After 9 games of chess at the World Chess Championship, it’s all but over.
Magnus Carlsen has a 6-3 lead, and only needs to manage one draw over the final 3 games in order to clinch victory, and unseat Viswanathan Anand as the World Chess Champion.
Magnus Carlsen is only 22, so because of his youth there’s a lot of talk about “passing the torch” to a new generation of players. At 43, Anand is part of the era of Kasparov (50) and other greats from the 90s.
But to just focus on the age of the players misses an even bigger symbolism, which is that we’re entering a totally new post-modern era of human chess.
In the old days, high-level chess was a swashbuckling game filled with daring piece sacrifices and head-spinning multi-move combinations where the winner would pull off wins seemingly out of nowhere.
Here’s a beautiful game from 1857, where the American player Paul Morphy (playing as black) sacrificed his queen on his way to a crushing victory. You can quickly click the arrow buttons below to play through the game fast, and see how Morphy dominated his opponent despite his lack of a queen.
This era of chess is also known as the “romantic” era. Between the daringness and drama of this, it’s not hard to see why.
As the study of chess became more rigorous, these wild games became more and more rare at the highest level, as daring (but theoretically weak) combinations became more easy to repel.
That doesn’t mean chess players stopped winning games via jaw-dropping combinations.
This 1956 match between Donald Byrne and Bobby Fischer is sometimes called The Game Of The Century. Fischer was just 13 (!!) when he won by sacrificing his queen on move 17, only to win 24 moves later.
Sadly (for fans) these kind of ridiculous-looking games have gotten more rare.
Modern chess champions have won by building crushing, airtight, positional superiorities against their opponents, grinding them down and forcing a resignation. The chess is amazing, although frequently less of a high-wire act.
Which brings us to the current match between Carlsen and Anand.
After the first two games of the best-of-12 series, we lamented that the tournament was off to a disastrous start. The first two games were totally boring draws, with neither player comfortable going off “book.” In other words, the players spend so much time studying positions (and their opponents’ play) with computers that by the time the players get to the table, much of the gamesmanship is already finished.
There’s a lot of hesitation to uncork a novelty on the board if it isn’t something that’s been backed up by hours of analysis by software programs (which at this point are better at chess than actual humans).
Since those first two games, things have gotten more exciting, which is obvious as Carlsen has won three games.
But the manner of the victories is interesting and tells us something important. In each game, Anand had decent chances to draw, but made some late-game blunder that gave Carlsen the victory.
In today’s match, actually, Anand playing as white had the initiative with a strong pawn position bearing down on Carlsen’s castled king. But Anand blundered at the end, allowing Carlsen to gain an extra queen, without a clear chance to mate. Anand definitely had winning chances and probably could have drawn, but he screwed up.
This is, essentially how all the decisive games have gone. There’s a chance for a draw, and Anand cracks under the pressure, while Magnus plays flaw-free chess. Magnus is just crushing Anand on the psychological game.
And he does it in multiple ways. For one thing, if you’ve been watching the game you see that Magnus frequently just gets up and walks away from the table after he moves, which has to be unnerving.
Second, Carlsen is demonstrating one of his most feared qualities, namely his “nettlesomeness,” to use a term coined for this purpose by Ken Regan. Using computer analysis, you can measure which players do the most to cause their opponents to make mistakes. Carlsen has the highest nettlesomeness score by this metric, because his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes. In contrast, a player such as Kramnik plays a high percentage of very accurate moves, and of course he is very strong, but those moves are in some way calmer and they are less likely to induce mistakes in response.
This is our new era of post-modern chess. It’s not about uncorking crazy, romantic brilliancies. And it’s not about achieving crushing, positional victories. It’s about being as cool as a computer while your opponent does things that are, well, human.
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