Tag Archives: Magnus Carlsen

Instant Gratification

This review has been printed in the February 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences 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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Keene, Raymond, and Byron Jacobs. Carlsen v Caruana: FIDE World Chess Championship London 2018. London: Everyman, 2018. ISBN 978-1781945131. PB 208pp.

Konikowski, Jerzy, and Uwe Bekemann. World Chess Championship 2018: Fabiano Caruana vs. Magnus Carlsen. Eltmann: Joachim Beyer Verlag, 2018. ISBN 978-3959209816. PB 184pp.

Gustafsson, Jan, Peter Heine Nielsen and Laurent Fressinet. Inside the 2018 World Championship Match. video series, available at chess24.com.

What will chess historians remember most about the 2018 World Championship match? The smart money would appear to be on “the draws.”

With so many drawn games in both the 2016 and 2018 matches, and with players facing such difficulties generating chances with the White pieces, many pundits are proposing fairly radical changes in match structure and time controls. To me this seems slightly overwrought – two matches are a small sample, after all – but it mirrors a definite trend towards faster chess at the highest levels.

But perhaps the real story of the 2018 match will, in retrospect, have been the full arrival of chess as an e-sport. Today an ever-increasing number of major tournaments are streamed on YouTube and Twitch, including the US Open and US Chess National Scholastics, and some competitions (like the Pro Chess League) are now contested entirely online.

At least four major chess media outlets – chess.com, chess24.com, the Saint Louis Chess Club, and Agon / Worldchess – offered real-time English language streaming commentary on the Carlsen-Caruana match. Others, including chessbase.com, chessclub.com, and uschess.org, offered post-game wrap-ups and analysis. It’s worth spending a bit of time discussing the four competing live video streams, both to understand the novelty of their coverage as well as their limitations.

Danny Rensch and fellow Chess Life columnist Robert Hess hosted the chess.com coverage. Multiple guests appeared on the livestream, including Levon Aronian, Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland, Wesley So, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Hou Yifan. Shankland provided the majority of the post-game annotations for chess.com readers, and everyone’s favorite “Uncle Yermo” Alex Yermolinsky recorded the post-game video wrap-ups.

Chess fans were treated to a veritable Murderer’s Row of chess commentators at Chess24. Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk were joined by Sopiko Guramishvili (Games 1-8) and Anish Giri (Games 9-12 and tiebreaks) for the live analysis, and Svidler recorded the post-game summary videos.

The Saint Louis Chess Club’s “A-Team” of Maurice Ashley, Yasser Seirawan and US Chess Senior Digital Editor Jennifer Shahade returned to helm the Saint Louis coverage of the match. Here too guests added spice to the proceedings, including Viswanathan Anand, Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Kramnik. Frequent STLCC broadcaster and Caruana second Cristian Chirila checked in from London.

All three of these streaming platforms provided their video to viewers on YouTube or twitch.tv free of charge. None were permitted to use live footage from London. Another option – worldchess.com, the paid broadcast arm of match organizers Agon – offered exclusive video of the players along with commentary from Judit Polgar, Anna Rudolf, and on-site guests like Demis Hassabis, one of the creators of Alpha Zero. While the cost to view the Worldchess stream was a reasonable $20, early reports of website instability and login problems spooked me. So I ended up flipping between the chess.com, chess24 and Saint Louis streams on my Roku Player.

With competition comes choice, and I felt that the three free streams were aimed at somewhat different audiences. Chess.com pitched its coverage towards gamers and enthusiasts. Chess24 tried to capture more serious players and students of the game. Saint Louis was the natural destination for American fans and a broadly pro-Caruana audience.

Most of my time was spent with chess24, and in no small part because of their general no-engine policy. There is little I enjoy more than watching vastly strong players analyze, and getting to see how Giri, Grischuk and Svidler worked through difficult positions together was a most welcome treat.

If the various streams had a common weakness, it was a certain modicum of perspective due to the real-time nature of the medium. “Hot takes” are quick and easy, but perspective requires time and critical distance, as no less than Garry Kasparov learned when he tapped out this ill-fated Tweet after Game 12. Full disclosure: I may have enthusiastically retweeted this.

Kasparov tweet

It’s vitally important, today more than ever, to resist the equation of instant analysis with veritable truth. There’s a reason that good writing and commentary take time, particularly in chess. Engines provide the illusion of accuracy and understanding, but authors can only begin to peel back the surface of events by standing back from them.

Here is where match books have traditionally been important. The problem, as I noted in December 2017, is that such efforts are increasingly rare, and the titles that do appear are often slapped together to make a fast buck.[1] There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such books – authors and publishers have to eat too! – but the results are usually unsatisfying, the literary equivalent of a greasy fast food meal.

Everyman’s Carlsen v Caruana: FIDE World Chess Championship London 2018, released two weeks after the match closing ceremonies, is the definition of an “instabook.” Everyman editor Byron Jacobs teamed up with Raymond Keene, well known for his proclivity for borrowing texts both from his previous works and from those of others, to produce a thoroughly forgettable work.

Game annotations make up the bulk of Carlsen v Caruana, and while there are some oddities – playing an unforced Bxc6 in the Rossolimo, for example, was Chebanenko’s idea and not a Fischer invention, and Woody Harrelson’s accidental ‘king tip’ before Game 1 was a prearranged joke – they are serviceable if hardly groundbreaking. The book’s front matter, however, is another story entirely.

Large chunks of text in Carlsen v Caruana are recycled from previous Keene writings. The Introduction, “World Chess Comes to London,” is a verbatim reprint of his preface to the Summer 2018 issue of Synapsia, the house magazine for Keene’s Brain Trust Charity, and one of the final paragraphs reappears in his September 15th newspaper column. The “History of the World Championship” section is similarly self-referential, with many multiple paragraphs taken directly or closely paraphrased from previous Keene books, with The Brain Games World Championship 2000 being just one example.

Reusing one’s own text is not illegal or immoral, but the fact that the reuse is so blatant, and that Keene has made such a career of it, leaves something of a bad taste here. Couple this with the editing and spelling problems – “Kieseritsky,” “Vesselin Topalov,” and World Championship “Finallist” Nigel Short are but a small sample – and Carlsen v Caruana must be seen as something of a disappointment, failing to add anything new to the literature.

World Chess Championship 2018: Fabiano Caruana vs. Magnus Carlsen, written by Jerzy Konikowski and Uwe Bekemann for the German publisher Joachim Beyer Verlag, proves that a rapid-response title can be done competently. The translation is a bit wonky – for some reason “World Championship” becomes “World Cup,” “and” is occasionally “und,” etc. – but the authors generally succeed in creating an original, accessible account of the match.

Konikowski and Bekemann aim to offer readers a “complete picture” (8) of the players by sketching Carlsen and Caruana’s careers and analyzing a selection of their pre-match encounters. Artur Yusupov and Karsten Müller provide useful insight into the players, and Müller’s contribution of fifteen annotated games meets his usual standard of analytical excellence. Only the combination section, featuring 24 positions from Carlsen and Caruana’s practice, seems extraneous.

Notes to the match games make up more than half of World Chess Championship 2018. There is less ‘color’ here than in Carlsen v Caruana, and the notes (save the excessive opening citations) tend to be terser. Konikowski and Bekemann’s book is certainly preferable to Jacobs and Keene’s, although it too left me wanting more. So it is perhaps a sign of the times that, with no other match books on the horizon, the most insightful treatment of the Carlsen-Caruana match is – you guessed it – an online video series.

Chess24 series promo

Chess24 viewers were surprised when Jan Gustafsson, the public face of the website, was absent from the Game 1 coverage. While Svidler gamely tried to maintain operational security, we learned only after the match concluded that Gustafsson was holed up in Thailand, working remotely for Team Carlsen.

Over the course of nearly eleven hours of video, Gustafsson and fellow Carlsen seconds Peter Heine Nielsen and Laurent Fressinet walk viewers through the highs and lows of the match in Inside the 2018 World Championship Match. The result is an embarrassment of riches, the likes of which I can only begin to describe here, and the series stands as one of the most intimate accounts of a World Championship Match ever produced. Only From London to Elista by Evegny Bareev and Ilya Levitov can compare to it.

Impatient viewers – count me among them – might want to start with the final “Wrap-up” video, where Team Carlsen discusses the opening battles, Nakamura’s claim that Caruana dominated the Classical games, the question of whether Carlsen’s title was diminished by winning in tiebreaks, and how different team members worked during the match. Still, fascinating as the reflections on the match metagame were, the individual game analyses were better.

Chess24 Game Window

Take the coverage of Game 10. Gustafsson, Fressinet and Nielsen describe quite frankly how they missed 12.b4 in their preparation, discussing typical plans for both sides and citing Alpha Zero analysis. They speculate on the psychology of the moves leading up to the critical position after move 23, and Nielsen borrows a line from an Anand video to help us understand Caruana’s all-too-human 24.g3. The positions after 24.Bxb5, he says, are the sort where if the computer told you either White or Black were +1.5, you’d believe it. This is an important insight, and the emphasis on the human factor in the match is a key theme in the series.

Comparing books and videos is a bit of an apples and oranges endeavour. Books take longer to write – in most cases, anyway! – and there are production and distribution costs for print materials that do not exist for video platforms. Those considerations aside, it’s clear that Inside the 2018 World Championship Match is the best treatment of the Carlsen-Caruana match, and by some distance. At $14.99 it’s also cheaper than the Keene / Jacobs and Konikowski / Bekemann books. The series is a real coup for Chess24, and I recommend wholeheartedly.


[1] It’s worth noting once more, as I did in my December 2017 review, what a welcome departure from this practice Alburt and Crumiller’s outstanding book was.

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Rematch by Proxy

This review has been printed in the February 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Franco, Zenón. Anand: Move by Move. London: Everyman, 2014. PB 376pp. ISBN 978-1781941867. List $29.95; currently $23ish at Amazon.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Carlsen: Move by Move. London: Everyman, 2014. PB 432pp. ISBN 978-1781942079. List $29.95; currently $25ish at Amazon.

You’ve got to hand it to the guys at Everyman Chess. They know an opportunity when they see one.

With the 2014 World Championship fast approaching, and with no titles on the combatants in their catalogue, Everyman asked two authors – one of their most prolific, and one of their newest – to remedy this most unfortunate situation.[1] The books under review this month, out just in time for the match, are the fruit of those labors. Both should also be available in e-book format by the time this review goes to press.

For Carlsen: Move by Move, Everyman turned to its most indefatigable author. International Master Cyrus Lakdawala has penned 21 titles (including forthcoming books) with Everyman since 2010, six of which are focused on a specific player. Carlsen: Move by Move is structured like most of Lakdawala’s biographical works for Everyman, with 54 annotated games divided into six thematic chapters.

I have reviewed two of Lakdawala’s books – Capablanca: Move by Move on my blog, and Botvinnik: Move by Move in the May 2014 issue of Chess Life – in the past. In those reviews I noted a troubling trend, one that continues unabated in Carlsen: Move by Move. With each new book he seems to cram more and more cutesy, cloying commentary into his analysis, and his work is beginning to suffer from it. For instance:

  • “[t]he black queen emits an odd, adenoidal grunting sound in response to her sister’s intrusion.” (259)
  • “[t]he rook staggers from the sudden unveiling of the truth. He sneaks out, the way a chastised third grader creeps out from the principal’s office.” (262)
  • “Annoying white pieces stick to Black’s hanging knight like discarded gum on a shoe. … [t]he g-pawn’s attempts to intimidate remind us of a Chihuahua, mimicking the Pitbull’s fury…” (ibid.)

This personification of pieces is relentless and tiresome. What’s worse, some of Lakdawala’s ‘metaphors’ seem confused or nonsensical. In Carlsen-Caruana (Biel, 2011) – game #32 in the book, from which all the above is taken – we encounter a typical example of this shtick gone awry.

image

Carlsen has just played 25.f4?!. Caruana might have responded 25…Ne3!, of which Lakdawala writes: “the knight inserts his head into the lion’s mouth, hoping he has been well fed.” If the hungry rook takes the bishop with 26.Rxe3 (White’s only move), Black has 26…Bxf4 with compensation. Caruana blundered in the game with 25…Re6??, allowing White to trap the knight by placing “calming hands” (???) on the rook and bishop with 26.Bd5.

Lakdawala’s analysis is decent enough, although he, like many authors, seems to lean on engines a bit too much. He can clearly break down the essentials of a position when he so chooses. But what is valuable in Carlsen: Move by Move gets lost amidst the avalanche of bad jokes and vapid prose.

Zenón Franco has done a much better job with Anand: Move by Move. The Paraguayan Grandmaster, having already published on Anand (Viswanathan Anand – Quíntuple Campeón del Mundo, 2013), has written a relatively straightforward biographical work. Anand: Move by Move begins with a twenty-five page assessment of Anand’s style. Franco lauds Anand’s flexibility, noting his ability to change his playing style to defeat Kramnik (236) and Topalov (264) in World Championship matches. He goes so far as to compare Anand’s universality with that of Fischer (11) – no small compliment!

The bulk of the book is 32 annotated games from 1991-2014, representing a decent cross-section of Anand’s career. Franco takes pains to situate each game both in terms of its tournament situation and its broader place in Anand’s oeuvre.

The inclusion of a strong biographical narrative in Anand: Move by Move is most welcome. Unlike Lakdawala, who actually points to an unsourced Wikipedia quote to prove a point (Carlsen, 9), Franco references multiple sources in his text, citing Anand’s own words whenever possible. The analysis is comprehensive without being overwhelming, and Houdini’s presence is not onerous.

Were this a competition between the two titles, a rematch by proxy, Anand would certainly have his revenge here. Poor Carlsen will just have to console himself with his champion’s crown.


[1] That the books are aimed at those interested in the match is obvious: see Carlsen: Move by Move, 9, and Anand: Move by Move, 368.

Pleasant and useful!

EG Magazine.  Published by ARVES (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Endgame Study). Subscriptions are €25/yr. Pay via Paypal to <arves@skynet.be> or inquire with Marcel Van Herck, treasurer, at the same e-mail address. The ARVES website is <www.arves.org>.

Many players like solving studies. It is pleasant to try one’s strength and to look for the single, non-obvious and beautiful way of winning. Not only pleasant, but also useful!

The epigraph comes from Mark Dvoretsky’s first book in English, Secrets of Chess Training, published way back in 1990.  This book was famously not about training per se, but rather it focused on three key aspects of analytical excellence: the endgame, adjournments (which no longer exist in the age of the silicon monster) and endgame studies.  This third section was perhaps the most surprising of the three.  Endgames studies are composed positions with specific stipulations – White is to win or draw.  Unlike problems, the number of moves to complete the stipulation is not specified.  And besides being difficult to solve, good studies are usually quite beautiful.

Dvoretsky believes that studies are very good training fodder for players looking to improve.  His trademark idea, explained in that early book, was to have two of his students play a study out against each other as if it were a real game and without knowing the stipulation.  No small number of cooks (errors) were found in this way.  You find a handful of studies in most of Dvoretsky’s more recent works, including his Endgame Manual and the new 2nd edition of his Analytical Manual.  He also co-authored a dramatically underrated book specifically about studies – Studies for the Practical Player: Improving Calculation and Resourcefuless in the Endgame – with Oleg Pervakov, one of the leading study authors in the world today.

Dvoretsky is not alone.  It would seem that Magnus Carlsen trained for the recent World Championship by solving endgame studies.  Check out the position he showed on Twitter in August as an example of how he was preparing for Anand.  White is to move and win.

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(Here’s the answer, by the way.  Note that this position was an award winner in a composition tournament dedicated to Dvoretsky’s 60th birthday!)

There are many books on studies available if you look hard enough.  Kasparian’s two books – Domination in 2545 Endgame Studies and the newer 888 Miniature Studies – are among the best, and Jan Timman’s The Art of the Endgame is a wonderful book that seems to have fallen stillborn from New in Chess’ press.  There is also a quarterly magazine devoted specifically to the endgame study.

This magazine is EG, published in the Netherlands by a Dutch study association.  Its editor is Harold van der Heijden, the mastermind behind the essential study database HHDB.  The magazine is the periodical of record for the world of studies, and I can hardly think of a better specialized magazine in chess or any other topic for that matter.  Each issue is a labor of love for its authors and editors, and this love shows on every page.

What’s in EG?  Each mailing consists of the magazine proper along with (in most cases) a ‘supplement’ that contains summaries of awards given in study competitions from around the world.  The magazine contains a few standard elements:

  • ‘Originals,’ with new studies submitted to EG;
  • ‘Spotlight,’ which is a hodge-podge of cooks, news, and opinions;
  • various contributions by Emil Vlasak on issues related to chess and computers;
  • obituaries of leading figures in the study world
  • summaries of the most important awards or solving tournaments
  • original articles about historical OTB and study tournaments, specific themes in studies, historical personalites, etc.

In the April 2014 issue there are 63 studies (along with 103 in the supplement) given as diagrams with full answers.  They are scattered amidst three obituaries, an article on pawn endings in the studies of Vitaly Kovalenko, and a fascinating piece on news in the world of endgames and tablebases by Vlasak.  Yochanan Afek’s study from the Timman 60 JT – also named 2012 Study of the Year – is one of the highlights of the issue.  White is to move and win; the answer is here (and it’s well worth your time).

image

Endgame studies are not everyone’s cup of tea.  Sometimes they have an artificial taste about them, and sometimes they’re just too complicated for mortals like me to solve.  If, however, you are interested in beauty in chess, you might consider having a look at some studies.  If you want to improve your analytical skills and your imagination, you should definitely consider solving some studies and perhaps even start solving.  And if you get into studies, you should absolutely consider subscribing to EG.  It’s a fantastic magazine, a great value for the price, and it opens up a little corner of the chess world that you just might start to call home.

A Fitting Tribute

Kotronias, Vassilios, and Logothetis, Sotiris.  Carlsen’s Assault on the Throne.  Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2013.  ISBN 978-1906552220.  HB $34.95; currently $26ish at Amazon.

One of the casualties of our living in the age of ChessBase is the death of the tournament and match book.  Because games are available – at least for the biggest events – in real time, and because those same games are often annotated in near real-time for Chessbase.com, Chess.com or TWIC, there seems to be little appetite or market for the expert reporting and semi-conclusive annotation that a book might provide.  The chess world is poorer for it.  Some of the best reads in the history of chess literature – Tal’s book on his first match with Botvinnik, Bronstein’s book on Zurich 1953 – would almost certainly never see the light of day under current conditions.

With Carlsen’s Assault, their nearly instant book on the just finished Carlsen-Anand match, Quality Chess continues in their laudable effort to publish books that will stand the test of time.  Kotronias and Logothetis have put together a beautiful work that will stand as the definitive book on Carlsen’s becoming World Champion, unless Magnus himself takes up the pen.

There is an efficient division of labor at work in this book.  Logothetis, an arbiter and FIDE master, has been active in the European chess scene for years, and he helped run the London Candidates tournament in the Spring of 2013 won by Carlsen.  He provides the ‘color commentary’ for both the London tournament and the World Championship match in Chennai.  As Logothetis was involved with the London event, his prose on the Candidates tournament is more ‘insidery’ and illuminating, but the account of the Chennai match is more than serviceable.  You get a fairly good feel for the atmosphere of both events as they unfolded, more along the lines of a real-time telling than a retrospective looking-back.  The great advantage of this mode of presentation, at least to me, is that something of the drama is retained when the final outcome is not retroactively baked into the text.

Grandmaster Vassilos Kotronias handled the analysis and annotation duties.  Here the book shines.  Kotronias obviously incorporated the best insights from other annotators in his work on the London games, citing analysis from CBM 154, etc.  He did not have the benefit of anything other than the instant annotations for his work on the Chennai match, but having inspected the annotations of multiple Grandmasters, Kotronias’ notes are absolutely top notch.  Only Robert Hubner’s notes to Game 3 in Schach 12/2013 are more extensive; for anyone who knows Hubner’s work, this should not surprise.

The book itself is of very high quality, a hardcover with dozens of color pictures strewn through its pages.  The paper seems to be slightly different than is usual for Quality Chess, but this is probably due to the color printing.

Carlsen’s Assault is a fitting tribute to Magnus Carlsen’s historic victory in Chennai.  It is a book that every lover of chess history should consider purchasing.  Until we get the truly inside story from Carlsen, Nielsen, Hammer or Agdestein, Kotronias and Logothetis have given us the next best thing: a thoughtful, precise account of Carlsen’s march into chess immortality.