Category : Psychology

Candidates 2016 – A Preview


Less than two weeks until the start of the first part of the exciting year 2016 promises to be. With the Olympiad and the World Championship match to follow we are looking at an exceptional year for chess.

The Candidates Tournament starts on 10 March in Moscow. There are three groups of players in the field: The Young, The Old and The Wild Card. Here is how I see the situation before the start.

The Young

Four players fall into this group: Caruana (23), Nakamura (28), Giri (21) and Karjakin (26).

Caruana is one of the favourites to win this tournament. He is well-established in the elite for quite some time now and, what is more important, has a record of winning elite events. History has shown that the player who earns his right to challenge the World Champion has always been the one who has had the best tournament record before the match. Ever since Caruana’s legendary 7/7 in Saint Louis in 2014 he is considered as the most likely challenger to Carlsen. He recently started playing 1 d4 as well, in an attempt to widen his opening repertoire (perhaps under the influence of his new coach Kasimdzhanov) and this will make him even more difficult to prepare against. The latest showing in Wijk aan Zee, where he shared second behind Carlsen, demonstrated that after some period of instability he is back his former self, even if a bit more polishing is needed.

Nakamura is my other favourite to win. I started to appreciate the American only when he evolved and started to win some excellent technical games against elite opposition. This universality has brought him more consistency and stability. Like Caruana, he has a record of winning elite events, but I still see him somewhat less stable psychologically – a few months ago in London, he was having a good event, but after yet another loss to Carlsen he played horribly and lost to Giri the next day. Maybe this was the Carlsen effect, his score against him is horrible, but there will be no Carlsen in Moscow. I see him as probably the best fighter in the field and this is his main trump.

Talking about Giri, I’d like to quote Johannes Hendrikus Donner, from his excellent book The King: “… but mostly as a natural result of the conviction – deeply rooted in the Netherlands – that no Dutchman can ever achieve anything worthwhile.” But then again Giri was born in St Petersburg. From all the eight participants Giri is the latest edition to the elite. However, I cannot get rid of the impression that Giri became an elite player not by winning, but by not losing. He hasn’t won an elite event and I cannot imagine that the first elite event he wins will be the Candidates. He is excellently prepared and it will be difficult to beat him, but that just means that he will make a lot of draws. If nobody goes mad against him I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes 14 draws.

Karjakin has too often been mediocre. Take the last Wijk aan Zee, a miserable -1 score with uneventful chess on display. He is a fighter, the World Cup clearly showed it, and I’m sure the memories of Khanty 2014 when he finished second are still fresh in his mind, giving him the hope that he can win it. But there is no edge in Karjakin, in spite of the tremendous support he enjoys in Russia, and unless he reinvents himself I cannot imagine him winning the event.
The Old

Here we have Anand (46), Topalov (41) and Svidler (39). I’ll say it immediately, I don’t think anyone from this group has a chance to win the tournament.

Anand’s win in Khanty 2014 was the final stand of the older generation before the young start to take over. Now that time has come. But the fact that these three are here after all those years shows what an exceptional and strong players they still are.

After more than 20 years Anand played an open earlier this year, in Gibraltar, and played like a regular open player, losing to guys rated 2500 and drawing solid IMs rated around 2400. The rating losses meant that he is now out of the Top 10, something unheard of. Then he went to Zurich, back to his usual company (albeit for a rapid/blitz event) and shared first with Nakamura, undefeated. A huge boost for his confidence, which is good for him, but as in Khanty, all will depend on his start – if he starts well then he will be in contention, but if not, then he’ll just try to draw and finish the tournament as soon as possible.

Topalov’s last tournament was in December, a last place in London, with 2.5/9, winless. Never an epitomy of stability, he will be somewhat of a loose cannon in Moscow. For him only the first place exists so he will take risks and go for broke. This approach can bring victory, but only if in good form. He did that when in bad form in Khanty in 2014 and finished last. It’s always extremes with him and I expect the same approach in Moscow. But a repeat of Khanty is quite probable in this field.

Svidler reinvented himself in the Candidates in London 2013 (finishing third) and continued along the same lines in Khanty in 2014. But while in London it worked, it backfired in Khanty. The reinvention meant playing sharper chess, avoiding his usual 50% or +/- 1in super-tournaments. He understood that he needed to play sharper chess in order to score more. The reason for his failure in Khanty was his bad form. He learnt his lesson and now I expect him to know how to balance his form and preparation. If he manages that he will be one of the most exciting players in the field!
The Wild Card

Perhaps it is fair that a player of many ups and (lately) downs, like Aronian (33), received the wild card for the tournament. It is really difficult to expect anything of him! He failed miserably in all the previous World Championship cycles, while playing superb chess elsewhere. This finished in 2014-2015, when he was miserable elsewhere and even fell out of the Top 10 for a while. Things are different for him now, as for the first time he is not seen as a favourite. But on the other hand he is the nominate of the organiser, an Armenian millionaire, which perhaps will put some pressure. For me he is the enigma of the tournament, a dark horse. I still don’t think he’ll win, but I won’t be surprised if he does.

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Carlsen KO

In view of the recently published opinion by World Champion Magnus Carlsen, where he suggests going back to the knock-out format for the World Championship cycle (you can read it in full here), I would like to share a few ideas that came to mind while reading it.

In a nutshell, I think it’s idiotic. To suggest something new I can understand, but to suggest something that has already been tried and condemned doesn’t make much sense. So probably there are deeper reasons behind his suggestion. One of the first ideas that came to mind was that this was actually clever. Just imagine if the KO was implemented: unless won by a Top-5 player, the respect for the new World Champion would be non-existent. Hence the world will not recognise it as such and would still consider Carlsen (who would still have the highest rating) as the best player in the world. So Carlsen will assure himself of never losing the title in a match. Additionally he will cement his legacy as the last of “The Legendary 16,” “The Great Champions,” “The True Giants” etc. Not bad, eh?

Another point is that if Carlsen is so much in favour of democratisation then why he doesn’t practice what he preaches and plays the World Cup? Of course he won’t, for understandable reasons. I will quiote him: “Kasparov told me many years ago not to play tournaments with amateur conditions, because then you will play amateur chess.” He was referring to the Olympiad, but a big KO event is not that much different. 

The World Championship match for me is the cherry on the top of elite chess. And I am eagerly awaiting it, even though it takes 2 years to get to it. I am very excited at the prospect of a great Candidates tournament and then I imagine what the winner of the Candidates and the Champion will prepare, what their strategies will be and so on. Carlsen proposes an annual knock-out as a World Championship, but that is a degradation of the highest title – the longer you wait for something, the rarer its occurrence, the higher its value. Somebody said that the World Champion in chess has the highest value in the eyes of the public of all the world champions in the world. Carlsen probably doesn’t feel it so he doesn’t mind the degradation. I wouldn’t want our beloved game and its king degraded. Young people usually do not care much about tradition, but chess is one of the rare sports which has managed to keep the process of finding out the best player more or less intact since 1886. Why meddle with something that has worked well for 129 years?

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.
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Character and Conflict

I have noticed that when it comes to conflict outside the chessboard, there are three types of players: ones that thrive on it (typical examples are Botvinnik, Fischer, Kasparov and Korchnoi), ones that avoid it (examples are Spassky and Anand) and ones that are indifferent, neither looking for it, nor avoiding it if it happens (a typical example is Karpov).

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.

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Ronnie O’Sullivan

I don’t know much about snooker, I don’t even know the rules. But it’s a game played one-on-one, just like chess, and when two players come head-to-head a lot of the rules and principles are the same.

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.

Ronnie O’Sullivan

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!

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Too Much of a Good Thing


The following is my article on the Zurich tournament published in the latest Informator (number 123, Hawaiian).
The famous Candidates tournament in Zurich and Neuhausen in 1953 lasted for almost two months and had 30 rounds. The Zurich Classic in 2015 had 5 rounds and lasted for 5 days. There was an additional day for the blitz and the rapid, but even though the rapid counted towards the final standings, I see these convoluted formats and mixture of time controls as whims of the rich patrons, who keep finding different ways to entertain themselves.
I will mostly talk about the classical part of the tournament, where only two players won games – the winners Anand and Nakamura, each winning two. All of them were won by white and three of the four decisive games were a result of superior opening preparation coupled with unreliable memory on the part of the losers. Quite an expected occurrence in these days of overburdening computer-generated analyses when the nous to sense which opening and what line the opponent will play on the given day and then refresh one’s memory of that line is a talent that not so many players possess.
I think the only way Anand can beat an elite player nowadays is if he manages to catch him in some deep preparation. When that didn’t happen his result was dismal in Baden-Baden, but when it does, then he wins the tournament. In Zurich he beat his traditionally difficult opponents, Aronian and Nakamura. Aronian went for the Grunfeld against him (which should have been a surprise, as the Grunfeld isn’t his main weapon) but couldn’t remember the only move that didn’t lose, thus going down quickly and without a fight. Nakamura couldn’t find a way to counter Anand’s improved treatment of the popular line with 5 Bf4 in the Queen’s Gambit Declined. These +2 in a 5 round tournament proved more than enough to win outright. Big win for the former World Champion, who everybody seems so eager to bury after every loss he suffers, and yet I cannot get rid of the lingering feeling that he cannot outplay these guys anymore.
Nakamura looks more relaxed now and this shows on his results. He won the Gibraltar Open quite convincingly and if it wasn’t for the bad day against Anand he would have won the Classical part of the tournament as well. He did have his revenge by winning the Armaggedon game against Anand and winning it overall, but I think he would have preferred to win the Classical part – even for a (former) bullet-addict like Nakamura classical chess weighs more.
Kramnik was solid and unambitious. He had 2 whites that he opened with 1 Nf3 (in Kramnik-talk this means “let’s just play”)  while he suffered a bit with black, but only a bit, I’m sure he didn’t even notice it. He was probably happy to win the rapid part of the event, coming third overall, but I’m sure he’s thinking of the most important event for him, the World Cup, as his only certain chance to qualify for the Candidates (the ratings average is never certain). For a player who has been a World Champion, the only motivation that remains is to be World Champion again.
The unending string of super-tournaments is taking its toll on the players, who like a circus travel from one place to the other, doing their routines and collecting the paychecks. The most active among them is Caruana, this was his third super-tournament since the start of the year (Wijk aan Zee, Baden-Baden and now Zurich) and no wonder his play suffers the most. The game he lost to Nakamura was a clear example of fatigue – in an advantageous position he miscalculated and lost. When a player is tired the first thing that fails him is the ability to calculate and this is true even for such a superb calculator as Caruana.
Karjakin was non-existent. He lost a game because he couldn’t remember the sharp theoretical line against Nakamura while he drew the rest. He scored 1/5 in the blitz and 2/5 in the rapid. He’s been unimpressive lately, he even shared last (!) in the Russian Superfinal in December last year. The former prodigy, who was expected to be Carlsen’s closest competitor, seems to have lost his drive. Many prodigies grow up with the conviction that it is their destiny to become World Champions, but when reality sets in and they realise that this is not going to happen, their dreams shattered, something breaks inside them and their progress stops. Karjakin’s level is high enough to keep him in the elite, but for a serious try to climb up the World Championship ladder he needs to change something drastically.
I remember reading an interview by Aronian many years ago where he said that he wanted “to play chess with confidence.” He’s always been a very confident player, but a year of mediocre results is tough even for the most optimistic among us. This became apparent in the first round, when instead of continuing in a very promising position against Karjakin he chose to draw with a perpetual. Without his confidence Aronian cannot hope to bounce back, but as Korchnoi said (and did), when things are going badly on the board, it’s time to take care of the things off the board (what he meant was personal life).
It is always a treat to watch the games of the best players in the world, but when their play becomes too routine and they cannot show the best they are capable of then they resemble craftsmen and not artists. The Zurich tournament was one of the many super-tournaments we witnessed lately, but one that showed that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
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The Sochi Equation

The following analysis of the match in Sochi was published in the latest Informator, number 122. I have been a regular contributor to the legendary publication for almost a year and I must say that I’m proud to be part of chess history – the first Informator was published in 1966 and for many decades it was the go-to source of top-quality information.

The Sochi Equation

When Anand finished his final press conference he received a long and warm applause from the crowd. The moment he descended from the podium where the press conferences were held looked like a scene from a film, the ageing hero accepted his defeat and left the stage.
This match was always going to be more about Anand than Carlsen. Carlsen is a known variable, always performing on an extremely high level with only small deviations from the norm. Carlsen wasn’t at his best in Sochi, but even sub-optimal Carlsen is the best player in the world. Anand was the unknown variable in the Sochi equation, fresh from the Siberian triumph, but with not yet fully healed Chennai wounds.
Anand was better prepared in Sochi, mainly with white, as he realised in Chennai that winning with white in the Berlin was impossible against Carlsen. So a switch to 1 d4 was the only move for him and it did provide him what he wanted – in all his white games, except for Game 8 when he ran into deep Carlsen preparation, he got great positions with pressure and initiative. But he only managed to win one of those, Game 3, when it was Carlsen who fell into his preparation. It turned out that to win against Carlsen the advantages he was getting out of the opening weren’t enough – the quality of Carlsen’s moves was sufficiently high that he didn’t really have a chance to win another game.
Both players had problems when playing black. Carlsen’s strategy was to “jump around” and surprise Anand with his constant changes, similar to Leko’s strategy against Kramnik in 2004. He started with the Grunfeld in Game 1, not a regular feature in his repertoire, and followed it up with a Queen’s Gambit Declined in Game 3, which he lost badly due to bad preparation. This was followed by a Queen’s Indian, the Tiviakov line, in Game 5 and another Queen’s Gambit Declined in Game 8 (a different line this time, introducing the rare 9…Re8 and drawing easily – his only successful preparation with black). Game 10 saw the return of the Grunfeld with the lately-neglected Kasparov favourite 9…Na6 in the Russian System.
Anand’s black strategy wasn’t very different from Chennai and this was a surprise. This time he mixed the Berlin with the Sicilian, but people usually don’t play the Sicilian to get passive positions like the one he got in Game 6 from the Kan Variation. Surely they analysed it deeply and considered it holdable, perhaps he thought that with more confidence he can draw the inferior endgame, but why go there in the first place?
Much was said about the fateful Game 6 and indeed it proved decisive. Winning with black from a very dubious-looking position is huge in match play and undoubtedly it would have turned the fortunes of the players.
The mutual blunder in Game 6 was a cruel sign for Anand. When Fate unequivocally wants to show us she has made up her mind, she gives us a chance and watches us squander it. Anand had a unique opportunity, to win with black and take the lead in the match. But he didn’t take it, he only saw it after missing it and the inner flagellation that followed was inevitable. His inner peace was disturbed, he could not continue defending calmly and lost the game easily.
The inner peace was getting more and more difficult to maintain as the match progressed. The culmination happened in Game 11. Anand showed wonderful preparation in the Berlin and after 23…b5 he found himself in an unusual situation – for the first time in the match he got the initiative with black. Positive changes are also stressful and he had to adjust to playing for a win with black. The pressure led to loss of clarity in his thinking and the natural desire to defuse the tension as soon as possible. Keeping the tension is one of the most difficult things to do, waiting for the most appropriate moment to convert the advantage. This requires strong nerves and self-control, but Anand’s were shattered by this point and he obviously lost the self-control when he played the hasty 27…Rb4 and 28…cb4, his final mistake in this match.
Anand looked peaceful at that last press conference, content with the knowledge that this time he didn’t let himself down, he showed to himself that even though he may not be the best anymore he can still play with the best on equal terms.

Carlsen’s future lies in another direction. He has set his sights upon Kasparov’s record of 7 successful World Championship matches and even though the competition is getting stronger that will only serve as an additional motivation for him. The next match in 2016 should bring him a new opponent and a new challenge for which he will undoubtedly be more than ready.
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Magnus Carlsen’s Mysterious Magic

This is my first post in 2015 and the holidays are almost over, so I thought I’d start the year with some magic. 

 
The following game, or rather the 8 moves I’ll take a closer look at, left a deep impression when I first saw it years ago. It is still very difficult for me to understand what happened, even though it is possible to explain every single move taken on its own. But as a whole, it’s a mystery (Botvinnik said that it was possible to explain every game Fischer won against Taimanov and Larsen, but the total score of 12-0 was a mystery to him). Bear in mind that Jakovenko was rated 5th in the world at the time of the game.
 
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How is it possible to win a game like this? I don’t think I would have won this had I played against a player rated 200 rating points less than me and yet Carlsen beats world’s number 5 so easily! What does Carlsen do that the others don’t and how come it works for him and it doesn’t work for the others? I can see the logic and intention behind every move of his, as explained in the notes, I’m sure Jakovenko did it too, and yet he managed to lose in 2 moves (33…Kd6?!, 34…Ra6?). I don’t think he would have lost this had he played against Houdini or Stockfish or Kramnik. But against Carlsen he lost. Honestly, I think it’s impossible to explain why it happened and that’s why we call it mystery or magic. Or perhaps we should call it talent, or genius, which some individuals possess – take Fischer from the Botvinnik example above. And perhaps it’s even better that some things cannot be explained. In this period of festivity a little bit of magic is more than welcome.
 
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Young vs Old

Just before the Tashkent GP starts, I wanted to take a look at the recently finished matches of Giri (aged 20) vs Shirov (42) and Jobava (30) vs Timman (62). The identical score of 4.5-1.5 clearly showed the triumph of youth and the inevitable passing of time.

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?

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The Art of Learning

Just before the start of the Bilbaos I finished reading the book The Art of Learning written by IM Joshua Waitzkin. If the name of the author doesn’t ring a bell, Waitzkin is a former chess celebrity (if such exist!) and the subject of the Hollywood film Searching for Bobby Fischer.I’ve actually met Joshua in 1990 during the World Championship Under 14 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, we played tennis together. We also met 4 years later, in Szeged, Hungary, during the World Championship Under 18 and that was the last time I saw him.

Unable to withstand the pressure of celebrity lifestyle after the film came out, he left chess and went into Tai Chi Chuan. In the book he describes how he used the principles he knew from chess to become a World Champion in Tai Chi Push Hands.

It is a very interesting and thought-provoking book and one that gave me several ideas for my own further development. I have always considered chess as a means for personal growth because it gives me very precise feedback of my thought processes and the (inevitable) mistakes that are hidden there. “…chess became a form of psychoanalysis,” “[I] was discovering myself through chess”.

By unearthing these mistakes in my thinking I improve the quality of my thought process and this leads to higher quality of my moves and better results. This process of discovering and avoiding mistakes is general and can be applied to real life and here Waitzkin’s book comes to the fore. He formulates general principles and only uses chess and Tai Chi as examples to illustrate them.

I’ll touch upon several ideas from the book. One of them is the entity vs. incremental approaches with the conclusion (backed by scientific evidence) that the incremental approach is essential to continuous growth. To clarify, fixed entity approach means that the person is fixed in his/her understanding of their abilities (resulting in statements like “I’m smart”, “I’m dumb”) while the incremental approach is process-based (“if I work hard I can do this”) and mastery oriented. The people with the latter mental set-up react well to challenges and are open to constant learning.

Waitzkin discovered his “soft-zone”, the performance state he needs to be in in order to perform at his best and the book is designed to show the reader that he, too, can learn how to enter this zone. He describes how to build mental resilience and how to avoid the downward spiral of mistakes following one another.

He introduces several syntagms that were new to me, but whose concepts I recognised, like numbers leaving numbers (internalisation of technical information until it feels like natural intelligence), investment in loss (how by losing you become accustomed to stay relaxed under pressure), making smaller circles (depth over breadth, or condensing the feeling of what is right), seeing things in slow motion (when the unconscious takes care of most of the information the conscious can pay attention to the few small details and time seems to slow down).

Another idea that rang a bell was the chunking and the creation of carved neural pathways, something I read about in another great book, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and his discovery of the importance of myelin. Basically both authors talk about the same – when certain actions are drilled in so much, the brain creates super-fast connection inside (thanks to the myelin, which is reponsible for the transmission of the impulses) and they become our second nature.

Waitzkin also had contact with elite sport and performance psychologists and during the sessions they discovered that the quality of the thought process was higher when preceeded by a period of relaxation. This reminded me of Botvinnik’s pre-game routine when he would lie down and relax – the old man was intuitively onto something!

Another discovery he made, closely related to the one above, was the importance of recovery. The routine use of recovery periods – being able to relax in brief moments of inactivity – dramatically improved his performances. In chess this can be done during the game (relaxing when the opponent thinks) but also between the games during a tournament. While reading this I remembered that Fischer had this peculiar habit of napping in a middle of a conversation or whenever he felt like it. Kasparov also naps several times a day. And children are also very much in tune with their natural needs and often they can just lie down for a few moments before continuing their play (as observed when playing with my cousins). A related idea I had was the one of polyphasic sleep, but that’s an altogether different topic.

The book also gives advice how to build your trigger and achieve your peak state. First you should define a serene activity that you do in your life and then create a routine to reach it, internalise it and condense it.

The essence of the book can be summed up with the following quote: “Once you know what goodfeels like, you can zero in on it, search it out regardless of the pursuit.”

I really enjoyed reading the book (I read it in two days) because I’m always happy when I can gather ideas that inspire me. This book did just that.
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Perfect Coincidence

Those are the words that GM Chuchelov used to describe Caruana’s performance in the Sinquefield Cup. Chuchelov is a long-time coach of Caruana and he could not have been more succinct.

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!

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