Monthly Archives: December 2017

Analyzing the 2016 World Chess Championship

This review has been printed in the December 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Alburt, Lev, and Jon Crumiller. Carlsen vs. Karjakin: World Chess Championship, New York 2016. New York: Chess Information & Research Institute, 2017. ISBN 978-1889323299. PB 336pp.

Looking back at my time at the World Chess Championship in New York last year, and looking through the hundreds of pictures I took, one image clearly stands out. It’s not of Magnus or Sergey. It’s not of the crowds of casual spectators and hardcore fans. And it’s certainly not of the VIP section, fully one-quarter of the event floor space and totally off limits to the hoi polloi like me.

I attended the third game of the match as a “credentialed journalist,” giving me access to the Press Room. It was a small space, crammed with laptops and cameras, extension cords and water bottles. There I tried not to gawk as the famous Spanish chess journalist Leonxto Garcia wrote and filed his report, and with NRK’s Ole Rolfsrud interviewing many of the journalists for Norwegian television, I suspect I’m in more than a bit of their B-roll.

Game 3 was a long one, more than six hours in all, and there was a palpable sense of relief when it concluded in a hard-fought draw. With a train to catch, and with the press conference dragging on, I returned to the Press Room to gather my things.

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The room was nearly deserted, despite the arrival of the long-rumored pizza. Only two people remained. One rested her head on the narrow table and slept. The other – Chess Life columnist GM Robert Hess – sat typing, earbuds in and oblivious to the emptiness around him, racing to complete his rapid game analysis for Chess.com.

In some ways, what I saw Hess and his colleagues from Chess.com doing that day was nothing new. Baseball writers, for example, are often are forced to rework their articles after late inning heroics. But I had never really considered what it took to produce the near-instant news articles and expert analysis we have come to expect in the digital age.

It was fascinating to watch FM Mike Klein, Chess.com Director of Content and frequent Chess Life contributor, write and rewrite his reporting, changing its title as Carlsen’s winning chances ebbed and flowed. Hess had multiple chess websites open on two laptops as he wrote, cross-checking his ideas with those of engines, the Agon announcing team, and analysts from around the world.

There is no doubt that the chess world is greatly enriched by these kinds of efforts. It was awesome (in the original sense of the word) to play through Hess’ analysis on my smartphone on the train home, and I was glued to the competing livestreams as the match unfolded.

For all of this, it seems to me that something is lost in the dromological arms race endemic to contemporary mass media. Fast – and this is by no means a slight on Hess or Klein – may not always be definitive. Some of the games in the Carlsen-Karjakin match, like game three, were incredibly complex, requiring analytical depth and distance hard to muster in real-time. And this, traditionally, has been the role of the match book.

The match book, like the tournament book (see my April 2017 column), is increasingly an anachronism in modern chess literature. Sure, there are always the “instabooks” published as soon as the match ends, but serious, learned studies of World Championship matches seem to be a thing of the past.

Or maybe they’re not.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin: World Chess Championship 2016, written by GM Lev Alburt and NM Jon Crumiller, is a readable and rigorous analysis of all sixteen match games. Alburt, who emigrated to the United States in 1979, is a three-time winner of the US Championship, the author of numerous instructional books, and – as a recent Bloomberg Businessweek profile makes clear – the chess teacher of choice for Manhattan’s financial elite. Crumiller is a long-time Alburt student and a master in his own right, having earned the title in over-the-board and correspondence play. He is also one of America’s leading chess collectors.

With both authors living in the New York area, and with their strong connections to FIDE (Alburt) and Agon (Crumiller, who was a major contributor to the Agon published Masterworks: Rare and Beautiful Chess Sets of the World), Alburt and Crumiller attended most of the games at the Fulton Market playing venue. The roots of this book, as Crumiller explains it (7), can be found in their mutual attempts to understand each day’s games.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin is not written as a holistic historical record of the match. Rather, as the above suggests, it largely focuses on the games themselves, combining in-depth analysis with more basic instructional elements. There is for this reason something of an internal tension to the book, and this tension is only intensified when we consider the contributions to Carlsen vs. Karjakin by former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik.

Kramnik does more than just offer “round-by-round game analysis,” as the cover art describes it. He’s really the book’s third author, providing serious and provocative commentary for each game along with two lengthy interviews. Because he competes against both Carlsen and Karjakin on a regular basis, and because he knows all too well the pressures of playing for the World Championship, Kramnik is an ideal match commentator, and his insights here are invaluable.

The structure and layout of Carlsen vs. Karjakin will be familiar to anyone who has read one of Alburt’s previous books. Each of the twelve regulation and four tiebreak games receive their own chapters, prefaced with three “key position” color diagrams, a brief introduction, and a picture. The great bulk of the book lies in the analysis, with Alburt and Crumiller providing the main notes and Kramnik’s contributions appearing in blue text boxes.

There is a kind of productive dialectic between these two narrative voices when Carlsen vs. Karjakin is at its best. Kramnik helps readers understand how a super-GM approaches specific positions and decisions from a first-person perspective, and his discussions of match psychology are particularly illuminating. Alburt and Crumiller write in a more objective, third person voice, making extensive use of strong engines to try and reach the truth of key positions. Their account of Karjakin’s Game 10 blunder (56. …Rhh7?) is a case in point: the notes run for four dense pages, and they improve on Giri’s analysis in New in Chess.

When Alburt and Crumiller reference Kramnik’s contributions and refine them, adding analytic heft and clarity to his ideas, the book really hums. There are places, however, where this interplay breaks down and readers are left stranded. Consider this position from Game 4, where Karjakin has just played 45.Nd1.

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After Carlsen’s 45. …f4?, Karjakin was able to build a fortress and, after nearly fifty more moves, hold the draw. 45. …Be6 is a clear improvement that should lead to victory. But how?

Calling the win “trivial” and “even easier… than [he] had thought,” Kramnik states:

“When you have the two bishops, you need to open up the position. That’s just basic logic. The winning plan in general is:

I. After …Be6, White’s knight eventually needs to come to f2, so Black can put a pawn on a4, bishop on d5, bishop on c7 (White will probably have his bishop on d4).

II. Then Black plays …fxg4 and after Nxg4, …Kf4. If the knight goes back to f2, then the pawn travels through g4 to g3, and eventually promotes. And if Ne3+, then …Ke4, because the bishop endgame is completely lost. Black can just invade with the king and then push the g-pawn.” (77)

This is a very advanced example of what Mikhail Shereshevsky calls schematic thinking. Not surprisingly, I struggled to understand it, “basic logic” or not, and I suspect that most class players would have similar difficulties.

If Kramnik overshoots his audience here, Alburt and Crumiller miss in the opposite direction. Rather than expanding on Kramnik’s plan with illustrative variations, they write: “45. …Be6 keeps all options open for Black, in the form of three different plans: [1] play on the kingside, [2] penetrate with the king in the center, and [3] penetrate with the king via a long walk to the queenside. … A similar concept can be found in the strategy of ‘playing against two weaknesses.'” (78) This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t help me understand how to actually win after 45. …Be6.

[Interested readers can click here to see just how Carlsen could have won. I draw on published analysis from Chirila, Giri, Lund and Svidler.]

I do not want to overstate the case, because in general I think Carlsen vs. Karjakin to be a very fine work indeed. Still, there are times when the various commentary tracks – Kramnik’s deep, “pull no punches” insights, Alburt’s pedagogical bon mots, and Crumiller’s engine verified analysis – don’t quite sync up, leaving the book slightly at odds with itself and unclear on what it wants to be. For an ambitious work like this one, the sin is small and forgivable.

Many books are described as “labors of love” by their authors. Carlsen vs. Karjakin is the real McCoy. Alburt and Crumiller could have written a perfectly serviceable book on their own, but by bringing Kramnik on board, they have produced something special. Certainly there are some downsides to this level of authorial investiture – there is no reason to include pictures of Crumiller’s sets and books, and the repeated mention of other Alburt titles is tacky – but here again, such minor lapses in objectivity are justified by the end result.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin is a definitive study of the 2016 World Chess Championship. Its authors invested a lot of time, effort, and (I suspect) money in the book. The layout is attractive, the book lies flat, and dozens of color pictures from the match are included. Ultimately, though, this is a book whose raison d’être is its game analysis, and it’s on that basis that it really shines.

Nota bene: Chess Life Editor Dan Lucas served as editor for the book under review this month, and he wrote its Introduction and Epilogue. The opinions and conclusions above are fully mine, and with the exception of minor grammatical or stylistic changes, it is identical to what I originally submitted. – JH

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