Thursday, May 24

World Championship Goes to the Wire

Gelfand(W) and Anand (B) play on stage in front of large glass windows.
After the first 10 games, the 2012 World Chess Championship in Moscow is knotted at 5-5.  Only two classical games remain between 15th World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand of India and Challenger Boris Gelfand of Israel.  At this point, the stress on the combatants is high, as even one bad move would spell disaster.  Who will blink first? 

World Championship Games
  1. Anand 1/2 Gelfand -- Gruenfeld (24) - opening surprise leads to small edge
  2. Gelfand 1/2 Anand -- Semi-Slav, Meran (25)
  3. Anand 1/2 Gelfand -- Neo-Gruenfeld (37) - White has chances with passer
  4. Gelfand 1/2 Anand -- Semi-Slav, Meran (34)
  5. Anand 1/2 Gelfand -- Sicilian, Pelikan (27)
  6. Gelfand 1/2 Anand -- Semi-Slav, Meran (29)
  7. Gelfand 1-0 Anand -- Semi-Slav, Meran (38) - beautiful positional squeeze
  8. Anand 1-0 Gelfand -- King's Indian (17) - Black missed 17.Qf2, trapping Q
  9. Gelfand 1/2 Anand -- Nimzo Indian, Gligoric (49) -- fortress with R+N for Q
  10. Anand 1/2 Gelfand -- Sicilian, 3.Bb5 (25)
  11. Gelfand 1/2 Anand -- Nimzo Indian, Gligoric (24) 
  12. Anand 1/2 Gelfand -- Sicilian, 3.Bb5 (22)
Update May 28: Match is tied 6-6 after 12 classical games.  Tiebreaks on Wednesday.
Make sure to check out the official website for excellent live coverage of the games and daily press conferences.  You may also view the videos later in the day.  Highly recommendedChessBase News has great post-game reports.  (All photos in this post come from ChessBase.)  Finally, check out the articles at Chess Life Online, thorough analysis of games 7 and 8 by Grandmaster Ian Rogers and a first-hand account from Moscow by 14-year old master Daniel Gurevich
Regardless of the result, both players attend daily press conferences.
The main story of the match to date has been the lack of action.  Eight games were drawn, five in under 30 moves.  In fact, the average length of all 10 rounds was only 31 moves.  While these short games may be of theoretical interest to Grandmasters, only three draws gave the typical chess fan anything worth cheering about (rounds 1, 3 and 10).  Critics may point to a "draw death" of chess due to the high level of opening preparation, especially for Black.  On the other hand, it is always the responsibility of the player who moves first (White) to use the inherent small advantage to the fullest. 

After six draws in a row at the start, White did indeed win two games.  First, Gelfand took advantage of several inaccuracies by Anand to win an instructive positional squeeze.  Just 24 hours later, Anand scored on a terrible mistake by Gelfand, who resigned after 17 moves because the Black Queen got trapped by the unexpected move Qf2.  Alas, the match was tied once again!  Game on!

Garry Kasparov, always blunt in his opinions.
This match appears strange in other ways too.  The 42-year old Champion seems to be beyond his prime after mediocre tournament results pushed him down to #4 on the rating list.  None other than 13th World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov bluntly assessed that Anand has been "sliding downhill these years."  Ouch!!  Perhaps fans will be more understanding when they realize that Anand has stayed near the top of the rating list for 20 years, and coincidentally, played his first title match in 1995 against Kasparov himself! 

The 43-year old Challenger is even older and lower rated.  When was the last time that the #20 player in the World came this close to being the Champion?  In his defense, Gelfand did eliminate an impressive lineup of 2700+ Grandmasters en route to the final: Sergey Karjakin, Ruslan Ponomariov, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Gata Kamsky and Alexander Grischuk.  However, top rated Magnus Carlsen and other elite players decided to withdraw from the Candidates Matches due to frequent changes in schedule and conditions imposed by the World Chess Federation FIDE

While it cannot be the fault of Anand or Gelfand that they square off for the World Championship, would not a match between #1 Carlsen and #2 Levon Aronian be more exciting?  Methinks yes!

This brings us back to the final two rounds of Anand against Gelfand.  In the old days, title matches required combatants to fight to six wins--and draws didn't count!  Challenger Kasparov and 12th World Champion Anatoly Karpov played 48 games in 1984 (including 17 draws in a row).  Controversially, FIDE President Florencio Campomanes aborted the 1984 match because the players were allegedly too tired to continue!  Youth finally prevailed, when Kasparov won the 1985 rematch in 24 games.

The World Championship matches have shrunk ever since.  Kramnik vs Kasparov (2000) and Kramnik vs Topalov (Toilet Gate in 2006) were only 16 games each.  Anand vs Kramnik (2008) went 12 games.  As the matches become shorter, the role of tiebreaks keeps growing.  Check out the battery of rapid and blitz games set for Wednesday, if nobody wins in the last two rounds.  

Tiebreaks if match ends 6-6
(Wednesday starting at 1:00am PDT)
  • 4 games of rapid G/25 + 10 second increment
  • If still tied, 2 games of blitz G/5 + 10 second increment
  • If still tied, repeat blitz up to four more times (10 games total)
  • If still tied, play one Armageddon game: White gets 5 minutes, Black gets 4 minutes + draw odds (3 second increment begins at move 61)
While Anand and Gelfand have both demonstrated success at faster time controls, I believe the tiebreak would heavily favor the well-respected speed skills of Anand.  Nonetheless, for the sake of classical chess, I hope that the World Championship does not come down to a blitz or (shudder) Armageddon game!


Michael Aigner said...

(Hal Bogner asked me to post this comment on his behalf.)

Michael - Thanks for the thoughtful and informative reports and opinions.

I, too, am disappointed by the current match, and have a different solution to offer: a return to the era of 24-game matches. This was the norm from 1951 through 1972, and again from 1986 through 1993. Such matches never disappoint, because risk can be taken and there is plenty of recovery time if early risks backfire.

Twelve to sixteen games is simply too short, as a number of risk averse performances in matches since 2000 have shown.

For a player to be World Champion, their belief in themselves must be extreme. In a long enough match, such players can and will play many games to the last possibility, knowing that each hour of play brings the opponent closer to the point where they can no longer resist.

The great matches sometimes resemble great heavyweight boxing matches, with both fighters still standing into the 15th round.

Somehow, the worldwide chess community has tolerated the gradual diminishment of this greatest of traditions until it has become almost meaningless.

I attended the Karpov fundraiser event in New York City's financial district two years ago, where many chess-savvy financiers mingled with Kasparov and Carlsen, as well as with Karpov. Undoubtedly, the people at that event could solve the current problem, by simply endowing a new process with $100 million, and establishing an independent entity to run a system of events modeled closely upon the system of the mid to late 1900s: three year cycles consisting of zonals, interzonals, candidates matches, and a 24-game, almost two month long world championship match with millions on the line, in one of the world's major cities.

It is high time that the longstanding values of chess are reestablished at this highest level of the game. Preparation, stamina, deep insights, and strong nerves, are all required characteristics of true champions.

- Hal Bogner

Michael Aigner said...

(And now my response.)

Thanks Hal for writing.

I don't agree with you about the cause of the draw problem. While 20 or 24 games would be great for restoring pride to the World Chess Championship, I doubt it would eliminate the many short draws.

The problem is with the players themselves, and with the cause that led others to boycott the Candidates tournament.

Quite simply, Gelfand is a strong player, but nowhere near the strength of a World Champion. He knows that too. The longer he stays in the match with Anand, the more respect he gains. For strategical reasons, he has little motivation to mix things up. In fact, if he didn't go insane in game 8, he might already be the 16th World Champion!

Anand is a great player, one who was top 3 in the World for about 20 years. He is well qualified to be World Champion and he convincingly beat a worthy opponent in Kramnik. However, he is now over the hill and his performance in 2011-12 reflects his age.

The problems that Anand faces went beyond his declining skill. Gelfand surprised him in the opening several times. Anand's team just got out-prepped. Later in the match, Anand may have understood that the safest route to retaining his title was to mimic the no-risk strategy of his opponent. No doubt Anand has a huge advantage in rapid and blitz!

In short, we have two 40-something players who see this match as their last time in the limelight. Both are trying not to embarrass themselves, even more than they want to win.

All that said, I agree that chess needs a more competent World organization than FIDE. This match should have been between Anand and the winner of Carlsen vs Aronian. Alas, the World #1 and #2 both dropped out in protest of repeated changes to the cycle by FIDE. Maybe one of them will finally have a chance in 2014. Other talented younger players like Radjabov, Karjakin, Nakamura and Caruana could play key roles as well.

Given so many talented young players, it is tragic to see two 40-somethings play without any energy nor inspiration. For the sake of the title, I can only hope that Anand wins and then meets his fate against a stronger challenger in two years.

Michael Aigner

Michael Aigner said...

Vladimir Kramnik suggested playing the rapid tiebreak before the classical match. At first, the idea sounds preposterous, but it has a valid point. By playing the tiebreaker first, someone always has draw odds at 6-6 in the classical match. This seems to be an improvement over giving the defending champion draw odds a priori.