Culture and Civilisations

Beyond Carlsen: the devaluation of the World Chess Championship

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Beyond Carlsen: the devaluation of the World Chess Championship

For a number of reasons, the game of chess has become unprecedentedly popular, partly due to enthusiasts and serious players alike turning to online play on a plethora of websites that established themselves during the pandemic. In parallel, new players have also been drawn in, due to the instrumental and sensational success of Netflix’s Queens Gambit series.

Another contributing element has been the creation of the AlphaZero chess-playing engine, with its amazing abilities, including an almost vertical learning curve, resulting in the strongest chess-playing entity the world has ever seen. The science has primarily been the work of Demis Hassabis, rewarded with the CBE for his efforts, and a $400 million sale to Google of his company, Deep Mind. The achievements of Demis, and the brilliantly quasi illogical strategies and tactics of AlphaZero, were likewise already covered in my column “ Arise Sir Demis ”. The games were contested against the most powerful available commercial chess programme, called Stockfish — itself many times stronger than the IBM Deep Blue programme which defeated Garry Kasparov himself in 1997.

The 1993 World Title Challenger, the British Grandmaster Nigel Short, described the AlphaZero games as being of such beauty that he felt he was in the presence of God. Demis himself explained that his self-taught programme, which had already mastered the near infinite complexities of the oriental games of Shogi (Japanese Chess) and Go, was the key to understanding intelligence itself.

But the rise of the all-conquering thinking engines has been a double-edged sword, arguably undermining the prestige of the human world champion. Further recent developments have reinforced this perception and the aura of the human world chess championship has consistently declined. 

This week I return to a further contributing development, the meteoric rise, lasting domination, but sudden abdication of the Norwegian World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen. 

The culmination of a long line of champions, which stretches back into the 18th century, Carlsen is also a uniquely talented representative of the modern era. Magnus has attained the highest-ever chess rating recorded, outclassing even the mighty Kasparov.

Magnus wins virtually every competition which he enters, and has adapted seamlessly to the coronavirus crisis, which, as we have seen, has obliged chess to migrate online to a huge extent. Magnus has prudently avoided the damage to his reputation occasioned by suffering defeats against chess computers, a fate which overtook both Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik. Finally, Magnus has leveraged all the opportunities afforded by his title of World Chess Champion, adapting perfectly to the modern environment, even to the extent of floating his online chess company, Play Magnus, for $85 million dollars, while simultaneously earning a fortune as a trendy ambassador for the fashion line G-Star Raw, often appearing alongside the Hollywood superstar Liv Tyler.

The title of World Chess Champion dates to no later than 1886, when Wilhelm Steinitz defeated Johannes Zukertort in a gladiatorial contest, specifically designed to resolve the question of who was the strongest player in the world after Paul Morphy’s death in 1884, though Steinitz had claimed that status since 1866. Less clear is whether the great predecessors of Steinitz also merited that proud title. Part of the difficulty of authentication is lack of evidence of important contests and gaps in the record.  

The story begins in the 18th century, when the French chess expert François-André Danican Philidor won an important match in 1747 against the erudite Philip Stamma, translator of oriental languages to the court of King George II. Sadly, none of those games has survived. Following Philidor, who died in 1795, there comes a hiatus, until the brief flourishing of La Bourdonnais during the 1830s. After this, there is a further gap in the record until the 1840s, when the French heir to the Philidor tradition, Saint-Amant, was overthrown in Paris, the epicentre of European chess life at that time, by the English champion Howard Staunton.  

Fortunately, from Staunton onwards, there is a relatively unbroken line of succession, with each champion being dethroned by the next in line. The exceptions are the trinity of Morphy, Fischer (both of whom simply downed tools), and Alekhine (who died in office), thus permanently preserving their hallowed nimbus of invincibility. Until the death of Alekhine, the title was in effect the personal property of the champion himself.

The first great player who could be considered a World Champion was Philidor, who dominated the chess scene of his day. The term “World Champion” was not used when describing him, with commentators preferring to employ such metaphors as “wielding the sceptre”. There is also the problem that very few of Philidor’s games on level terms have survived, his reputation largely being constructed on his blindfold simultaneous displays, which so electrified London chess enthusiasts. Philidor was able to conduct three games blindfold at once, a feat that led to a letter of admonishment from the French encyclopaedist, Denis Diderot, warning Philidor that such exploits might lead to brain damage.

It is interesting to note that Philidor was the first great apostle of pawn power in chess. According to Philidor, pawns determined the structure of the game; they were in fact “the soul of chess”, not mere cannon fodder, whose sole task was to make way for the power of the pieces. In this respect his chess teachings paralleled the rise of the masses embodied in the French Revolution of 1789.

France was the dominant chess nation at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the next player after Philidor who could be considered an early world champion was the 19th-century French master Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais. His claim to fame rests primarily on his mammoth series of matches against Alexander McDonnell, contested in London in 1834. This represented the finest corpus of games ever created up to that time and numerous generations of chess devotees learned their basic chess strategies and tactics from these ingenious and well contested battles. Both protagonists appear to have become mentally exhausted by their efforts and died shortly after their epic series.

In the panoply of proto-champions, Howard Staunton, the Victorian polymath, Shakespearean scholar, and assiduous chronicler of the English schools system, is the only English player who could legitimately be considered as world champion. In a series of matches between 1843 and 1846, Staunton defeated the French master Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant, followed closely by victories against the German master Bernhard Horwitz and Daniel Harrwitz, originally from Poland. Staunton’s match against Saint-Amant was the first contest at the highest level that closely resembled the template for modern World Championship competitions. The design of chess pieces in regular use for important competitions, including the 2018 London contest between Carlsen and his challenger, Fabiano Caruana, are named the Staunton pattern, after Howard Staunton.  

The German master Adolf Anderssen seized the sceptre from Howard Staunton when he decisively defeated the English champion in the very first international tournament in London 1851. Anderssen was one of that select group, which includes Mikhail Botvinnik and Viswanathan Anand, who initially assumed the accolade of supreme chess master from a tournament rather than a match. The London event was in fact put together by Staunton, who thereby created a perfect pretext for losing out to Anderssen in their knockout match, it being notoriously difficult to compete in an event, whilst simultaneously organising it.

Paul Morphy was the American meteor who took the world by storm over the two momentous, whirlwind years of 1857 and 1858. His grand tour of Europe culminated in a match victory against Adolf Anderssen, after which Morphy was universally acknowledged as the world’s greatest player. Thereafter Morphy issued a challenge to anyone in the world to take him on at odds (Morphy starting the game with a pawn handicap) but no one accepted. At this point the meteor had burnt itself out and Morphy, tragically, retired from chess, a curious forerunner of Bobby Fischer’s behaviour following his famous 1972 World Championship victory against Boris Spassky.

Morphy understood the principles of chess better than anyone who came before him. Anderssen’s tactical brilliance sprang like Athene from the head of Zeus, without necessarily having grown from regular organic pre-conditions. Morphy, on the other hand, constructed his positions along sound strategic and positional lines, before unleashing his devastating arsenal of tactical weaponry. On Morphy’s retirement, Anderssen resumed the position of world leadership which had belonged so fleetingly to the first great genius of American chess.

Anderssen can claim to be one of the supreme tacticians of all time. Three of his wins are of imperishable beauty. On their own they would justify anyone’s devotion to chess. They are his Immortal Game against Kieseritsky (played at Simpsons-in-the-Strand, not the tournament) of London, 1851; his Evergreen game against the pseudonymous Dufresne (in reality the German player E. S. Freund) of Berlin 1856, and his majestic sacrificial masterpiece against Zukertort of Breslau, 1869. 

Anderssen lost a match in 1866 to Wilhelm Steinitz, the first player who could definitively be described as an official World Champion. The previous wielders of the sceptre, Philidor, La Bourdonnais, Staunton, Morphy and Anderssen himself, were all, at the time, acknowledged as the leading chess practitioners of their day, but it is less clear that the title “world champion” had been universally accepted. Steinitz, on the other hand, insisted on this description and he himself dated his tenure from his 1866 match victory, also in London, against Anderssen. Steinitz’s pre-eminence was confirmed 20 years later when he demolished Johannes Zukertort in their 1886 match in the US, which was the first to be specifically described as a World Championship contest.  

Thus if the 18th century laid the foundations for a world championship, it was the 19th century that grounded the roots. The 20th century maintained the volcanic procession of greats with the colossus Emanuel Lasker spanning the fin de siècle.  Capablanca, Alekhine, Botvinnik, Karpov, and Kasparov dominated nearly all of this most modern epoch, with Anand bridging the 20th and 21st centuries. In this century, there has been one single force irrésistible in the form of Magnus Carlsen.

From 1946 onwards the prestige of the world title was largely upheld by the world governing body FIDÉ and partly by my own organisations, which carried the torch in 1993 (Kasparov v Short) and 2000 (Kasparov v Kramnik).

However, in recent years, primarily during the reign of Carlsen, the length of the championship match has shrunk from its traditional 24 games to a mere 12 (plus rapid play offs). The most recent world championship match, staged in Dubai last year, was run entirely under the auspices of FIDÉ, the authority of which is now universally accepted under the Presidency of the Russian Arkady Dvorkovich.

The implication is that chess at this exalted level is a sport, both mental and physical – an appropriately termed Mind Sport. As the Championship was in process a wonderful flash of confirmatory news emerged from the media: Magnus Carlsen was nominated, in Norway, to win the Sports Personality of the Year. This Championship had emerged as a real Battle of the Titans.  Magnus had now won five world title bouts, twice versus Anand, once each against Karjakin , Caruana and Nepomniachtchi. Two ended with the tie-breaks, at which Magnus excels. On the second such occasion, Magnus praised Fabiano, as being his most difficult opponent.

With victory in Dubai, Magnus had secured his tenure as World Champion until 2023. He would then have held the title for 10 years, thus moving into an equal category of championship longevity with such greats as Capablanca, Petrosian, Karpov , Kramnik and Anand, ahead of the short-lived tenures of Euwe, Smyslov, Tal, Spassky and Fischer. Only Steinitz, Lasker, Alekhine, Botvinnik, and Kasparov held the title for significantly longer periods. In the modern world, where everything has speeded up, could Carlsen go on to outperform all these titans?  

The answer we now know to be: no.

In abdicating the title Carlsen has left ambiguity over whether he will return.   Had he, with Boris Johnson, mimicked the Terminator’s popular quip (“Hasta la vista, Baby”), we could still wonder whether this was just goodbye or, alternatively, see you later. Carlsen’s farewell, though, seems a touch more final. 

This week s final game exemplifies the key ingredients of a Magnus triumph. The game was the decisive win which clinched Magnus World Title defence against the notorious Putin supporter Sergei Karjakin. Just as Karjakin seemed on the point of gaining counterplay, Magnus struck his rival down with a surprise Queen sacrifice.

Unlike Karjakin and Caruana, his two previous counterparts in contesting the crown, Ian Nepomniachtchi has maintained his challengers form into a second successive cycle. He has earned his right to lay down another challenge, but should this prove unsuccessful, we must wonder what transformation would await the world of Caissa if Ding Liren (the runner-up in the qualifying tournament, pictured above) were to prove victorious in the now mandatory ersatz championship against Nepomniachtchi. Could Ding be crowned the first Chinese World Champion in classical chess ?

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Blackwells .

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