November 11, 2013

World Championship - Shenanigans at the start

Carlsen is the huge favorite to beat the current world chess champion. Magnus Carlsen is a 22-year-old Norwegian who has the highest chess rating of all time. He is so much better than the rest of the top chess players in the world that he is expected to win every tournament he plays in. He rarely disappoints.

Does Magnus have the fight in him to become world champion?
The reigning world champion is Indian Vishwanathan Anand who has extensive match experience, something that Carlsen lacks. Vishy Anand is 43 years old which is considered a huge disadvantage in a game which is completely dominated by players in their 20s and 30s. Above age 40 is considered over the hill, and many players decline in playing strength. Anand has been no exception.

The current match will be in Anand's hometown of Chennai, India which is a blessing and a curse. Though it's nice to have the crowd on your side and be used to the food and weather conditions, the added pressure of playing on his own turf may make Anand's task more difficult. The expectations of the chess world are that Magnus will win the world championship due to his superior playing ability, but that Anand will not make it easy.

Game 1:
Carlsen got the white pieces which is considered an advantage. He is not an opening specialist. He prefers to get a playable middlegame and slowly improve his position until he can convert to a winning endgame. Carlsen's ability to win games that appear equal is why he is such a feared opponent.

Both players have been preparing for the world championship match for six months. They have had ample time to experiment with opening lines and thoroughly analyze their ideas to death with a computer. With databases of all of the professional chess games in modern history, it is possible to seek new ideas and determine what opening lines will get their opponent in uncomfortable positions. At the top level of chess, every tiny advantage counts because the players make very few major mistakes.

Once strong computers came into the picture in chess, the goal for professionals has been to get an advantage in the opening which they can then exploit in the later stages of the game. Carlsen is of a different era. Along with current #4 in the world, the 25-year-old American named Hikaru Nakamura, Carlsen just wants a playable middlegame. Though the older generation puts a great deal of emphasis on the opening, the young bucks just want to play chess. They can play any opening and will figure out what's going on in the position when it hits the board.

In the first game, Carlsen developed his pieces uninspiringly and Anand got a tiny edge. Anand played a move allowing a three-move repetition and Carlsen decided to accept the implied draw offer. This is not such a surprising result for the game. However, the game was drawn on move 16. This is insulting to chess fans. Imagine you pay for a ticket to the heavy-weight championship of the world, and the bout is over in 30 seconds in the first round. This feeling of not getting your money's worth is what chess players feel about the first game of the match. Anand won a moral victory in the first game with the draw.

Carlsen showed no serious opening preparation and Anand took a draw with a miniscule advantage. The game had hardly begun. In a twelve-game match, the first couple of rounds are psychologically important. Carlsen essentially put off the beginning of the match until the second round. Hopefully he has now gotten rid of the butterflies and is ready to play. If this is the way he plays for the rest of the match, he will be called a sissy and will lose our respect.

Game 2:
Yesterday was a moral victory for Anand, today was a moral victory for Carlsen. This is chess. In a world of tiny advantages, a psychological edge can make all the difference. Again, we saw a short draw. Little happened on the board to tittilate chess fans. Carlsen played a variation of the Caro Kann that can lead to wild play which surprised Anand. Tactical slugfests are better for Anand as it fits his style more than it does Carlsen's quiet, probing style. However, the surprise factor was enough to unbalance Vishy and he was happy to draw and postpone the action for another game.

For important chess matches, professional players hire assistants called "seconds" who help them prepare their openings. In the press conference before the match began, Anand revealed the names of his team of Grandmasters working in his lab. Carlsen decided to keep the identity of his team a secret. Chess psychology has been deeply influenced by the paranoia of the Soviet Union which dominated chess for the 20th century. Anand decided to show his hand and though we can never entirely get into the head of his team, there are many possible reasons:

(1) Any extra information can affect Carlsen's choices in the match. If one of Anand's seconds is an expert in specific openings, Carlsen's team may choose to avoid certain lines. This can add confusion to the already difficult task of determining what openings will surprise the opponent.
(2) Chess psychology is like poker, Anand's choosing to reveal his team may have been an attempt to get Magnus to do the same. It didn't work.
(3) Anand has a wealth of experience putting together teams of seconds for his matches. The intention of sharing the names of his team with Carlsen may have been for intimidation.
(4) Anand is just a nice guy and has nothing to hide.

The media has not made claims as to who is on Carlsen's team. Carlsen is the strong favorite in the match and any Grandmaster would line up to be associated with Carlsen. They don't only get the chance to be on the team of the probable new champion, but they get a window into the mind of world's number one.

Magnus, if you need someone to give you the perspective of your fans, let me know. I'd be happy to join your team... I'll even work for free!

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