Last week Barry Martin, along with Patrick Hughes, one of the world’s top chess playing artists, asked me to identify the most significant happenings in the chess world over the past ten years. Barry and Patrick used to meet in the final of the Chelsea Arts Club Championship and Barry writes an excellent monthly column in Kensington, Westminster and Chelsea Today (KWC). The point of the question was to celebrate ten years of KWC and ten years of Barry’s column, many of which have been gathered together in the anthology, Chess, Problems, Play and Personalities (Filament Publishing).
Of those significant developments, which define the contemporary chess scene, I have already covered the phenomenon of the new Netflix chess-based TV series, Queen’s Gambit, in last week’s column. The combination of brilliance and beauty, exemplified in the persona of the chess champion heroine, Beth Harmon, has proved irresistible to record-breaking audiences around the world. Sales of chess sets alone, a key indicator of a new-found enthusiasm, have soared by 300 per cent since Beth first appeared on our screens.
A second vital 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 paradoxical 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 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 quasi-infinite complexities of the oriental games of Shogi (Japanese Chess) and Go, was the key to understanding intelligence.
This week I turn to the third most decisive development of the past ten years, the meteoric rise and lasting domination of the Norwegian World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen is the culmination of a line of champions which stretches back into the 18th century, yet he is also a uniquely talented representative of the modern era. Magnus has attained the highest ever chess rating ever recorded, outclassing even the mighty Garry Kasparov. Magnus wins virtually every competition which he enters, and has adapted seamlessly to the current coronavirus crisis, which 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 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 1830’s. After this, there is a further gap in the record until the 1840s, when 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 (who simply downed tools), and Alekhine who died in office, thus permanently preserving their hallowed nimbus of invincibility.
Also worthy of mention are various champions who have won the FIDÉ title (FIDÉ is the International Chess Federation, the governing body of chess competitions), without gaining universal recognition from the global chess community. These include Max Euwe, Efim Bogolyubov, Vesselin Topalov and Viswanathan Anand. A common outcome is that such FIDÉ champions have gone on to contest matches against the universally recognised laureate, and in two such cases (Euwe and Anand) have emerged victorious to become undisputed champions themselves.
The most recent world championship match, staged in London 2018, was run entirely under the auspices of FIDÉ, the authority of which is now universally accepted under the reliable new Presidency of Russian Arkady Dvorkovich, and his English Vice President, Nigel Short.
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. La Bourdonnais’ 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 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.
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.
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 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, Anderssen and Morphy, were all, at the time, acknowledged as the leading chess practitioner 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 specifically described as a World Championship contest.
Thus far I have described the early years of the World Championship and now I return to Magnus Carlsen’s defence of his title, which he has held since 2013. The 2018 Championship match in London was fought out between the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, the highest ever rated chess grandmaster, and the previously unexpected challenger, Fabiano Caruana, who had been considered somewhat vulnerable and fragile.
Caruana originated from Italy but became an American citizen. With energy and vigour, he decimated his rivals among the top ten Grandmasters. In order to qualify, the winner had to exhibit strength, agility, power, alertness, incredible persistence, stamina, and the power of the “will to win”. From this shark pool, Fabiano became the number one contender, and number two ranked player in the world. Throughout all the complications of selecting the challenger to the World Chess Champion, the pairing was ideal: a battle between the two best in the world fighting for the world title.
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 four world title bouts, twice versus Anand and once each against Karjakin and Caruana. The latter two ended with the tie-breaks, at which Magnus excels. On this occasion, Magnus praised Fabiano, as being his most difficult opponent of the three.
Magnus has secured his tenure as World Champion until at least 2021. He will then have held the title for 8 years thus moves into an equal category of championship longevity with such greats as Capablanca, Petrosian, Kramnik and Anand, ahead of Euwe, Smyslov, Tal, Spassky and Fischer. Only Steinitz, Lasker, Alekhine, Botvinnik, Karpov and Kasparov held the title for significantly longer periods. In the modern world, where everything has speeded up, can Carlsen go on to outperform all these titans?
If his ambition had seemed to wane during the classical phase of the London contest, it certainly flared up, as Carlsen’s predator instincts flashed on for the tiebreak. Like the Terminator, Magnus would be back. In every boxing match and in every tennis set, each minute encapsulates a real battle. Every move in chess is the same. The draws were magnificent mini-battles in every one of the often 65+ moves over the duration of as much as six hours of non-stop sport. And then it came down to speed. Only in the speed play-off did Carlsen finally overcome the onslaught of Caruana, with the World Champion taking the accelerated shoot out by three wins to zero.
I have tried to distil the quintessential elements of Magnus’ success. Remember that, in Latin “Magnus” was a title meaning “Great”, as in Alexander Magnus (Alexander the Great), or Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great), Julius Caesar’s senatorial rival, as noted in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene One:
“You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome.
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb’d up to walks and battlements,
To tow’rs and windows, yea, to chimney tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The live long day, with patient expectation.
To see Great Pompey pass the streets of Rome.”
I have reduced the formula to seven memorable “M” principles for Magnus:
And this week’s game exemplifies these key ingredients of a Magnus triumph. The game was the decisive win which clinched Magnus’ World Title defence against the former World Champion, The Tiger of Madras: Viswanathan Anand.
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