Carlsen-Anand: Post Mortem

by admin on November 23, 2014

Today, as I expect most readers of this blog know already, Magnus Carlsen won the 11th game of his match with Viswanathan Anand to retain his world championship title. The final score of the match was 6½-4½ (+3 – 1 =7 for Carlsen).

What can I say? I think the primary reaction of the chess world this time was ennui. The question was not really whether Carlsen would win, but how much he would win by. For many fans it was too soon after the 2013 match to get excited, especially about another match between the same players. Thanks to Fabiano Caruana’s breakthrough tournament in the Sinquefield Cup this year, the match people really want to see is Carlsen-Caruana. (Admittedly, Caruana still has to prove that he can continue to play at or near his Sinquefield level on a regular basis.)

But that’s all for the future. The match we had for the present was Carlsen-Anand.

It was a somewhat interesting match for about three games. After Anand beat Carlsen in game three (something he had failed to do even once in their 2013 match), the match was tied and there was some hope that the psychological advantage had shifted. As I wrote in a previous post, from an objective point of view Anand had about a 10 percent chance of winning the match at that point, but because of the psychological factors I was willing to raise his chances to 20 percent. I thought he might be “looser” (in a positive sense) than Carlsen, willing to play as if he had nothing left to lose.

However, it turned out that Anand’s psychology cracked first. In game six he received a true gift from the chess gods. After Carlsen completely outplayed Anand in the opening, Carlsen made a tactical error that could have changed chess history. Anand could have won a pawn with a little combination of two in-between moves. With an absolutely free pawn, there is a strong chance that Anand would have won the game and gone ahead in the match.

But Anand didn’t see it. It’s amazing he didn’t see it, because … Nxe5 was a tactic that literally had to be at the top of each player’s analysis tree every move. The threat had been there for about six or seven moves but Carlsen had it defended, until suddenly he forgot to keep it defended. The best explanation I’ve heard was from someone on Facebook who said that sometimes you get so used to the fact that a particular combination is not possible that you take it for granted, and you don’t notice when it becomes possible.

I disagreed with the people who said at the time that it was an inconceivable blunder, that nothing like this had ever happened in a world championship match, etc. I later read an article that gave two excellent examples of similar double blunders in WC play. But there’s no question that this was a big turning point. It’s just too bad the suspense didn’t last for very long. Anand played a different move, and after two minutes when it seemed we had stepped through a wormhole into an alternate universe, we were back to the familiar one where Carlsen is king.

Carlsen went on to win that game, and after that it was pretty obvious that the match was his. In the last game Anand was finally provoked into playing pretty desperately, sacrificing an exchange for not much compensation. However, as usual (except for the fateful game six), Carlsen’s technique was spotless.

Another question that came up on Facebook was: Should the match have been longer? Would that have made it less boring, giving both players more incentive to take risks?

In general I am definitely a strong supporter of doing things the old way. I’d like to see a match of at least 16 games, and I abhor the active-chess and speed-chess tiebreakers. However, in this particular match, four more games would have made no difference and would have just prolonged the tedium. Now if Caruana gets to play against Carlsen, the more games the better!

Congratulations to Magnus Carlsen, who absolutely deserved to win this match. If I and the chess world have tended to focus too much on the one particular move when he could have gotten in trouble, it’s actually a compliment because he was so much in control the rest of the time.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Edward November 23, 2014 at 10:16 pm

A nice comment. I think the match also suggested two other observations. The first is that in the future the opening systems will likely be chosen for the players. What other conclusion can be reached by most chess fans seeing the Berlin rear its ugly head again? The second is a rule change: “The first player on the move that repeats the position a third time during the game will be declared loser of the game.” No more draws by repetition.


Dan Schmidt November 24, 2014 at 5:57 am

I feel like I was watching a different match! I wasn’t really looking forward to it like last time, for the reasons you state, but once it started I had a lot less ennui. Of course Carlsen was the clear favorite, but Game 3 made it clear that Carlsen was not invincible, and he didn’t seem to be pressing much to extend his lead once he won Game 6, so it seemed eminently possible (though not probable, of course) that Anand could tie it up. It did look quite likely that the match would continue until the last game; how much more parity can you ask for?

As to Edward’s suggestions:

1) Forcing the players to play specific openings would be like playing a different game. Occasionally there are thematic tournaments where everyone has to play the same opening, but these are not taken very seriously. Banning the Berlin would be akin to admitting that chess is broken.

(And some of the more exciting games in this match were in the Berlin.)

2) And this really would be a different game. First of all, what happens when you get down to bare kings – both players play on for hundreds of moves until one of them loses by stumbling into a position that the other one notices occurred for the second time 130 moves ago? Even if you make a special rule for that case, introducing a rule that occasionally forbids players from playing the only good move on the board is pretty problematic. Draw by repetition, or the possibility of it, is an important part of chess, especially when defending or down material. It would be pretty sad to lose it.

(And I believe only one game in this match ended in a draw by repetition.)


admin November 24, 2014 at 10:49 am

One thing I should say is that because of the large time difference between Sochi and California, I was always going over the games after they had been completed. So they may indeed have been more suspenseful to people who were watching them unfold in real time.

I agree with Dan that banning certain openings is not the solution. In the specific case of the Berlin, I would place at least as much blame on White players who seem to think that the only way for White to play for an advantage is to trade queens. And also I blame White players who don’t see that the way out of the Berlin curse is to play the King’s Gambit! 😎


Edward December 7, 2014 at 10:45 am

I would not ban certain opening but would require certain openings from the players. Of course the players would get plenty of notice regarding what those openings would be.


Horatio December 1, 2014 at 2:13 am

@Dana: Thanks for this nice analysis of the match.

@Edward: In this match only 7 out of 11 games were drawn so I fail to understand why people wanna change the rules of the game to prevent draws. It is not like on a hypertheoretical level is not a draw anyway (this is of course not proven yet but I doubt that any strong player would disagree with the notion that if God played chess against God, God will always draw).


Edward December 1, 2014 at 11:14 am

Yes, I overreached with my comment….sorry, as the problem with GM draws rears its head mostly GM tournaments. BTW, in an interview in Silicon Valley last year Carlsen said in effect the stalemate rule should be changed and in the future no doubt different beginning positions will be introduced into GM chess tournaments.


Horatio December 7, 2014 at 5:35 am

Would you mind to link to this interview? I seriously doubt that Carlsen would suggest something as ludicrous as abolishing the stalemate rule as this would make chess far too materialistic (K+P vs. K would now always be a win).
As for varying starting positions, if you are into that you can play Fischer Random. But I still totally disagree with you as well as Fischer back when he introduced Fischer Random, chess is not dead because of deep opening knowledge. How can anybody seriously make such claims while there is a world champion who plays theoretically inferior moves in the opening (d3 in the Spanish, Bb5 in the Sicilian) in order to just get a game?

People who whine about the supposed increasing occurence of draws might wanna check some old tournaments, e.g. the first Karpov-Kasparov match which features 17 draws in a row and 40 draws out of 48 games!


Edward December 7, 2014 at 10:40 am

Here is the interview link…..lots of interesting stuff. I was hoping at this interview to ask the Champ about the “three move repetition draw” rule, but didn’t get the chance. My issue is the top players playing “not to lose” rather than to win. Perhaps I’m biased, having suffered through T. Petrosian as world’s champ:


Horatio December 9, 2014 at 5:18 am

There are ample of super GMs who are willing to take risks. But few of them have become World Champions. I prefer the active but objective playing style of Anand over the “all-in” aggressiveness of a Topalov.
I am biased here as well as I am from Germany and as there has been ample of this antisemitic “coward Jewish chess” nonsense in the past (Alekhine is the most well-known player who uttered such remarks but there are also ample of other players who said such ugly things). Sorry but there is nothing wrong with playing it safe and there is certainly more to learn from Petrosian’s games than from Tal’s.


Edward December 9, 2014 at 11:36 am

“…. there is nothing wrong with playing it safe and there is certainly more to learn from Petrosian’s games than from Tal’s.” I do not agree, and would prefer Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov and the Carlsen games, great world champions whose primary goal was to win, not “not to lose”.
Regarding Alekhine, I’d take better than even odds he never made any extreme anti-Semitic statements…..and if he did, I’d take better than even odds that he was not given any real choice in the matter by the Nazis.


Horatio December 10, 2014 at 2:17 pm

The authority on chess history, Edward Winter, thinks otherwise:

Anyway, my point was not that Alekhine was a horrible antisemitic. My point was that I have issues with your claim that defensive chess is somehow bad (coupled with the counterfactual claim that the likelihood of draws has increased over time) as it has been used by antisemitic chess players who were mentally stuck in the Romantic Era.

About Tal and Petrosian, one can still learn nowadays from Petrosian’s exchange sacs (although to be honest even amateur players nowadays have good relative piece value assessment skills so it has already become to some degree general knowledge). Tal on the other hand often played unsoundly and it is hardly a coincidence that you see so few crazy attackers nowadays as defensive skills have tremendously improved.

About your assessment of these four former World Champions, they are plain wrong as only Kasparov dared to take risks. The other three are all players with tremendous endgame skills and while Fischer was a fairly active player (but nonetheless an objective one, his few youth brilliancies are not representative if his play) Karpov and Carlsen are definitely dry players who, if anything, are slightly risk-averse.


Edward December 10, 2014 at 5:38 pm

@Horatio. Thanks very much for the link to the Winter material. Since Alekhine never referred to Jews in any of his abundant writing on chess until he was living under the Nazi regime, I assume if he like other prominent people did not come out against the Jews when the Nazis suggested it, they and their families would have ended up dead. Didn’t Alekhine say somewhere of all the players he’d studied, he had learned the most from the games of WC Lasker?
“… I have issues with your claim that defensive chess is somehow bad… as it has been used by antisemitic chess players who were mentally stuck in the Romantic Era.” I’ve studied the chess literature for over fifty years (from before the Fischer era; I’m now 70 years old), and this is the first time I’ve heard this opinion.
I don’t like draws in chess, especially when there is still plenty of play in the position. Of course, the so-called Sofia rule (” Players cannot agree to a draw directly without the consent of the Chief Arbiter.”) is being used in more pro tournaments…all to the good as far as I’m concerned.


Horatio December 11, 2014 at 2:55 am

“This is the first time I’ve heard this opinion.”
It is not my opinion but fact. Perhaps I am more aware of this ugly stuff due to being German but ramblings about “coward Jewish defensive chess” was uttered by guys like Alekhine or Diemer (known for the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit).

“I don’t like draws in chess.”
Hate to bring you this surprise after 50 years but, guess what, on a hypertheoretical level chess is most likely a draw. As I already pointed out above with some data, nowadays it seems like there are less draws in WCCs than in the 80s (perhaps as matches are shorter so there is no need to play “rest draws”) so I fail to see the necessity of the Sofia rule. It lead to pretty ridiculous situations (play continuing in dead drawn positions) during the Topalov-Anand match.

I also fail to see why agreeing to a draw in a position with some play is somehow supposed to be worse for the audience than the players going into a drawn line. I also have serious issues with the notion that somehow chess players should play exciting games to satisfy the whims of the audience. Like in any other sport professional sport chess players have to make a living so you cannot expect them to not be risk-averse.


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