If you have been foolish enough to read some of my other posts on this blog, you might have realized that I am pretty fond on making unrelated references anywhere and anytime.
And if you expected this side of me to escalate on the brink of another historic chess event, you got it right. Because as the date of the match inevitably approaches (this time Friday the 11th will be unlucky for one player; although one can argue that considering the results of American presidential elections Wednesday the 9th can be considered unlucky for us all.. but let’s not get into that) I cannot decide whether Theoden’s „So it begins“ from Lord of the Rings, or Demon Hunter’s „The time has come“ from Warcraft III better depicts how I feel at the moment.
Okay, but enough with the nerd stuff, let’s stick to CHESS.
Two years after Magnus successfully defended his title against Anand in Sochi, „The Mozart of Chess“ is again back in action. On the eve of the battle the chess public is „buzzing like a beehive“ and trying to predict the course of the match, the opening choices and naturally, the winner.
My first thoughts about how to approach the pre-match analysis went with the traditional – give statistical data -> analyse openings and past encounters -> give the conclusion – pattern.
However, just as I was opening my word it struck me that actually I have read an excellent preview with a similar approach. It was written by a very strong GM, but more importantly, by Carlsen’s close friend, and second for a long time, Jon Ludvig Hammer. Make sure you check it out if you haven’t already.
And although that preview is somewhat biased (but to be honest that was to be expected), I had no illusions that I can be more deep than a GM in chess sense, or more insightful then Carlsen’s friend on a psychological basis. So I concluded that I should rather consider an alternative approach. And then it struck me that it might be interesting to analyse the match a bit from historical viewpoint, as Hammer didn’t put this match in perspective with past matches for the crown.
However, just as I was smiling like a lunatic while starting the paragraph with the same old „David versus Goliath“ reference, the mailman rang and brought me the newest edition of the New in Chess magazine (New in chess 2016/7). As I rushed to open it I read the magazine’s pre-match analysis, and found with horror that Sergey Shipov has already very much compared this match with past encounters like Alekhine – Capablanca or Kasparov – Kramnik clash.
And although Shipov’s preview is also biased (bear in mind that Shipov is Russian and that he has known Karjakin for quite a long time; in the article he refers about playing games with the Karjakin when the latter was already a very experienced grandmaster at the age of 14), it is an extremely interesting read and it complements itself greatly with the aforementioned Hammer’s analysis.
So after going through typical phases of anger, depression and resignation, instead of trying to „invent the hot water“ (Croatian expression), I decided to pinpoint a couple of key points already examined by Hammer and Shipov, while simultaneously adding my own thoughts and viewpoints in the process.
When comparing strengths of various players, the first thing that chess players usually jump to is naturally the FIDE Elo rating.
Without dwelving too deeply into discussion about Elo system (which would take hundreds of pages most probably), I think that ELO rating is pretty relevant, but not neccessarily absolutely correct indicator of a playing strength.
When we would look exclusively at this number, there would be no doubts nor intrigue about the match result. Carlsen, whose current rating is 2852 is undisputed number one in the world and rated precisely 81 rating points above Karjakin, who „barely“ makes it the world top 10 with his 2772 points.
Such a rating difference gives Carlsen an expected score of 0.6131 (for definition of expected sore check the wikipedia link; one way (but not the only one) of interpreting this number is that Carlsen has 61.31% of winning the match, 38.69% of losing (and also 0% of drawing) a single game).
When you couple the Elo rating difference together with their pre-match head to head score (which is currently 4 wins, 1 loss and 16 draws in classical games in favour of Carlsen), it is easy to understand why almost complete unanimity in predictions is apparent; even the most fervent Karjakin’s supports dare to say that he, at best, „has some chances.“
However, when considering statistics and numbers caution is neccessary (remember Mark Twain’s memorable quote, for instance), because I think that both these factors, and especially rating difference, tell itself in tournaments more than in matches. The best arguments for this claim come from considering past matches.
I will give two examples: in year 2000 Kasparov won ten major tournaments in a row and was rated 78 rating points above Kramnik (the numbers 2849 and 2772 are indicatively close to Carlsen’s and Karjakin’s ratings today). The outcome is well known and Kramnik won the match, even with relative ease.
Even more recent, and to my mind more surprising example is the 2012 Anand – Gelfand match. Expectations were that Anand, who was number four in the world and rated 2791 will sweep the floor with Gelfand, who was number twenty and rated 2727 (a 64 rating difference), and in the end of his active career (although he is only one year older than Anand). The outcome – Anand prevailed on tiebreak after hanging on a thread after losing game seven and recovering miraculously because of analytical error by Gelfand in game eight which resulted in the shortest loss in the world championship history (a mere 18 moves).
Furthermore, considering the past head to head is also very double edged. I will quote the best known example: Alekhine has never beatean Capabalnca prior to their 1927 Buenos Aires match and was considered a massive underdog, yet he went on to win the match more or less convincingly (sorry to all Capablanca fans, but my heart is more on the Alekhine side).
Okay, someone may merely shrugg his shoulders upon reading all this and say that I quoted only examples where the challenger surprisingly won and omitted all those instances where champion was expected to win and actually managed to do so. And since surprises in sport happen very rarely, why should this match be different?
Now, I am not claiming 100% that surprise will happen (if I was able to do so I would be now spending millions I earned on sport betting somewhere on the yacht in Dan Bilzerian style), but I think that Karjakin’s chances shouldn’t be underestimated (like for instance GM Robert Hess did in this article.
What is the basis for such an evaluation. Even without considering the psychological factors (which will be debated a bit later), I think that in two particular chess aspects Karjakin might pose some problems for Carlsen:
It has been known for quite same time that if one would have to choose Magnus’ weakest point (or the least strong), that would definitely have to be the opening. Almost everybody „knows“ that the World Champion often tends to play offbeat variations and surprise his opponents, everything in the aim of getting a playable position and then outplaying the opponent in the middlegame (or endgame).
There were some instances where he experienced serious difficulties right out of the opening. From the top of my head I can recall for instance his game against Hikaru Nakamura in Zurich in 2014.
The next example is even more relevant since it was played in the World Championship match and was Anand’s first and only win against Carlsen in the two matches they played. This game is significant because Anand basically didn’t make a single move on his own of the board, but merely followed his preparation up untill the point where task of converting the advantage wasn’t too difficult (if you missed the Hammer’s article earlier, the game with his annotations is available there .
It will be very different to see how the opening battle in this match will unfold, but I think there is no doubt that Karjakin has the potential to be extremely dangerous. This assumption is based on two factors:
- Through the course of the Candidates tournament Karjakin displayed excellent preparation
- Russia, as a crib of the modern chess, hasn’t had a World Champion for quite some time and it is expected that Karjakin will have full support from his second homeland. It is true that the times of Brezhnev when everyone had to send analysis to Karpov are gone, but this support manifests itself in the fact that Karjakin has assembled very impressive team prior to this match. Confirmed members are:
- Vladimir Potkin
- Alexander Motylev
- Yuri Dokhoian
- Shakhriyah Mamedyarov
The first three are considered to be leading Russian chess trainers (the last one was Kasparov’s personal second for quite some time), and „Shark“ is currently number eleven in the world.
As Hammer nicely pointed out, Carlsen has a tendency to surprise his opponents and his repertoire is quite unpredictable, but with such a versatile team it is to be expected that broad variety of openings will be deeply examined.
Carlsen hasn’t announced his team yet, but we can be sure that both player’s Skype accounts are in full swing these days and that there will be valuable theoretical discussion int he opening.
The most heated discussion before the match revolved around Karjakin’s capability to defend tenaciously in inferior positions and speculation whether Carlsen will be able to breach his defences.
However this time it is not a mere rumour that originates from hyped chess public; on the pre match conference even Carlsen admitted he is aware that defense is Karjakin’s strong point.
I think that this chess trait is something very well suited for the match style format. The old saying that goes : „Attack wins games, defence championships“ can pretty much be applied here as well. The Kasparov – Kramnik match, where Kramnik frustrated Garry’s White pieces with the ever so dull Berlin defence, proved that neutralizing opponent’s White pieces and holding inferior positions is a good starting point for an overall match success.
I think that this chess trait is also something that distinguishes Karjakin from the previous challenger. If you ignore the pyschological aspect for now (which also played considerable role with Anand facing Magnus), the constant need to defend inferior positions proved to be a taks that Anand was unable to cope with. Magnus has incredible ability to create problems for his opponents where many other players would sign the score sheet, and it is no accident that most of his wins in matches against Anand resulted in games where queen exchange was involved. Because „Tiger from Madras“ is someone who excels first and foremostly in tactical play (although every top GM is more or less universal player he still has a preference for certain tipe of positions).
My expectation is that defense of such positions is something that Karjakin the „Siberian Tiger“ (I am really proud i came up with this one) will do more successfully and it is interesting to see how will Carslen alter his play in case that his usual approach doesn’t go as well as planned.
Not only in chess sense, but also in psychological aspect, which I will analyze a bit in the next part of the post.
It is already very well established that this time a completely different match awaits Magnus. Some chess arguments about that statement were already provided. However, i think that apart from pure playing strength, psychological factors will be even slightly more important for the course and the final outcome of the match.
I will try briefly here to speculate about few psychological factors that i consider particularly interesting and important (although i may as well, „miss the whole footbal“, as our very friendly Serbian nations uses to say. Considering the state of their foot… Uhm… Psychological factors…):
From my viewpoint the challenger’s motivation represents one of the greatest difference compared to previous matches.
Simply because I think that Karjakin will be much more motivated and “hungry” for victory than Anand ever was.
Now, don’t get me wrong, in no way I wish to belittle Anand as a player; i have full and utmost respect to his career and accomplishments.
However, I think there is no denying that facing the 43 year old champion who has already reigned the chess world for quite a long time is quite different then facing a very young former prodigy that has never sat on the throne and who is very motivated to prove himself.
I remember reading an interview with Sergey immediately after the Candidates in which he stated that he expected to become the World Champion before he turned 19 (I can’t find the article again, so I might be mistaken about the number, but the point remains valid).
And when you add to that the fact that he has changed his citizenship because of lack of sponsors in Ukraine, you can kinda imagine that he has always felt that he hasn’t had the proper opportunity and that other players have had better prerequisites for success.
When you add to all that the fact that in every World Championship Match the Champion considers it simply as another match, whereas challenger as a “do or die” event, I think that in motivation department scales tip slightly in Karjakin’s favour.
The last paragraph in the motivation part is very significant from complacency aspect as well.
Everybody knows that it is much easier to play when you have no expectations. And I think that Carlsen, as much as the whole chess community, expects to win this match.
Now I know that this sounds silly and that one should always be ambitious, but it is hard to tell whether he is balancing the thin line between clear confidence and overambition and complacency well.
Because if we again look historically, in 2013 in Chennai World Championship match people he was considered the favourite, but everybody was talking about how experienced Vishy was and how it will be harder for Magnus to play the match format. The result is well known, he went on to demolish Vishy and capture the crown convincingly.
However, a year later, when Magnus surely increased his playing strength and Vishy further declined, the match was much closer and Magnus managed to win only with a bit of luck (although I don’t believe in luck in chess in general, there is simply no other way to describe what happened in the famous 6th game, when the result was sitting at 1-1).
Here, White’s last move has been 26 Kd2?? Black could have exploited that immediatelly with 26…Nxe5!!, when 27 Rxg8 Nxc4+ 28 Kd3 Nb2+ followed by 29… Rxg8 leave Black with two pawns more and a won endgame. Anand instead played 26… a4??, and went on to lose.
My personal opinion is that in that match it was very hard for Magnus to approach the match with the same “drive” he had back in 2013. This phenomenon was also described by Kasparov when refering to his 1987 Seville match against Karpov (where, as you recall, he managed to save his title only in the last, 24th game).
Last, but not the least, when talking about chess matchplay it is impossible to avoid talking about the handling the pressure and nerves. Which player has more composure and coper better with the pressure?
Once again, if someone put a gun to my face, I would almost certainly say Karjakin.
To back up this claim with some concrete evidence, I will refer to two two recent events.
The first is the World cup in Baku, when Karjakin was 0-2 against Svidler in the final, only to come back miraculously and take the title on tiebreaks.
Someone might say that merely by playing the final he qualified for the candidates, but I should remind you that there was a considerable amount of money at stake and that both players certainly gave their best.
Now someone may say that there are numerous instances when Magnus “returned from the dead” after starting the tournament badly and that might as well be so. However, in those round robin tournaments there were usually some “easier” players for him, like Erwin L’ami and Loek Van Wely, for instance, so it is easier to bounce back (I don’t mean to degrade those players or Dutch nation, but one can agree that those players don’t belong in the same level with Magnus, although they would demolish the author of these lines blindfoldly).
The other event is naturally the last Candidates. As you will recall, before the last round Karjakin and Caruana had the same number of points, but Karjakin had better tie break coefficients. So he had to draw with White, while Caruana had to win with Black. The players reached this position:
Karjakin, who has already sacrificed a pawn in the process, played the amazing Rxd5!! here, and went on to win. When asked later he simply stated that the sacrifice was not that hard, and that he had to reject Caruana’s draw offer (!!), because he felt obliged to do so.
To me these is a trait of a great player and one that can cope rather successfully with the stress in crucial moments.
As for Magnus, everyone is saying that he doesn’t have problems with the nerves, but people are forgetting that Magnus lost the crucial games of his own 2013 Candidates to Svidler and managed to qualify for World Championship match only because Kramnik overpressed and lost that last round as well.
Also, if one remembers the Tromso Chess Olympiad, Carlsen’s nerves didn’t serve him rather well (luckily for us Croats, since when GM Ivan Šarić beat him chess even made it to the newspaper). At that particular Olympiad I think there was a combination of not being able to motivate himself against lower rated opposition together with uncharacteristic, nervous, out-of-form, play.
Finally, there is the afore-mentioned blunder against Anand in the crucial moment of the match.
Therefore I believe that if Karjakin manages to unsettle Magnus and put him under pressure both in chess and psychological sense, he might have very good chances.
To sum up, although almost throught the whole article I have tried to find arguments against Magnus, I nevertheless consider him the favourite in the match because he simply is the stronger player. Additionally, as I am his great fan (which you might probably not conclude from the article) I expect him to win; yet I would omit the prefix clear before the word favourite. I expect the play to be very accurate, correct and hard fought and that there won’t be a multitude of wins. I would dare to venture that either Carlsen will win with +1 score (1-0 or 2-1 in terms of decisive games), or alternatively that he will prevail in the tiebrak (which also seems like a realistic possibility).
You may note that my „prediction“ can be summed up with the words: „Basically, everything is possible“, which is probably one of the reasons why my sports bet ticket has failed today.
But I think that any prediction will fall in the water once the match starts to unfold, and that untill then we can only speculate and no more.
In the impatient waiting i can only say: