Why Anand Won

The dust after the Candidates has settled, the heroes have gone their separate ways and it’s time to take a better look at what happened in Siberia. These types of tournaments, with the best players in the world fighting for the highest prize are best suited to disclose the tendencies of the modern play.

The answer to the question why Anand won can be summed up in two words, quite popular in tennis – unforced errors. Here is what I mean by that.

The rise of Magnus Carlsen brought to the fore a new (or rather a bit forgotten) type of playing chess. Maybe you can call it computer chess, but it’s really nothing new. Back in the 1950s it was Smyslov who used to say something like, I’ll play 40 good moves, and if you can match them then it will be a draw. Then in the 1970s Spassky said that Fischer had a “solid monotonous play” [by ‘solid’ he meant ‘constantly good, of high quality’] and Taimanov felt that Fischer’s play was a “wall coming at you.” They were talking about solid, good moves that put you under pressure throughout the whole game. It is the quality of the moves that is winning the games, never lowering it, always keeping it a very high level. With Kasparov, this went a bit to the background, due to the general emphasis on his opening preparation and this lingered a bit on with Kramnik and Anand. Then, from the mid-2000s, the computers (or rather, the engines) started to make huge steps forward and they brought back the “solid, monotonous play” and the “wall coming at you.” If you’ve played an engine, you will know what I mean. And then came Carlsen.

The computers also increased the level of opening preparation, especially the quantity of chess analysis, hence leading to memorisation problems for the players. While Kramnik and Anand, used to heavy theoretical work since the times of Kasparov, continued in this direction, ploughing deep into popular lines, each one tackling the problem of memorisation in his own way, Carlsen went in another direction. He tries to sidestep mainstream theory and go for the lesser known paths. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t analyse a lot, or that he needs to memorise less, it’s just that he does that in a lesser known territory, thus creating his own theory (something, by the way, that Botvinnik emphasized as an essential thing for a top player). Even he has said it himself, he tries to give mainstream theory and openings his own seal. This approach to opening preparation, coupled with the “solid monotonous play” led him to the title.

In Siberia, Anand showed that he learned something from his lost match. He learned the meaning of ‘monotonous.’ There were four other players, apart from Anand, who won the same number of games, three. But all of them, except for Anand, lost at least 3 games. Anand, as we know, didn’t lose a single game. He learned to play solid moves on a regular, constant basis, throughout the whole game. (This he didn’t manage with Carlsen, when at some point the quality of his moves would drop and he would either blunder, or allow Carlsen a way to improve the position.) And he did this in his own way, not pushing all the time like Carlsen does, giving an occassional draw in favourable positions (Andreikin, Karjakin) when he judged that it was more important to save energy than try to squeeze something more out of a drawn position. He continued with his usual approach in the openings, going for the popular and well-analysed lines in the Sicilian, the Berlin, the Slav, getting the positions he likes. From a pure chess perspective, these two factors, the “monotonous solid play” and the good opening preparation (different from Carlsen’s but very much his own) made Anand the deserved winner of the Candidates. From the psychological perspective, things were easier for Anand than for the other players (except maybe for Andreikin, who I think had a similar mindset coming to Khanty). He played liberated, without the burden of the title (remember Spassky’s words that the world championship years were the unhappiest of his life, or Botvinnik’s Monomakh’s cap) and without pressure to do anything special. A couple of months before the tournament he wasn’t even sure he was going to play! There is a series of books called Transurfing, by Vadim Zeland, in which the author proposes a method how to achieve a goal. One of the vital elements, he says, is to reduce the importance of the goal. In other words, to be emotionally detached from the goal, to be indifferent. This does sound counter-intuitive, especially if it’s a very important goal, but that is exactly the point – by reducing the importance, you can concentrate fully on the task at hand, without feeling the pressure of the importance of the goal. And this brings us to the others.

The other players also played good, solid chess, but they lacked the monotonous part. They played the way Anand played in Chennai, good, solid, chess for long periods, only to be ruined by a single bad move. It happened to all of them (except, perhaps, Andreikin, who, like I said, probably had a similar approach to Anand’s). And look at the final standings – the players who perceived themselves as favourites, Aronian and Kramnik, started pretty well, while they were still fresh and full of energy, but as the tournament progressed they couldn’t withstand the burden of the pressure, and collapsed. So who finished second? The player who had high ambitions before the start, thus feeling the pressure even before the tournament, which in my opinion is due to inexperience (Aronian and Kramnik could deal with that well, having played Candidate tournaments before). Karjakin couldn’t handle it, so he collapsed at the start. And this actually helped him! He forgot all about ambition and winning and could just play monotonous solid chess. And this he did, especially in the second half, when all the others still had ambitions left and were already cracking under the pressure – Karjakin beat Svidler because he tried a bit too much to win (and failed to draw when he could), beat Kramnik who cracked at exactly move 7 in their game, and beat Aronian in the last round, when he was completely out of sorts and totally demoralised since he couldn’t win the tournament anymore.

Going back to the beginning, when I said the reason for Anand’s win were the unforced errors he managed to avoid, while the others were making them quite a lot, we can actually see that they weren’t exactly unforced. From a purely chess perspective they were, Kramnik wasn’t forced at all to blunder on move 7 against Karjakin, but he was “forced” in another way – he was forced by the pressure he put on himself, the burden of the role of a favourite, the importance the event had for him. And it was the same for Aronian, Svidler, Mamedyarov, Topalov.

Now we can see that it was the player best accustomed to the modern demands of the game who won the tournament. Good opening preparation, good moves on a constant basis and strong nervous system is what it takes today to be one of the best. This is the essence of modern chess, these are the qualities that are required to excel. And from looking at the pinnacle of the chess pyramid, these tendencies are here to stay for quite some time.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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  • Apr 13,2014 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you, very nice words.

  • Anonymous
    Apr 12,2014 at 9:07 am

    Deep and thorough analysis as expected of well educated GM. Especially interesting is a look into the future of modern chess. This analysis is a good guideline for anyone who is looking for a chess perspective.

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