Even cheering for Carlsen, I wouldn't have minded if they'd had to go the full 12 games to settle the match.

    1. I agree with you - technically, Carslen had a clear edge over Anand.

      However, (as I commented above and as a direct spectator), I strongly feel that if the match had been played outside India, it would not have been so one-sided and certainly would have propelled upto 12 games.

      - Siva