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Can You Beat Magnus Carlsen?
Magnus Carlsen. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Can You Beat Magnus Carlsen?

The Wall Street Journal is not the publication you want to read looking for a good laugh, unless you find such terms like GDP, P/E ratio or volatility index particularly funny. Yet, I couldn't stop smiling reading through their recent article about a beginner who wanted to learn enough about chess in just one month to beat the reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen.

You cannot make this stuff up! 

To tell you the truth I had to check numerous times if it was indeed the Journal and not The Onion! Judge for yourself: the self-anointed "obsessive learner" Max Deutsch had a streak of monthly projects like solving a Rubik's cube in less than 20 seconds, doing a backflip, etc. Being successful in all of them, he decided to conquer the chess world and beat Magnus Carlsen. While I am not quite sure about the logic here and don't see a direct connection between a backflip and chess, I can respect the man's dream.

Then the surrealistic part of the article starts. It tells us about the chess algorithm that Max tried to create to start thinking like a computer, but unfortunately, he was not able to finish it on time. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the game, according to the article Magnus was shaking.

Moreover, the Journal tells you:

"Max had been right about the opening. If his algorithm had worked, he would’ve been in a solid position. But he was anyway. After eight moves, using his own limited chess ability, the unthinkable was occurring: Max was winning."

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Magnus Carlsen. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

I read this part three times. Can it be for real? I was praying that they provided the text of the game at the end of the article and my wish was granted. Well, the Journal didn't win 40 Pulitzer Prizes for nothing, so here is the game!

You can come to your own conclusion about the situation after the first eight moves, but it is undeniable that after 14 moves White was completely, unquestionably lost!

So what went wrong? And more important, can any person reading this article regardless of her chess expertise beat Magnus Carlsen?

Well, the question if a self-tutored beginner can beat a world champion was asked by many famous people. Read "The Royal Game" by Stefan Zweig, where the protagonist has read and re-read just one chess book hundreds of times just to keep his sanity. Yet, in just three months he becomes so strong that he even beats the world chess champion! A similar plot of a complete amateur beating the world champion was seen in Tal's story that we discussed in this article.

Unfortunately, both stories are just absolute fiction, so, the question stands: can a non-master beat the world champion? Well, look at the next game:

I never heard about John Dedinsky and didn't find any of his games in a database, so I am pretty sure he is as an amateur as you can be! Yet, he beat great Bobby Fischer in just 17 moves! OK, OK, you caught me here. Yes, it was a 57-board simul, and there were hundreds of games in chess history where completely unknown players beat world champions in simuls.

Let's rephrase the question: can a non-master amateur beat a world champion in a regular one-on-one game? While I never heard about such an event, let me tell you an unusual story that supposedly happened about 35 years ago.

The city of Kharkiv (the former Soviet Union, now Ukraine) has always had many very strong chess players. Currently the former women's world champion Anna Ushenina and the super-GM Pavel Eljanov as well as a number of "just very strong" GMs live there. So, one day in the beginning of 1980s an unknown man entered Kharkiv's chess club and started playing blitz with everyone for money. Despite giving serious time odds, the stranger kept winning. The strangest thing was that the guy had a bag full of cucumbers and he was munching them non-stop during the games!

Eventually the local masters entered the fray, but the mysterious guy was beating everyone! The situation looked more and more like Fischer's famous visit to the Central Chess Club in Moscow. The young American prodigy demonstrated his amazing blitz skills beating famous Soviet masters! Eventually grandmaster Tigran Petrosian came to the rescue and successfully defended the honor of the Soviet chess.

Back to our story, Kharkiv's strongest blitz player, Mikhail Gurevich, was called. The stranger recognized Gurevich and said: "If you were just a regular master, I would give you odds of three minutes vs. five minutes, but you are a very strong master so we are going to play five minutes each."

The man was absolutely correct: in a couple of years Mikhail Gurevich won the Soviet championship, got a GM title and in the June 1990 rating list he was number seven in the world! So they played for several hours but the total score was about even. At the end of the day the bizarre stranger picked up his winnings and the remaining cucumbers and left the speechless crowd.

He was never seen again. The word on the street is that the man was returning home after many years spent in prison where, just like the protagonist of "The Royal Game," he learned to play chess. Personally, I don't buy this version since I totally agree with the famous statement by Botvinnik that no amount of analytical work is a good substitute for a tournament play.

So, if the mysterious man never played chess tournaments, he had no chance to beat a strong master like Mikhail Gurevich even in one blitz game. From the other side, the Soviet Union had a very closed chess community since during the years of the iron curtain you couldn't just go abroad and play chess. Therefore all strong chess players, even candidate masters were well known, and the guy wasn't one of them!

It is a great pity that the "cucumber guy" was never again seen playing chess.

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If we get back to Max Deutsch's challenge, it was obviously a publicity stunt. How do I know?

Well, as a smart guy Max Deutsch would definitely think that before challenging a 2800-rated world champion, it makes sense to test his own chess abilities against intermediate players first, and therefore he would play a weekend tournament at his local chess club. The expected result would have been a good reality shot. As he didn't do it, it is absolutely clear that he knew what was coming and yet he traveled all the way to Germany to play Magnus.

In this case, I want to point out a huge mistake he committed on move 11 when he missed his big chance.

You might ask what was the point of this crazy sacrifice? Well, actually there are two ideas behind it. First of all, there was a remote chance that Magnus would faint since according to the report he was already shaking. In this case Max would have achieved his goal winning the game by forfeit. In the more probable case of Magnus snatching the queen and grinning from ear to ear, Max Deutsch would have achieved another goal. He would have been forever remembered as a beginner player who managed to check the world champion's king!

Finally, let me answer the question in the title of this article. If you never played official chess tournaments and still hope to beat Magnus Carlsen in a serious one-on-one game in the next three years, then forget about it!

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