Culture and Civilisations

Dubious Battel

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Dubious Battel

(Alamy)

“That with the Mightiest raised me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits armed,
That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power opposed,
In dubious battel on the plains of Heaven,
And shook his throne.”
—John Milton, Paradise Lost

Dubai is the venue for the World Chess Championship which started yesterday and continues until one player scores 7.5 points or until December 15th, if tiebreaks are required. Yesterday’s game can be found here, as can all subsequent encounters in the contest. 

The match pits Magnus Carlsen from Norway, the highest-rated player in the history of chess and World Champion since 2014, against the Russian Grandmaster, Ian Nepomniachtchi (known as “Nepo”), who for obscure bureaucratic reasons has been forced to play under a neutral flag. This is connected with general Russian drugs infractions in sport, so an official fudge has been put in place to permit Russian participation.

As usual with bureaucracies, the legislation misses the target. No leading chessplayer would ever risk taking drugs or, of course, any mind altering substance. The principal problem with cheating in chess is connected with illicit transmission of computerised advice. However, neither mental matador in Dubai would conceivably stoop to such subterfuge and in any case Fidé, the world chess federation, already has sufficient measures in place to police against any such infringement. 

The chessboard styles of the two could not be more different. Carlsen is a devotee of lengthy wars of attrition, in the same mould as such great predecessors as Emanuel Lasker and Anatoly Karpov. Nepo, in contrast, plays more aggressively, openly and fluently, clearly influenced by the legendary Bobby Fischer.

Who will win? 

My heart says Carlsen, while my head also says Carlsen, probably by a score of 7.5 to 5.5. We shall see… One thing is for sure: a world championship match brings out two elements, the first being a feast for lovers of statistics. For this constituency I can point out the amazing popularity of chess at this time, largely connected to 21st century technology.

When Garry Kasparov lost to the IBM computer Deep Blue in 1997, many so-called experts predicted the death of chess. In contrast, in my lecture of that year to the Royal Institution, I predicted that technology would make chess more popular. Furthermore, as long as young people continued to take an interest in the game, doubtless encouraged by easy access to opponents via that technology, then the future held out glorious prospects for a game which has been played for almost two millennia. Both predictions have been proven correct — in spades — to mix my gaming metaphors.

A case in point was that of then nine-year-old Shreyas Royal, recently — as the pleasing result of a campaign launched publicly in the Times — granted a visa to stay in the UK on account of his precocious chess talent. And Shreyas is just one of numerous pre-teenagers who have developed colossal skill at a very early age.

Returning to my words of encouragement for the stats community, chess can now boast 11 million games played online, worldwide every day; 600 million active chess players and no fewer than one billion smartphones in use with chess apps.

Secondly, a world chess championship emphasises the mystique of chess, its romance, its awesome mathematics and its amazing feats, which regularly astound the general public, such as the ability to play multiple games simultaneously, without sight of the board and pieces. I myself have faced 19 opponents in this fashion, at one and the same time, but that is modest, vestigial even, compared with the true experts of this genre, who are pushing this feat in the direction of facing 100 sighted opponents.

Then there is the seemingly magical ability of the chess maestros to calculate many moves ahead in their mind’s eye, conjuring forth possibilities and variations way beyond the vision of the average enthusiast. Indeed, there are more possible chess games than there are atoms in the visible universe.

Finally, there is the aesthetic dimension: chess in literature and art.

Shakespeare mentions chess both in The Tempest and in King John. Chess appears in at least one Sherlock Holmes story, while authors of the rank of Stefan Zweig, Vladimir Nabokov, Elias Canetti, and Jorge Luis Borges have all evinced a fascination with chess, the last named as part of his intoxication with the concept of the infinite. On stage Sir Tim Rice and the male half of ABBA wrote “CHESS: The Musical, a dramatisation of the complex lives of Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky and Viktor Korchnoi. It was, appropriately, revived for the stage of London English National Opera, to packed houses, in 2018, thus creating one of the two great chess attractions in London that year, the other, of course, being the previous world championship match between Carlsen and Caruana.

There is no doubt that the title of World Chess Champion dates back to no later than 1886,when Wilhelm Steinitz defeated Johannes Zukertort in a gladiatorial contest, specifically designed to resolve that question. Less clear is whether the great predecessors of Steinitz also merited that proud title. Part of the difficulty of authentication is lack of evidence for contests and gaps in the record.

Thus, François-André Danican Philidor won an important match against the erudite Philip Stamma, translator of oriental languages to the court of  King George II. Sadly, none of those games has survived, and Philidor’s legacy consists largely of offhand, blindfold and odds games. Following Philidor, there comes a hiatus, until the brief efflorescence of Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais during the 1830s. After this, there is a further gap in the record, until the French heir to the Philidor tradition, Pierre St 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 Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer, who simply downed tools, and Alexander Alekhine, who died in office, thus permanently preserving their hallowed nimbus of invincibility.

Scandinavia has bred and hosted some formidable grandmasters, starting with Aron Nimzowitsch and Rudolf Spielmann, both émigrés from defunct European empires, who respectively sought asylum in Denmark and Sweden. Their inspirational activity doubtless helped to propel Bent Larsen, Fridrik Olafsson, Ulf Andersson and Johann Hjartarson to world status. The last named once eliminated Viktor Korchnoi from the world championship cycle. 

Yet Carlsen is the first Norwegian to hit the big time in world chess. His prodigious talent became evident at an early age and predictions that he would inevitably win the world title were rife. With seeming inevitability, Carlsen won the London 2013 Candidates tournament, went on to defeat Anand on two occasions and, in his most recent title defences before London, he warded off challenges from Sergey Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana. It should be noted, though, that both of these contests in New York 2016 and London 2018, came right down to the wire, and could only be settled by the rapidplay tie-breaks. 

Carlsen’s style is inspired by the psychology of the maximalist Emanuel Lasker, combined with the technique of such filigree strategists as the more conservative and cautious Capablanca, Petrosian and Karpov. However, it  may well be that Carlsen has inherited the skill of these great predecessors, but without that willingness to take risks, to wrestle on the brink of the precipice, which also characterised the victories of Lasker himself.

The previous challenger, Caruana, sees the champion’s chief strength as his powerful, dominating presence and over the board charisma. Viktor Korchnoi once claimed that Carlsen hypnotises his opponents to make them blunder. Caruana does not hold any truck with such mysticism. He respects Carlsen’s profound chess knowledge and admires his flawless technique. Caruana is also well aware of the sheer physical challenge of facing the same devastatingly remorseless and terrifyingly accurate opponent across the board hour after hour.

Nepo’s mental preparation will, accordingly take account of the champion’s liking for grinding out interminable victories, forever probing here and there for the slightest weakness, while keeping all the balls in the air and avoiding any path which might fizzle out to sterile equality, hence a drawn outcome. In this context it is worth consulting the opinion of another former challenger to Carlsen, Sergey Karjakin: “The whole concept has changed! Now the main concept is to get a playable position and maintain the tension.”

The format for this contest is the best of 14 games, played at classical time limits, with 7.5 points being sufficient for victory. Should the main match conclude in a tie, then there will be a single day of rapid play shoot-outs to determine the title. It is, of course, debatable as to whether this is the optimum format, or whether superior frameworks are available.

In the past, a maximum of 24 games has tended to be the norm, though there have been monster marathons of 32, 34 and even 48 games, in matches featuring José Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Viktor Korchnoi, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. My research indicates, however, that 16 games are, in fact, the appropriate number to unveil the identity of the superior protagonist, a judgment echoed by no less an authority than five-times world champion and Red Czar of the Soviet chess imperium, Mikhail Botvinnik.

Botvinnik added that after game 16 the players become too exhausted to continue at full strength, another argument supporting the 16-game thesis. In the past, though, a tied match left the incumbent in possession of the title, with no play-off. Hence the current format — limiting the main match to 14 encounters, but adding a play-off to enable an outright winner — does appear to be a reasonable compromise. 

Have things now changed as a result of the 2018 London match? In discussions with the FIDE Vice President Nigel Short, I gain the impression that the governing body has been looking at various possible measures to improve the current situation and make chess more accessible to the non-expert public. Personally, I would be in favour of abolishing the time increment (gaining a little thinking time on completion of a move) which is merely an unnecessary prop and cushion for those who cannot handle their clock properly. There have, as noted above, already been measures to increase the length of the classical portion of the match. Finally, there has also been a move to reduce the number of free days from a maximum of six to five, a highly positive step. All such measures will tend to increase the excitement level of the current match.

Four new books have appeared in timely fashion to give excellent background to the contest. This is what the outstanding publication New in Chess has to say about them. What is it that makes Magnus Carlsen the strongest chess player in the world?  Why do Carlsen ’s opponents fail to see his moves coming? Moves that, when you replay his games, look natural and self-evident?

Emmanuel Neiman  shows that Carlsen’s singular ability to win positions that are equal (or only very slightly favourable) comes down to this: he doesn’t let his opponents get what they hope for, while offering them the maximum opportunity to go wrong.  With lots of surprising and instructive examples and quizzes,   The Magnus Method  presents a complete analysis of the Magnus skills which make the difference. 

The World Champion’s arsenal is awesome: a superlative ability to calculate, near-perfect intuition, probably the best endgame technique ever, a wide and creative opening repertoire, a willingness to unbalance the position almost anytime, and last but not least: his unparalleled will to win. But even Magnus has his weak moments. In fact, identifying the root causes of his losses holds valuable lessons for all players. 

How to Beat Magnus Carlsen  has a thematic structure, which, together with  Cyrus Lakdawala’s   uniquely accessible style, makes its lessons easy to digest. Sometimes even Magnus gets outplayed, sometimes he over-presses and goes over the cliff’s edge, and sometimes he fails to find the correct plan. And yes, even Magnus Carlsen commits straightforward blunders. Lakdawala explains the how and the why.  

Nepo ”, as he is universally known, is one of the very few players in the world to hold a plus score (four wins to one with six draws) against Carlsen in classical chess, at least prior to the match. Nepo is a fascinating player who loves open and irrational positions and excels when on the attack.

Unsurprisingly, he cites Mikhail Tal as his all-time favourite player and says Tal is the player who has exerted the greatest influence on him. Nepo has frequently got the better of Carlsen in games with mind-boggling complications. He is also lethal when he has the initiative.  Nepomniachtchi: Move By Move  assesses his career and analyses his original and creative style in great depth with numerous deeply annotated games.

Nepo’s road from Grandmaster to becoming Magnus Carlsen’s world championship challenger in 2021 was a long one. GM in 2007 and Russian champion for the first time in 2010, Ian only hit the elite in recent years. His victory in Ekaterinburg occurred at his very first Candidates Tournament. In Nail It Like Nepo!   Grandmaster   Zenon Franco   analyses Nepo ’s chess through his 30 best wins and several fragments, considering his style, his strengths, as well as his weaknesses and how he has overcome them.  

As I write, the contest has commenced and the two immortals are locked “in dubious battel” [i.e. the battle’s outcome is doubtful] .  With game one played yesterday, it remains to be seen over the coming weeks whether Nepo can, like Milton’s Satan, shake the champion’s throne.

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   Blackwell’s .

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 98%
  • Interesting points: 97%
  • Agree with arguments: 97%
43 ratings - view all

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