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.