• Sunday, March 01, 2015



A chess star emerges in the post-computer age

Amitava Kar

A new king has arrived in the world of chess, and it's a 22-year-old who is as much at home posing for fashion shoots as he is pushing pawns. Magnus Carlsen of Norway won the chess world championship on November 22, 2013, becoming the first Westerner since Bobby Fischer to hold the title. Carlsen, a former child prodigy who has been on a list of the world's sexiest men and has moonlighted as a model, defeated defending champion Viswanathan Anand of India in a title match that was the game's most highly anticipated in decades. Without losing a game in the best-of-12 series, held in Anand's hometown, Chennai, Carlsen so dominated the match that it lasted only 10 games, with Carlsen winning three and the others ending in draws with the score 6,5-3,5. Carlsen had taken an overwhelming lead, 4 points to 2, by winning Games 5 and 6. Then, with Games 7 and 8 ending in quick and uneventful draws, it appeared as if Anand was ceding the title to Carlsen. But Anand did not become world champion and hold on to the title for six years by playing timidly. So in Game 9, he came out swinging, and nearly succeeded in breaking Carlsen's momentum. Carlsen expanded on the queenside, while Anand prepared to attack Carlsen's king on the other side of the board. Anand said that he had gone for an all-out attack because “the match situation didn't leave me much choice.” In the end it was Carlsen who triumphed.
The match broke all records of the most seen event on TV, printed media, or the internet. Millions of fans followed the championship daily, while the match was trending on social media to top positions in several countries. British Fashion and Style magazine GQ ran a story about the match in the same issue containing a photo feature, billed as the sexiest catwalk show on earth, on the Victoria's Secret lingerie show in New York. The surprised editors posted on Twitter, “So this story about #chess is currently more popular on the site than our 100 shots of Victoria's Secret models.”

Carlsen (right) beats defending champion Viswanathan Anand.
Carlsen (right) beats defending champion Viswanathan Anand.

For his victory, Carlsen will receive 60 percent of the roughly $2.5 million prize.
The last chess match to get as much publicity as this was the 1996 contest between then-champion Garry Kasparov, considered by many the greatest chess player of all time, and IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in New York City. Some saw that battle as a historic test for human intelligence. The outcome could be seen as an "early indication of how well our species might maintain its identity, let alone its superiority, in the years and centuries to come," wrote Steven Levy in a Newsweek cover story titled "The Brain's Last Stand." Kasparov won 4-2 in the six-game human-computer chess match while a team of IBM programmers, engineers and chess experts directed and reprogrammed the machine between games.
Many years later, Carlsen, then only 13, drew the game with Kasparov in their first ever encounter. Kasparov arrived late for the game, trying to intimidate Carlsen. After the draw, shaking hands with Carlsen, he left in a hurry, embarrassed. Since then Carlsen has turned into a rock star of chess. With his smouldering good looks and six-pack abs he has been featured in ad campaigns alongside the likes of Liv Tyler, and turned down a small role in the most recent Star Trek movie. He models for the clothing company G-Star Raw and has appeared on “Charlie Rose,” “The Colbert Report” and “60 minutes” which has called him the 'Mozart of Chess.” Even in Anand's backyard, Carlsen was a celebrity. When he went to Chennai in August to check out the location of the match, he was greeted by hundreds of screaming young women in a mall. His Elo rating, 2872, is the highest ever recorded, as opposed to Anand's 2817. Elo rating system is a complex formula to measure chess skills and only six players in history have topped 2800.

Viswanathan Anand, on the other hand, is the 43-year-old titleholder since 2007 who first won the title in 2000. He is responsible for the revival of the game in his native India that claims to have invented the sport. Millions of Indian kids forced by their parents to take chess lessons have Anand to blame.

Taking on another master: Carlsen (left) and Kasparov.
Taking on another master: Carlsen (left) and Kasparov.

In a game against Vladimir Kramnik, title holder from 2006-2007, Carlsen once recovered from a situation that Kasparov called “impossible” to force a draw. Carlsen is largely self-taught, and can play various styles of chess. He has been a full-time chess player since he was fifteen, and spends more than a hundred and sixty days a year on the road. When he is not travelling, he lives in a house with his family in an affluent suburb of Oslo. He left school two years ago without formally graduating. Though he had shown unusual mathematical aptitude as a little boy, he was more engaged by soccer and skiing. When Magnus was eight, his father made an attempt to engage him in chess and, he found it “just a richer and more complicated game than any other.” He has a prodigious memory for board positions and moves. He has studied with Simen Agdestein, a top Norwegian grandmaster at the time, and later with Kasparov.
After the match against Anand, Carlsen said he realized he had a chance to grab the title from Anand during Game 3 on November 12. Anand had built up a considerable advantage, but Carlsen fought his way back, and the game ended in a draw.
“What I realized during the game was that he was also nervous and vulnerable,” Carlsen said in a press conference after he won the title. “He was no Superman.”

Anand played well throughout, but he could not match Carlsen, whose specialty is to relentlessly pressure opponents and create problems for them. Kenneth Rogoff, a former grandmaster and Professor of Economics at Harvard writes in a blog, “Magnus plays at a level of tactical brilliance and sublime endgame technique that I could not even have imagined, even from people like Petrosian, Tal and Larsen whom I played in the 1976 Interzonal in Biel. ” In 2012 Rogoff drew a blitz game (15 minutes or less per side) with Carlsen who does not like drawn games and tries to avoid giving his opponents that opportunity. Even in the last game of the match, when he needed only a draw to clinch the championship, he pressed on until, after five hours and 65 moves, there were only kings left on the board. “Carlsen's mastery lies in his endgame. He starts casually, plays competitively in the middle, but brings out his secret weapons in the end game, completely taking his opponents by surprise,” says Enamul Hossain Razib, one of the five grandmasters (GM) of Bangladesh.
There is hope in the chess world that with Carlsen as the game's official standard-bearer, it will regain the cachet it briefly enjoyed when Bobby Fischer, the eccentric American, defeated Boris Spassky, a Russian, to claim the world championship title in the international sensation known as the Match of the Century in 1972. Chess enthusiasts say the game needs another big personality to energize the cerebral game, played by around 600 million people worldwide. And they are pinning their hopes on Carlsen.
Carlsen seems to be aware of that pressure. "I really hope that this can have some positive effect for chess, both in Norway and worldwide," Carlsen said after clinching the title. "The match was shown on television, and I know a lot of people who don't play chess found it very interesting to follow. And that's absolutely wonderful."

Published: 12:00 am Friday, December 20, 2013

Last modified: 8:00 pm Friday, December 20, 2013

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