Archive for November, 2018

The World Chess Championship 2018

Welcome to a report by The Worst Photographer in the World.

We were there for the second to last round. It turns out that if you have the best two players in the world fighting for their share of one million dollars, the chess doesn’t matter that much. It was all terribly exciting whatever was happening on the board. Add excellent commentary led by Judith Polgar, and you couldn’t ask for more.

Well, maybe a bit more. Tickets started at £75. Bad enough given you have no idea if you are going to see an seven hour thriller like the first game, or a ten move draw – the infamous ‘Grand Master draw’ as they are known. But £75 didn’t actually entitle you to a seat for the duration. It entitled you to a seat for half an hour! It was almost surreal sitting in the main arena, watching a sign light up at the half hour point, advising that everybody had to leave the room. Then another lot of punters trooped in. And some (all?) who wanted could get a ticket for another half an hour later….sort of like you’d paid up your 75 quid for a West End production and they told you at the end of Act One Scene Two that you had to watch the rest on video in a side room, but not to worry, there’d be commentary as well.

The playing area was glassed in so that we could see in, but the players could not see out. Theoretically it was also sound-proofed, though there were issues in one round, at least. The first row of seats was for the sponsors, then two rows of VIPs and then two rows for journalists, which is where I was. Ordinary ticket holders sat behind.

At the beginning of play there was a short opportunity for photographers in the playing area – my rather fuzzy shot of this:

C-C Rd 11 photo op

Carlsen-Caruana Rd 11 2018: the press going photo crazy

All those people are the player side of the glass and you can’t see the players at all. Amongst them, Australian Cathy Rogers, who has produced so many great chess photos over the years.

C-C Rd 11 Rogers, Cathy, Stewart Ruben

Cathy Rogers hard at work, Ian talking with Stewart Reuben

Here she is going ‘delete’, ‘delete’, ‘delete’….And bottom right is American IM Eric Rosen, who will be visiting Adelaide again this year for the Young Masters, before heading on to Melbourne.

Rosen etc in press room.JPG

IM Eric Rosen, sometimes playing visitor to Australia, here with his journalist cap on.

Directly behind Eric is (the back of) GM Jon Speelman and top left is Macauley Peterson working for ChessBase News these days.

Back to the chess room and the first move is played on behalf of the white player, Carlsen in this case, by a celebrity. We saw this:

C-C Rd 11 move one b4.JPG

Move one as played by the round’s celebrity guest

b4! Can you spot the celebrity, left of the left hand screen? It’s the loser of the last w/c. In ya dreams, Karjakin.

The press conference at the end of the penultimate round had little to say about the lacklustre draw that had been played out maybe for longer than strictly speaking was necessary. But one question posed to Fabiano Caruana produced a revealing response. The challenger was asked if he would have settled for the position he was now in at the start of the match: that is to say, one game having the white pieces.

Let’s set aside the fact that neither player got much if anything from being white. It felt a bit like watching women serving at tennis in the old days – that it was a negative to go first. Indeed, for those of you who watch live, think of how normally the computer starts off giving white a small edge. But during this match? The computer went with the flow:

BlackIsOkay

Still, let’s suppose that it is still an advantage to be white. You are white, and play one game against Carlsen and if you win you are the world champion. Caruana wasn’t having a bar of that. The point, for him, was the process. Why would he want to miss that? We can divide people into two groups. One is result driven. The knitter who is motivated by the idea of wearing the jumper when it’s finished. Gotta get the damn thing done. The swimmer who fills his lap time thinking about being on the podium at the Olympics.  Gotta come first. The chess player who wants to do whatever is best strategy to win the match. Gotta be ahead at the end of the match. The other is process driven. The knitter who enjoys every stitch made, the feel of the yarn in the hand, the exploration of what is happening during the making of. The swimmer who feels the water around him, the sky above and gets a buzz from that. The chess player who is lost in the game in front of him, who is part of its beauty, caught in its rhythm just as a knitter might be. In a clinical way we may admire the former. Perhaps his ruthlessness is more likely to be successful. But at heart we want the process player to win. We don’t want joy to be divorced from the process.

Caruana had a tough job in this match. For a start he played the Olympiad not long before, a serious disadvantage, compared with Carlsen’s approach which is more about doing what is right for him and that definitely doesn’t involve playing for his country. The hope, if not also the expectation, was the the US would retain its Olympic title and Caruana was key to that. He played like a true champion though in the end his heroic effort was not enough to see the US through.

On top of that was the issue with the video of his preparation which should have been secret, but was placed on youtube for all the world including Carlsen to see. What a disaster. If you read the US press you might not be able to tell that. Ian Rogers resigned a reporting gig in the US rather than agree to downplay what had happened.

He is a very gentle person, Caruana, who occasionally lights up into a smile, but mostly, it seems to me, has the weight of something upon him I’m going to call honour. Here is a gallery of pictures I took at the press conference after round 11, GM Danny King, himself is the mediator.

 

 

 

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November 29, 2018 at 8:29 pm 9 comments

Bullet Chess by Nakamura

In an analysis of the forthcoming Carlsen-Caruana match, although in the Classical part, Carlsen is only a small favourite, it states that ‘If the match goes to tiebreaks, Carlsen has an 85 percent chance to win the match due to his dominance in rapid and blitz.’ He is only a few points higher rated in Classic Chess, but ‘has a 91-point Elo advantage in rapid, and 172-point Elo advantage in blitz.’

Nakamura’s performance at speed chess is well-known and his book is therefore a logical place to start learning how to improve this part of your game. I wrote this review back in 2012….

 

Manny and I are about to provide the live and online commentary for the Geneva Chess Masters. We will get to meet some of our heroes, including Kramnik, Nakamura and Judith Polgar. One way or another it seemed like time to get out my review of this which I wrote a while ago, long before Naka had a result in the 2013 Tal Memorial which has the potential to shake the theory of this review just a little…

Bullet Chess or How Nakamura Made My Life Better

My ex-ex-ex-defacto-sister-in-law is a paediatric cardiologist. But in truth there is only one teensy bit of it – about 2 mm long – in which she is interested, so if you ask her about ‘the heart’, as likely as not she’ll say ‘not my area’. If pressed she might wave a hand dismissively and say ‘it beats while you are alive and then it stops.’ Ah, the joys of living in the age of specialisation. Her lack of interest isn’t only limited to the heart, but to life generally. Mostly if she can’t relate it to that 2mm bit of heart, her eyes glaze over. HOWEVER – and this is a very big however – her ability to interdisciplinarise everything is pretty impressive. Whether you talk to her about doing the laundry, an unlucky hand you had at bridge last night, or the political situation in Botswana, she will do her level best to apply the information proferred to her ‘thing’. Chess players take note. Chess players for whom ‘quick chess is not chess’ take note.

‘So Bullet’s like ER’ Bo said. ‘And slow chess is like elective surgery.’ We were discussing the role of mistakes in the various types of chess and Bo had just been talking to a colleague in ER. Faced with a patient who was technically dead after being bitten by a jellyfish, the only chance of reviving him was to inject something into a vein. When the doctor unfortunately picked an artery that meant, although the patient was saved, it was at the expense of a limb which needed to be amputated. ‘In elective surgery,’ Bo continued, ‘this would be unforgiveable. But in ER, in a time-critical situation it was no more than an unavoidable mistake. Not only was time critical, but it isn’t possible in a dead person to distinguish an artery from a vein the way it is in a living person.’ He was a highly experienced doctor, but nonetheless, in ER, the Bullet chess player might say, ‘the mistakes are all there waiting to be made.’

After this story, lesson one should be easier to digest. You play a game of Bullet and you move on. There is only one important aspect of mistake making in Bullet to analyse: how long did it take you to make it. All things being equal, ten seconds is worth about a piece. To make a bad move quickly is neither here nor there. To make it slowly is unforgiveable. Not that it is this simple. Nakamura looks at when you have time to burn and should think but don’t. This is much much harder to deal with – how do you recognise that THIS is that moment when you take stock. But basically, it is this straightforward, you play a game, you make mistakes, he makes mistakes, you move on. You aren’t a doctor. Your mistake hasn’t just cost somebody limb or life. It cost you a rating point. Get over the whole idea of being a drama queen about losing. If doctors can plough on, you can too.

Yes, Bullet is different from tournament chess, as different as ER is from elective surgery. But that doesn’t mean it is to be dismissed any more than a doctor would turn his nose up at an emergency. ‘Save that man by cutting open his throat with that pocket knife and – I’m sorry, I can’t do that, it just isn’t surgery.’ What skills does Nakamura lend to his tournament chess by playing bullet?

(1) Simply playing a lot of games, the more games he plays, the more he can have the right attitude to any one game that it is everything and nothing.

(2) Bullet is about winning, not drawing. Not ‘not losing’. He is used to having to try to win every game.

(3) When something goes wrong, what the hell? That’s something that happens to him every day of the week. Lots of times every day of the week. Remember Anand-Nakamura in the 2011 London Classic? We could attribute the result of that game to bullet.

(4) As he discusses towards the end of his book, chess, like tennis and football, is being decided by quickplay methods when the slow form of the game does not produce a result. The higher your ambitions in chess, the more necessary it is to accept that being able to play quickly is vital. The ‘it’s not chess’ attitude no longer holds. The capacity to play quickly has always been necessary but never more than now, in the time controls/lack of adjournments and in sudden-death playoffs. One might ask if playing quickly makes one intrinsically superior. The answer to that is ‘obviously’. If we are to argue that ‘x is just as good as y, he just needs more time’ – well, take that to its obvious conclusion and I could be number one in the world too. Just give me more time. Lots and lots more time. Equally, if player x can only match player y with preparation, familiarity, being in his comfort zone, then that is a sign of inferiority too. I guess this comes to the conclusion that all things being equal, a player who can play fast is a better chess player than one who cannot. Having said that, we set some sort of limit on this conclusion. Being mentally alert is one thing. Having the physical ability to follow through on that is another matter that has nothing much to do with chess. If that’s your edge you might as well be doing any sort of internet gaming out there based on speed. We do not, therefore, give bullet the credence we would lend to slightly slower versions of quick chess but they are all connected. Taking in the important lessons of this book will make you better at 3 minute chess and 5 minute chess and 20 minute chess and tournament chess.

Why is this? Partly because it isn’t just a book about chess. Nakamura joins you as your therapist as well as your chess advisor. He tells you how you should behave, when he talks about the etiquette of bullet chess he is talking about living with the consequences of losing and winning from the point of view of your own psyche, not just manners.

To demonstrate this, let me put on my ‘chess-player’s girlfriend’ hat.

The girlfriend’s impressions. I swear to you, as I reflect upon the transformation of RegGuy from this – weedy, pale-chested, knock-kneed boy on ICC beaches, hoping to be picked by manly opponents, only to find his face ground into the sand – into boy wonder, that Nakamura is the Charles Atlas of Bullet chess. RegGuy’s aura is now ‘mess with me, buddy? I’d like to see you try.’

Manny at work

Manny at work

Maybe auras don’t count for much when you are playing somebody a million miles away over an internet connection, but I see it. There is a transformation of how he understands the use of his clock, a transformation not only in practice, but in observation. The stories of his bullet games now are the stories of the clock and the psychology and the tactics that go with it. In the 1950s, you would have seen a picture of RegGuy, sweet little weed in one photo, muscle-wielding dynamo in the other and a testimony as to how much more sex he is getting now. Well, I can’t help it. He’s so sexy when he is winning.

RegGuy's ratings performance leading up to the writing of this review.

RegGuy’s ratings performance leading up to the writing of this review.

Nor is this the only big change. The sex is better as well. I can imagine the girls out there in the audience looking at that last sentence warily. Who wants Bullet Sex? But this book isn’t about doing things quickly per se. It is about time management, which is pretty much all sex is, right? More to the point, there hasn’t been one of those ‘late into the night I’m determined to lose a couple of hundred points here whatever I do’ sessions. The ones where after he has lost he tries to convince himself and you that it wasn’t about losing, it was about winning. I don’t need to tell anybody that sex – well, yes, life – is better without those. If only he hadn’t invented that chant: Woo Hoo, Hikaru! It’s all very well in the middle of kibitzing a tournament, or winning another game of blitz, but in BED???!

If I may apologetically point out that while I’m a chess patzer, I’ve spent a lot of time playing games seriously, including high stakes rubber bridge for years, as a consequence of which there are types of people I recognise. I started wondering after watching RegGuy’s routine of playing short sessions when he was winning and long ones when he was losing, if he was simply a compulsive gambler, ie loser, who needed the whole pattern of addictive behaviour that goes with that, the angst and suffering. When I pointed out that this is what losers do, play when they are losing and stop when they are winning he cottoned onto the idea and modestly changed his habits. But nothing like he did after reading Nakamura. The consequence is that he no longer has a damaging emotional involvement with his losses. There isn’t enough data to say what impact reading this book has had on his tournament chess, but simply from the way he talks, his more confident, sensible – practical – attitudes, I’m sure it will be good for it too.

Permit me another hat. The copyeditor’s and writer’s impressions. I’m sorry to say, that much as the copyeditor of this book comes in for high praise in the acknowledgements of this book, it nonetheless has errors which would make Horton (of King Pin) howl with rage. If copyediting had bullet ratings, this book’s copyeditor’s would be about 600. I find the errors so unlikely, it is almost like they have been added to sabotage her work after she looked at the proofs. That bad. To begin with I was seriously irritated by the fact that RegGuy said over and over ‘this is the sort of thing you say, but he puts it better.’ Did I say he was getting more sex? I can’t believe it. But to be fair this book is ill-served by the first chapter. It is so light-weight and badly written it would put anybody off who picked it up and judged it there. Saying ‘bullet chess is fun’ – no, I’m sorry, ‘bullet chess is fun!’ because the exclamation point is the main source of punctuation (groan away, Horton) – over and over is neither enlightening nor encouraging. As the book warms up, illuminating content and an improved style do lead the reader naturally to that conclusion. Not only that it is fun but that it has much wisdom to impart to any chess player, tournament or otherwise.

Moreover, Nakamura makes a good case for bullet chess now being the only real chess, the only form of the game where chess talent and chess understanding really count any more.

He never actually says bullet is good for your tournament chess, but why wouldn’t it be? Leave aside all the arguments about bad habits, they aren’t relevant. You can develop bad habits at any form and you can develop bad practise habits irrespective of how much time is on the clock. You play a lot of chess and in the process you learn a lot about how human beings work. That has to come in handy. Look at Nakamura, bullet chess supremo and number 5 in the world as I write. One can see the positive bullet impacts on his game. Not only that, but because he is dynamic and exciting, he is the player we all want to watch at that level. While the others are having their dreary computer-prepared draws, he is playing chess and even though he opines that playing at tournament level is not about playing chess any more, he has forced the idea that it can still be upon the chess-playing world.

Woo Hoo, Hikaru!

November 7, 2018 at 6:50 pm Leave a comment


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