Monday, October 2, 2017

Schadenfreude and why we support for the underdog

In the last couple of weeks we saw the world-top playing -first in the World Cup, in which 2 places for the candidates were at stake (and ratingpoints for those not able to reach the final), next in the very strong Island of Man, which offered a second chance.

The WK-cycle offers today several ways to get to the candidates. For the world-top this is maybe a track which offers more opportunities to qualify for that tournament: via the criterium-tournaments of the Grand Prix, via the World Cup knock-out tournament, as the losing finalist of the previous world-championship, or via the rating. Only one strong (+2700) player will get a wild-card of the organizers - that is a matter of attracting sponsors of course.

A.f.a.i.k. this is a better and shorter system than in the past. Before Fide the world-champion chose the opponent, which wasn't fair (Lasker avoided Rubinstein and never granted Schlechter a real match; Aljechin avoided Capablance and did not permit Keres to play a match). The Fide defined a system but it became a terribly long path for the new challengers: zonal and inter-zonal tournaments first and then you had to survive the candidates-tournaments or matches. Only after having provided the world-champion lots of material to study, you could start as challenger the final match. And besides that Tal and Smyslov (and Kasparov) were also unlucky that a world-champion has the right to get a second match...

The actual cycle is much shorter - you already need to be world-top to get a chance. There are no surprises anymore like Van der Sterren, qualifying from a zonal tournament at advanced age to the candidate-matches.

But despite that as a world-top-player (say top-20) you are in a comfortable position at the start, you are not alone. In each tournament the road to the candidates is hard. If you look at the standings of the Grand Prix (see FIDE Grand Prix 2017) then well-known players like Nakamura, Aronian, Nepomniachtchi, Adams, Svidler, Giri, … did not succeed to qualify via this path.

And the World-cup as an enormous lottery, even Carlsen couldn't avoid elimination. We are lucky that two top-players have qualified for the candidates making it a lot more attractive. Aronian has a lot of fans and Ding Liren is still rather unknown - at this level anyway.

So for the aspiring world-champions there was only one real alternative: to get selected based upon the average rating. At twitter Martin Bennedik (@bennedik) offered live the average ratings so the players didn't need to calculate themselves. This service adds of course pressure - also in the world-cup at the players. If you checked the live ratings (2700chess) before and after the world-cup (and before Isle of Man) then you saw that almost all the top-players lost points. The reason was simple. The ratingdifferences were often too big that even winning a match with 1,5-0,5 would mean losing points. Besides also many top-players preferred the rapid-games and recorded 1-1 which also harmed their ratings. In the end even the 2 finalists didn't win any extra points after a couple of weeks playing.

But the Kramniks, Nakamura's and Anands of this world had to force something as their average rating was only second priority, next to getting through to the next round. This explained the sometimes forced play (see the elimination of Anand, after playing too aggressive against sensation Kovalyov).
[Event "World Cup"] [Site "Tbilisi GEO"] [Date "2017.09.06"] [EventDate "2017.09.03"] [Round "2.1"] [Result "0-1"] [White "Viswanathan Anand"] [Black "Anton Kovalyov"] [ECO "B90"] [WhiteElo "2794"] [BlackElo "2649"] [PlyCount "86"] 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.h3 e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.Be3 h5 9.Be2 Nbd7 10.O-O Rc8 11.Qd2 b5 12.Rfd1 Nb6 13.Bxb6 Qxb6 14.a4 b4 15.Nd5 Nxd5 16.exd5 Bd7 17.a5 Qb7 18.Qe3 Be7 19.Qb6 Qxb6 20.axb6 Rb8 21.Rxa6 Bd8 22.b7 Ke7 23.Nc5 dxc5 24.d6+ Kf6 25.Bf3 Kf5 26.Bd5 e4 27.Re1 Bf6 28.Bxe4+ Kg5 29.Ra5 Bxb2 30.Rxc5+ Kf6 31.Re3 g6 32.Rf3+ Ke6 33.Rd3 Rhd8 34.Ra5 f5 35.Bf3 Bc3 36.h4 Kf6 37.g3 f4 38.Be4 Bf5 39.Bxf5 gxf5 40.Rb5 Ke6 41.Kf1 Rd7 42.gxf4 Rbxb7 43.Re3+ Kf6 0-1
It is why in the Isle of Man, there was a lot of attention to the rating-duel between So, Caruana en Kramnik, all very close in terms of ratings. The stakes were high, as elimination in this rating-race would mean no ticket for Berlin. Every player was a potential winner.

As the tournament started in the first round with Caruana-Kramnik, we immediately witnessed a crucial moment when it became clear the players were playing for a win. As Kramnik lost, he was forced in the next rounds to make up ground. But in round 3 he lost again - against a ghost of the past: James Tarjan. Also here - under pressure due to the circumstances-, Kramnik overplayed his position. Tarjan, with white, played quietly the chess-equivalent of Catenaccio and let Kramnik come. He built up a nice position but didn't calculate well his combination, Tarjan saw the hole and just took the point with "normal" play.

Kramnik must have been mentally broken - a more emotional player (think the type like Kortchnoi) would have destroyed the board. But Kramnik took the defeat with dignity and his - automatic- elimination for the world-title. In a "normal" open tournament against a veteran rated 400 points less. It must hurt.

The press loved it - what a story. A noble "unknown player" (although, double Olympic gold and in may 1981 conform Chessmetrics top 40 of the world), 23 years older, eliminates an ex-world-champion. This is the classic David against Goliath tale. The mouse that roared. It reminds me of the Tour de France of 1956 won by the absolute underdog Walkowiak. Or Rulon Gardner, defeating one of the best sportsmen of all time, the almost invincible wrestler Alexander Karelin, in his last match for Olympic gold.

We love champions and we like to keep track of records and lists. But at some moment their era ends. And this we also like to witness. How great Anand and Kramnik were, their generation must make slowly place for the superkids, able to play a gear faster - and especially are extremely tough, if needed playing till 2 bare kings (which Fisher also once did - and even played 3 more moves).

It is not hard to support Tarjan - it is a nice story. An old grandmaster returns to play chess and defeats one of the greatest players of the latest years. It’s the stuff that makes heroes. But as said, it was mainly Kramnik losing the game, not Tarjan winning it.
[Event "Isle of Man Open"] [Site "Douglas ENG"] [Date "2017.09.25"] [EventDate "2017.09.23"] [Round "3.28"] [Result "1-0"] [White "James Tarjan"] [Black "Vladimir Kramnik"] [ECO "A12"] [WhiteElo "2412"] [BlackElo "2803"] [PlyCount "111"] 1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 c6 3.Nf3 d5 4.b3 Bg4 5.Bg2 e6 6.O-O Nbd7 7.Bb2 Bd6 8.d3 O-O 9.Nbd2 Re8 10.h3 Bh5 11.Re1 a5 12.a3 e5 13.cxd5 cxd5 14.Nh4 Nc5 15.Qc2 Ne6 16.Rac1 Nd4 17.Qd1 Nb5 18.Nb1 Qd7 19.Kh2 Ra6 20.Nf3 e4 21.dxe4 Nxe4 22.Rf1 Bb8 23.Nc3 Nbxc3 24.Bxc3 Rae6 25.Be1 h6 26.Rc2 Ba7 27.Qc1 Bb6 28.e3 Qb5 29.Nd4 Bxd4 30.exd4 Bf3 31.Bxf3 Nxg3 32.fxg3 Qxf1 33.Bf2 Qd3 34.Rc3 Qf5 35.Kg2 Rf6 36.Qc2 Qd7 37.g4 Rc6 38.Rc5 Rd8 39.Qf5 Rxc5 40.Qxd7 Rxd7 41.dxc5 d4 42.Kf1 d3 43.Ke1 d2+ 44.Kd1 Kf8 45.Bg3 Ke7 46.Bd6+ Ke6 47.Kxd2 b6 48.Ke3 bxc5 49.Bxc5 Rd8 50.b4 axb4 51.axb4 f5 52.b5 fxg4 53.hxg4 g6 54.b6 h5 55.g5 Kd7 56.b7 1-0

Losing a game when you are the big favorite (at rating) hurts - I can tell you from experience. I once lost a game against somebody 450 points lower rated in the interclub - the way how will likely be considered by my opponent as his most beautiful game ever:
[Event "IC3D1112 TW1 vs MSV1"] [Date "2012.02.12"] [Round "8"] [White "Surmont, Yves"] [Black "Facchin, Ronald"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B33"] [WhiteElo "1961"] [BlackElo "1519"] [PlyCount "58"] [Eventtype "game"] [Site "?"] [CurrentPosition "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"] 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nb5 d6 6.N1c3 a6 7.Na3 Nf6 8.Bg5 Be7 9.Bd3?? { (Blind spot number 1.) } 9...Nxe4 $146 10.Bxe7 Nxc3 11.bxc3?! Nxe7 12.O-O b5?! 13.f4?! { (A try to create confusion but black responds correctly.) } 13...Qb6+ 14.Kh1 Nd5?? 15.fxe5? { (White wants to open lines against any cost as he wants to get something for this material deficit. For the moment he has something but not much.) } ( 15.Qf3! Nc7 16.fxe5 O-O 17.exd6 Qxd6 $11 ) 15...Ne3 { (Ai that was the second blind spot.) } 16.Qf3 O-O 17.Qxa8?! { (I was not playing well that afternoon but now I wanted to know if black had sufficient threats for this rook-sacrifice. Black loved to show the justification.) } 17...Bb7 18.Bxh7+ Kxh7 19.Qxf8 Nxg2 20.h3 Qe3 21.Qxf7 Nf4+ 22.Qxb7 Qxh3+ 23.Kg1 Qg3+ 24.Kh1 Qh3+ 25.Kg1 Qg3+ 26.Kh1 Qh4+ 27.Kg1 Ne2+ 28.Kg2 Qg3+ 29.Kh1 Qh3# { (That hurts, yes... a year later I played my last game. You have to cope with losses and that became for me harder and harder. If you once played at a certain level then you don't want to invest anymore time in playing such games.) } 0-1

It just demonstrates that you should never underestimate somebody. Everybody can have a good day and has a hidden supply of strength. The game against Kramnik was for Tarjan one of his best experiences in his career, but for Kramnik was it a bitter pill to swallow - especially considering the circumstances. His goodbye from the world-champion-cycle (together with Anand - Topalov, Gelfand, Ivanchuk which we already lost earlier) marks the end of a great generation of players - Kramnik was probably the last one of the school of Botvinnik-Kasparov.

It is now at the generation grown up with Fritz and internet. It is a generation which adds creativity to perseverance. The players don't know the classics anymore but can calculate very well and dare to take risks on top of a very good endgame-technique. And finally novelties at move 5 varied with novelties at move 25 or 35...

Chess has changed but not necessarily bad. The generation of Carlsen has shown us beautiful things and there are still nice things ahead of us.


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