The evolution of chess match strategies
Who said that chess is fun? The marathon 21st game of the 1843 Staunton vs St. Amant match (depicted above) lasted 66 moves and took 14 and a half hours! A record, even in those times before the use of chess clocks! (The average game lasted slightly more than 9 hours, if we are to believe the historians.) While the loser was thoroughly exhausted in the final hours, it was considered to be perfectly gentlemanly — hence fair play– to fatigue and wear out the opponent.
The 1978 Candidates Final match between Spassky and Korchnoi witnessed Spassky (who was trailing the match by a big score) engage in circus-like behaviour, often provoking laughter from the audience of some 2,000. More than once Spassky showed up for the game with a large silver visor that one often sees in poker games. In addition, while Spassky preferred to study the demonstration board (instead of the normal board) Korchnoi started to lose his patience and spent little time at the board. The result: Korchnoi lost 4 games in a row before he could re-establish his winning ways!
I think that the general public implicitly accepts a certain element of modified behaviour on the part of one or both players in any important chess encounter, provided it is done in good faith and within established sporting norms. Perhaps the public even anticipates and secretly hopes for such colourful antics: merely pushing pieces around the board rarely excites a crowd or attracts the media…
In recent years FIDE had failed to establish a system for determining the challenger in a manner that has satisfied everyone– especially those who consider themselves the most worthy– and even the Kazan meet was embroiled in controversy months before it even began! Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian boywonder of the chess world , shocked his colleagues and the chess world when he suddenly withdrew:
”After careful consideration I have reached the conclusion that the ongoing 2008 – 2012 cycle does not represent a system, sufficiently modern and fair, to provide the motivation I need to go through a lengthy process of preparations and matches and, to perform at my best.
Reigning champion privileges, the long (5 yr) span of the cycle, changes made during the cycle resulting in a new format (Candidates) that no World Champion has had to go through since Kasparov, puzzling ranking criteria as well as the shallow ceaseless match-after-match concept are all less than satisfactory in my opinion”
Neither was Carlsen pleased with the format ( knock-out mini-matches at regulation time controls followed by play-offs (if necessary) at rapid and blitz time controls) or the schedule, which only allows 5 rest days in the entire event!
A good question is how a serious contender should approach such a gruelling championship, and especially if it would not be a wise thing to change one’s normal approach to competitions. Other questions are of no less importance: energy, match preparation and strategy, health and diet, and psychology need to be addressed. Success rarely goes to the one who plays the best chess in such circumstances, but rather to the one who most successfully adapts to the difficulties that arise along the way….
No doubt the early exit of the chess-public’s favourites Lev Aronian (Armenia) , Vlad Kramnik (Russia) and V. Topalov (Bulgaria) has been a bitter pill for the Kazan organizers to swallow, but the lack of decisive games (this should not be mistaken for lack of hard fought games, however) in the regulation time controls has attracted the wrath of a small, but vocal, segment of the online chess community.
In particular, the Russian superstar Grischuk has been the target of much unfair and mean-spirited criticism by fans. While not exactly an unknown in the chess world at the top (he has been playing in these top-level knockout events since 2000, even once reaching the semi-finals!), Alexander is considered by most to be an under-dog and also something of an anti-hero.
Nor is Grischuk outspoken or charismatic, and he does little to attract attention or want to improve his image. (Alexander is also a world class poker player.) Perhaps most prejudicial to his cause: Grischuk was the last-minute replacement for Magnus Carlsen when he withdrew! And when he successively knocked-out Aronian and Kramnik without winning a single regulation-time game, the fans went ballistic…
So far the finals match with Gelfand has been very difficult but all 5 games have ended in draws. While games 1,2 and 5 were exceptionally hard fought affairs that saw Grischuk let escape winning opportunities, chess fans really criticized both players for the short strategic draws (under 20 moves each!) in games 3 and 4. One chessbase report wrote of a GM commentator describing the attitude of both GMs as being ‘disgusting’!
Certainly I have never witnessed such a blatant lack of respect for great players in my many years as a chess player and fan. Merely taking into account the enormous stress and fatigue that both superstars have been subjected to these past weeks, one would think that any rational fan would just shut up and not say anything negative or hurtful.
PERHAPS THESE FANS WOULD INSTEAD LIKE TO SEE GRISCHUK AND GELFAND PUT ON BOXING GLOVES AND KILL EACH OTHER IN THE RING:
Drawing upon his experience as a poker player, Grischuk decided to treat every game (hand)–regardless of time control–as of equal worth and of the same importance. He was not going to try harder or take more risks simply because the time control is slower. If he did not like his position or his chances, he would simply make a draw (throw in his hand).
And because Grischuk is such a great player at faster time controls he has no need to fear the play-offs. Instead, he looks upon the play-offs with confidence and objectivity. He does not over-rate his chances, ever, and this been the secret to his phenomenal success so far in Kazen.
The world has changed a lot since the time of Staunton and St. Amant, and in many ways has become more sophisticated and competitive. Success does not always come by repeating what has worked in the past. Infact, when the stakes are the highest, only the smartest and brightest can adapt. And even then, only the cream can come up with new ways to win.