World Cup: Exhaustion Sets In

by admin on October 4, 2015

I’ve even gotten tired writing about the World Cup, imagine how tired the people are playing it. The final four-game match between Peter Svidler and Sergey Karjakin has been disappointing in a way I never expected. First, take a look at the results:

  1. Svidler 1, Karjakin 0
  2. Svidler 1, Karjakin 0
  3. Karjakin 1, Svidler 0
  4. Karjakin 1, Svidler 0

If you had shown me these results before the match started, I would say, “Wow! What an exciting match! Four consecutive decisive games! An incredible comeback by Karjakin!”

But when you actually look at the games, it’s a different story. Rounds one and four were decent games in which at least one player played well. But rounds two and three were horrific debacles, in which the players who were ahead blundered repeatedly and awfully. The deciding blunder in each game was of the simple, instructional variety that you would give to a 1600 player. Svidler’s blunder in game three was a two-mover; Karjakin’s blunder in game two was more like a one-mover. Karjakin missed the fact that his bishop was overloaded. Svidler missed an X-ray attack.

All right, I get it. Chess is tricky. But these are grandmasters, the best players in the world. You just don’t see them do things like this, especially in the biggest games of one of the premiere events of the year.

So I think you have to look for reasons, and the reason is not hard to find. They’ve been playing without a break for almost a month. Counting playoffs, Svidler has played 24 games and Karjakin has played 30. Compare this with normal grandmaster tournaments that typically last 9 or 11 games. Not only that, the knockout format creates incredible pressure and tension every round. In a typical tournament there is one climax; in this one there are seven of them. It’s fun for the spectators, but undoubtedly exhausting for the players.

So you’re watching something like the end of a marathon for which the runners have not really trained adequately. It’s not even a competition any more, it’s just stumbling to the finish line. GM Alejandro Ramirez wrote on after the third game,

The players are clearly beyond exhaustion, outside forces are influencing the quality of the game to a greater extent than acceptable. I cannot imagine Svidler and Karjakin, such prominent and powerful players over the board, playing at this level with so many blunders in only three games in any other tournament.

I’ve been a big proponent of the World Cup format, because it gives less-famous players a chance to shine. The whole world knows much more about Pavel Eljanov now than a month ago. But seven rounds are just too long, I think. The World Cup also has this oddity where just getting into the finals is the most important thing (because it qualifies you for the World Championship Candidates tournament). The actual championship match is a bit of an anticlimax.

So here’s my radical solution: play only six rounds and have two winners. We could call the two sections World Cup A and World Cup B. They would be held simultaneously, so we would still have the fun free-for-all of 128 players in the beginning. And instead of watching Svidler and Karjakin embarrass themselves, we would be calling both of them champions, as they deserve to be.


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Pawn Sacrifice (the Movie)

by admin on October 3, 2015

This afternoon, a week or two after everybody else, I finally got a chance to watch Pawn Sacrifice, the movie about the Bobby Fischer – Boris Spassky match starring Tobey McGuire.

I know that any chess player can easily find flaws with the portrayal of chess and specific events in the movie. Big flaws. But I think you have to look at the big picture and ask, was the movie true to the nature of the people and the events? And I think the answer is more yes than no. Given that the movie’s heart was in the right place, I think you can overlook the fact that many details were wrong.

First, thank god that the moviemakers did not make it into the typical Hollywood underdog-prevails-against-overwhelming-odds movie. No Rocky here. There was one nod to this kind of sentimentality when we see all the people from Fischer’s past cheering when he scores a crucial victory against Spassky. Complete nonsense. The games weren’t televised worldwide, and all of these people wouldn’t have been watching it. But even this completely fabricated scene is forgivable because it’s meant to contrast with the way that McGuire as Fischer reacts: no joy at all. His paranoia and his obsession with the quest have gone too far. And as Bill Lombardy says in one of the movie’s crucial lines, Fischer’s problem is not what will happen if he loses, but what will happen if he wins. He doesn’t know what the next act is.

You can debate whether Fischer was really so “insane” at the time of the match, and whether he really took so little pleasure in his victory, but as a visual way of telling the story and underscoring how different Fischer was from the rest of us, I think that the scene works. And it’s nice that it subverts our usual expectations of the movie hero.

Also, thank god that the moviemakers resisted the temptation to make Boris Spassky into a typical Hollywood “heavy.” They flirted with that cliché early in the movie, when we first see Spassky strutting into a tournament with his sunglasses on, but they give him a little bit of depth later on. They show a very key fact, which is that the Soviets wanted Spassky to go home and win the match by forfeit after the second game, but Spassky wouldn’t have it. I’m not sure if they get the motivations quite right, but at least movie-Spassky is not just a tool of the Soviet empire. I think that real-life Spassky was first and foremost a sportsman. It wasn’t so much that he was sure of winning, but just that he wanted the match to be played.

Finally, from the broadest point of view, there is one thing that the movie maybe gets wrong. They avoided cliché number one. But they bought fully into cliché number two, the genius who is driven insane by his art. In my opinion Fischer was a deplorable person long before he was “crazy.” But I think it would be hard to get an A-list star like Tobey McGuire to play a person who was as nasty as Fischer. So instead he has to be an insane genius.

One thing I liked about the movie is the way that they bring Fischer’s family into the story. His sister Joan tries to reach out to him and at one crucial moment he tries to reach out to her. I wish there could have been more to this plotline. After that crucial scene she just drops out of the movie except to be one of the people cheering wildly when he wins. Still, she is a welcome presence in the movie because she is the only character who relates to Bobby just as a person and not as a chessplayer.

Finally, all those pesky little details. I’m sure you could make a list pages long of the movie’s transgressions. Such as the usual cliché of having someone say “check” and everybody in the room suddenly gets silent as if it’s the end of the world. Or the historical error of having Fischer resign on the spot when he made his blunder in game one against Spassky. Or showing chess players talking about their rankings (#25 in New York) rather than their ratings. Or … or … or …

But as I said, none of this really matters. The moviemakers are telling a story, and they need to do it in a way that non-chessplayers will understand. People understand “I’m #25 in New York” better than they understand “my rating is 2300″. So just grit your teeth and bear it.

All in all, I think it’s a pretty interesting character study of a tragic figure that all American chess players have to come to terms with, one way or another. But now, can we move on? Go rent Brooklyn Castle, if you can find it, and see something about how chess is played in Brooklyn today.

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The Tragedy of Cinderella

September 29, 2015

If there’s one person in the world I wouldn’t want to be today, it’s Pavel Eljanov. The Ukrainian grandmaster was the Cinderella player in this year’s chess World Cup. He started as the #26 seed, but played more impressively than anyone else in racing to a 6-0 start. Then he scored upsets over favorites like […]

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The Apple Theory

September 25, 2015

So I won a Matrix chess game against Shredder on my computer (game/10, I get one time-out of arbitrary length, Shredder’s rating was set for this game at 2298) and was feeling pretty good about myself until I went over it with Rybka. Ugh! Position after 21. … d3. White to move. FEN: r4b1r/pk2p2p/1p4p1/4N3/4NP1q/2Pp3B/PPn2RPP/1RB3K1 w – […]

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Eljanov Leaves Nakamura in his (Pixie) Dust

September 24, 2015

Last time I wrote that the problem with Cinderella is always what happens when the pixie dust wears off. In round five of the 2015 FIDE World Cup, the answer was emphatically, “Don’t worry about it.” The #26 seed, Pavel Eljanov, claimed #2 Hikaru Nakamura as his latest victim and moved on to the Final […]

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Voter Registration is Fun

September 23, 2015

Yesterday, like every Tuesday, was chess club day at the Aptos Public Library. We had a good turnout of 18 kids, from April to Zoey. Lately we’ve had an unusual number of girls, which I’m pleased to see. I think we had eight this week, which has to be an all-time record. This week we had […]

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The Mighty Have Fallen (Most of Them)

September 22, 2015

Round four of the 2015 FIDE World Cup was definitely the Round of the Underdogs. When the smoke cleared, five of the eight higher-seeded players had lost, and only two players who were originally seeded in the top 8 have actually made it to the final 8. The two favorites who survived were #2 Hikaru […]

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Careful What You Wish For!

September 20, 2015

In today’s fourth round of the FIDE World Cup, there were two big upsets: #16 Peter Svidler over #1 Veselin Topalov and #19 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov over #3 Fabiano Caruana. Two other games were won by the favorite: #2 Hikaru Nakamura over #16 Michael Adams and #8 Ding Liren over #24 Wei Yi. The other four […]

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World Cup Round 3 Wrap-up

September 19, 2015

The playoffs for round three of the 2015 FIDE World Cup have just ended, with Hikaru Nakamura winning an Armageddon game as Black against Ian Nepomniachtchi to advance. The big surprise of the day was Dmitry Andreikin, the #27 seed, beating #6 Vladimir Kramnik in a rematch from the 2013 World Cup. That year Kramnik beat […]

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Eljanov 6-0!

September 18, 2015

Before round three of the FIDE World Cup began, I wrote that one of the interesting matches would be Eljanov-Grischuk, because Eljanov so far had been the “irresistible force” (he had gone 4-0 to that point), while Grischuk had been the “immovable object.” (In round one Grischuk drew six games before finally winning, and in […]

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