Olimpiu G. Urcan
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Between November 12 and 22, 2013, like so many other chess players, we closely followed the world championship held in Chennai, India, between Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen. Ensconced in Singapore, 1,800 miles southeast of the seat of battle, we luckily were sheltered away from the terrific crises wrought by nature in the neighbouring lands: a powerful typhoon in the Philippines, multiple volcanic eruptions in the Indonesian islands, and massive storms battering the Indian coast. Perhaps Anand, too, feels battered by an elemental force.
While one could not help but remember Anand – Carlsen was the second world chess championship held in Asia (after Karpov – Korchnoi, Baguio City 1978), the increased interest on this continent in things chessic during the intervening thirty-five years, combined with the digital communications revolution, made an extraordinary difference. The publicity the Anand – Carlsen match obtained, on Asian television channels, newspapers, websites, and social media, appeared truly incredible. But compared to the slugfest of Karpov – Korchnoi 1978, what Anand – Carlsen 2013 gained in enviable and near instantaneous publicity and exposure, it lost in drama. Arguably the shortest world title match in history saw the Norwegian cruise to a confident 6½-3½ victory, leaving Anand's supporters baffled by their hero's impotence. Despite alleged record-high traffic, there was little to debate in the Twitter chatter, and the world's top connoisseurs were left to mostly tweet away to their armies of followers wise remarks, or Carlsen-related bits and comparisons. Devotees of more dramatic events, both on and off the chessboard, must have wished the 1978 Baguio City match had been played in the Age of Twitter. The notorious controversies in that spectacle would have been tailor-made for those obsessed with viewership ratings of all kinds.
Not surprisingly, considering the chess media's long-typical propensity for analogies, the newly crowned champion came in for many fast and loose comparisons with some of the past's greatest masters. Some comparisons were more apt than others. Our personal observation took in verbal contrasts and juxtapositions with no fewer than seven of Carlsen's great predecessors, including Paul Morphy, José Raúl Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Bobby Fischer, Vasily Smyslov, Anatoly Karpov and, of course, Garry Kasparov. Occasionally, commentators offered variations on this theme. One very notable one, in seeking an adequate Carlsen comparison, yoked together two previous world champions. On November 15, 2013, Kasparov tweeted that he "once described him [Carlsen] as Capablanca with the will of Alekhine." Another pundit, Susan Polgar, one of the commentators during the live broadcast of Game 10, made use of commercial product language, the lingo of soaps and cell phone sales: she described Carlsen as "an improved version of Bobby Fischer." Indeed, long before the contest in Chennai started, really over-the-top comparisons, truly reaching the heights of the nonsensical, were crowding the digital scene, including the odd (in more ways than one) invoking of Justin Bieber and Harry Potter.
Yet even if sometimes misplaced, the comparisons with the game's most illustrious icons are understandable. The almost compulsive desire to compare the present with the past has long been part of the game's talk, its genial prattle and patter, if you will. Pundits keenly replace the old with the new, and have ever done so, as in the case of young Lasker's dethroning of an ageing Steinitz in 1894. One difference today, though, is that both the chess community and the world at large, connected to events by increasingly varied and widespread media, interpret matters more sharply to their own ends. The young chess genius, riding his meteoric rise, develops not only a large following within the chess fraternity, who set about comparing him to the past in order to make chess sense of his accomplishments, but among the world at large, which has far less historical sense, if any sense at all.
The chess community stands in a unique position to its subject compared to the followers of other sports and arts. Unlike the general statistics of a game like soccer, or the subjective appraisals provided by the critics of art, the knowledgeable in chess have their indispensable game databases and literature upon which to model comparisons. Much of this knowledge permeates multiple forms, ranging from the basic study of tactics to the highly advanced and esoteric realm of grandmaster opening preparation. Schoolboys and girls can quickly learn a few facts about Paul Morphy and his play in the process of learning the game, an aspect much rarer in other pastimes. Consider, for instance, how unlikely it would be for a child to learn about golf champions of the 1860s, even in passing, while learning the basics of that game. Unlike in many other sports, history and memory are an intrinsic part of chess, although admittedly, the history of chess rarely receives the respect and care to which some consider it entitled. And sometimes the lack of historical knowledge is embarrassingly transparent. Consider the Indian International Master Tania Sachdev, one of the live commentators during the match, who on November 21 professed her utmost admiration for Bobby Fischer, her chess idol, only to smilingly, and inanely, add that "Fischer came from a country where chess had no history at all."
While players and commentators in chess have an incredibly rich body of knowledge from which to draw detailed comparisons, there is also a natural wish to see the game of chess become more mainstream. We want others to like what we like. The desire to popularize the game, of course, is also a desire to see the chess world benefit from the enormous capital that might accrue should chess become one of the more popular sports or arts. For this latter purpose, Carlsen, given his athletic looks and brief modelling stint for G-Star Raw, cannot be just another Morphy or Capablanca, or even both: for better or worse, his image for the non-chess world has to be associated with someone else, someone with whom the young and more mainstream sponsors and media might identify. Or at least recognize. So far, the mainstream media seems divided between the Bieber and the Potter models, but hopefully it will settle on one more appropriate for a unique figure such as Carlsen. For he clearly is neither the one nor the other, the Bieber or the Potter, the teenage heart throb whose image, however growingly tarnished, still appears as a screensaver for millions of teenage Asian girls, or the cartoonish fantasy character, who through witchcraft and wizardry geeks his way through life solving problems with the wave of a magic wand or the flourish of a flying broom.
Youth is the common ingredient in such projections. Despite being nothing alike, both Bieber and Potter-based fantasies share it. Carlsen is indeed young (turning twenty-three on November 30, slightly more than a week after securing the world title) and there is certainly much to say about his trajectory, his evolution and change, over the past decade. But, and we believe this an essential point, the most qualified comparisons should also take into consideration actual chess skill and evolution of style. In our view – and we hope readers will forgive us our own shot at tying the present to the past, as promised in our title – the exquisite endgame skill displayed in the fourth, fifth, and sixth games against Anand brought to mind José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942), the youthful Cuban genius (born in the same month as Carlsen) who took Europe by storm in the 1910s, wrestled the world title from Lasker at the end of a titanic struggle in Havana in 1921 (9-5) and dominated his generation in unprecedented fashion. The comparison extends to matters of personal style as well, when one considers the young Capablanca's looks and charisma, his large appeal inside and outside the relatively small chess fraternity of the 1910s-1920s, and the media frenzy around his persona. But the strongest elements of comparison rest in the remarkable positional piece flow and endgame wizardry displayed by both. In a computerized age where obsession with advanced opening preparation dominates the game, paradoxically, Carlsen succeeds by apparently paying relatively little attention to it. He manoeuvres his opponents into seemingly tranquil middlegames and endgames, but ones with abundant chances for them to go wrong, leaving expert commentators baffled by how someone so young can play a kind of game seemingly so old. Once again history goes round. Blackburne groused about Capablanca's 1921 victory over Lasker, dismissing it, as he did in The Observer of December 4, 1921, as nothing more than "superior woodshifting." Capablanca's reply to this criticism, extracted from a letter to The Observer published on January 15, 1922, with a little tweaking itself, might also speak for Carlsen: "It seems that the difficult art of accumulating small advantages and of turning the slightest slip of the opponent into a won game is not properly understood by [some]," wrote the then-new world champion. "With regard to my own playing during the match, the score is my best argument. I had to play to win, not to please the fancy of a few people."
Capablanca games offer the most substantial material for those wishing to proceed with more competent comparisons. Below, we select the score of a lesser-known Capablanca game played in Paris in September 1919 against a consultation team as part of a two-board simultaneous exhibition, with clocks. Capablanca won both. The game first appeared in the American Chess Bulletin, December 1919, at page 265. When Edward Winter reproduced it on page 99 of his magnificent Capablanca (1989), he called it "a victory through sheer technique." It is certainly reminiscent of Carlsen's tranquil style:
A. Aurbach & W. Bienstock – José Raúl Capablanca
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Bb4!?
Capablanca used this move in a couple of games against Juan Corzo in 1909.
In the above-mentioned encounters Capablanca played 4...Ba5.
5.Nxe5!? (a rare try in master tournaments) can lead to some massive complications.
A) For example, 5...Nxe5 6.d4 c6 7.Ne3 Nf6! (7...Bd6?! 8.Nf5 Bf8 9.dxe5 Qa5+ 10.Bd2 Qxe5 11.Qf3!) 8.dxc5 Qa5+ 9.c3 Qxc5 10.Nf5 0-0 11.f3 d5 12.Qd4 Qxd4 13.Ne7+ Kh8 14.cxd4 Ng6 15.Nxg6+ fxg6 16.e5 Nh5 17.Bd2 and White has some reasons to be content.
B) 5...Bxf2+ is the other main alternative: 6.Kxf2 Nxe5 7.d4 Ng6 8.h4!? c6 (8...Nxh4? 9.Qg4 Ng6 10.Bg5 f6 11.Qg3 with a strong initiative for White.) 9.h5 cxd5 10.hxg6 fxg6 11.exd5 Qf6+ 12.Qf3 d6 13.Be3 with chances for both in this seemingly equal position.
5...d6 6.d3 Na5!? 7.Bb3
7.b4 seems best met by 7...c6! 8.bxc5 Nxc4 9.dxc4 cxd5 10.Qxd5 Qa5+ 11.Bd2 Qxc5 12.Qxc5 dxc5 13.Nxe5 Be6 and White cannot be too happy with his queenside pawn structure.
7...Nxb3 8.axb3 c6 9.Nc3
9.Ne3 was a good choice as well.
9...Ne7 10.d4 exd4 11.Nxd4 0-0 12.0-0
This move secures a healthy queenside pawn majority in the final stage of the game.
13.Bg5 h6 14.Bxe7 Qxe7 15.Nxf5 Bxf5 16.exf5 Rxf5 17.Na4 Rd5 18.Qg4 Rf8 19.Nxc5 Rxc5 20.c3
20.Rxa7 favours Black: 20...Rxc2 21.h4 Rxb2 22.Qb4 Rf7.
Perhaps too passive.
21.Rxa7? is a gross error because of 21...Rxf2.
21.f3 would have invited 21...Qe3+ 22.Kh1 Rg5 23.Qc4+ d5 24.Qh4 Qd2 25.Rf2 Qd3 26.h3 Re8 27.f4 Rf5 28.Rxa7 Qd1+ 29.Kh2 Qxb3 which was still better than the text.
21...Rd5 22.Qc2 a6 23.Rae1 Re5 24.Rxe5 Qxe5 25.Qd2 Re8 26.Rd1 d5 27.b4 Qe2 28.h3 Qxd2 29.Rxd2 Re1+ 30.Kh2 Kf7 31.Kg3 Kf6 32.Kf3 Ke5 33.Rd4
The queenside pawns start to add a lot of pressure on White's fragile structure on that side of the board.
34.Rd3 Rb1 35.Re3+ Kd6 36.Re2 c5 37.bxc5+ bxc5 38.Ke3 c4!?
An unusual move to make at least aesthetically speaking.
38...a5 or 38...g5 were more obvious choices giving Black just a slight edge.
39.Kd4 looks like an obvious choice, but after 39...a5 40.h4 Rd1+ 41.Ke3 Rd3+ 42.Kf4 a4 43.Rc2 d4 Black gets what he wants anyway.
39...g6 40.h4 a5
Was this really necessary?
With 41.Kg4! a4 42.h5 gxh5+ (42...g5 43.f4 gxf4 44.Kxf4 Rc1 45.Kf5 Kc5 46.Re8 seems just equal. ) 43.Kxh5 Rc1 44.f4 a3 45.bxa3 Rxc3 46.f5 d4 47.f6 Re3! (47...Rg3 leads to a draw as well: 48.f7 Rg5+ 49.Kxh6 Rf5 50.Kg6 Rf1 51.Re8 c3 52.Rc8 Ke7 53.Rc7+ Kd6 54.Rc4 Kd5 55.Rc8) 48.Rxe3 dxe3 49.Kg6 e2 50.f7 e1Q 51.f8Q+ Qe7 52.Qf4+ Kd5 White can hold this to a draw.
41...gxh5 42.Kf5 a4 43.Kg6 Rc1!?
43...d4!? seems sufficient for a win: 44.cxd4 Ra1 45.Re8 (45.Kxh6? Ra2!; 45.Rc2 Kd5! 46.f4 Ra2 47.f5 a3) 45...Ra2 46.Rd8+ Kc7 47.Ra8 a3! 48.bxa3 Rxf2 49.Ra4 Rxg2+ 50.Kxh6 Rc2 51.Kxh5 Kd6 52.Kg4 Kd5 53.Kf3 Kxd4 54.Ra7 c3 55.Rd7+ Kc4 56.Ke3 Ra2 57.Rc7+ Kb3.
44.f4 a3 45.bxa3 Rxc3 46.f5 Rxa3 47.Re6+ Kc5 0-1
It appears that here the players having White resigned. They could have tried a little bit more: 48.f6 Rg3+ 49.Kxh6 Rxg2 50.f7 Rf2 51.Kg6 Rxf7 52.Kxf7 h4 53.Re8 c3 54.Ke6 h3 55.Rc8+ Kd4 56.Rd8 c2 57.Rxd5+ Kc3 58.Rc5+ Kb3 59.Rb5+ Ka4 60.Rc5 h2 61.Rxc2 h1Q and, with a minimum of technique, Black wins.
Past Pieces #53 (Ebook)
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© 2013 Olimpiu G. Urcan & BrainGamz, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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Olimpiu G. Urcan is the author of Arthur Kaufmann: A Chess Biography, 1872-1938 (2012) and other books by McFarland Inc. Publishers. Follow his chess history updates on Twitter: @OlimpiuUrcan.
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