Another candidates tournament is rolling around - Berlin 2018, with many of the usual suspects involved. The question arises: who is favourite going into the event?
There’s little question for me that Aronian is now the outstanding favourite to win that tournament and qualify to play Carlsen. It just feels like his time. He’s just got married, he’s just had one of the best years of his life chesswise and from a personal point of view.
It seemed to many observers that 2-3 years ago Aronian had rather lost his way, perhaps due to a lack of motivation due to failures in candidate tournaments in the past. The form now has come back and the ideas and the moves are flowing. I remember watching the St Louis event where the focus understandably was on Kasparov, but there also seemed something inevitable about Aronian’s victory. Clearly this is a player who thrives when he’s confident.
I also think he’ll benefit from playing in Berlin, given he lived there for many years. If you are comfortable with a place, then in my view that gives you a huge advantage. It might not seem significant but from a personal point of view I’d often seem to play well in certain places, and very poorly in other places. I seem to have a good record when it’s hot, and yet put me in Hastings in the middle of winter and I can barely play. It’s too cold and depressing.
Of course some detractors may point to the fact that Aronian has gone into candidate tournaments before as the heavy favourite, and has then failed dismally. But something feels different about this one - perhaps Aronian just needed to gain that experience of failure, because he seems like somebody on a mission on a moment.
I think the other issue is that the other contenders don’t seem that convincing. Kramnik was right to be awarded the wild card, but he has also showed spotty form in the last few months. Can you really see Karjakin qualifying for two world championship finals in a row? I can’t and I don’t think the general public needs a repeat of his rearguard action again.
Some of the younger players haven’t really trained on. You do get the impression with Caruana that in some ways he’s waiting to explode, that eventually he’ll just destroy everyone in some tournament like when he got 7/7 some years back. The issue is in predicting when, and as a betting man you’d be tempted to look elsewhere. I do remember having this conversation with Lawrence Trent a while back, he knows some of these players and he said a lot of them weren’t working as hard as they were. Maybe they get on the gravy train, they’re sat somewhere in the top ten making good money and the desire to push themselves even further just disappears.
An exception to this apparently is Wesley So - who supposedly is working as hard as ever - I’m not completely convinced by young Wesley as the winner of this tournament, but at least you know he’ll have been putting the hours in.
Two players who qualified the hard way were Aronian and Ding. Aronian however was pushed to the absolute limit by the brilliant young French player Vachier-Lagrave in the semi final. He lost the first rapidplay game convincingly so was forced to win the second.
Have you noticed a lot of the top players seem to have significantly lower ratings than they did just a few years ago? I’m not a stats guy, or do I keep a record of this, but I’m sure going back a few years that Carlsen was getting towards 2900, and there were a few players comfortably over 2800. If anything, inflation seemed to be playing a role. But in any case there seemed to be a new global “super-elite”, and rather like the super-rich who live in their guilded castles, had separated from the rest of us, the riff-raff, the common herd.
Those days are gone now. Now even the top players have fallen prey to the rampant deflation that is pervading through the system. The reason for deflation is simple - junior players. When an underrated junior player comes on and plays someone rated 2000, well that junior player might be rated 1600, and if the junior player wins he drags that other players rating down. The 2000 comes back on the next list at 1900, plays another oldie say, a 2100 (or even just the same rating as him), and he scores a win, he drags down the 2100 to a lower rating as well. The 2100 plays a 2300, who does the same to a 2500, anyway you get the point.
It’s quite clear that deflation is evident at a lower level than the super-elite and has been for some time. If you look at the top of the rating list in England for example, there are many players who have significantly lower ratings than they had five years ago, for example.
Does this mean they are all getting weaker? Well as I discussed in the previous article, English chess is going backwards in general. But not everyone has got significantly weaker. The main reason why there are less 2500 players in England now is because of deflation.
But does this deflation mean that no-one can now improve? No, not exactly. You still see players making serious and rapid improvement, even at the top level. Other players also get weaker, inevitable with age, and drop down and are replaced with younger, hungrier players.
One of those is the young Indian player Vidit who created an impression at the Isle of man by easily holding Carlsen with the Black pieces. He also did well at the FIDE World Cup, easily disposing of Delgado.
So much was written about the infamous “shortsgate” incident with Anton Kovalyov that I probably have very little to add. Being involved in my own “-gate” experience myself and also doing exactly the same as Kovalyov did, fleeing from the scene, the reader might expect me to have some sympathy. I would say that is the case although it seems to me that the reasons for this incident aren’t as clear as they evidently appeared. For anyone who has been hiding under a rock, lets go over the details again.
Apparently Kovalyov was warned not to wear shorts. This lead to an argument with the main arbiter Azmaiparashvili, in which things got very heated and Kovalyov was apparently described as a “gypsy”.
This lead to him flouncing off to the airport to get an early flight, apparently in disgust. Personally I wouldn’t be that offended to be called a gypsy, probably because I’ve watched all these gypsy documentaries on Channel four and they don’t seem a bad lot. But that’s by the by. Kovalyov was offended. I do wonder though, was he also offending himself by his seemingly casual attitude to the event?
I think an ill-advised interview after his upset win against Anand was perhaps the catalyst for this later incident. In this interview he was talking about how his university career was more important. Fair enough you might think that, but don’t say it. It comes over as unduly cocky. I can still beat these top guys, these legends in my part time when they are devoting their whole life to playing chess. That might be an attempt to take the pressure off himself by saying that chess isn’t everything (and why should it be, after all) but I believe that saying it was a mistake and they were out to get him after that.
If it hadn’t been the shorts it would have been something else. And is it that hard, to get hold of some trousers or jeans during the event? As a chess player you have plenty of time on your hands. The game only takes up on average about four hours of your waking time. Let’s say your waking time is 16 hours then that gives you 12 hours to get a bus or a taxi and do some shopping. It’s not that much to ask when you are playing for serious amounts of money. So yes I do think the organisers were within their rights to ask him to adhere to the dress code. They are trying to run a serious event and some guy is turning up like it’s a joke, like he’s on holiday. You can see why they are getting offended. It’s just that they didn’t go about it very well.
A bigger issue than the dress code seemed to me to be the lack of proper facilities for specators. In the early rounds, the players are in a ringed off area and it seemed to me that the spectators were treated very badly, they basically had to sit on a row of seats just in front of a window, if they wanted to watch the games. The spectators aren’t encouraged to watch and that can hardly be a good thing. They are talking about trying to encourage sponsors to back chess tournaments which is why they are enforcing the dress code, which is fair enough, but how can you possibly try to grow the game if you don’t even try to do anything for the spectators?
I wasn’t that surprised when Anand went out in the second round. I thought he had struggled in the first round and it was Kovalyov who put the knife in. I was though surprised when in a must win situation with Black, Anand allowed the queens to come off early:
One of the highlights of 2017 was undoubtably the comeback of Garry Kasparov. I think as chess fans we missed Garry’s boundless imagination, his charisma, and most of all his ridiculous gesticulations at times. This is a man who lives and breathes his chess as his PASSION. It really means something to him when he loses, when he can’t show how strong he really is.
That’s why, to me, Garry coming back was always going to be a one-off. He knows that if he came back on a more permanent basis he risks losing some of his legacy. A few losses to the younger generation and already the whispers would begin - “Was he ever that great in the first place? Maybe the players from the past weren’t that much kop”.
I don’t really see a reason other than that why Garry isn’t playing. I refuse to believe he doesn’t have a lot of time on his hands - he’s always commentating on events. Surely the politics stuff doesn’t take up ALL of his time. After all if golfers and tennis players can play into their fifties and sixties, albeit on the senior tour - why can’t chess players? I think it’s at least partly fear of being exposed by the younger generation in Garry’s case and the figure I would compare Garry most to is Tiger Woods.
Unlike Tiger, Garry is hardly a reclusive figure yet there are a lot of similarities. Tiger has a huge amount of charisma that the players of today don’t have. Same with Garry. Tiger is dynamic, exciting to watch. Same with Garry. And there’s always the same burning question with both players, if they came back, how strong would they be and how would they compare with the best players playing today? With Tiger it seems as if we’ll soon learn the answer as he recently announced his comeback. But with Garry, we’ll be reduced to hoping he might appear in the occasional invitational event.
I think Garry does miss the limelight. When he played in St Louis, you could sense he was revelling in the attention. His start was a tardy one, so rusty was he to begin with that I even made the somewhat tongue in cheek observation on twitter that Garry was “Just another 1980’s hacker exposed by the computer generation”. And yet by the end I was struck by the belief that if Garry came back and played full-time, he would be just as strong as anyone else bar possibly Carlsen.
And I think we could do with him coming back because we miss this dynamic opening preparation that we just don’t seem to see in top class chess anymore, which is amazing considering they work with computers all the time. Garry’s idea against Nakamura was so typical of his effortless aggressive style:
Looking on tournaments like Gibraltar and Isle of Man this year, I felt a pang of envy. Why? Because I saw people I knew, friends of mine like Lawrence Trent take on great players like Kramnik. And I thought I could be doing that, taking these people on. I didn’t get an invitation to the Isle of Man. So I played the English rapidplay at Liverpool, which was held in the Cunard building, which is right next to the iconic Liver building, on the Liverpool dockside. The organisers were kind enough to invite me to a Friday simul. I got there around 7pm just before the simul started and as I looked over to the Mersey I could see the ferry leaving, the seacat to the Isle of Man, and I felt a pang of regret that I wasn’t on that boat. Watching that ferry leave felt like watching my life disappearing into the distance.
Things didn’t work out too badly in the end. I won the rapidplay with 8/9, probably my best performance for years. Yet I still reflected on the fact that I missed the chance to play the best players in the world. Go back twenty years, and you wouldn’t have got that opportunity. The absolute elite, the Kasparovs, the Karpovs kept soley to tournaments like Linares, and Wijk Aan Zee. I think it’s an indication of the way things are going now, that the line-up at the Isle of Man open hardly felt unusual.
In this global climate, where chess has to compete with so many other activities, chess players cannot just sit around for months twiddling their thumbs waiting for a call from an organiser. You have to get out there and play. Of course by doing so you risk doing huge damage to your rating; because a bad tournament in a super-elite event might only do limited damage, whereas have a shocker in an open event and you will see yourself tumbling violently down the rating list.
Although some of his fellow competitors like Kramnik fell foul of this new law of the jungle, Carlsen himself really showed that he operates on a different plane, a different level to most mere mortals and is immune to the disasters that seem to afflict even the strongest of grandmasters. In his cruise to victory, you could point out the win against Caruana as his most impressive game. It seemed to me though that the encounter with Eljanov demonstrated why Carlsen remains the best player in the world. Only he could make a 2750 player like Eljanov, normally so solid with the White pieces, look so utterly helpless.
Another player who has embraced this new ethos of playing as much as possible is Anish Giri. The young Dutch player has played a huge amount in 2017. And after all if you’re a chess player that’s what you should be doing. Get out there, play chess. It’s what we enjoy, above anything else.
I recall watching an interview with Peter Leko recently, where he said he got a lot less invites than he did some years ago, when he was playing off a higher rating and playing in the top tournaments in the world. And yet he said he still worked as hard as he did at his peak, maybe ten hours a day at times, even though he didn’t have the tournaments to show off this work.
Peter Leko comes across as a geninuely nice guy, but I couldn’t help but think there was something tragic about this. Like you’re that guy doomed to all eternity to push a rock up a hill. Although if you enjoy the work, like I think Leko does, then it becomes a lot less sad.
I hope Giri doesn’t become the next Leko, someone who was at the top of the game then started to struggle for invites. In fact Giri has often been compared to Leko, due to their prospensity to have long sequences of draws; I feel these players have been unfairly maligned when the difficultly of winning games in super-elite events is quite evident.
When Giri has dropped into opens then you see his true colours - in the final rounds of the Reykjavik open he simply gored the opposition like a bullfighter taunting his prey. And yet look at his rating now, as we approach the end of 2017 and he’s dropped back to around 2750 - does that mean Giri has gone backwards? While I don’t think he’s improved as much as you might have expected him to in the last 2-3 years, I still believe that it’s mainly down to the deflation that is running riot through the system. Expect Giri to be at the top for many years to come.
Danny Gormally is a talented English Grandmaster. He lives in the bustling market town of Alnwick, somewhere near Scotland.
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