The most anticipated chess match in decades is happening right now in Chennai, India.
The match pits current world champion Viswanathan Anand against the 22-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, who is the highest-rated player in the world. One obvious reason the contest is so exciting is that Carlsen is a young prodigy, while Anand (43) is part of an older generation. The pair are playing a best-of-12 series. If neither side has won a majority of games by that point, a series of tiebreaker games will be played.
Garry Kasparov, probably the most famous chess player of all-time, wrote here that a Carlsen victory would be a huge victory for all of chess:
Anand is a fantastic chessplayer who brings honour to the sport and to his nation with his skill and his boundless good nature. If he wins this match his high place on chess Olympus is assured. I am predicting a Carlsen victory because of his talent, his results, and the tides of chess history. I am rooting for a Carlsen victory because a new generation deserves a new champion. Most of all, I am hoping for big games, a hard fight, and a great boost for chess around the world as a legend and a legend in the making do battle in Chennai.
So how are things going so far? Basically, terrible. They’ve played two games already and both ended in draws. And they weren’t just any draws! They were short games (16 moves for the first, 25 moves for the second) that produced no exciting play, and which exposed one of the biggest problems with chess that’s played at the highest levels, which is that it can be incredibly boring and conservative.
To prepare for these games, top chess players spend a ridiculous amount of time working with computers, learning various openings many moves deep, and getting to know everything about what openings and lines their opponents like to play, so that they encounter no possible surprises. So much of the game is done in the preparation, that when the players finally get to the board, there’s little chance for excitement.
Just listen to Anand, who explained his decision to pursue a draw in Game 2:
Anand, who spent most of his time on the moves 12-14, admitted that he was surprised by his opponent’s opening play. “It was a mild surprise. The position after move 12 is a very sharp one and I hadn’t really expected it, that was clear. I had to decide if I wanted to fly blind or… I chose a slightly solid line.”
Basically it was Anand who went for the emergency brake today as he got maneuvered into a position where his opponent was better prepared. “Today it’s my turn to tender a slight apology. I am sorry about the decision but I decided to be a bit prudent today.”
So Anand encountered a “mild surprise” in the opening moves that left him “flying blind” (meaning the board was in a position with which he had not previously studied) and because of that he decided to not keep pursuing the game. He just engineered a draw.
Most real people are “flying blind” after the first couple moves of the game, and it’s the challenge of trying to solve a puzzle against a live opponent (who is also flying blind) that makes the game so fun. At the highest levels, Grandmasters go very deep into the game in positions they have studied exhaustively, and then the moment they feel uncomfortable they search for the emergency brake, and consider themselves happy to escape with half a point.
As if that’s not bad enough, read this description of the way the game started from Chessvibes.com:
The second game of the World Championship match between Viswanathan Anand, playing the white pieces, and Magnus Carlsen ended in a draw after 25 moves. The crowd was pleased with the World Champ’s move 1.e4, which was awarded with applause…
It’s crazy that the audience had to applaud when Anand opened with E4 (which is simply starting off by moving the king’s pawn out two spaces, which is the basic opening move that every elementary school kid learns to start off with). It looks like this.
Not only is this an incredibly common opening, but the great Bobby Fischer used it extensively at the highest level of play, and famously called it the “best by test.”
But E2-E4 is seen as riskier and sharper than starting off with the Queen’s pawn (D2-D4) and so audiences applaud when they see this move, because it’s daring. So that’s depressing, because it means that top-flight players are reluctant to use the opening move that produces the most exciting games.
The good news is that interest remains high (folks watching online have reportedly been crashing the servers of the sites hosting live analysis of the games). And the players have been, it seems, a bit embarrassed by their quick draws.
They have several games yet to go where they can produce some fireworks. But if these first two games are indicative of future play, then this match won’t do anything for the world of chess. Instead it will do the opposite of promoting the game. It will be a reminder that at the highest levels, chess is a bore that you don’t need to pay attention to.