An Amazing Day at the Candidates

In Berlin in 1914, Emanuel Lasker played a friendly blitz match against José Raúl Capablanca, who would succeed him as world champion seven years later. Lasker lost 6½-3½, and at the end he said: "It is remarkable. You don't make mistakes."

Of course this was not literally true, as neither man nor silicon is able to play perfect chess. What Lasker must have meant was that Capablanca made no obvious mistakes, not even in blitz games.

Someone – I don't remember who it was or where I read it – has compared the moves of the great players of the past and the present with the moves that the best computer programs would make. His conclusion was that Capablanca's moves concurred with the computer moves more than those of any of our chess heroes of past or present. Making bad moves, really bad moves, was alien to him, though of course they sometimes occurred.

One of the many great qualities of Magnus Carlsen is that he doesn't make mistakes. This may appear banal, but it's not. Of course he is no superman who always plays perfectly, but contrary to his rivals, he almost never makes what in the world of tennis is called an unforced error. Or so I thought.

The preceding lines I wrote on Friday March 29, while the twelfth round of the Candidates Tournament was in progress. Amazing things happened. Kramnik was winning against Aronian, but he botched it, as commentator Nigel Short put it bluntly, and then he was miraculously handed the full point again. And Carlsen lost as White to Vassily Ivanchuk and described his play afterwards as "absolutely disgraceful from move one." And indeed, all through the game he had made several unforced errors. By the way, the day before, Ivanchuk had said that he regarded his last three games of the Candidates as training games for his next tournament.

With two rounds to go, Kramnik had replaced Carlsen as the tournament leader, and Carlsen's aura of invincibility had vanished. So, as the conscientious scholar said, I will retract everything I asserted before and from now on I'll maintain the opposite.

But not quite. These were special circumstances, near the end of a grueling tournament. Recently, I read some contemporary newspaper reports about the Dutch AVRO tournament of 1938, which was also a double round-robin with the eight best players of the world. Right after the tournament, Alekhine complained about the tremendous strain that had made him lose seven pounds during the tournament. He pointed at a Dutch official and said: "Do you see Mr. Alving walking there? The man hasn't even played, but hasn't he grown ten years older in these three weeks of excitement and trotting about?" The trotting refers to the fact that the tournament was dispersed over several Dutch cities, so that the players had to do a lot of travelling. 

According to Kramnik, all the participants were at the end of their tether in the final stage of the London Candidates. I have to amend my views: Carlsen will make no unforced errors, except when he does, in special circumstances.

One of the most enjoyable games of the tournament was that between Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk, from the ninth round. It was not a game of classic beauty, in which perfectly executed strategy prevails, but it had the wild beauty of a catch-as-catch-can in which both players made mistakes and even overlooked the possibility of winning a piece.

"I like chaotic games in which the skirmishes happen first on one side of the board and then at the other side, games where the advantage changes hands without either of the players being aware of it."

This I wrote in 1977 in a book in which chessplayers presented two of their favorite games, a classic game from the treasure of chess history and one played by himself. The games I presented were indeed chaotic. The classic I chose was the fourth match game between Chigorin and Tarrasch, St. Petersburg 1893. Skirmishes all over the board, advantage going one way and the other. It was a highlight of one of my favorite books when I was a youngster, Dreihundert Schachpartien by Siegbert Tarrasch. I still find that game fascinating.

But I can't identify anymore with the aversion I expressed in 1977 to logical games of one piece, in which a player who obtained an advantage at an early stage presses it home with iron Botvinnik hand. What was wrong with that?

It has to do with age, I think. When you're young you love the uncommon, the bizarre breach of rules, and only later comes the appreciation of classical beauty.

Back to Svidler - Grischuk.

John Nunn has formulated the law LPDO. Loose Pieces Drop Off. If Grischuk had kept that law in mind, he would have won the piece on his 29th move.

It was interesting to watch the press conference by Svidler and Grischuk after they had drawn their game. Svidler spouted a torrent of variations and it was really impressive how much he had calculated during the game, except then for that loss of a piece. Grischuk stayed mostly silent, except for a skeptical remark now and then: “Do you really call this being in control?”

The game can be viewed in the board window, but here is an appetizer.

Svidler - Grischuk, after White's 12th move.

Here Black played the amazing 12...Nxc4 and all hell broke loose.

Annotated Game: Simply click on the game to play through it.

Svidler - Grischuk

Candidates Tournament, London 2013