Magnus v Mamedyarov – the Finest Chess Game ever?

Magnus Rated

The Jan 25th game between Magnus Carlsen and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the Tata Steel tournament lit up the chess world for the quality of play. The first image here is the computer evaluation of the game after it finished.

Today, I will make an argument the game is the finest ever played and Carlsen is the best player in the history of chess. Those who are far better at chess than I, might disagree and that’s fine.

As many know, I’m a big fan of chess. I’m going to try to explain this game with as few technical terms as possible so don’t be deterred by the fact it is a chess article.

The Computer Age

Chess in its current form originated about 600 years ago and the modern, or computer era, began somewhere around 1990 or thirty years ago. Modern players have the enormous advantage of consulting chess engines.

Input from computers broadened understanding of the game in a number of ways and modern players know chess on a deeper level than players from previous eras. It is relatively reasonable and somewhat generally accepted the best players today are far better than the champions of yore. If someone organized a tournament of all the great champions with the knowledge they had at the peak of their careers, modern players will win and rather handily.

That being said, it’s difficult to argue against the idea the champion of today is the greatest chess player of all time. That champion being Magnus Carlsen.

The Game in Question

Magnus recently defended his title and set a goal of reaching an ELO ranking of 2900. The Tata Steel championship is his first tournament since setting that target. He led the tournament when the game in question happened with his opponent trailing him by half a point.

The First Move

Magnus First Move

In this position the move the computer suggested for white is to move the queen backwards and to the right by one square, to d1 as it is called. Small queen moves in the middle games can be very difficult to spot. When the queen moves a single square it either changes the rows and columns or the diagonals it influences.
I won’t, as promised, get too technical here. Qd1 is not an easy move for any player to spot. It is very subtle and makes no significant threat or great improvement. Carlsen made it.

The Second Move

Magnus Move Two

In this position the suggested computer move is for white to move his leftmost pawn one square forward. This is considered an anti-positional move. It allows black to push his own pawn one square forward, creating what is called a protected-passed pawn. This is something you generally want to prevent your opponent from achieving.

Carlsen again found this move despite it being against the general principles of chess.

The Third Move

Magnus Move Three

This move is a backward move by the knight and is generally considered very difficult to find. Again, it is the computer’s first choice. The idea being that moving the knight back toward you king means it loses influence on many forwards squares. It often is done to reposition the knight to a better square in the future.

Again, Magnus found the move.

The Final Position

Magnus Final

This is the final position of the game. To most viewers, even good chess players, it doesn’t seem particularly overwhelming. It is but that’s not so important to my argument today. In 27 moves Carlsen won an overwhelming victory against a player who played an excellent game. Flawless is the way the computer rates it.

Conclusion

My argument is that no other player in the history of chess makes the moves Carlsen made in this game. This makes it the finest game of chess to date. Certainly not a stunning brilliancy with multiple sacrifices. Just as good as a person has ever played. So far.

Was this the Finest Game of chess ever played?

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Tom Liberman

Daniil Dubov Works with Magnus Carlsen and Causes Uproar

Daniil Dubov

Chess talent Daniil Dubov is from Russia. In the recent World Chess Championship, the reigning champion, Magnus Carlsen, played challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi. Nepo, as he is generally called, is from Russia while Carlsen is from Norway.

After the match concluded, with Carlsen’s fourth title defense and fifth overall championship, the champ revealed his team which included Daniil Dubov. One of Nepo’s seconds, as they are called, Sergey Karjakin complained that Daniil Dubov somehow betrayed Mother Russia by working with a Norwegian against a Russian.

Several Russian chess officials agree with Karjakin and made it clear they consider Daniil Dubov somehow a traitor to Russian chess and his future on the National Team is now in some jeopardy.

It’s a Contract

Daniil Dubov initially worked with Carlsen during the previous championship match against Fabiano Caruana. He contracted with Carlsen to continue working through this cycle even before Nepo won the Candidates tournament.

This leads me to my first, although least vehement, argument against forcing Dubov to change over to the Nepo team or at least leave Carlsen’s. A contract was signed. It is far worse, in my opinion, for Dubov to break the contract or ask Carlsen to void it than to honor it. Dubov clearly enjoys a good working relationship with Carlsen and for the champ to pay Dubov to continue their work together is high praise indeed. An honor.

Individualism is more important than Nationalism

Frankly, this out-of-control nationalism, my country first business, is incredibly dangerous to the world. I’m against it almost always. We are not nations. Nor are we religions. We are not a race, a creed, a color. We are individuals. I am Tom Liberman first. I identify with my family, my city of St. Louis, my state of Missouri, my country of the United States, my community of Role-Playing Game enthusiasts, but I am first me. An individual.

Daniil Dubov gets to choose with whom he works and those who criticize this choice do so not out of so-called nationalism but raw intimidation. They hope to coerce Daniil Dubov into doing their bidding by appealing to his nationalism. Daniil Dubov stands up tall, well, not really all that tall, no offense, Daniil, I’m height-challenged as well.

He stands up for his desire to work with Carlsen and understands it does not in reflect, in any way, on his patriotism or love for Russia. Good for you, brother!

What’s best for Daniil Dubov

My last argument is the one that strikes directly to why this story angers me so much. He must do what is best for Daniil Dubov. Working closely with the World Champion, arguably the greatest chess player in the history of the game, is objectively good for Daniil Dubov.

There is no question Daniil Dubov is a potential World Champion himself. He plays a creative game with flair and style but must learn discipline and caution in order to achieve this goal. Working with Magnus Carlsen is clearly the best way for him to improve his own game.

Conclusion

I found myself heartily encouraged by the comments sections in various stories about this issue. A rarity. It seems most people, many Russians included, side with Daniil Dubov. They think he is correct to work with whom he pleases and it in no way defines his patriotism.

The general tenor of the comments is that Russian officials are foolish if they ban him from the National Team but if they do, it’s their loss.

Daniil Dubov, you have a fan in me.

Tom Liberman

Magnus Carlsen Leads by Example

Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen Shows Up for Consolation Match

Magnus Carlsen, the World Chess Champion, was defeated by Jan-Krzysztof Duda in a hotly contested semi-final match in the Chess World Cup that came down to tie-breaks. Because of this Carlsen found himself in the position of playing a third-place consolation match against Vladimir Fedoseev.

Not only did Carlsen show up for this match but he opened it with what some are already calling one of the most brilliant games of Carlsen’s career. I think this sort of thing speaks highly of Carlsen but also sets an important example for champions to come.

Magnus Carlsen is following the example set by the previous champion, Vishy Anand. That’s a testament to both of them.

The Contrast

For some champions this sort of loss can lead to petulant behavior. Novak Djokovic, considered the best tennis player in the world at the moment, recently lost in his bid to win an Olympic gold medal and behaved with less elan.

Djokovic threw his tennis racquet into the stands in a fit of rage. He refused to play in a scheduled doubles match with his partner, thus depriving them both of an opportunity for a gold medal. This sort of behavior is something that young players see and emulate.

Poor Behavior is Contagious

When top level golfers like Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau feud publicly, hurling nasty insults at one another, they somehow convince themselves it’s good for ratings, that people love watching such spats and unprofessional behavior.

It’s true videos of Djokovic and the two golfers make headlines and people are interested in such things. It’s also true that poor behavior of this nature is contagious. Future top-level golfers, tennis players, and others will emulate these champions. That’s not good for sports and it’s really not great for society.

What I find interesting is that while most people rightly criticize the tantrum thrown by Djokovic, and others like him, people clearly want to see more of it. That’s a shame.

It’s more than just a championship match, it’s about how to behave in your own life. We are all going to lose at something in life and it’s always going to be painful. If we fight against our despair and go back out, even for a consolation match, it makes our society a better place.

Imagine if, in a rage, Carlsen decided not to play. The chess world never gets to see today’s brilliancy.

Conclusion

The ability to handle defeat with grace is an admirable character trait. I far prefer the example Magnus Carlsen sets than that of Djokovic.

The old adage that people enjoy watching a train wreck remains. As for me, I prefer a true champion, both on the playing field and in life.

Tom Liberman

Thinking for Yourself in Chess and Life

Thinking for Yourself

I was on Lichess watching the Magnus Carlsen v. Hikaru Nakamura match of the Magnus Chess Tour Finals when an interesting example of thinking for yourself, and the benefits therein, presented itself. It is often suggested thinking for yourself is better; but if someone else does the thinking for you, and always gives you good answers, why not just do what she or he says? I’ll tell you why.

Many of those watching the games rely on the computer analysis to tell them who is winning at any particular moment and what is the best move to make for either player. Others of us watch without the computer engine analysis and discuss what might be the better move and which player seems to have the advantage at any given moment.

It is clear those using the engine to tell them the best move and who is winning are clearly correct far more often than those of us simply watching the game and relying on our own calculations. Therefore, they are better off, right? Wrong.

Thinking for yourself is not only a great deal more fun, it not only makes you a better chess player, but it also actually gives you greater insight into the game being played at that moment. Here is what happened twice during the match I watched yesterday. Warning, if you’re not a chess fan this might get a little dull.

Basically, during a game there are moments when you can sacrifice a piece in order to gain initiative through tactics. When you are thinking for yourself, you are looking for such tactics. When you are relying on the computer to tell you the best move you largely are not watching for such moments.

In two games there was a potential tactic available for several moves which covered perhaps ten minutes of time allowing time for analysis. Those of us in chat not using the computer mentioned the sacrifice possibility multiple times and eventually, in both cases it was made.

This leads me to the purpose of this entire blog. When the sacrifices were actually viable, the computer engine immediately suggested them as the best move and those relying on the engine began to speculate if the player might see it. These fans thought it was almost impossible to see such a move. When the player made the sacrifice, they were stunned by the astounding ability of the player.

Of course, those of us not relying on the computer had long been speculating on the move and didn’t see it as all that impossible at all.

I guess the point is, yes, if you rely on almost perfect machines and aren’t thinking for yourself, you will win every chess game but once those engines are off, you have no idea how to play at all. You get no enjoyment from predicting the move a Grand Master makes. No thrill of seeing a brilliant sacrifice on your own. Your life is both diminished in enjoyment and your ability to make good decisions without help is irreparably damaged.

Turn off the engine, stop listening to other people, think it through yourself. It’s harder, yes, but more rewarding.

Tom Liberman

Wesley So and the Question of Pragmatism over Glory

Wesley So

Today was an interesting day in the chess world when Wesley So decided on a pragmatic course of action when he had an opportunity for glorious victory. It was a complicated decision with a number of factors but I thought it was the correct choice; I am interested in what other people think. Let me explain.

There is a chess event called the Grand Chess Tour in which the top players in the world compete in a series of individual tournaments. The top four point getters in all the tournaments advance to a big money final. Each of the tournaments themselves have significant prizes for finishing in the top spots. Wesley So was invited to participate even though he had a relatively subpar chess season the previous year. He is considered one of the weakest players in the event. Weak being relative, he is a fantastic chess player by any standard.

In the first stop of the tour he did reasonably well, fourth out of ten players, and is having an excellent tournament in the second stop, this is where he made his pragmatic decision.

The current stop on the Grand Chess Tour, Croatia, has more points available to get into the finals than other events because of the format. It also has a somewhat different structure than other tournaments in that the players play eleven games in twelve days with only a single rest day after the sixth game.

Wesley So is doing exceptionally well. Going into the penultimate round he was in clear second place behind only World Champion Magnus Carlsen who is playing some of the best chess of his career. He was also a full point ahead of several players who were tied for third place. In a chess game you get half a point for a draw, 1 point for a win, and 0 points for a loss.

This situation means if he drew the game against Carlsen it almost certainly guaranteed Wesley So would finish the tournament in second place. This finish would gain him significantly more money and points than finishing tied for third or worse, a distinct possibility if he lost the game against Carlsen.

Wesley So was playing with the white pieces which is considered an advantage and generally speaking the player with white is the aggressor and the player with black is trying to draw the game, although this is certainly not absolute.

I know I’ve spent considerable time setting up the question but I think it’s important that we weigh all the factors, overall Grand Chess Tour position, individual event position, general fatigue, the state of Carlsen’s play, etc.

In any case, Wesley So played a relatively passive game and quickly settled for a draw with Carlsen. This almost guaranteed him second place in the tournament and also allowed him to rest up for the final round of a tournament in which fatigue certainly plays a role.

Many people are being critical of this decision, they think he had a chance to win the tournament and he should have gone all out, even though doing so against an in-form Carlsen was extremely dangerous. Wesley So weighed the benefits of drawing against the negative potential of losing and decided the former was the wiser course of action. I happen to agree with him but I can see the other point of view.

So, what do you think?

Should Wesley So have gone for Glory or was a Pragmatic Draw the right decision?

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Tom Liberman