A Romantic Chess Player In An Unromantic Age

Frans Peeters (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Magnus Carlsen, reigning world champion.

Sorry, been away for a while, doing real-life-things.

One of the things I’ve been doing while doing real-life-things is, to my great surprise, maniacally following the World Championships in chess. I’ve been an enthusiastic hobby player since childhood, but I haven’t played seriously or paid much attention to the championships for many years. But this year, with Magnus Carlsen challenging Vishwanathan Anand, suddenly my interest resurfaced.

I think one reason for this was simply that social media allowed some really fun and deep commentary to be realised in real time. But another was simply the nature of the match. Carlsen is a different kind of player. He’s my kind of player. The kind I like to watch. And Anand is everything that got me bored of chess.

I know that opinions differ on this, but I’ve always thought of Anand as a safe player. Someone who takes no risks, who plays with too little creativity, too little chutzpah, too little … I dunno, duende

There’s something a little bit boring and uncreative about his style. The kind of player who would rather know the deepest variations of the bog-standard Spanish opening than play something exotic and dangerous. He seemed to me always quick to simplify positions. To exchange pieces and defuse tensions. To move his opponent into the simpler positions which his superior analytical abilities could win easily. If you line up Anand’s moves with the best chess engines, like Houdini, he almost always chooses the machine moves. There’s nothing wrong with that. Anand is obviously a really strong player, he was world champion, for heaven’s sake. But I could never quite get the thrill of the game from his playing.

Wikimedia Commons

A Staunton set, my favourite chess set.

Carlsen is the opposite of that. There’s something a little bit beginner’s mind about Carlsen. He consistently chooses different moves from the computers. He’s a creative, positional player working through combinations, surprising strategy and what even Carlsen admits is a level of “feel” rather than close-positional tactics. And this is why Carlsen is such a strong player. The chess board feels a little more like a storm-tossed sea when he’s playing. Players like Anand can’t work against such players. The unpredictable nature of the game means that their deep analytics and simplifying strategies fail.

This is the quality that some analysts have called Carlsen’s “nettlesomeness“. Others have called it a throw-back to the romantic era of chess or a new, postmodern blend of the old and the new styles. I’m not entirely sure this is right. I think Carlsen is what happens when someone who by heart is a romantic style player grows up in the era of computer chess. A combination of deep and difficult positional games learned through the simulations and a longing for the fun, ballsy game of chess that we all played with friends growing up.

In a recent issue of Time, former world champion Garry Kasparov very accurately describes Carlsen’s style:

Carlsen’s greatest chess strength is his remarkable intuitive grasp of simplified positions and his tremendous accuracy in them. I coached Carlsen for a year, in 2009, and I was amazed at how quickly he could correctly evaluate a position “cold,” seemingly without any calculation at all. My own style required tremendous energy and labor at the board, working through deep variations looking for the truth in each position. Carlsen comes from a different world champion lineage, that of Jose Capablanca and Anatoly Karpov, players who sense harmony on the board like virtuoso musicians with perfect pitch.

I think this is exactly right. (And Capablanca and Karpov, incidentally, are my two favourite grand masters). And there’s a sense in which it was time for a player like Carlsen to ascend. In an age where chess computers can analyse deeper positions through brute-force algorithms, human players need to start seeing new paths through chess. Carlsen is the kind of player this historical moment needs. Kasparov, who (in)famously lost to Deep Blue in the late 90s, one of our great HAL moments, agrees:

The Knight’s Tour, a famous mathematical problem about how the knight can visit every square on the board most efficiently. Magnus Carlsen is set to embark on his own “knight’s tour”.

Carlsen’s domination renders unnecessary any extensive punditry on the match itself. He has been the world’s top-ranked player for two years already while Anand’s results have tailed off, as those of players on the wrong side of forty tend to do. It is true that Anand made quite a few unforced errors in his losses, but as I said before the match, Anand was fighting not only a stronger player but also the tidal forces of time and history. Carlsen is a force of nature whose time has come and there was little Anand could do to slow the inevitable in Chennai.

So what happens now to chess? I suspect we’ll be entering a new age of more fun chess, new styles of play and a more multipolar chess world. I, for my part, have regained my enthusiasm for the game. Your move, chess.


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