Monthly Archives: April 2013

Musings on a Chess Style: A Winner Just Wins

“His deep, infiltrating style, subtle positional feeling, and extraordinary persistence, practicality, and flexibility rapidly raised him to the very summit of chess … [He] was not a researcher in the openings and he did not work so much on chess, but he was very skillful at selecting and absorbing new ideas, and then making brilliant use of them in practice …”

There was an interesting discussion in the comments of my last post, brought about by the question (from a certain Unshod fellow): “What do you think of the increasingly repeated claim that Carlsen wins by being more consistent, and a tougher fighter, but brings no new chess ‘ideas’?” There was a short discussion there, but basically, I wanted to take that discussion out of the comments because it deserves its own post I think.

First things first, my general response to the question …

As I said in those comments, I think it’s too much to say he has brought no new chess ideas forward, but I do think his style has taken a clear turn over the past few years towards the “more consistent, tougher fighter” approach. (As a very rough measure, you can see how his average game length has simply gotten longer over the past couple years, moving up from about 40 moves to 49 per game.)

Now for the actual details …

His goal is simply to win games. How can you win games at that level? Every game starts with the opening phase, so in a way, you can think of a continuum with two extremes. On the one hand, you can do only the minimum amount of opening work (this extreme can’t be to absolutely ignore the opening, as then you’ll simply never get close to the top to begin with), try to get a normal position, and make more good moves than your opponent. If you blunder (or even slightly err) less often, you might be able to accumulate enough advantages to win. At the other end of the spectrum, you work through a repertoire as deeply as you can, to essentially claim an advantage as often as possible. Despite starting the middlegame ahead, you still need to play good moves, but you might be able to get by with a few more small mistakes and still have enough to win.

His chessic contribution seems to be that he’s been the first top player in the last few years to fully make this move to the former – it’s a more practical style, eschewing the deep opening study and innovations that characterized every top player from Kasparov on. However, he was not the first to start moving in this direction.

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Picking up the Pieces

“Cause Jacob’s golden ladder
Gets slippery at the top
And many a happy-go-lucky saint
Has made that long, long drop”

– Jesse Winchester, Step by Step

For whatever reason, those lyrics popped into my head for the finish of the Candidates Tournament. (The full song can be heard here, it really doesn’t have anything to do with this, but that snippet seemed vaguely appropriate.)

[Another aside – I originally started writing this last week, but didn’t get around to finishing it. Instead of shelving a half-done entry like I’ve done so many times, I’ll just force this one out the door.]

If you’re reading this, you probably know how the tournament ended – Carlsen and Kramnik both lost in shocking fashion, and due to the precedence of certain mathematical tiebreaks, Carlsen automatically advanced to the title match with Anand.

As I’ve written here before, I was hoping Carlsen or Aronian would win the tournament. And this was easily the most exciting tournament I’ve ever watched (the only other chess event that compares for me was the rapid playoff between Anand and Gelfand). The quality of play in this Candidates was spotty, but the drama was off the charts (and maybe each likely leads to the other?!). But given how Carlsen ended up qualifying, I’m somewhat disappointed by the whole thing.

Anand’s interview (published at Indian Express), one that has been making the rounds now on some major chess sites, puts it well – it’s fair, as the rules were laid out in advance and everybody knew them, but it’s less than ideal. There are definitely some who confuse those two – the fact the tiebreaks were written down, agreed to, and followed makes it fair in a legal sense, but that doesn’t mean the chosen tiebreaks were good. And I imagine that whenever the next similar event takes place, that part will get a little more attention and be modified.

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