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.

The rest of the interview is also on-point: the questions are very relevant, and the answers are pretty thoughtful and without a lot of fluff. There also isn’t a lot of angst there, which stands in contrast to how Magnus described both Kramnik and Anand in various post-tournament interviews.

Magnus described Kramnik as having been more lucky (I imagine he was talking about the Grischuk game, which indeed was quite lucky, but he seemed to forget both his Radjabov games for example) and as having played worse chess (before their losses in the last round, Kramnik was worse for only one move against Gelfand — Carlsen had lost one, was lost against Radjabov, and clearly worse against Kramnik). Clearly, I don’t really agree with either of those claims – the only one I do agree with is that Kramnik obviously didn’t do enough with some of the advantages he achieved, and that’s something he will kick himself about I imagine.

And about Anand, someone he had singled out for praise in the recent past (going so far as to say that amongst the other top players at their best, Anand was the best of the bunch), he set out some battle lines. I can only hope that Anand continues to right the ship prior to that match, which could then be a pretty amazing clash.

Another interesting tidbit that came up was an issue that I mentioned a few weeks ago in general about these sorts of double round-robins: Magnus will be inclined to “just” draw with Aronian and Kramnik because if they all draw with each other, then he’s relatively more favored versus the rest of the field. While Magnus didn’t say he was only trying to draw with them, he did say he didn’t bother preparing anything special for them and only specifically prepared for the others. On the one hand, it’s another example of just how strong a practical player he is to have drawn with Black, but he also didn’t come close to pressing in either game with White. But of course the entire format promotes that sort of behavior, and this was his preferred format to the match cycle from 2011 where he withdrew suddenly …

Finally, if you’ve made it this far, I’ll briefly point to a Gelfand interview after winning the Candidates in 2011 where he poses a question: “Who plays better, Ivanchuk in good form or Carlsen?” From the interview, his own answer is clear, and it’s an answer that some others including Kasparov ascribe to: Ivanchuk. (I’m less sure myself, but I think it’s an open question, and even more amusing given this Candidates event.)

8 responses to “Picking up the Pieces

  1. 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”?

  2. You probably know that I’m not a fan of absolutes, but I do think there’s some truth in that. I doubt I’d have said that a couple years ago when he first got to #1, but his style has definitely changed since then.

    I can’t really think of any new chess concept that he’s brought to the table recently – looking back at the previous few #1s, Kramnik and Anand have brought a number of opening ideas while Topalov brought a new sort of energy to the opening/middlegame with a plethora of new pawn and exchange sacrifices. Am I missing some big new concept Carlsen has introduced?

  3. I say this as a <2000 player, but my impression of Carlsen is that he gets ahead by just doing everything phenomenally well. (Other than, perhaps, openings.) Better positional intuition, better endgame mechanics, better stamina, etc. But at this point at least he certainly doesn't seem to be interested in striving for Kramnik-style theoretical innovation or anything like that. It would be interesting to see the results if he were to try

  4. Yeah, I think his main strength is that he does almost everything very well in a practical setting (he once said that having preferences meant having weaknesses).

    I’m not sure he’d be the absolute best in any one of those areas, but being very near the best in all those facets, coupled with more stamina and an iron will, make him the top-rated played by far.

    Still … if him and Kramnik were to play a match in the near future, I would put solid money on Kramnik. I’d have done that before the Candidates, and I didn’t see anything in London to change my mind.

  5. As an ‘old’ player (40) and a longtime chess fan, I do think that Carlsen has brought an entirely new concept in the chess world : that you can be a top player without striving to win the game in the opening phase. It’s still possible to outplay the chess giants in middlegame and strategic endgames, provided you pick lines where there’s enough play left to do it… Who has played like this in the last 10 years ?

    In my eyes, this is a fresh and new paradigm.

  6. Hmm, it’s true that in the last 10 years, there hasn’t been anybody quite like that who reached #1 – Morozevich very briefly was #1 on the live list, but I wouldn’t count him as a clear comparable. If you went back to Karpov though, I think Magnus has clearly modeled himself in the same vein now.

    Even within a decade though, you point out that he needs the opening phase to get his chances, so it’s not as if he’s ignored it completely. I’m not buying that working a little less on a phase constitutes some new chess paradigm, and I don’t think he’s working any harder to bring some new method to the middlegame or endgame.

    Essentially, there’s essentially been 4 top players before Magnus in the last 10 years: Kasparov, Topalov, Anand, and Kramnik. The first 3 share the same paradigm, although they each extended it in their own ways; with Kramnik, he’s introduced a totally different type of position through the popularization of queenless middlegames.

    But like Karpov, Magnus just wants to win. And to win – like Karpov – he just wants to make more good moves than his opponent. To me, it’s much less of new a chess paradigm than a revised sporting paradigm.

  7. Maybe you can compare his philosophy and approach to the game to Karpov’s, but he is the only one to do it in the computer age, and using a large array of different openings. I don’t think he doesn’t prepare his openings (I’m sure he does), but he uses them in a different way (not looking for an objective advantage, or to catch his opponents in opening traps).

    This approach reminds me of what Kiril Georgiev and Lars Bo Hansen wrote about in their books (Squeezing the Gambits and Improve your chess… resp.), ie. that some GMs are heading for some king of strategic middlegames to eschew any computer preparation. I think Carlsen embodies this trend in the computer age (Karpov couldn’t score many wins against the computer generation with his style of play after Linares if I’m not mistaken).

    Moro is more of an opening innovator than Carlsen I think (Slav, Chigorin…)

  8. Pingback: Musings on a Chess Style: A Winner Just Wins | There and Back Again

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