I just had a conversation fifteen minutes ago with my next-door neighbor Dave, who has never shown any interest in chess previously but had heard something somewhere about a new world champion. This conversation reminded me of an obvious fact: more than anything else, a world championship catches the attention of non-chess players. It’s the one chance we get to teach the rest of the world a little bit about our game and its history.
On the theory that somewhere out there on the Internet there might be other people who have the same questions Dave did, I’ll more or less reconstruct our conversation below. [A couple of explanatory items that I didn't actually say are in brackets.]
Dave is a pretty smart guy, so I think this is a pretty good list of FAQ’s about chess. But I’d welcome other FAQ’s from readers!
Dave: So I heard that some chess player became the new world champion. How did he do it? Did he win one game or something?
Dana: It wasn’t one game but a twelve-game match, actually a best-of-twelve match. A Norwegian player named Magnus Carlsen beat the defending champion, a guy from India named [Viswanathan] Anand. Before that, to qualify for the championship match, Carlsen had to win a candidates’ tournament among the top eight players in the world who aren’t world champions, which actually he barely won. He got lucky in the last round. All he needed to do was draw against the seventh-place guy, but he lost. Fortunately, the guy who was chasing him also lost.
Each of those players played each other twice, so they played 14 games in all. Before that, they had to qualify for the candidates tournament by winning some earlier competition. So, in fact, the world championship isn’t just a single game or a single match but a two-year cycle that involves many games. There will be another match in 2015, and the qualifying rounds for that cycle have already begun.
Dave: Isn’t there a number that determines who is the best?
Dana: There is a rating system, but it’s almost irrelevant for deciding the world champion. Carlsen has already been the highest-rated player in the world for two or three years, but that didn’t make him champion. You have to prove that you are the best in a match.
Dave: So are the world champions always from Europe?
Dana: Far from it! Anand, the previous champion, was from India. Before that, for many years, the world champions were almost always Russian, but then Bobby Fischer came along and won the world championship in 1972, and he was from America. That was a huge shock to the Russians, because chess was practically their national pastime. Being beaten by an American was like, maybe, if Borneo beat the U.S. in American football.
Before that, the last previous non-Russian champion was Max Euwe, from the Netherlands, in the 1930s, and the last previous non-European champion was Jose Raul Capablanca, from Cuba, from 1921 to 1927. That was another amazing thing. Cuba was certainly not a country with a long chess tradition, but Capablanca had a huge natural talent, and that was more important than where he was from. Same with Fischer.
Dave: I’m surprised, with chess being such an intellectual game, that the Chinese haven’t done better at it.
Dana: Well, that’s partly due to the fact that they have their own version of chess, which is different from what the rest of the world plays. That being said, it seems as if a generation ago, they woke up and realized that the rest of the world plays this other kind of chess, and they started making the commitment to become good at it.
One of the stars at the World Cup this year — that’s one of the qualifying tournaments for 2015 — was a 14-year-old Chinese boy [Wei Yi], the world’s youngest grandmaster. He upset a couple of very strong grandmasters. He didn’t win the tournament and so he won’t [in all likelihood] be a challenger the next time, but I think you have to consider him a serious candidate a few years in the future.
Possibly the reason the Chinese have made such a commitment to chess is that there has been talk of making it an Olympic sport. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen, though.
Also, I should point out that there has been a huge explosion in interest in chess throughout Asia. The fact that Anand was world champion made the game very popular in India, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more Indians following in his footsteps. Also there is a very good player from the Phillippines [Wesley So], and one from Vietnam who has done very well [Le Quang Liem]. All in all, I think that chess is the most international sport in the world, except for soccer.
Dave: But is chess really a sport? It doesn’t involve any physical activity.
Dana: No, but it does require a lot of stamina, and cool judgement in stressful conditions, and other qualities that are important in sports. All of the top players train physically for important tournaments, and a long match like the one between Anand and Carlsen will probably make them lose several pounds.
Dana: In the end, chess is in some ways an art and in some ways a sport, and it’s definitely a game. But it’s a lot more serious than the word “game” usually implies, and that is why I think the word “sport” is appropriate.
Dave: Are there any women competing for the world championship?
Dana: So far there haven’t been any women world champions, or even any that have qualified to play for the world championship. There has been a woman in the world’s top ten, but so far it’s a bit of a numbers game. So many more chessplayers are men that it’s more likely the world champion will be a man. However, we’ve seen before that world champions can come from unlikely places, like Capablanca from Cuba. So I think it’s not out of the realm of possibility for a woman to be world champion.
Dave: And you can follow the games on the Internet?
Dana: I think that chess is the ideal sport for the Internet, because you can see almost everything that matters just by getting the moves. It’s not the same as soccer or football, for instance, where you really have to see what the players are doing, their reactions, things like that, which you can only see in a live broadcast. In chess a live broadcast doesn’t tell you much, because the players will have a poker face most of the time, and also because the action is so slow.
Dave: And I hear the players have some kind of box that tells them how much time they are using?
Dana: It’s called a chess clock, and it’s really a clever invention. Your clock only runs when it’s your move, so you aren’t penalized for the time your opponent takes, only for the time you take. You’re given a certain amount of time for the whole game, or to complete a certain number of moves. For example, you might have two hours to make 40 moves, so you have to take less than 3 minutes a move on the average. You can spend as long as you want on one move, say half an hour if you want — but you’ll have to make up for it by making your other moves faster. If you run out of time, you lose the game. Inevitably it happens, even among strong players, that they have to rush at the end of the game. That makes it a lot more exciting, and it also causes mistakes. It’s not uncommon to see 30 straight perfect moves, and then 10 straight moves of blunders!
Dave: So when are you going to compete for the world championship?
Dana: Ha! As if!
* * * * * * * * * *
My chess plans do include a couple of tournaments in the near future. If you’ve noticed sort of a lull in new games discussed on this blog, that lull will end soon. First I’ll be playing in the California Class Warfare championship next weekend. This is one of two traditional Berkeley tournaments that sort of ran out of steam and have been revived through the efforts of Salman Azhar of Bay Area Chess. It’s good that he has kept them alive, but the humor in the original names has been lost. When they were the Berkeley Class Struggle and the Berkeley People’s Tournament, it was a humorous reference to Berkeley’s left-wing tradition. Now that they are the California Class Warfare and People’s Tournament, the names just make you go, “Huh?”
Following that, I will play in the Bay Area International from January 2 to 8. This is a type of tournament I’ve wanted to play in for a long time — a multi-round (9, to be exact) tournament with entry restricted to players with USCF ratings above 2200, or FIDE above 2000. I was unable to play in the first two Bay Area Internationals because the dates conflicted with the national math meetings — something that I complained to the organizer, Arun Sharma, about. He’s a mathematician, so he should know better! Maybe he listened to me, because this year they don’t conflict.
Actually, players like me, at the bottom end of the rating pool, are strongly discouraged from entering the International because it’s supposed to be a norm-qualifying event for higher-rated players. [Said players often get extremely pissed when they play well enough to get a norm but are disqualified for technicalities.] The way Arun and Salman discourage us is by charging the lower-rated players exorbitant entry fees. Also, there is a strict limit that at most one-third of the players can be rated under FIDE 2200, as I am.
In spite of the expense, I felt that at least for one time it was worth paying the large amount of money, and besides, I want to support this tournament. It’s a good thing for California chess and for U.S. chess. When I couldn’t play in the first one, I contributed money to the prize fund anyway. So I view my entry fee this year as also being a contribution that happens to allow me to play in the tournament.
My goal for both tournaments is to score at least 50 percent and win the under-2300 prizes. Also, of course, to play some good games that I can post on this blog or lecture about on Chess Lecture. We’ll see!