Long Live King Magnus

GM smurfo
Nov 22, 2013, 4:49 AM |

As I write this, Vishy is going through the motions of defending a worse endgame in what will almost certainly be the final game in the World Chess Championship. Magnus Carlsen, days shy of his 23rd birthday, will become the second-youngest World Chess Champion of all time, and the first from Western Europe in almost 80 years.

There are going to be a lot of reports floating around after the match in which this event will be called a "changing of the guard", a "new era", a "new chapter" (perhaps the 'Magnus Chapter?) in chess history. It will be compared to the time when Gary Kasparov became World Champion by beating the incumbent, Anatoly Karpov. The more adventurous and diverse of the journalists might even make a comparison to 19-year-old Roger Federer's famous victory over the reigning tennis world number one, Pete Sampras, in Wimbledon 2001, which is widely heralded as the handover from Sampras' dominance of the sport to Federer's.

Of course, winning what Magnus himself calls his "last big title" is a momentous occasion for the Norwegian superstar. However, I can't abide the claim that it really is a turning point in chess history. A couple of facts set this case apart from other notable sporting histories (such as, for the cricket fans, Australia's famous against-the-odds Ashes victory in 1989).

Firstly, it is important to note that being World Chess Champion and being the world's top rated player are two different things in chess (as opposed, for example, to tennis). Carlsen has been ranked as the world's best player for 29 rating periods by now, and his dominance of the game since taking this ranking back in 2010 is essentially without question. Anand, on the other hand, currently sits at number 8, almost a hundred rating points below Carlsen. If it were up to me, I would describe "The Carlsen Era" as beginning somewhere around three years ago. The more conservative pundits might instead claim that last December saw the start of the Magnus chapter, when Carlsen first broke Gary Kasparov's record for the highest-ever chess ELO rating. In either case, it is clear that Magnus' dominance of the game, as it shall be recorded in the annals of history, began long before this match even commenced.

But my bigger gripe with the handover assertion is that it implies that Anand is starting to slide from the top. For starters, I and many other commentators would opine that Anand has not been at the top of his game for a little while; in fact, I would probably say that his peak was his World Championship defence against Veselin Topalov in 2010 (coincidentally, the same year that Magnus took the number one position on the rating list). But secondly, Anand has performed pretty much on par for his rating in this match. The result of the match is almost what you would expect for two players with these ELOs, and Anand has certainly confirmed that he deserves his place in the top ten. Furthermore, I still believe he is in the top three match-players in the world.

In fact, in my opinion, Anand's strength is actually higher than his eighth position on the current list. It's not unusual for players who know that they will be competing for the World Championship to drop some rating points in the period immediately preceeding the match. The reason is that candidates don't want to give away their preparation and so often play openings that aren't their first choices. And, of course, their psychological focus is on the big event, rather than other elite tournaments where titles are not at stake. In my opinion, Anand is likely to gain rating points in upcoming events, starting with the London Chess Classic in December. With the pressure of a looming world championship match removed, I'm looking foward to seeing Anand back to his attacking best, perhaps playing with a bit more confidence and natural pizzazz for which he is best known.

Of course, there's a risk that this doesn't happen - that the result of this match contains some psychological scars that will tarnish Anand's future tournament performances - but I doubt it. Anand loves chess, and his legacy is hardly going to be tarnished by losing a match to the undisputed top player in the world. Similarly, while Anand might choose to follow in Kasparov's footsteps and opt for an early retirement, I can't see that happening. Look at Karpov, Kortschnoi, Portisch, Timman - legends of the game in their own right, and giants of another era, but still active on the chess circuit. Chess is more than a way to make a living; for those of us who have played it as long as we can remember, it's ingrained as part of our life, an addiction that is impossible to completely give up. One only has to watch the way Anand and Carlsen have genially - and enthusiastically - analysed the games with one another after every round to see the great joy both players have for the sport, as well as their mutual respect for each other. I'm looking forward to watching many exciting games by Vishy in years to come, starting in a few weeks against the world's elite in London.

Meanwhile, while today is more the continuation of Carlsen domination than the start of a new period, it is in some sense historic to once again, finally, have the same person holding the title of World Chess Champion as well as the number one ranking. It's good for the game, as is Magnus, and the sport can only flourish under this new change, despite it being in name only. Just as Anand's success at the top inspired a huge boost for chess in the Indian sub-continent, so too has Carlsen begun to spark a new wave of chess enthusiasm in western Europe and across the globe. Of all the interested parties, chess is the biggest winner from this match, which is something we can all appreciate.