Renaissance or Dead-Cat Bounce?

During the Carlsen – Anand match in November 2013, Sachin Tendulkar played his last cricket match (sandwiched in-between Anand’s losses in games 5 and 6, a bad set of days for Indian sports!). That prompted – by way of a NY Times article about how Tendulkar was selfish (!) for playing for so long – an article on tennis.com relating how reading that got him thinking about Federer and his possible retirement.

[NB: Having wasted some of my time reading that opinion piece on Tendulkar, feel free to skip it and just look at the Federer one.]

I can follow cricket reasonably well, but I’ve never been a real fan of the game. I am however a big tennis and chess fan, so while reading Tignor’s tennis article, I couldn’t help but think about Anand’s decline.

Sachin Fed and Anand

Anand is one of the few players whose games I studied specifically growing up. When I was just starting out, I pretty much exclusively studied Morphy and Capablanca games. It remained all about Capablanca for the next 3-4 years before Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games and Bronstein’s Zurich 1953 were added to the mix in the mid-late 90s. Then Anand’s book of best games came out in 1998, and I went through that a few times. That pretty much covers all the players/tournaments whose games I looked at systematically.

(And yes, I know much less about great players across the decades than I probably should, but that’s not the point. I’ve bought a great many books to correct this, but they have been sitting around for a while and will likely have to wait some more …)

Meanwhile, I grew up playing some tennis and watching some of the big matches on TV, but it wasn’t until I went to college in 2002 that I started playing much more and following events much more closely. There were many great players to watch, but Federer was the one who I followed the closest. So Anand and Federer have been the two players I’ve followed most closely across the two games.

Getting back to the two articles linked above, Tendulkar dropped from being arguably the greatest active batsman to just above average these last few years. Federer went through a pretty dismal 2013 by his standards, dropping all the way to #8 in the world and winning only one, relatively minor, event. While Anand isn’t quite the legend at chess that Tendulkar and Federer are in their relative spheres of influence, the list of World Champions is a short one so I’ll take the liberty of connecting the dots.

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Shock and Awe

The Candidates tourney really snuck up on me this year – for the first time since starting this blog, I didn’t manage to get off a set of proper predictions for such a major event!

Through three rounds, I’m quite happy with the standings even though they’re not at all what I would have expected:

(1) Anand: 2.5

(2-3) Kramnik, Svidler 2

(4-5) Topalov, Aronian 1.5

(6-7) Andreikin, Karjakin 1

(8) Mamedyarov 0.5

I wrote earlier that I didn’t have high hopes for Anand in this event. Even after a very nice win in Game 1 against Aronian, I was hesitant to say that the tournament would go well. And while I’m still not entirely convinced that he’s back to 2008 form, the subsequent two games against Topalov and Mamedyarov suggest that he’s at least in good form. I guess you could say I’m cautiously optimistic …

These two wins don’t seem to me to be due to opening preparation – rather, he’s taken what his opponents are giving him and playing simple, strong moves. His pieces are flowing across the board.

For example, in his game with Aronian, they reached the following endgame position:

Anand - Aronian Candidates 2014

(FEN: 4r1k1/1bp2pp1/p4n1p/1p2r3/8/1BP1B2P/PP3PP1/R2R2K1 w - - 0 23)

With straightforward but forceful moves, the pressure was ratcheted up after 23.c4! c6 24.Rac1 R5e7 25.a4!. After some exchanges and a few improving moves, the following position was seen:

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Testing the Play Magnus App

A few days back, the Play Magnus app was released for Apple iOS. I got to test this app out at the dinner event back in mid-January and got one practice game in to the engine (a loss) before my game with Magnus (leaving me 0-2 on the night in blitz chess).

The app includes an engine, videos, and a “golden ticket” like drawing that are all geared towards building his brand. The engine is what I’ve used it for so far – it’s meant to try and mimic his strength, style, and opening choices at various ages which is a pretty cool idea if it’s pulled off.

I’ve stuck to playing ages 12 – 14, and the opening choices do change dramatically by age while the engine does go up in strength. It seems to take more and more (unfounded) tactical risks at the younger ages, so I’ve beaten it consistently at age 12. I haven’t had quite as much luck when moving up the ladder – I’m stuck at 50% in a bunch of games against age-13 and scoreless in just a couple games against age-14. Of course, as many of the articles talking about the app release state, he lost to “himself” a couple times at age 14 (for example, this one at ChessVibes), so I don’t feel too bad yet.

One of those losses must have come around the time of his Bay Area visit – in talking to Anders Brandt (the tallest person in the picture below), he mentioned that Magnus lost at 14.

IMG_0650

(l-r: Espen Agdestein, me [while struggling to survive], Anders Brandt; photo by Charlotte Fiorito)

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Some Self Promotion … and Predictions Gone Wrong

These are relatively old news now, but I was planning to post them here, so I’ll stick with that. They are two similar articles, one published in the Kasargod daily Uttaradesha (the district in which my paternal grandparents live) and the other (the scanned image below) published in Havyaka Varthe, a Mangalore (a bigger city, a bit north of Kasargod) publication.

Interview in Uttaradesha

Interview in Havyaka Varthe

The interview was conducted by my uncle (Chandrashekhar Bhat) when I was in India in late November/early December 2013, maybe a week after the end of the Anand-Carlsen match.

As I’ve written here before, I said then that I thought Anand would likely skip the Candidates and largely retire from active play in 2014. I was definitely wrong about the Candidates, and for the moment, it looks like I’m wrong on the active play part too!

I’m hoping he does well in the soon-to-be-starting Candidates, but I still can’t say that I have high hopes … A middle of the pack finish is what I’d expect for now.

The Tale of the Tape

Yesterday I posted the game with some notes, today (after hours of uploading), I managed to get one of the videos onto YouTube.

Here it is, in all its hand-held glory (by the way, credit goes to my friend Dan Zaelit who took the video with my phone):

(youtube link is here)

There’s another version out there too (taken by my friend Ashraf), as well as shorter clips floating around on Facebook.

Looking at the video now, it’s interesting to see how expressive Magnus is during the game. It looks to me like he thought things would be simpler early on, but then became increasingly concerned as the game wore on until he was finally able to smile at the very end.

One other thing I realized from the bughouse and blitz games (and this was confirmed in between the two by his team), is that Magnus is ultra-competitive and hates losing even a casual game.

Apparently, he had lost a casual game against a computer a couple days prior and he was still sore about it at this event. Magnus overheard that little comment to me and shot a glare in our direction.

Anyway, this was a pretty memorable game and the dinner wasn’t bad afterwards either! I’ve met Karpov, Kasparov, and Anand (in that order), but of those 3, Anand is the only one who I’ve exchanged even more than just a couple words with, and I’ve never played a game against any of them.

Before Magnus then, the closest I came to playing a World Champion was a casual game against David Bronstein in the early 1990s (he was just under 70 years old, while I was about 9). Maybe at some point I’ll post that game, but it got ugly in a hurry. The Max Lange Attack doesn’t cut it against people of that class!

Moral and Not So Moral Victories

Amazingly, it’s been almost 3 weeks since World Champion Magnus Carlsen visited the Bay Area. I’ve been meaning to write about meeting and playing some chess with him, but somehow I hadn’t quite found the time until today.

I had seen Magnus before (for example in Mainz 2008), but we had never really met or spoken. The occasion this time was a dinner at Joe Lonsdale Jr’s house in Woodside (attended by about 30 people). When we shook hands, he shocked me immediately when he said that he reads this blog on occasion, although he admitted he used to read it more when I was playing regularly!

He also told me about how he first heard about me, after a game of mine against GM Wang Yue from China in 2002 showed up in New In Chess. It was a Bb5+ Sicilian where he remembered some nice tactical sequences I used, but also that I didn’t manage to win from a much better position. The game can be found on chessgames here and the sequence he described starts with 15.a5!, the point being that if 16…Re8, then 17.Nab5! will lead to the queen being trapped.

After chatting for a bit (and being floored by the fact that the World Champion was telling me about how he heard about me, not the other way around), we played a game of bughouse, but not against each other. We were partnered with players around 1500 or so, and while both of us were winning our games, I dominated my side a couple minutes sooner and so we beat Magnus and his partner. The only drama for me was when they would give up the ghost.

Soon after, I got to play Magnus a blitz game, 5 minutes per side. I got the white pieces and had to make my first real decision as early as move 5:

Bhat - Carlsen 1

(FEN: rn1qkb1r/p1pp1ppp/bp2pn2/8/2PP4/5NP1/PP2PP1P/RNBQKB1R w KQkq - 0 5)

Depending on the opponent, I’ve switched between 3.Nc3 allowing a Nimzo and 3.Nf3. And against the Queen’s Indian, I’ve played a bunch of moves in this position, but it’s been at least 1.5 years since I last looked at anything here. So naturally, instead of any one of the moves I’ve played before (5.Qa4, 5.Qb3, and 5.Qc2), I decided to play 5.b3.

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Time and Tide Wait for No Man

The Anand-Carlsen match is well in the books, and while I was in India for the tail end of the match, I didn’t have much internet time to be writing blog posts. With a couple weeks passing since I came back (Happy Festivus! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year, soon enough! yada yada yada …), these aren’t terribly timely, but I wanted to share a couple thoughts on the match and the aftermath.

I suspected after Game 6 in a Berlin that Anand’s strategy was to try and hold the balance for as long as he could (and maybe hope that Magnus would falter under psychological pressure), but it was only during the 8th game that I was certain of that. By playing the Berlin as Black in game 8 down 2 points, it finally became clear to me that Anand had planned for this match completely differently than I had expected.

While in the Kramnik and Topalov matches he made a conscious effort to target his opponent’s relative weaknesses (concrete play and strategic play at virtually any cost, respectively), he decided to work on his endurance and play in equal positions for this match – in other words, try to meet Magnus’s strength head-on in this one. That approach failed miserably this time.

Of course, when he did finally take the gloves off in Game 9, he lost thanks to yet another bad blunder in an objectively equal position, but that style of play was more of what I was expecting and that was the only time he got any advantage as White. So I’d like to say I was right, but if he was still going to make those kinds of blunders, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

There’s some question about whether he’ll play in the Candidates in March 2014. In an interview with an Indian paper just after the match, I said I thought he’d retire from active play in 2014 (for now, he’s only got Zurich on the calendar in February 2014) and I’m sticking with that. He’s still talking a good game, but I think he’ll back out before the late-January deadline and give Caruana a way into the event.

As for why? I think there are a multitude of reasons, one of which is that he is a realist about his slide in form, so he doesn’t seem to have the requisite foolish pride to try and make one last run at it. And among the many other reasons, losing hurts. Real bad.

I’m currently reading Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open, and the first chapter (“The End”) is both amazing in itself and also extremely relatable for a professional chessplayer in many ways (maybe more on this later).

“Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close.”