Carlsen is scheduled to play very soon, in St. Loius at the Sinquefield Cup, which starts on the 23rd of August. I’m looking forward to his great chess, I very much prefer it to his public statements.
The duels between the above types have been telling – the conflict seeking players almost always came out victorious. The Botvinnik matches, especially his return matches when he would always try to impose some irrelevant detail (the sealed move to be placed in two envelopes – just in case one of them got lost, postponing or advancing the match for several weeks because of the weather in Moscow) in order to impose his will and perhaps create conflict with the sole idea of extra motivation; the match Kasparov-Anand, with Kasparov banging the door when exiting the playing area and Anand keeping his rage inside and not reacting; the match Spassky-Fischer, with Fischer creating conflicts long before the match began, while Spassky tried to play the perfect gentleman. The matches Karpov-Korchnoi are a bit different, where the conflict seeking player was beaten, but he was beaten by a player who knew how to thrive on conflict when required – Karpov was always very adaptive to circumstances and didn’t mind the conflict at all. From the more recent history, the match Topalov-Kramnik in Elista was an exception, where the conflict seeking player actually lost to the conflict avoiding player.
The duels between these characters were always exciting and they captured the imagination of the public. Different characters attract different people because the people can recognise parts of themselves in the behaviour of the champions.
What do we have today when it comes to character and conflict? Very little from both. Today’s leading players are probably the best players in the history of chess (taking into consideration the advances in theory and understanding), but when it comes to character I cannot say it is visible from the way they behave outside the chessboard. The atmosphere at the tournaments today is sterile, the players are all friendly between themselves, there is no conflict; in fact, they are all trying to avoid it and just play chess. Almost all of them have worked for or with somebody they know too well, it is all too mixed up – no wonder they are all friendly (can you imagine Tal being hired by Botvinnik for his match against Petrosian?) Nakamura’s Sauron comments, Carlsen’s Mickey Mouse remarks and Giri’s boasting are just too meek compared to Korchnoi’s outbursts, Kasparov’s door-banging and Fischer’s cursing in the ping-pong room.
While today’s elite lacks spark outside the chessboard, they certainly compensate for it with the chess of the highest quality on the chessboard, for which I am grateful. But I would still like to see a bit more of the good old fashioned spite and malice. It just makes for a better spectacle.
Some time ago I noticed that Ronnie O’Sullivan has a blog that is published on Yahoo Sports, a page which I frequently visit. I quite liked the way he wrote and the way he thought about his game and ways to improve it. From the writing I could sense a true professional who has delved deeply into the secrets of his trade. All elite sportsmen sense the secrets of their trade, but very few of them can really put them into words.
I recently read a profile on O’Sullivan in the New Yorker (you can read it in full here, I fully recommend it) and it completed the picture I had of him. I never had a clue he was an errant genius, a rude (!) and problematic character prone to severe ups and downs – definitely not the impression I had from the tranquil and balanced flow of the words in his writings.
Here are some quotes of the profile which I found particularly applicable to chess:
My arsehole had gone. My fight. I had nothing in me. – on the period when he couldn’t win anything, when he was left without motivation. But then at 36 he started winning again…
Take his head off. Don’t get beat. Fuck ’em son. – his father’s words of support. His father adored him, and showed infinite support. This support from at least one parent is crucial to become a World Champion – Carlsen is only the last example, and quite a sane one, with Fischer’s and Kasparov’s mothers the more aggressive and extreme versions. As opposed to this, Kamsky’s example of an abusive father led him only to the match, but not the title.
O’Sullivan spends a lot of time thinking about the white ball. He has come to believe that the quality of the initial contact between his chalked […] cue tip and the phenolic-resin sphere – the momentary grip, the transfer of energy and intent (emphasis mine) – is what decides everything else. If the white responds, he will not lose. “You’re using force. You are using your hands. You’re creating. You’re making that white dance.” – I love this. This kind of metaphysically-philosophical thinking is the only way to talk about the deep secrets of any sport or art. And it resonates so deeply to how chess works deep down on that inexplicable level that can only be sensed.
When the connection isn’t there, O’Sullivan feels it right away. “It’s invisible, but it’s night and day to me.” – This is another great one. I know exactly what he means, he talks about those days when you know that something is wrong and you cannot pinpoint it. And I know I have tried everything I possibly can to try to change things on those days – different openings, states of mind, routines, meals, whatnot. The results? Almost always non-existent.
This game can fuck your head up like no other game. – Ronnie obviously doesn’t play chess.
I have told my son he ain’t fucking playing snooker, because I love him too much. – I don’t know of a professional chess player who doesn’t have exactly the same feelings when it comes to his/her children and chess!
I won’t start following snooked after discovering O’Sullivan, but I will certainly follow him!
They say that with age the main thing that does the most damage is the loss of energy. And everything else starts from there: no motivation, no desire to put in the hours of work necessary not only to progress, but also to keep your current level. All weak play and bad results in chess come from one single reason – lack of appropriate work.
Here’s an example of what I mean. The following is the second game in the match and Shirov, trailing 0-1, went for a line in which he made a forced draw against Wagner in April this year in a Bundesliga match. Since the position he went for is entirely in his style, Shirov must have been confident, but the young are not only confident, they also put in the hours and have powerful computers, so it wasn’t very difficult for Giri to refute Shirov’s opening. My take at this is that Shirov trusted his old analysis and liked the character of the position, so he didn’t check the critical position more thoroughly, while Giri trusted his work ethic and memory with the computer moves well remembered and produced on the chess board. Need I say who won?
It is curious to note that before playing this match, it was Shirov who represented youth in yet another match, this time against Evgeny Sveshnikov, aged 64. And Shirov was struggling in the openings against the veteran, but this time he won convincingly by 5.5-0.5. The reason was simple – Shirov was the stronger player. Once the games exited the opening phase, he consistently outplayed Sveshnikov. And another important thing was that Sveshnikov’s opening preparation, even though superior, didn’t bring the type of forced, computer-like positions where you can win the game by simple memorisation, like the game Giri-Shirov above. By playing 2 b3 and 2 c3 against the Sicilian, you cannot hope to win the game from the opening and once independent play started, Shirov was clearly superior. Here we have an example of an older player willing to put in the work and prepare thoroughly, but he didn’t really take into account the ensuing play – after all, the opening is just the beginning and you have to play well afterwards too. And in that play Shirov was simply better. This is the same reason for Fischer’s 6-0 results against Taimanov and Larsen – if you are better at playing chess, you can win (almost) every game.
And speaking of being better at chess, I can’t wait to see tomorrow’s start in Tashkent – will Caruana continue his winning ways without playing at his best?
In order to achieve such a result against opposition consisting exclusively of top-10 players a lot of things must fall into place: the openings, the mental set-up (both of the player himself and that of the opponents), the small (and big) decisions during the game.
Breaking it down on a game-to-game basis, Caruana had it look smooth from the very beginning. Topalov, who showed fine form at the Olympiad by winning gold medal on board 1, went too aggressive and Caruana’s solid position soaked up the pressure and busted the Bulgarian on the counterattack. In round 2 “things started to fall into place” as he won the game in his preparation when Vachier missed the best defence in a Caro Kann. Then it was Carlsen’s turn to make it look as if points were falling to Caruana from the sky – his odd opening led him to trouble, but then in the mess that followed Caruana showed that he also fully deserved those points: fantastic calculation and control won him the game. Another strong opening idea against Aronian (15 Na2!) followed by forceful play netted another point. Nakamura didn’t get anything as white in a Slav and Caruana outplayed him thoroughly – another sign that the quality of his moves was way above the others’. Then another strong opening idea against Topalov followed by forceful play – the same scenario as against Aronian. A surprise choice of the QGD against Vachier (instead of his usual Grunfeld) signified that he was happy to play it safe, but that didn’t mean he was ready to draw just yet – Vachier’s weird play at the beginning of the middlegame was duly punished and we got to the historical 7/7.
To generalise, Caruana’s play followed a pattern – excellent opening play (either obtaining advantage – Vachier from round 2, Aronian, Topalov from round 6, or simply a good and solid position – Topalov from round 1, Carlsen, Nakamura, Vachier from round 7) followed by accurate and aggressive play afterwards. A rather sensible game plan, easy to define, almost impossible to execute, the latter part especially. There is no secret behind Caruana’s result, we all know what should be done, it’s just that the doing part is so hard. And doing means playing moves of the highest quality, all the time. Every single move should be of the highest quality. Fantastic preparation plus moves of the highest quality plus, and here lies the difference, the opponent’s failure to keep it up with those moves (mind you, every day a different opponent, all of them incredibly strong players capable of coming up with moves of the highest quality, cracking on the exact day when they played Caruana – this is the ultimate luck in chess) led to this result.
Caruana continued with strong play against Carlsen in round 8 and was close to winning there as well, but his previous game with Vachier showed that he was already happy to slow things down, as if he subconsciously didn’t believe he can win more (he even said something similar in the press conference, that he would have been happy with a draw in that game). The missed elementary win against Nakamura further convinced me of this and he also drew with Aronian in the last round, making a no less historic 8.5/10. Caruana wrote history in this tournament and the expectations of his future results are even higher now.
I noted a difference between Carlsen now and one year ago. Back then he was focused, accurate and very technical, with solid openings and all ready to go at Anand in Chennai. This year, starting with the Olympiad he was choosing strange openings in some games: Scandinavian against Caruana and Bird’s Spanish against Saric with black and Closed Sicilian against Wojtaszek and a peculiar treatment of the Slav against Solak as white. Here his white opening against Caruana from round 3 was pretty bad while with black the Maroczy against the same Caruana and the Steinitz Deferred in the Spanish against Nakamura also raised my eyebrows. I suppose it is an attempt to get some training in different positions. I think that he expects Anand to go for sharper stuff in the match, so he uses these as a way to get more practice in complex positions. He is no stranger to this (remember the Chigorin against Kramnik in London 2010?) but he largely abandoned that practice in the last few years. Another thing I noticed is that he started making mistakes in technical positions – missing a win against Naiditsch at the Olympiad and Aronian in round 9 and allowing Vachier to escape with a draw in round 6. Until these two tournaments this was something unheard of, he was winning more drawn positions than the one he got against Vachier. He did, however, win a good technical game against Aronian with black, so things are not that terrible for him. Alekhine said that technique is nerves, so Carlsen probably needs to do some calming down before his match with Anand.
Of the rest of the field Topalov was a pleasant surprise. After starting with 0/2, with that horrible loss against Aronian in round 2 I expected him to collapse and he was on the verge of it – he was close to losing in round 3 against Nakamura! Luckily for him, Nakamura turned out to be in an even worse shape and Topalov went on to win the game – this obviously gave him a lot of positive energy and confidence and in spite of losing to Caruana again (due to a very strong novelty by the winner) he went on to beat Vachier and Nakamura in fine style. It’s obvious though that he stands no chance in the fight for the title (or for victory in tournaments of this kind), he’s way too unstable and this year’s Candidates clearly showed his weaknesses. He’s also noted this himself in recent interviews, but his play is always exciting and his openings always full with fresh ideas.
Aronian continues his freefall after the Candidates. I thought his +3 at the Olympiad got him out of the hole, but it happened to be just a happy interlude in an otherwise gloomy year. After the lucky win against Topalov in round 2 he lost 3 in a row, something so rare that I wonder if it’s not the first time that has happened to him. Another rare thing is seeing him below the 2800-mark – at the age of 31 (32 in October) Aronian enters a critical phase of his career – the young players (mainly Caruana, but don’t forget the likes of Giri, Rapport, Wei Yi…) are coming and his chances of a successful assault on the throne are diminishing. It has always been psychological with him, I just wonder why he hasn’t managed to resolve that issue by now.
Vachier finished on -2 and it was a mixed experience for him. He had his highs – beating Aronian, but he also had his lows – the white game against Caruana (14 Qa4, 15 g3), the evaluation mistake in the Najdorf against Topalov, the unlucky opening disaster in the black game against Caruana. Overall a useful experience for the Frenchman, one that he will try to build upon if he is to progress further up the ladder.
Nakamura finished on -4 and played badly. His Olympiad wasn’t great either and after the missed win against Topalov in round 2 his tournament went downhill. It’s curious how one game can send the players in totally opposite directions – Topalov went on to play well and finish 3rd, Nakamura went down and lost 3 more games. The worst of them was his black game with Carlsen, when he misplayed the opening and was losing on move 10. He could have lost one more game, if Caruana didn’t miss an easy win in round 9.
From my experience, there are four types of chessplayers:
1. those motivated by their problematic personal lives;
2. those depressed by their problematic personal lives;
3. those motivated by their calm and harmonious personal lives and
4. those whose calm and harmonious personal lives take away their competitive edge and make them mushy.
It’s known that Nakamura found his dolce vita in his private life in Naples, Italy. Judging from his latest results he seems to fall into category 4. And that is a problem.
Next up on the calendar is the European Club Cup in Bilbao, the Grand Prix events and the World Championship match in November. It will be an autumn to remember!