Nakamura’s Miracle

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the highest rated chess tournament in history. It was the Sinquefield Cup, held in St. Louis, MO from August 27 to September 6, 2014. It featured 6 of the top 10 players in the world, including the 23 year-old world champion Magnus Carlsen. Half of the field had ratings over 2800, and, indeed, the average rating of the players was just over 2801. To give some perspective, Garry Kasparov, widely considered the greatest chess player ever, had a peak rating of 2851. That is an astounding 21 points higher than anyone else until Magnus Carlsen. Only 3 active players in the world today have ratings over 2800, and all of them were in St. Louis for the Sinquefield Cup.

And one of these players was having the tournament of his life.

Fabiano Caruana, the world's number 2 chess player as of October 2014

Fabiano Caruana, an Italian player who is now the world’s number 2, was crushing everyone in the tournament. Things like this just don’t happen very often at the highest levels of chess. As chess fans are well aware, draws are the most likely outcome between players who may step out of book after as many as 20 or 25 moves (and yes, that is a lot of moves). In St. Louis, Caruana won his first seven games.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the highest rated chess tournament in history. It was the Sinquefield Cup, held in St. Louis, MO from August 27 to September 6, 2014.

It featured 6 of the top 10 players in the world, including the 23 year-old world champion Magnus Carlsen. Half of the field had ratings over 2800, and, indeed, the average rating of the players was just over 2801. To give some perspective, Garry Kasparov, widely considered the greatest chess player ever, had a peak rating of 2851. That is an astounding 21 points higher than anyone else until Magnus Carlsen. Only 3 active players in the world today have ratings over 2800, and all of them were in St. Louis for the Sinquefield Cup. And one of these players was having the tournament of his life. Fabiano Caruana, the world's number 2 chess player as of October 2014 Fabiano Caruana, an Italian player who is now the world’s number 2, was crushing everyone in the tournament. Things like this just don’t happen very often at the highest levels of chess. As chess fans are well aware, draws are the most likely outcome between players who may step out of book after as many as 20 or 25 moves (and yes, that is a lot of moves). In St. Louis, Caruana won his first seven games. Seven games in a row against elite competition is such a rare accomplishment that you have to go back to Bobby Fischer to find a comparison. In 1971, Fischer won 13 games in a row leading up to the final candidates match to determine who would challenge for the world championship. His victims included top 20 grandmaster Mark Taimanov, top 10 grandmaster Bent Larsen, and former world champion Tigran Petrosian who was then number 3 in the world. From 1970 to 1972 Fischer won 39, drew 21, and lost only 5, all against the best in the world (and that includes game 2 of the world championship match, which Fischer forfeited). Unheard of. Simply unheard of.

Yeah, I never heard of it.
Yeah, I never heard of it.
Is Fabiano Caruana on such a similar hot streak? Who knows? Caruana is currently playing (and winning) at the European Chess Club Cup, but the competition there is not as consistently high. I can say with confidence that Fabiano Caruana’s 8.5/10 score is one of the greatest, if not the greatest tournament victory of all time. You’d have to go to former world champion Anatoly Karpov’s 11/13 performance at the Linares tournament in 1994 to find a comparison. But this post is not about Fabiano Caruana. It’s about the US champion Hikaru Nakamura who was basically having a crap tournament in St. Louis.
Hikaru Nakamura, the top rated player in the United States, October 2014
Hikaru Nakamura, the top rated player in the United States, October 2014
Languishing in last place, Nakamura had 4 draws and 4 losses going into the 9th round in which he was to meet Caruana. Caruana had just had his win streak snapped by Carlsen in the previous round with a draw. But it was a game Caruana probably should have won. So if there ever was a time when you’d expect a one-siding drubbing, this was it. I know from experience how losses can wear on your self-confidence. The anger, the disgust, the contempt…all aimed at yourself for this blunder or that miscalculation. When your head is swirling with putrid emotions, you really cannot play chess well, and getting clobbered over and over is just the thing to do that to you. Remember, chess can break your heart. Well, a one-sided drubbing it turned out to be. [Those unfamiliar with chess algebraic notation should reference this chessboard. Every square has a lower case letter and a number. Note the e4 square in the middle. Pieces are denoted by upper case letters: K=King, Q=Queen, N=Knight, B=Bishop, R=Rook. Pawns are not denoted by letters at all, just the squares to which they move.] algebraicNotation Here’s the game after move 28 for white (Caruana).
28. Kh3 ... Black to move
28. Kh3 … Black to move
According to Grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian’s analysis from Chessbase.com, the position by move 28 is fairly even. But then Nakamura as black begins to find some inaccurate moves. First he plays 28…Rg6, followed by 29. c4 Ne7.
29... Ne7 (Yellow arrow). White is now threatening check along the white arrow.
29… Ne7 (Yellow arrow). White is now threatening check with his rook along the white arrow.
This last move basically allows a check on the back rank. This couldn’t have happened before since the king could have moved to e7 to threaten White’s rook and start blockading White’s passed pawn on e5. But now with his own knight occupying that square, Black has fewer options. Anyway, from that point on Caruana tortured Nakamura. He simply pressured his American opponent by advancing his pawns and his king, and by giving Black less and less breathing room with every move. At one point, Black had to sacrifice a pawn for nothing just to stave off imminent defeat. It got so bad that the commentators for the Sinquefield Cup were predicting Nakamura’s resignation. The computers were giving White an advantage of something like 4 points, which is crushing. No grandmaster should blow such a commanding lead. Indeed, by move 40, White had a forced win. It would involve a counter-intuitive yet elegant sacrifice that most amateurs would never see, let alone consider. Yet for chess grandmasters, finding such moves is their bread and butter. It’s elementary, actually. Here, see if you can find it.
40... Kg7 White to move and crush.
40… Kg7 White to move and crush.
No, I didn’t find it either. White captures the knight with his rook on g6, and then loses his rook when Black recaptures. This is called going down the exchange since a knight is less valuable than a rook, especially in an endgame. So why would White deliberately lose material like this? Well, because he can now march his pawn down the e file to the back rank where it can be promoted to a queen, and there is nothing short of sacrificing his own rook that Black can do to stop it. See for yourself. [pgn height=365 autoplayMode=none] [FEN “8/ppp3k1/r5nR/2p1PKP1/2P4B/8/P1P5/8 w – – 0 40”] 40. Rxg6+ Rxg6 41. e6 Kh7 {The king getting out of the rook’s way to let it defend. Going to the f file to blockade the pawn loses the rook} (41… Kf8 42. Kxg6) 42. e7 Rg8 43. Kf6 Rg6+ 44. Kf7 Rg7+ 45. Ke6 Rg8 46. Kd7 Rg7 47. Kd8 Rg8+ 48. e8Q Rxe8+ 49. Kxe8 {And Black is down a whole piece and completely busted.} [/pgn] At this point, Nakamura could have resigned. No one would have blamed him for it. His position was in shambles…again. Also, considering that he was playing a streaking wunderkind in the middle of a once-in-a-century rampage through the cream of the chess world, yeah…maybe he could have lived to fight another day. I’m sure by move 40 Nakamura was longing for the comforts of home. I’m sure whatever angst he was feeling about his impending defeat was nothing that some Ibuprofen, a tall glass of his favorite beverage, and a watching few Netflix reruns of Breaking Bad on a nice, comfy couch couldn’t cure. I mean, what’s one more loss after you’ve already been handed the big

goose egg 4 times in the same tournament? You get used to losing, really, and then after that it’s not so bad. And the guy who comes in last place still pockets $20,000. So there’s that. losingdemotivator But you see, Hikaru Nakamura didn’t resign. Wunderkind or no, if you’re gonna beat me, I am going to make you work for it every inch of the way. He must have been thinking something like this because he never once stopped fighting. Despite his previous sub-par performances, he never lost faith in himself. He never crumbled under the pressure. And sure enough, Fabiano Caruana missed his elementary win. Short on time, he played bishop to f2 instead, attacking Nakamura’s c pawn but at the same time taking his foot off the gas along the kingside. This allowed Black the time and space to mount sufficient defense to White’s attack. Black started with a check with the knight on e7, and then began threatening white’s pawns on the queenside with his rook.

40... Ne7+ 41. Ke4 Ra4 (Attacking 2 white pawns and pinning one of them to the white king.
40… Ne7+ 41. Ke4 Ra4 (Attacking both pawns and pinning one of them to the white king.
Despite White’s brutal onslaught on the king’s side (a rook, 2 pawns, and his king vs. Black’s undefended king), Nakamura was able to gobble up two pawns, exchange his knight for the bishop, and produce a passed pawn of his own along the d file. Most importantly, he was able to get his rook behind White’s king. From such a position, he could harass it at will.
50. Rd7 Rf3+
50. Rd7 Rf3+
From this point on, it was Nakamura’s game to lose. With constant pressure on the white king, if Caruana made the wrong move, Nakamura could actually win. He gave a check on the f file, and the white king moved out of the way along the g file. Note that Caruana had no other choice. Had he moved his king to the e file, it would have been trapped there. Black’s rook controls the f file, and moving the white king the d file would block his own rook and allow Black to eventually queen his pawn. And without king and rook for support, White’s pawn attack stalls. Meanwhile on the queenside, Nakamura’s 3-to-1 pawn advantage looks mighty menacing indeed. Not about to let the king out of his sites, Nakamura followed him to the g file and checked him there. Of course, White’s king had to return to his previous square on the f file. This happened again and again, and a draw was declared after the position repeated itself 3 times. They say that everyone loves a winner. But that’s not entirely true when it comes to chess. In chess everyone loves a fighter. Someone who never stops fighting for the win will always endear himself to the fans. Bobby Fischer once complained about many top players don’t try their best. They play for draws in order to protect their reputations rather than taking risks and playing for the win. “I play honestly and I play to win,” said Bobby. And people loved him for it. Some still do. In round 9 of the Sinquefield Cup, the greatest American player since Bobby Fischer never once stopped fighting for the win. And his near Phoenix-like resurrection from the brink was remarkable to behold. It really does serve as an inspiration for all of us. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings…over your grave. Until then, you fight for the win.

Chess Will Break Your Heart

On November 22nd, 2013, Magnus Carlsen from Norway defeated Viswanathan (Vishy) Anand of India in the World’s Chess Championship. Pretty much everyone knew he would. After all, at 22, Carlsen is more than twenty years younger than Anand and is rated nearly 100 points higher. In chess, an Elo rating encapsulates in a single number the estimated strength of a player based on his recent performances. Going into the match, Anand’s was 2775, enough to put him in the top ten in the world. Carlsen’s, however, was 2870, the highest ever.

Game9pic

According to Wikipedia:

The difference in the ratings between two players serves as a predictor of the outcome of a match. If two players with equal ratings play against each other, they are expected to score an equal number of wins (50% each). A player whose rating is 100 points greater than his or her opponent’s is expected to score 64%, if the difference is 200 points the expected score for the stronger player is 76%.

So, the expected happened after game 10 of the match, and a new chess champion, the 16th to be precise, was crowned. Carlsen won three games, drew seven, and lost none in a best of twelve. Much has been made of this being a new era in chess with the old giving way to the new (as it always does). This is all correct, of course. Further, Carlsen won the way he always does. Instead of bold gambits or piercing brilliancies, he simply achieved even middle games and then started building up small advantages until his opponent either found the draw or cracked under pressure.

On November 22nd, 2013, Magnus Carlsen from Norway defeated Viswanathan (Vishy) Anand of India in the World’s Chess Championship. Pretty much everyone knew he would. After all, at 22, Carlsen is more than twenty years younger than Anand and is rated nearly 100 points higher. In chess, an Elo rating encapsulates in a single number the estimated strength of a player based on his recent performances. Going into the match, Anand’s was 2775, enough to put him in the top ten in the world. Carlsen’s, however, was 2870, the highest ever. Game9pic According to Wikipedia:

The difference in the ratings between two players serves as a predictor of the outcome of a match. If two players with equal ratings play against each other, they are expected to score an equal number of wins (50% each). A player whose rating is 100 points greater than his or her opponent’s is expected to score 64%, if the difference is 200 points the expected score for the stronger player is 76%.

So, the expected happened after game 10 of the match, and a new chess champion, the 16th to be precise, was crowned. Carlsen won three games, drew seven, and lost none in a best of twelve. Much has been made of this being a new era in chess with the old giving way to the new (as it always does). This is all correct, of course. Further, Carlsen won the way he always does. Instead of bold gambits or piercing brilliancies, he simply achieved even middle games and then started building up small advantages until his opponent either found the draw or cracked under pressure. The only sporting analogy I can think of is the underappreciated heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes. He wasn’t very flashy and he lacked serious knockout power. But he was just very tough, made few mistakes, and found ways to outfight guys late. Holmes’ greatest KO victories (Shavers, Weaver, Cooney) all came after the tenth round. So that’s Magnus Carlsen. As for Anand, however, he had his chances in game 9. At that point he was trailing two to nothing with four games remaining. Had he won game 9, survival would not have been out of the question. He would have been only one win away from drawing the match. This would take the competitors into the rapid tie breaks where Vishy, a renowned speed player, would be on better footing against his young challenger. This says nothing of the psychological boost the victory would have given him as well. There are many ways for grandmasters to bore an audience with a chess game. They can go through the motions, so to speak, and no one but other grandmasters and the computer engines would know any better. They can replay drawn games played by other players from before (yes, they have them memorized). They can trade down all major pieces and let the conflict peter out into a lifeless endgame. Or they can play certain openings that require precise positional calculations rather than deadly tactics. For example, a positional player may think something along the lines of, “Well, if I post my knight on d6 and then double my rooks on the open C-file, in fifteen moves I may have a queen-side pawn majority that will be difficult to stop provided I somehow deal with my opponents pesky bishop on g4 which is currently pinning my knight to my queen.” Yeah, chess isn’t exactly a spectator sport for a reason. [Caveat: I’m not a chess professional and I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about with all that algebraic notation above. The specifics were completely made up in order to make a point. So all you chess whizzes out there…don’t bother analyzing. And for those of you who don’t understand chess algebraic notation to begin with, reference this chessboard. Every square has a letter and a number. Note the e4 square in the middle.] algebraicNotation A tactical player on the other hand will pretty much play chess the way we all do, except better: “If I go here with my queen, he must go there. And then I take. Then he takes. Then I take. Then he takes. Then I fork his rook and bishop. He sacrifices the exchange for a pawn, which forces me to take on h5. Then he has to take on e7 or be mated. Then, of course, queen to g3 which will force him to resign since he can’t defend both his knight and bishop at the same time!” If you can sum it up concisely (and perhaps only somewhat inaccurately), the positional player plays not to lose while the tactical player plays to win. Game 9 was a game of tactics. Both players came to fight and both players fought to win. Carlsen as black was desperately trying to break through on the queen side while Anand was desperately trying to checkmate the black king. After a point, there was nothing subtle about the position. Swords were drawn, firsts were clenched, and both guys yelled, “Charge!” Clearly, positional considerations are for sissies. Here is the position after white’s 27th move:

Chess fans love bloodcurdling positions like these.
Chess fans love bloodcurdling positions like these.
So white is two moves away from checkmating black. All he has to do is move his rook to the H file, and nothing can prevent black’s pawn on h7 from falling. And once that happens, it’s checkmate. On the other hand, black is about to queen his pawn on the b file and deliver a check at the same time. Can he harry white’s king long enough to keep the white rook off of h4? Well, first he promotes his pawn and forces white to protect his king: Move27Black And here is where Vishy Anand’s heart must have broken. He defended his king with his knight and not his bishop. A horrific blunder. An “insta-loss” as they say. Anand had to resign almost immediately. Why? Because it led to this position after black’s 28th move: Move28Black Remember how black needed to find a way to keep white’s rook from reaching the h file? Well, thanks to knight f1, he got it. His queen, now on e1, is bearing down diagonally on the same square the white rook is: h4. So if Anand were to move there, his rook would be snatched up. Sure, the white queen can recapture, but she alone cannot achieve checkmate against the defended pawn on h7. Like a poker player who goes all in, Anand was pinning all his hopes on checkmate. Further, at this point he would be playing a full rook down against the number one rated player in the world. Resignation was the only choice. Heartbreaking because had Anand defended with the bishop instead, he could have won, or at least achieved such a thrilling draw that both players, their handlers, and pretty much everyone viewing the game worldwide would have needed a cigarette to recover.
Baby, it was as good for everyone as it was for me.
Baby, it was as good for everyone as it was for me.
Here is what the board may have looked like after such a move: Move28Black2 Notice that with the knight still on g3 there is nothing keeping the white rook from supporting the queen on the h file. Please feel free to play the game through in the application below to see what possibilities were in store for both players had Anand found the correct continuation of this apocalyptic position. Annotations by Josh Friedel. And read more about the game here at Chessbase. [pgn height=500 initialHalfmove=16 autoplayMode=none] [Event “FWCM 2013”] [Site “Chennai”] [Date “2013.11.21”] [Round “9”] [White “Anand, Viswanathan”] [Black “Carlsen, Magnus”] [Result “0-1”] [ECO “E25”] [WhiteElo “2775”] [BlackElo “2870”] [Annotator “Josh Friedel”] [PlyCount “56”] [EventDate “2013.??.??”] [EventCountry “IND”] [TimeControl “40/7200:20/3600:900+30”] 1. d4 {No Berlin this time, and the entire world claps.} Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. f3 {The f3 Nimzo is known for its sharpness, and now it was clear Anand was ready to fight.} d5 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. bxc3 c5 7. cxd5 exd5 (7… Nxd5 8. dxc5 Qa5 {is the main line, and I remember Anand winning a wonderful game against Wang Hao here. Alright, might as well show it.} 9. e4 Ne7 10. Be3 O-O 11. Qb3 Qc7 12. Bb5 Nec6 13. Ne2 Na5 14. Qb4 e5 15. O-O Be6 16. Nd4 $1 exd4 17. cxd4 Nbc6 18. Qc3 Ne7 19. Rfd1 Rad8 20. Bf2 a6 21. Bg3 Qc8 22. Bf1 b6 23. Rab1 Nb3 24. Rxb3 Bxb3 25. Qxb3 bxc5 26. d5 Ng6 27. Qb6 f5 28. Bxa6 Qd7 29. Bb5 Qf7 30. exf5 Qxf5 31. Qxc5 Rc8 32. Qd4 Rfd8 33. a4 {1-0 (33) Anand,V (2810)-Wang Hao (2731) Wijk aan Zee 2011 CBM 141 [Anand]}) 8. e3 c4 {This has been a trend lately, trying to mess with White’s development scheme of Bd3-Ne2. The main drawback to this is that e4 is potentially much stronger with the pawn on c4. It was a surprise for me to see this line, as it certainly isn’t the safest, but perhaps it is simply what Carlsen prepared before the match.} (8… O-O 9. Bd3 b6 10. Ne2 Ba6 {is by far the most popular, and seems to be much more in Carlsen’s style to me.}) 9. Ne2 Nc6 10. g4 {White prepares Bg2 and prevents Black from playing Bf5. It is clear we will have a fight!} O-O $1 11. Bg2 Na5 12. O-O $1 Nb3 13. Ra2 b5 {This is one of Black’s major ideas in this c4 system. Put a knight on b3, shove the queenside, and hope not to get checkmated. The knight on b3 is actually not all that strong, but it helps to always have the option of taking White’s bishop.} 14. Ng3 a5 15. g5 (15. e4 dxe4 16. fxe4 Bxg4 17. Qe1 {was another approach, but Anand possibly felt there was no need to sac a pawn.}) 15… Ne8 16. e4 Nxc1 {Magnus didn’t want to allow Be3 and the knight on b3 might find itself to be a spectator.} 17. Qxc1 Ra6 {Magnus might not be afraid here, but I would be. White’s pawns look menacing.} 18. e5 {Vishy closes off the center and prepares to shove his f-pawn.} (18. Rb2 {I might prefer a bit, retaining

some kingside flexibility and discouraging Black’s b4 counterplay.}) 18… Nc7 19. f4 (19. Rb2 {I still like for White, as once b4 happens Black’s counterplay is quite annoying. I find when you are in a must-win situation, it is easy to forget prophylactic moves.}) 19… b4 20. axb4 axb4 21. Rxa6 Nxa6 22. f5 (22. cxb4 {was “safer” but this is no way to play for the win, as now he’ll always be tied down to defending d4.}) 22… b3 {Both sides go all in. Black entrenches a protected passer on b3, but takes away all the pressure on White’s center. In order for him to use this pawn, however, he needs to survive White’s attack.} 23. Qf4 ( 23. h4 Nc7 24. h5 {was another plan of attack. It looks incredibly scary for Black, but it isn’t so clear how White will break through.}) 23… Nc7 24. f6 { Once again, Vishy opts for the most committal continuation. I also don’t think this move should be rushed.} (24. Qh4 {was a more flexible possibility. Now if} Ne8 25. Nh5 {There are some real threats.} b2 26. f6 g6 27. Nf4 {and White has more chances than in the game.}) 24… g6 25. Qh4 Ne8 26. Qh6 {Anand goes for the most direct attacking plan, which involves letting Black queen!} (26. Ne2 { was the other option, trying to bring the knight into the fray. A possible variation could go} Be6 27. Nf4 Qa5 28. Bh3 Bxh3 29. Qxh3 b2 {It looks like Black will be faster, but White has the resource} 30. Ne6 $1 Qa1 {Black has to continue his queenside play.} (30… fxe6 31. Qxe6+ Kh8 32. Qe7 {is crushing.}) 31. Nxf8 Kxf8 32. e6 Nd6 {Another only move, as Qh6-exf7+ was a mating threat.} 33. Qh6+ (33. exf7 h5 $1 {wins for Black.}) 33… Ke8 34. exf7+ Nxf7 35. Qh3 { and now the game will end in perpetual after} Kd8 36. Qg2 b1=Q 37. Qxd5+ Kc8 38. Qc6+ Kd8 39. Qd5+ {with a draw.}) 26… b2 27. Rf4 $1 {This is truly throwing all your chips into the middle of the table.} b1=Q+ {And here, unfortunately, Vishy has a mental blank. I’m not sure if he missed Black’s response or if he simply thought he was lost anyway.} 28. Nf1 $4 (28. Bf1 {was necessary, and now} Qd1 {is forced, planning to pitch the queen on h5.} 29. Rh4 Qh5 30. Nxh5 gxh5 31. Rxh5 Bf5 {and at first White looks busted, but he has the move} 32. g6 $1 Bxg6 33. Rg5 {with the plan of h4-h5. Black is paralyzed, so he has nothing better than} Nxf6 34. exf6 Qxf6 35. Rxd5 {and the game will most likely be drawn after something like} Qf3 36. Rc5 Qxc3 37. Qf4 {and White takes on c4 next move. The d-pawn could be strong, but the king on g1 is too exposed to do much with it. Even so, I’m sure Vishy would have taken the extra 1/2 point.}) 28… Qe1 {The only move, but now it is over, as Rh4 is met by Qxh4 and Black is up a clean rook. It was really ashame to see Vishy’s fighting spirit meet with such an end. It must be said, however, that Magnus kept his cool throughout the game despite the scary-looking attack and it seems like he was never really in any trouble. Despite this, Vishy really had everything he wanted out of the opening, and I’m sure he’d like that one back.} 0-1 [/pgn] So what do we have here? Vishy Anand achieved a dangerous double-edged position against Magnus Carlsen in which Carlsen said later he had real fear of being checkmated. And Anand needed the win. A draw would have been as good as a loss at that point since he was running out of games with which to catch up to his challenger. It was do or die time, and, unfortunately, an elementary blunder caused him to choose the latter. Imagine an artist ruining a masterpiece with a bold, yet errant, brush stroke. Imagine a musician marring a brilliant cadenza with a series of wrong notes. Magnus Carlsen didn’t so much win game 9 as Vishy Anand lost it. And everyone knew it immediately. Game 8 of the previous world championship ended with a similar one-move knockout blow, but it was Anand who delivered it. His challenger, the Israeli Boris Gelfand, sacrificed a knight to capture a pawn and a rook. Good exchange, right? Well, Anand responded with a beautiful move that almost no one saw coming. It was subtle, yet deadly. It trapped Boris’s queen and would have forced him to sacrifice a second piece in order to extricate her. Boris resigned on the spot. I posit that such a loss is not heartbreaking. There is no shame in going down to a brilliancy. For one, it could put you in the history books. Secondly, we’re all human, right? To miss a stroke of genius that only your opponent and the chess engines can see is perfectly understandable. Anand’s loss in game 9 is another matter entirely. Knight f1 was such an obvious blunder that the commentators (who are nowhere near Anand’s league) were ruling it out long before Anand committed it. That Anand actually played it in a world championship match was nothing short of catastrophic. And how did Anand react? Pure class. anand He showed no adverse reaction during the game (unlike Garry Kasparov’s characteristic flair for the dramatic. Start at about the 4:50 mark here and prepare to be entertained). Further, during the game 9 press conference Anand was admirably candid. He simply admitted that he had missed the open diagonal on the h4 square when he moved his knight. pressconference Remember, Vishy Anand is a national hero in a nation of over a billion people. Further, the match took place in India. At times it received more Twitter activity than cricket, the Indian national pastime. To make this feat even more remarkable, Anand received more Twitter attention in India than Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar did on the day the great batsman retired. This would be like Bobby Fischer supplanting the Super Bowl. For Indian fans, Tendulkar is the Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, and Wayne Gretsky of cricket.

This man is idolized by millions, yet for a brief time he played second fiddle to chess.
This man is idolized by millions, yet for a brief time he played second fiddle to chess.
Imagine the pressure. It’s hard enough to take on the number one player in the world in twelve straight games. But with the added weight of tens of millions on your shoulders, it’s amazing that Anand showed up at the press conference at all. That he carried himself with such poise boggles the mind. True, Anand has really nothing left to prove. He became India’s first grandmaster in 1988. He’s been a top five player for over twenty years and the undisputed world champion for the past six. He successfully defended his title on three occasions. He has the fourth highest FIDE rating of all time (2817, achieved in 2011), and is generally considered one of the greatest chess players who ever lived. But still. Hearts break. And they ain’t like eggs. You don’t get a yummy omelet afterwards. No. No. You get a big hot steaming plate of bubkes, that’s what’s you get. That, and a tall, ice cold glass of suck it up and deal.
Well, at least it probably wouldn't kill ya.
Well, at least it probably wouldn’t kill ya.
Losing in game 9 the way he did would have been heartbreaking for most of us. And it probably was for Anand too. Yet he took it like a man. Like a champion. I have to resist the urge to throw my cell phone through a wall every time I commit such a game-ending blunder. And I’m a patzer. A chess nothing. A nobody. Imagine how Anand must have felt. In any sport it’s inevitable that the old gives way to the new. Names like Anand, Kramnik, Ivanchuk, Topalov, and Gelfand will, in the next few years, give way entirely to the new generation: Caruana, Nakamura, Aronian, Karjakin, Radjabov, along with Carlsen, all born in the 1980s or 1990s. There’s no stopping it. Former title challenger Nigel Short called it. It’s the end of an era. And I will say that Magnus Carlsen is a worthy champion and standard bearer for the new era. Not only is he a great player, but he is young and charismatic. He’s also a fashion model. He’s done the rounds of late night comedy. He will turn millions on to chess. Much of this has been observed before. But one of the most important traits that Carlsen shares with Anand is that he’s a nice guy. He’s no troubled genius like Bobby Fischer who went into seclusion to rot in a cauldron of bitter paranoia. Instead, from all reports, Carlsen has healthy relationships with his friends and family and treats his colleagues and the public with respect. Like Anand, a thorough class act. And I find this utterly remarkable since Magnus Carlsen is only twenty-two years-old. I know for this certain: If I was half as good at anything at twenty-two as Magnus Carlsen is at chess…I would have been an asshole. At such a young age, the things I would have said…the things I would have done. The arrogance, the pretension, the self-importance. Oh my God. I embarrass myself just thinking about it. Let’s just say that it’s good that not everyone has what it takes to be the world’s chess champion. And it is equally good that we have chess champions as classy and as great as Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen, broken hearts and all.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
The king is dead. Long live the king.

My Time With Chess

I have always supported the idea of making chess part of school curricula everywhere. Although I don’t play anymore and was never all that great at the game to begin with, it’s not hard for me to imagine all the good that can come out of it. Go to any chess website promoting this idea and you’ll get all the arguments you’ll ever need. Chess is a great way to develop a mind. It’s not the only way, but, according to retired chess champion Garry Kasparov, it’s hard to beat.

Here is Kasparov (a hero of mine for almost two decades) on a Brazilian talk show talking about a whole host of chess-related topics. He gets to the chess-as-education issue at around the 9 minute mark and begins extolling the benefits of chess at 9:54.

Among his list of chess benefits is that the game promotes discipline, self-esteem, confidence. It also increases one’s ability to deal with problems and succeed, and not just on the chess board. Kasparov ties chess into computer education as well. He is most convincing, however, when he cites a study in which two similar math classes were given additional lessons, one in chess, the other in mathematics. At the end of the year the chess class outperformed the math class in mathematics.

I believe the study to which Kasparov refers is this one from 2008 by Markus Scholz and others. Read here and here for more information on scientific studies that demonstrate the benefits of chess in education.

While I agree with Kasparov and would never dare contradict him on chess matters, I do believe he omitted one very important benefit of playing chess. And since I have never seen it mentioned anywhere else, I will mention it here.

I have always supported the idea of making chess part of school curricula everywhere. Although I don’t play anymore and was never all that great at the game to begin with, it’s not hard for me to imagine all the good that can come out of it. Go to any chess website promoting this idea and you’ll get all the arguments you’ll ever need. Chess is a great way to develop a mind. It’s not the only way, but, according to retired chess champion Garry Kasparov, it’s hard to beat.

Kasparov arguing for chess in schools
Here is Kasparov (a hero of mine for almost two decades) on a Brazilian talk show talking about a whole host of chess-related topics. He gets to the chess-as-education issue at around the 9 minute mark and begins extolling the benefits of chess at 9:54. Among his list of chess benefits is that the game promotes discipline, self-esteem, confidence. It also increases one’s ability to deal with problems and succeed, and not just on the chess board. Kasparov ties chess into computer education as well. He is most convincing, however, when he cites a study in which two similar math classes were given additional lessons, one in chess, the other in mathematics. At the end of the year the chess class outperformed the math class in mathematics. I believe the study to which Kasparov refers is this one from 2008 by Markus Scholz and others. Read here and here for more information on scientific studies that demonstrate the benefits of chess in education. While I agree with Kasparov and would never dare contradict him on chess matters, I do believe he omitted one very important benefit of playing chess. And since I have never seen it mentioned anywhere else, I will mention it here. Humility. The most important thing chess has given me is humility. When I tell people that I used to play chess, they

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often ask, “How good were you?” My answer is always, “Good enough to know how bad I really am.” Since I have not played a tournament game since 1985 when I was in eighth grade, I really have no exact record of my skill level. I can estimate however, given my rate of success in the late 1990s against tournament players in casual games, that my highest skill level was between a 1600 and 1650 in United States Chess Federation rating points. So 15 years ago, when I would study chess for at least an hour every night, I was little more than what the USCF called a Class B player. To put things in perspective, you’d need a rating of 2000 to be an expert, 2200 to be a national master, and 2400 to be a senior or international master. So I was, in chess parlance, a fish, a wood-pusher, alas, a patzer. In some weird way it was something to be proud of. Another story goes thusly: A friend and I were having at it over the board one evening, hurling our armies at each other amid a riot of kibbitzing, as usual. We were in the Skylight Exchange, our favorite chess hangout in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I don’t remember the games, except that they were always sloppy, fast and thrilling. Out of the blue, this college kid came in and challenged me. I duly accepted and after a few moves, it was evident the kid really didn’t understand the basic tenets of the game. I crushed him easily. Two times. I could have played five opponents of his caliber at once with the black pieces and still had my way. Anyway, the kid could barely contain his frustration and said he wanted to analyze the games to figure out where he went wrong. When we were done, he got up and declared through clenched teeth that, “Every time I lose, I get better!” He even included a dramatic pause in the middle. “Every time I lose…(beat)…(beat)…I get better!” His intensity was so precious, I had to choke back a laugh not to be rude. But I couldn’t resist leaning over and asking my friend if he gets better every time he loses. My friend smiled, shook his head, and said, “Nope. If did I’d be a grandmaster by now!” By then I had about lost it, laughing at this poor kid’s expense. He didn’t stick around, and I never saw him again. I really hope the little thrashing I gave him made him realize how rare it is to have real talent at chess, and how wrong it is for one to presume they have such talent when they really don’t. When I was 25, I started playing chess again after a 12-year layoff. I had heard about the chess club at the Skylight Exchange. I thought I could do well against the players there. I didn’t. I thought I was something special, someone who could re-learn the game and start winning. I wasn’t. It doesn’t mean I didn’t try like hell. Back then I didn’t have a career, didn’t have a girlfriend, didn’t have much of a life. All I had was my “poetry to protect me”, to quote Paul Simon. That, and piles of student debt, which, I am pretty sure, Paul Simon didn’t sing about.

Paul Simon probably not Rhymin' about Fannie Mae
So with little to lose, I bought every chess book I could find and studied. Sure enough, I got better. It was a long, painful process, but I managed increase my standing among the players there. Among the lower half, I started to go about 50-50, maybe even a little better than that. Among the stronger players I graduated from being busted within the first 7 moves to being able to achieve perfectly playable middle games before eventually blundering and going down in yet another ignominious ball of fire. And it hurt. It hurt. See this picture? This is of me as a division I college wrestler getting my ass kicked by Michael Stokes of NC State in 1989. I’m the guy on the bottom. I remember that match very well. Stokes pretty much threw me around like a rag doll. Did whatever the hell he wanted. It was all I could do to keep him off of me. He tech-falled me in the second period, meaning he obtained a 15 point advantage, after which the match was stopped. State was awarded 6 points in the dual meet, and my team got nothing. It was as if he had just pinned me. And who is Michael Stokes? He was the 126 lb. runner-up in the NCAA wrestling tournament that year. He succumbed 5-2 to a wrestler named Kendall Cross from Oklahoma State in the finals. And who is Kendall Cross? Gold medal winner in the 57 kg weight class at the summer Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia, 1996. Watch the match here. That is the gulf between me and greatness. I never had any pretentions of being a tough guy, because I knew what tough was. That doesn’t mean I was a wimp, of course. I had the ligaments torn in my left knee during one match (which I won). Re-sprained my right ankle in another (which I also won). I had been slammed so hard against the mat that I saw stars and didn’t know where I was for a few moments (That one I didn’t win). I had completed matches so exhausted that all I could do was fall on my back and writhe. Wrestling is a hard sport. If you don’t give it your soul it will abuse you. And it hurts. It hurts. But I assure you, it never hurt more than when I lost a game of chess I should have won. I don’t know why, but physical beatings were nothing compared to the stabbing pangs of hate that would riot in my mind for days whenever I had to concede a wholly unnecessary defeat to someone who didn’t deserve to win. The contempt. The disgust. The regret. The bile. The effort to keep all these volatile emotions bottled up was almost more than I could handle sometimes. I realized that from a broken heart there is nowhere to hide. I’m reminded of how General Winfield Scott in 1846 played two casual games against 9-year old child prodigy and future unofficial world champion Paul Morphy. The general fancied himself a formidable player, you see. When he was in Morphy’s hometown of New Orleans, he demanded he face strong local talent. He was shocked when this came in the form an unassuming little boy and was even more shocked when this unassuming little boy crushed him like a bug, twice.
General Winfield Scott: Ooooh, Ah hate losin'.
With his enormous ego capsizing like the Titanic, Scott sent the boy home and refused to play him again.
Paul Morphy: So, who was this person I just beat again?
I didn’t want to be like Winfield Scott. We were both sore losers, yes. But I wanted to get my ass kicked honest, like a man. And it hurt. It hurt. But I kept coming back for more. I wanted to get better, and one only gets better by playing his betters. Especially in chess where you can objectively measure a player’s worth. There is little room for subjectivity or opinion or luck in chess. Either you win, lose, or draw. Anyway, the Chapel Hill players gradually accepted me, and with a group of friends to hang out with a couple times a week my life got a little more interesting. But I always knew that there were at least a couple guys in the group I could never beat on a regular basis. They were just better than I was, and there was nothing I could do about it. Sure, I could work hard and gain experience. But I felt I could study three hours a day for months on end while they could sit around and do nothing and they still would have beaten me. Or, given my disastrous tendency to blunder in endgames, they’d have a hell of a chance. How could I be so certain? Because what they could do without effort required much effort from me. For example, there were a couple guys who could watch a game being played and then afterwards effortlessly reconstruct a position on the board from almost any point in the game. I couldn’t dream of doing such a thing without tremendous sweat and effort, and still I would probably get something wrong. There are no books that teach you how to do this. This is not something you learn how to do. This is something you know how to do. Either your brain has the machinery to do this, or it doesn’t. Mine doesn’t. This I just got used to. Over time, as I became a better player, I also became a better loser. I began to forget the losses and cherish my victories. I learned how to enjoy the spirit and elegance of the game. I learned how not to take myself so seriously. I also learned to take pride in whatever improvement I could muster. This is the humility I was discussing earlier. Note the lack of arrogance. Note the more balanced and reasonable perspective on things. Note the accurate assessment of oneself, that one quality lacking in our hapless college kid as well as in the great Winfield Scott and many others, I would imagine. As Kasparov points out, the benefits you get from chess translate well to life too. I became a more humble person because of chess, not just a more humble player. And if the testimony of my Chapel Hill friends is worth anything, I became more likeable as well. But don’t get me wrong, if you take chess seriously (like I did) but lack real talent (also like I did), chess will break your heart. And it hurts. It hurts. But everything I did, I would do again without question, without hesitation. Because what I got out of chess in the end was totally worth it. As a postscript, I’d like to share one of the sweetest moments I’ve had as a class B chess player. In our little coterie of guys, the alpha male was without question an international master from Germany. I believe his international rating at the time was something like 2250, which was astronomically high compared to mine. Anyway, he was a genuinely nice guy who never minded wasting his time with us patzers. The way he would so effortlessly crush us all was breathtaking to behold. He also never took it hard on the rare occasions in which we managed to beat him. I must have played him 80 to 100 times over the course of 3 years in the late 1990s. In all those games, I believe I earned maybe 3 draws and only 2 wins. The rest were just dreadful beatings. Of the wins, the first really shouldn’t count because he and I were playing at a restaurant while he had his arm around his girlfriend. He was consuming his second beer of the evening and ordering dinner when the game started. He simply misjudged an opening sequence, and I won a piece for nothing. He could have played on (and probably would have won), but, like a gentleman, he resigned. The other time was a legitimate win for me. I forced him to capitulate in the endgame. Later analysis proved that he had played very badly, missing a few key positional moves, while I was in unusually sharp form. Regardless, he never let me come close to a win against him after that. But this isn’t the sweet part. The sweet part occurred when we taught him how to play bughouse. And what is bughouse? Only the funnest, most awesomest, most bodacious chess variant known to Man.
Bughouse!
It’s basically team chess. Two on two. Two boards. Two clocks. One team member is white, the other is black. If a player captures a piece, he can hand it to his teammate who can then place it on his board pretty much wherever he wants. Time limits are always low, like 5 minutes or less. And kibbitzing is not only allowed, but encouraged. The louder the better. Click here to see what a bughouse game looks and sounds like. Bughouse also has its own set of strategies and tactics separate from chess. There are certain things in chess, like fianchettoing a bishop, which one would never do in bughouse, for it would be plain suicide. This was something I neglected to inform our IM from Germany when I sat him down and taught him the game. You see, I had revenge in mind. Sweet, sweet revenge. And, boy, did I get it. For about 4 or 5 games, I beat the stuffing out of an international chess master over a chessboard. It was a slaughter, a beat down, a blitzkrieg. And I loved every single moment of it. My esteemed opponent was just too classy and could not adapt quickly enough to the cruder barroom tactics of bughouse. Still, he had fun. And he never once grudged me my time in the sun. So, that’s another thing that Kasparov can add to his list of chess benefits. Great memories.