When chess is war



03, Dec 2016

It took nearly three weeks for world champion Norwegian Magnus Carlsen to defend his championship against the determined and talented Russian challenger, Sergey Karjakin. The air was thick with tension and politics polarized chess enthusiasts. Carlsen and Karjakin are portrayed as competitors with a stark contrast – be it their chess strategies or their personalities. Vladimir Putin wants Karjakin to make Russia the dominant Chess force again. But he will have to wait.

What kept the atmosphere nail-biting on Wednesday?

The performances of the two players and the parallel to history kept chess enthusiasts and Russians on the edge of their seats till the last moment.

  • At 26, Carlsen and Karjakin became the youngest pair of competitors in the world championship.
  • There was a chance – though a very remote one – when the day dawned of the players having to battle it all the way up to the sudden-death game. Sudden-death would be the ultimate test if both players managed to survive the previous rounds. The player with the white pieces would be allowed five minutes to make the moves while the opponent would be given four minutes. A draw would mean a victory for the player with black pieces. Sudden-death or not, after nearly three grueling weeks Wednesday was the day a winner would ultimately emerge.
  • The political aspect reared its head several times – the venue choice at a time when the US-Russia relations might take a break from their long-strained past, the presence of a pro-Putin challenger and Putin’s active interest in this game and the comparisons to the clash in the times of Cold War between American Bobby Fischer and Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky in 1972.
  • This championship happened when the political and diplomatic tensions between US, Europe and Russia are palpable.

Why did this game matter so much to Russia?

Russia has made it known that there is no title it does not have a birthright to. One has witnessed this intensity in the Olympics and at the Eurovision singing contest. The urge was amplified all the more when it came to a chess championship.

  • Chess fuels the national pride in Russia and earns a unique place among Russians. From 1958-2000, the championships have been won by Soviet Union and Russian grandmasters with the exception of a three-year period.
  • Soviet Union wielded its prowess in chess as a propaganda weapon. It allowed the Soviets to present their mastery in the game as an example of the triumph of communist ideology over the unprincipled West.
  • But their aura of triumph was shattered in 1972 when Boris Spassky, the Soviet Union's defending champion, lost to Bobby Fischer, the American challenger in the “Match of the Century”. Fischer defended the title for three years.
  • After this break, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov created an era for themselves. The last Russian to hold a world chess championship was Vladimir Kramnik.

When did this long fight begin?

The duel began on November 11 in Manhattan and each competitor made the most of the smallest advantages that would prompt his opponent into making silly mistakes.

  • Chess experts had foreseen Carlsen’s victory as a given but Karjakin proved to be a resilient challenger.
  • It took seven stalemate games (the player cannot move except into a check position) before Karjakin gained an edge with black pieces and led the match with the score at 4.5-3.5. The ninth game finished in a draw after 74 moves.
  • The tenth game was long and Carlsen turned the tables in his favor with a 75-move victory and tied the match at 5-5.
  • The outcome of the 11th and 12th games in the 12 match series left neither player as the winner. In Game 11, Carlsen seemed to be at some advantage but it was not enough. The 12th game was expected to be a suspense churner but lasted only for 35 minutes and left fans disappointed at the 30-move draw. Experts had expected much more in this final clash but the game proved to be quite dry.

It was only in the 16th game that Carlsen with his stunning 50th move of his queen to the h6 square put Karjakin in check.

Where are the objections to rapid fire tie breakers?

Many chess champions feel the “fast chess” games with very short time controls cannot be considered as serious games. They do not enable the supreme struggle between two grandmasters like the game between Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov more than twenty years ago – the match went on for five months and did not finish even after that, the global governing body had to take a stand in the interest of the players’ health. The tiebreaker games that determined the 2016 World Chess Champion would have horrified some chess champions. Some of their comments include:

  • "Rapid and blitz chess are first of all for enjoyment." - Magnus Carlsen
  • "Playing rapid chess, one can lose the habit of concentrating for several hours in serious chess. That is why, if a player has big aims, he should limit his rapid play in favour of serious chess." – Vladimir Kramnik
  • "Blitz chess kills your ideas." – Bobby Fischer
  • "I play way too much blitz chess. It rots the brain just as surely as alcohol." – Nigel Short
  • "[Blitz] is just getting positions where you can move fast. I mean, it's not chess." – Hikaru Nakamura

Who is Magnus Carlsen?

Some people think that if their opponent plays a beautiful game, it’s OK to lose. I don’t. You have to be merciless.” – Magnus Carlsen

A favorite of chess fans, sponsors and federations in the West, he is an esteemed and popular chess star.

  • He attained grandmaster status in 2004 aged 13, becoming the third-youngest to reach that level. He became world champion in November 2013 by defeating India’s Viswanathan Anand and held all three world championship titles – World Chess Champion, World Blitz Champion and World Rapid Champion in 2014. On the May 2014 FIDE rating list, Carlsen reached his peak Elo rating of 2882, which is the highest in history.
  • He opens his game in a variety of ways and this gives him an edge over opponents. He has been compared with Bobby Fischer, José Raúl Capablanca, Vasily Smyslov, and Anatoly Karpov because he excels in positional play (characterized by long-term strategy for an edge over the opponent rather than short-term attacks and threats) and is a powerful endgame (when there are only a few pieces left on the board) player.
  • He is banked on as the “poster boy” of chess – someone who can bring an uber-cool image to the game. He believes and wants to show that “smart is the new sexy”. His popularity as a chess player and part time model is said to have instilled a recent craze for the game among Norwegians.

He successfully defended his World Championship on November 30, his 26th birthday, against Sergey Karjakin and after the match said it was the most difficult of his championship matches. He added, “I’m very happy that at the end of the match I managed to find joy in playing. That’s the most important thing.

Magnus is a great player. He has a lot of strong skills. He is a brilliant technical player. Also he fights for the initiative very well. He sees tactics excellently. So he doesn’t have many weaknesses. But still, he is a human, not a computer, and he also sometimes makes mistakes and loses. So I will study his games hard and try to find any weaknesses if I can. – Sergey Karjakin.

Note: The Elo rating system is a method for calculating the relative skill levels of players in competitor-versus-competitor games such as chess. The difference in the ratings between two players serves as a predictor of the outcome of a match. A player's Elo rating is represented by a number which increases or decreases depending on the outcome of games between rated players. After every game, the winning player takes points from the losing one.

How is Sergey Karjakin different from Carlsen?

Karjakin is a Putin favorite.

  • He earned the grandmaster title at the age of twelve and created a new record for the youngest to have done so. He won the 2012 World Rapid Chess Championship and the Chess World Cup 2015.
  • He is known to place himself at an advantage with strong opening preparation. He is also known for his exceptional ability to bring the match to a draw.
  • Amiable and conventional is how he has been described by the media. He is said to have emphasized – in outlook and lifestyle – that his traditional Russian background is greatly understated.
  • He was born and brought up in Ukraine but is an open admirer of Putin and supports Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He took Russian citizenship in 2009 and is depicted as “more Putin than Putin”.
  • When Carlsen made his bold and beautiful winning move and Karjakin realized any of his countermoves would lead to defeat, he resigned and shook hands with Carlsen and then wished him a happy 26th birthday. After the game he said he may have over-prepared at the cost of his creativity.

Karjakin is defensive, tenacious and has a great ability to find positions he can defend even if they may look ugly. – Magnus Carlsen

The two seemed to be more focused on ‘defeating the other’ than on winning the championship. Carlsen has won the championship, but Karjakin has vowed he will avenge his defeat soon.

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Tags | Carlsen championship Chess Karjakin Magnus Carlsen Putin Russia