A review of the greatest spectacle, this year, in Chess, by the head cosmonaut of our Chess Galaxy, Dr. Nagendra Rentala
The title of world champion carries with it a special aura in any sport, more so in an intensely individual and intellectual endeavor like Chess. In modern times where the competition became increasingly global, the event that crowned the
World Chess champion assumed the significance of a sacred ritual, a passing of generational baton. The match between Anand and Carlsen that concluded last month in Chennai, India stood up to all these traditional expectations – the contrasting personalities of the contestants, the prematch build-up, the theme of an underdog Champion defending the crown on his home turf against a much younger contestant and a confirmed genius of the game.
Unlike other individual sports (e.g., Tennis), Chess retained the historic, albeit controversial tradition of bestowing the championship title through a knock-out format called the candidate’s matches culminating in a match between the champion and the challenger. The reason behind this archaic practice is largely due to the public appeal for the charisma associated with the contestants themselves. This in spite of the fact that top players of the world are pitting their skills in some competition or the other round the year and around the globe and the mantle of world’s best player has become increasingly more dynamic.
The history of World Chess Champions is replete with several legendary and colorful characters. Alexander Alekhine who maintained the championship as a personal property refusing to play a match against his best opponent Jose Raul Capablanca started this long lineage. Mikhail Botwinnik was the most prolific player who twice benefited from yet another arcane championship stipulation, namely, in the event of a loss, the champion is entitled to a return match. The most charismatic Chess figure of all time is undoubtedly Bobby Fischer who took the world by storm in 1972. He elevated the world championship match against Boris Spassky to a clash of cultural paradigms – the individual Fischer from a capitalist country against Spassky backed by the might of Communist Soviet Chess Machinery. Fischer’s victory marked a quantum leap in the social prestige and financial status of Chess players all over the world.
In spite of the exploits of champions like Karpov, Kasparov and Anand, no one after Fischer raised the level of anticipation and excitement in a world-chess- championship match to such a fever-pitch level until Carlsen came on to the scene. Like Fischer, Carlsen already established himself as the best player of the world reflected in his Elo rating, a statistical measure of a player’s relative playing strength somewhat similar to the ATP world rankings in Tennis. His youth, vitality and modelling forays unique for a Chess player further enhanced his charisma. While the popularity of the event did bring the game of Chess into sharp focus once again on the global stage, the quality of the games remained questionable. Carlsen pointed out in his post-match interview that Anand made ‘uncharacteristic mistakes’ while Anand admitted that he was ‘simply outplayed’.
When I was asked to predict the result of the match, I considered the short match length (12 games), the propensity of Carlsen to press hard even from very slightly advantageous positions, Anand’s recent form and the previous score between them. My assessment was that Anand would not be able to last Carlsen’s pressure beyond 10 games. While this proved true, I was shocked at how Anand self-destructed starting from game 5. I was hoping for a tense fight in each game where the Chess connoisseurs would be treated to Anand’s counter-attack or at the very least, a stubborn defense to Carlsen’s legendary technique of ‘squeezing blood from stone’ as one GM put it.
The course of the match saw three distinct phases in spite of the relatively short match duration of ten games. In games one to three, Carlsen was testing the waters to neutralize any opening novelties from Anand’s camp. Alas, there were no novelties from either player. After an early draw by repetition in the first game and an uneventful theoretical duel that ended the same way in the second game, Carlsen’s tentative play landed him in the following difficult position with white pieces in game three.
Black’s two pawn-islands against white’s three, powerful bishop on e5, white’s weak b and d pawns and the passive queen on h1 spell a clear advantage for Anand, with 29. …. Bxb2 close to winning. Anand inexplicably let go of this first strike with the weaker 29. …. Bd4 which the computers still evaluate as press-worthy advantage
The game quickly fizzled out into a draw. With hindsight, this was Anand’s lone opportunity to have taken the fight to Carlsen’s camp.
In the very next game, the momentum started to swing in Carlsen’s favor whenAnand dropped a pawn with the white pieces through a miscalculation by move 18. In spite of Carlsen’s hard press, Anand showed his legendary counter-attacking skills by sacrificing another pawn and eventually salvaged a draw. This game, in my opinion showed a typical clash of their contrasting playing styles and I wish the match had produced more of the same. In such an eventuality, the match would have been more evenly balanced. That was not to be. Sensing blood, Carlsen went for an aggressive opening choice and reached the following position with white pieces after 26 moves.
White has a slight but lasting advantage. While the pawns of both sides on e,g and h files are balanced, white’s connected a & b pawns are facing black’s isolated pawns on a & c files. Isolated pawns require adult baby-sitting than their counterparts that are adjacent to one another. Additionally, the white pieces are more coordinated, with the two rooks doubled on the f-file and the bishop on e4 covering more space. In contrast, black’s rooks are disjointed and the bishop on e8 is pathetic looking. The beauty of Chess is that in spite of these tangible advantages for white, black has enough resources to draw if only he stays put without worsening the position further. White does not have an easy time enhancing his advantage without black’s cooperation. This is typically the position Carlsen likes to squeeze and Anand was concerned about defending. There were technical inaccuracies from both sides but Anand crumbled under pressure going for a hallucinatory aggression instead of a patient defense. His weak pawns started falling like nine pins and Carlsen emerged victorious after 58 moves. Anand admitted in his post-match interview that this loss was a painful blow. Aided with computer analysis, this is another instructive game to follow from both attacking and defending perspectives.
In game six Anand’s play was even more perplexing. He chose an insipid opening variation in a Ruy Lopez with white pieces and exchanged most pieces leaving him with no real chances to press forward. Inexplicably, he left a pawn hanging in the following position with 27.d4 instead of defending with Qe2.
Equally inexplicably, Carlsen ignored the gift but kept probing for weaknesses. There were some more technical inaccuracies from both sides in a rook and pawn ending. Carlsen was never in danger of losing and Anand committed the final blunder to lose two games in a row. This is the self-destructive game I am sure Anand would like to forget. In his post-match interview, Anand mentioned that contrary to popular belief, he could not steer the games into his forte of tactical territory. I disagree with his explanation. Symmetric positions and choice of defensive opening variations do not produce tactical opportunities.
It was said about the great Alekhine that while most chess players would know what to do in a tactical position, only Alekhine was capable of creating such positions. On this principle life mimics Chess in an interesting way – we all know what to do when there is something to do (like an emergency) but very few people know what to do when there is nothing to do.
After lackluster draws in games 7 & 8, the heat was on Anand to reduce Carlsen’s lead, who is ready to wrap-up the match. Pushed to the brink, finally Anand started with 1.d4 in the ninth game and went for a sharp variation of the Nimzo-Indian reaching the following position after 27. …. b1Q+
The move 28.Bf1 is forced here. Being farthest from enemy camp, the bishop is the only piece not directly taking part in the attack. It should naturally be usedfor defensive purposes here like shielding the king from check. Instead Anand played 28.Nf1?? and resigned instantly after 28. …. Qd1!. The knight on g3 would have provided additional attack on the h5 square for which the black queen on d1 was aiming after white’s intended 29.Rh4. It was all over at this point for Anand.
The tenth game was a mere formality. Carlsen had a chance to increase the match score to 7 – 3. He missed a tactical blow and Anand managed to save a draw but lost 6.5 – 3.5 in a best of 12 game match.
In retrospect, Anand would have capitalized on Carlsen’s overcautious approach in the initial four games of the match. Games 5 and 6 were self- destructive for Anand. Carlsen successfully wrapped up the match in the next four games. Carlsen lived up to his reputation as a patient Boa Constrictor while Anand showed very few sparks of the Tiger from Madras in the match.