Wijk aan Zee 2019 Impressions

After Round 8 we have a very curious situation in Wijk aan Zee – we have World Champions on both ends of the standings.

The last two World Champions are leading the field with 5.5/8. The one before them is dead-last with 2/8.

While the results of the current World Champion are not surprising, I would like to take a closer look at what his two predecessors are doing.

It was Mikhail Botvinnik who first wrote of the need for “auto-programming” (as he called it) as a player ages. He was the first one to do so scientifically – before him Lasker was also very successful at an old age, but he never wrote about it. Botvinnik took into consideration the changes in his body and mind and successfully adapted to these by adjusting his style and approach and this helped him remain at the very top until his retirement at the age of 59.

At the very top of today’s chess pyramid we have Vishy Anand and Vladimir Kramnik as the oldest players. Anand is 49, Kramnik is 43. It is surprising that of the two it is Anand who followed Botvinnik’s path rather than Kramnik, who was a student of the Patriarch.

The most notable differences as a player ages are his decreasing energy, mental stamina and deterioration of calculational abilities. It is possible to compensate for these by training hard, but training can only get the player so far.

Anand went Botvinnik’s way. He adapted his style to power-saving mode, using his exceptional opening preparation to keep him safe and not minding draws. His results have therefore been consistent, mostly around the 50% mark but when things went his way he managed to win a tournament or two. Most importantly, he practically never had a disastrous result. Things are apparently going his way in Wijk and by beating both Kramnik and world’s number 4 Mamedyarov he is leading the field.

What Kramnik decided to do is completely the opposite. Instead of adjusting in the direction of energy-saving he upped the energy-consumption sky-high.

In a way, I find Kramnik’s decision akin to Roger Federer’s. With age Roger became a much more aggressive player, going to the net often with the idea to shorten the game points. He reasoned that with shorter game points the matches would also be shorter, which would suit him when playing younger players with more stamina, especially when having to meet them in several matches in a row.

While Roger had great success I doubt that Kramnik will achieve the same. What Kramnik achieved was a transformation of his style into one of the most exciting one. Even though his openings have remained the same (especially with Black, the Berlin, the various Queen’s Gambits etc.) he continuously manages to inject life into all positions – even an Anti-Berlin is guaranteed to spring to life if Kramnik is playing it.

The above change of style is great for the audience, but bad for the man himself. The high tension and strain that he provokes in his games makes him vulnerable when facing young and very precise-calculating players. Even though Kramnik calculates excellently, he often cannot sustain that level for the duration of the whole game and this leads to drops in the quality of his moves. The young are then unforgiving. A typical example was his game with Giri from Round 2. Still early in the tournament, so he couldn’t have been tired, yet he faltered in a very promising position.

Even though Kramnik repeatedly states that he enjoys the way he’s playing, I can assure you that no player enjoys being trashed. As any World Champion, Kramnik has an extremely high self-esteem and self-confidence and this unfortunately leads him to loss of objectivity. Perhaps the clearest case of this was his play and behaviour at the Berlin Candidates, but in Wijk he has displayed similar erratic judgement.

In a way Kramnik’s 14 g4 reminds me of Alekhine’s 7 g4 from the 7th game of the first match against Euwe, but I’d still say that Alekhine’s move was more positionally justified!

If Anand’s controlled way assures him against disasters, Kramnik’s gung-ho approach is one that invites them. Not only in individual games, but also in tournaments. With his current result Kramnik is losing 20 rating points and has dropped to number 14 on the live rating list. Anand is number 6.

Kramnik has always been one of my favourite players and it is sad to see him beaten as a result of his own attempts to “have fun.” I am afraid that once out of the Top 10 he is not coming back in. He has made a conscious decision to alter his style and he will not change it. Alas, his style suits his younger opponents better than it suits him. And he won’t have “fun” for much longer after getting repeatedly beaten.

Looking at the results of Anand and Kramnik it appears that Botvinnik was right. One must adapt to advancing age.

As a final thought, an idea I had as why Kramnik changed and started playing as if he’s a Tal reincarnate. Perhaps he does it now to compensate for the fact that he never played like that in his youth? Perhaps he always wanted to play like that but he couldn’t because he was always trying to achieve something and for that he needed to play in a way that brought results and minimised the risk of a loss? Perhaps without anything to strive for anymore he just wants to feel free of the constraints of his positional style? Who knows. And Kramnik will never tell.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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2 Comments
  • Gabriel
    Jan 23,2019 at 10:40 pm

    I was looking for comments about kramnik madness and found this post.
    well, i think the results are sad, but the man and us are having fun. he can start a fire with nothing on the board. i know that on that level players just play safe, but this is totally crazy.
    i admire him for it. it is a suicide mission.

  • Dilip Vamanan
    Jan 21,2019 at 3:49 pm

    Alex – great insights! Vishy also goes only for calculated risks which makes his chances of failure less, but also reduces winning percentages.

    Great analysis.

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