Thursday, October 31, 2013
A period of phenomenal success
The penultimate part of the Carlsen series plots his ascent to World No.1 as a teenager
It’s said that appetite improves during the meal, and Magnus Carlsen was proving the adage right. With every taste of success, he grew hungrier. The New Year’s Day of 2008 saw him ranked 13th in the World with a rating of 2733. But he would have a special reason to rejoice at the end of the month.
Carlsen was back at Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, for the Corus tournament. Eager to make amends for the fiasco on his debut — he went without a victory in 13 games — the previous January, Carlsen came well prepared after being made part of the strongest field assembled by the organisers.
What followed was Carlsen’s finest performance, reinforcing his place among the chess elite. He tied for the top place with Levon Aronian by scoring eight points. His list of five victims included Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar. One of his two losses came against a third-placed Viswanathan Anand.
Carlsen performed at the level of 2,830 — almost 100 points above his rating. “Before the tournament, I thought if I could score 50 per cent, it would not be a bad result. I wasn’t expecting to win, of course, and sharing of first place was a pleasant surprise to me,” said a modest Carlsen.
By this time it was clear that Carlsen was perfecting his positional understanding, and the technique to play simple positions, especially in the endgame. Gone was the eagerness to get into sharp, exciting positions and brilliant finishes. Instead, it was more businesslike execution of what he discovered as “playable” positions.
From the success at Corus, Carlsen arrived to take on an even stronger field at the Morelia-Linares super tournament. In this hand-picked eight-player field, Carlsen finished second behind Anand. He posted five victories, including two against former World champion Veselin Topalov and once over Vassily Ivanchuk. Again, one of his three losses came against Anand. Creditably, Carlsen had performed 75 points above his rating — a performance that would launch him into the top-10 in the next publication of the rankings.
After Corus and Morelia-Linares, noted Russian chess journalist Yuri Vasiliev wrote: “Magnus, this little mongoose, rising sharply and swiftly over the board when he needs to grasp the nape of another cobra, is the new super-hero!”
It was apt enough a metaphor for the 17-year-old’s dynamic and uncompromising play. These successes earned Carlsen 32 rating points from 27 games. That meant that when the rankings were announced in April, he had jumped to fifth spot with a rating of 2765 — at the age of 17 years and four months.
Later that month, Carlsen started as the ‘rating favourite’ in the 14-player Grand Prix at Baku, where he eventually became part of a three-way tie for honours. For the rest of the year, Carlsen progressed at a slower pace and climbed only one more rung in the world rankings. However, the chess world knew it was only a matter of time before Carlsen scaled ‘Peak 2800’.
For the better part of 2009, the 18-year-old trained with Garry Kasparov. What followed was a path-breaking performance in the Nanjing Pearls Spring event in China. In a double round-robin format, Carlsen destroyed the six-player field by scoring 8/10. He defeated everyone in the draw at least once, and performed at a whopping 3002.
The performance saw Carlsen catapult to the second spot in World ranking with a rating of 2801 — at 18 years and 11 months, the youngest among the five players at that point of time to ever breach the 2800-mark.
His pursuit for the World No.1 spot continued when he finished tied-second behind Kramnik in the super strong Tal memorial tournament in Moscow. Carlsen left the city after winning the World blitz title finishing three points ahead of Anand.
Carlsen then dominated the year-ending London Classic. He defeated Kramnik in the opener and maintained his lead to claim the title.
By taking his rating to 2810, as on January 1, 2010, Carlsen seized the World No.1 spot from Topalov, becoming the youngest to reach the summit at 19 years and one month.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who retired in 2005, is preparing to re-enter the chess arena, and his next opponent may be the most formidable, and strangest, he has faced.
Mr. Kasparov, 50, announced recently that he would run for the presidency of the World Chess Federation, the game’s governing body, and try to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who has led the federation since 1995. The election will be held during the Chess Olympiad in Tromso, Norway, next August.
Mr. Kasparov would seem to have a number of advantages. He is charismatic, famous in the chess world and beyond it, and in frequent demand as a public speaker. Since he retired from competition, he has also been a political gadfly in Russia, a leader of opposition political groups and an outspoken critic of President Vladimir V. Putin.
By contrast, Mr. Ilyumzhinov, 51, is a businessman who was born in Kalmykia, an impoverished Russian republic on the Caspian Sea, and amassed a fortune after the fall of the Soviet Union, though exactly how, and how much, is something of a mystery. He was the president of Kalmykia from 1993 to 2010, serving partly at Mr. Putin’s discretion.
Though he never won fame as a player, Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s devotion to chess seems genuine — but so are his eccentricities. He has said that he believes the game was invented by extraterrestrials, and he claims to have been abducted by aliens in yellow spacesuits on the night of Sept. 17, 1997. He built Chess City, a huge glass dome surrounded by a housing development, in Kalmykia’s obscure and inaccessible capital, Elista, and had the federation hold championship tournaments there.
In June 2011, at the height of the civil war in Libya, Mr. Ilyumzhinov appeared in Tripoli to meet with an old friend, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, ostensibly to discuss opportunities for developing chess programs in the country. The men played a game of chess for the cameras. It was the last time Mr. Qaddafi was seen alive in public before he was captured and killed four months later.
In an interview, Mr. Kasparov blamed Mr. Ilyumzhinov for one of the biggest shortcomings of the federation, known by its French acronym, FIDE: its inability to attract big corporate sponsorships. “Anybody Googling FIDE sees he is dealing with someone who is taken by aliens and is playing chess with Qaddafi,” he said.
Mr. Ilyumzhinov, who also visited President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in August 2012, said in an interview that his trips were not intended to make statements. “Chess is not political,” he said. “I am not communist, I am not socialist, I am not a democrat. I am peaceful.”
Despite Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s quirks, Mr. Kasparov faces an uphill battle to get elected. Each member country of the federation has a single vote regardless of size, so the tiny Republic of Palau in the western Pacific Ocean has the same say as the United States.
While Mr. Ilyumzhinov has had little support in most Western countries during his tenure, he has marshaled the backing of many small countries that are not at the forefront of chess, and has had no trouble retaining power. When Anatoly Karpov, Mr. Kasparov’s old chess adversary, ran for president of FIDE in 2010, Mr. Ilyumzhinov beat him handily, 95 votes to 55.
Mr. Kasparov said that while past elections were dogged by rumors of fraud and bribery and “were not transparent,” this time around “those issues have been resolved.” He added obliquely, “I have resources that can help me to run a global campaign.”
Those resources include the deep pockets of Rex Sinquefield, a retired businessman from St. Louis who is Mr. Kasparov’s nominee to lead the federation’s organization in the Western Hemisphere. Mr. Sinquefield has become the biggest benefactor of chess in the United States in recent years, and has sponsored the United States Championship.
Mr. Ilyumzhinov defended his record, saying that he had invested a lot of his own money to promote the game and had attracted some major sponsors, including Rosneft, the giant Russian energy company, which is underwriting a program to promote the teaching of chess in schools and has sponsored some tournaments.
In general, he said, chess is hard to sell to sponsors, compared with “action” sports like tennis, football and basketball that are “interesting for TV.” At a chess tournament, the audience remains quiet and minutes may go by without anything appearing to happen. “You cannot say, ‘Go! Go! Rah! Rah! Good move!’ ” he said. “People want some emotion. Chess is an art and not a spectator sport.”
Mr. Ilyumzhinov insisted that Mr. Kasparov could do no better than he had on the sponsorship issue. He said Mr. Kasparov was a poor manager and that groups he started, like the Professional Chess Association in the 1990s, had failed. He also criticized Mr. Kasparov’s political activities in Russia, including his opposition to Mr. Putin.
Mr. Kasparov said that, though he still believed that Mr. Putin was “destroying the future of my country,” he would give up his political ambitions and devote himself wholeheartedly to FIDE if elected.
That would not be a very great concession, it would seem. In 2009, Mr. Kasparov and his wife, Daria, bought a $3.4 million condominium on West 76th Street in Manhattan, and his youngest daughter attends school in New York. He has spent less and less time in Russia in recent years, and even said last June that he would not go back, for fear of arrest.
So as a practical matter, he said, “I don’t see how much this will scale back my political activities.”