World Chess Championship – If you are not a fan of chess, you may not know that the World Chess Championship (WCC) is currently underway in London. Challenger Fabiano Caruana of the US is hoping to unseat current champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway, but the two drew their first twelve games and are getting ready to head into tie-breaks in about an hour.
Since I’m pretty sure my three readers are not chess people, a quick run-down of how the match is played is probably in order. The first twelve games were played with what is known as “classical time control”—each player has 100 minutes to make their first 40 moves, an additional 50 minutes after move 40, and an additional 15 minutes after move 60, with a 30-second increment (which means that 30 seconds are added to a player’s clock after each move). Carlsen won the draw for colors and chose black, which meant that he played black in the first game, white in the second game, etc., up to game six. Then the colors were reversed, with Carlsen playing white in the seventh game, black in the eighth game, etc. So Caruana had the advantage of playing white in the first and last games, but Carlsen had the advantage of playing white two games in a row in the middle. (Because white moves first, white has a small but not insignificant statistical advantage.)
As I mentioned above, though, Carlsen and Caruana drew all twelve of these games. That might sound a little boring, but it is not necessarily so. It’s a bit like football (soccer). You might have a game in which one side goes up a goal early and the opposing side has to fight back and turn the tables, scoring the equalizer in injury time. Such a match can be incredibly exciting. On the other hand, you might have two sides that, for whatever reason—maybe they are playing in a group stage and have both already secured a spot in the elimination rounds—decide to play defensively and end up with a 0-0 draw. This sort of match is likely to be boring and frustrating. We saw both kinds of games in classical time format; some were “fighting draws,” while others were a bit dull.
Needless to say, the completely even score sheet has been the subject of much discussion in the chess world. This is the longest series of draws in the current format and the first time that both players have drawn all of their games in classical time control. In 1984, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov did draw 17 games in a row, but the format was different back then—the championship was only decided when one player won six games, and thus the match could theoretically continue indefinitely. Indeed, this match lasted for 48 games played over five months before it was terminated and replayed in 1985 with a different format—best of 24, with the champion retaining his title in the event of a tie (Kasparov, the challenger, won that event). The format is different now, with only 12 games in classical time format followed by tie-breaks, but I suspect that if the old format were followed, Carlsen and Caruana would be in with a good chance to break Karpov and Kasparov’s record.
It’s not just the draws that have people annoyed, though—it’s how and why these draws are happening. The WCC is the absolute pinnacle of chess, the most intense and high-pressure environment in which to play the game. When you have two grandmasters so closely matched (Carlsen is only three ELO rating points ahead of Caruana in classical, and they are two of only four players in the world above 2800 at the moment), it is not surprising that they would have a hard time capitalizing on any advantage they might gain. GMs of course do not always play perfectly, but they rarely blunder, and most of the time their imperfections are on the level of inaccuracies—not an outright mistake, but not the best of moves, possibly opening a window of opportunity for their opponent. But to take advantage of such an opportunity means that a player must maintain the pressure and the tension on the board, which in turn means increasing the chances that they might make a mistake or commit an inaccuracy and thus have the tables turned on them. You will often see a draw in GM-level play when both the material (the number and type of pieces, in the broadest sense of the term) on the board is equal and the position (the configuration of those pieces) also does not favor one player over another. Of course, this also describes the state of the board before every game, so two players could simply shake hands and call it a draw before even touching a piece. (In practice, of course, this is not allowed—players are not permitted to draw before making the 30th move). The game is all about moving your pieces into position and trading off material in such a way as to give yourself an advantage that you can then translate into a win. But this is easier said than done, and in fact the safest thing to do is to not go for sharp lines, to relieve the tension in positions by trading material, and to secure a draw.
I’m not saying that Caruana and Carlsen didn’t want to win in classical time control. I’m sure both of them desperately wanted to win—but they even more desperately did not want to lose. And so, even in situations where they might have had a slight advantage, they elected not to push for a win but settle for a draw. Particularly egregious was Carlsen’s early draw offer in the final game, which came after his 31st move. I have not been able to follow the games live, unfortunately, both because I generally do not have time to just sit there and watch a game that could last anywhere from three to six or seven hours, but also because the games start at midnight in Korea and would require me to stay up all night. I have, however, been watching analysis of the games after the fact by my favorite chess YouTuber, agadmator (this link will take you to his coverage of the first game of the WCC). Actually, he is the only chess YouTuber I watch, but I did check out a number of different channels before deciding that I liked agadmator’s style; I’ve been watching him regularly since I first discovered him last year. At any rate, agadmator has been providing his usual interesting and insightful commentary on the games, and throughout the WCC he has also generally ended his videos with his opinions on the draws. At first, he encouraged his viewers to not be too discouraged by all of the draws and to look at the bigger picture, but as time went on even he seemed to become annoyed at the way things were playing out, largely due to the influence of chess engines (more on this in a bit).
As I watched his last video yesterday morning, I thought, “Well, this is it! Magnus has the advantage and it looks like Fabi is back on his heels!” It did seem as if the champion was going to at last break the string of draws and put the final (and only) nail in the coffin. So I was shocked when, after the 31st move, agadmator said, “And it was in this position that....” This is the phrase he uses to announce the resolution of the match, and it is generally followed by “...Black/White resigned” or “the players agreed to a draw.” Caruana was definitely down, but it was way too early to give up the fight, so it couldn’t be that Caruana was resigning here, could it? But it also couldn’t possibly be a draw—there was still so much chess left to play! With Caruana in trouble and way down on time, why would Carlsen offer or agree to a draw? agadmator is known to sometimes play little jokes, like announcing that White chose to go with b4 and play the Evans Gambit (which is almost never done in high-level chess these days), or calling the chief arbiter of the WCC “Lothar Schmid” (who was actually the arbiter of Bobby Fischer’s 1972 WCC match against Boris Spassky—the last time an American became world champion), so I thought that perhaps this was going to be another one of his deadpan gags. But, no, there it was. Carlsen had offered a draw, and Caruana, no doubt thanking his lucky stars, had accepted. “And it was in this position,” agadmator said, almost apologetically, “that the players agreed to a draw.”
I was stunned, and apparently I wasn’t the only one. A quick googling (which I had avoided doing because I wanted to watch agadmator’s video first, without knowing the result) showed that the chess world was in an uproar; Kasparov called the draw offer “shocking” and declared that Carlsen did not have the nerves for the tie-breaks. Chess.com organized a “tournament” pitting the top eight chess engines against each other, starting from the position in which game 12 ended. I have had that open in a browser tab while writing this entry; currently (as I get ready to post this), 29 of 56 games have been played and the record stands at 13 draws, 14 wins for Black, and two wins for White. The only two wins managed so far for White have been with the weakest engine, Laser, playing Black.
In Carlsen’s defense, though, a win in the last game was nowhere near a foregone conclusion, and it would have been a long, hard-fought battle with no guarantee of victory at the end. After all, the engines played an average of over a hundred moves in those 14 wins, and the very first game was a draw that took 293 moves to complete. (Of course, engines do play quite differently from humans—Fabi would have resigned long before checkmate, and no human would ever play a draw out to 293 moves; 1464 total up to game 29.) We also need to take into account the fact that Carlsen is the favorite in shorter time controls; He is 89 rating points and 172 rating points ahead of Caruana in rapid and blitz, respectively. After what had been a very long and grueling match, he most likely didn’t want to take any chances or wear himself out. To be honest, though, I think this is a weak defense; in other words, I can see what he might have been thinking, but I don’t agree with it. It is true that he is favored in the tie-breaks, but I think you have to at least try for something in that final game. That’s just me, though, and I am not in Carlsen’s shoes right now.
So, whatever we might think of Carlsen’s decision, the WCC is going into tie-breaks, and when by the time I wake up tomorrow morning the champion will have been decided. The two players will first face off in four rapid games, in which each player gets 25 minutes total with 10-second increments. If the score is still equal after these games, they will play blitz, which is five minutes total with three-second increments. These blitz games will be played as five mini-matches, in which each player plays a game as each color. If any of these mini-matches end with one player ahead, that player wins the WCC. However, if all ten blitz games are played and the score is still equal, then one final game in a format known as “Armageddon” is played. In this format, white gets five minutes on the clock and black gets four, and there are no increments until move 61 (from which point there are three-second increments). The difference here is that black has draw odds, which means that a draw counts as a win for black.
Rapid and blitz games play much differently from classical games. Because players do not have as much time to think about their moves, inaccuracies, mistakes, and even blunders are more likely. It is more likely that one player might deliberately play a suboptimal move in order to complicate the position or befuddle their opponent, who will not have the usual amount of time to come up with a refutation. You need to be very quick on your feet, obviously. Carlsen is currently the world no. 1 in both formats (as he is in classical), and Caruana is much farther down on the list, at 7th and 16th, respectively. Caruana has said in post-game press conferences that he doesn’t think he is at as much of a disadvantage in the quicker time controls as people think he is, and I would tend to agree (Carlsen and Caruana actually have an even record against each other in rapid), but Carlsen is still definitely favored. I was hoping that Caruana might be able to create some magic in classical time control and beat Carlsen without having to go to tie-breaks, but unfortunately that has not happened, and the chances of us seeing the first American world champion since Bobby Fischer are now significantly lower.
The discussion around the WCC, though, goes far beyond who will be the next world champion. Many people are wondering whether chess engines (that is, chess programs run on computers) have ruined the game. A theme of the classical games was Fabi coming in with formidable preparation, having memorized numerous engine lines. Magnus would also prepare in similar fashion, but his preparation was often not nearly as good as Fabi’s. So the games would play out with engine lines until one player made a move that took the other player out of his preparation. As agadmator noted in one of the later videos (I forget which—it might have been the last classical game), once this happened the quality of chess suffered visibly. This raises an important question: Are the players really “playing chess” if all they are doing is memorizing engine lines at home?
I should note that home preparation has always been an important part of high-level chess. Players in the WCC have teams of people on their side, analyzing every position and preparing lines for future games—so when you sit down at the board you are not just playing against your opponent, you are playing against their entire team. (This could be why the players rarely make eye contact with each other—it is a lot less daunting to simply play the position on the board.) What has changed in recent years is that these teams of people are now joined by engines in their preparation. Not only that, but chess commentators and fans watching the matches also have access to these engines and their evaluations. As I mentioned above, I did not watch any of the games live, but after the fact I did see a lot of commentary on the internet by ordinary Joes complaining about how Carlsen had a mate in thirty (I think it was) in one of the games. Well, yeah, that’s easy enough to say when you are literally walking around with a supercomputer in your pocket and not sitting alone at a chessboard across from the highest rated player in the world other than yourself. There is plenty to be said about how engines have changed how the game is played, but I think a lot could be said about how they change how the game is watched, too—and I’m not sure it is more enjoyable to have all those numbers and bars jumping back and forth. We’re spending more time paying attention to how a computer evaluates a game than actually enjoying the games for ourselves.
I don’t really have answers to any of the questions here. I enjoy chess a lot, but I’m not really any good at it, so if the GMs of the world can’t figure a way out of this quagmire of classical draws, I’m certainly not going to be able to do it. Some brighter minds have suggested that the classical time control is dead in high-level play, and that we should just start straight off with rapid time control. Other brighter minds are calling for Fischer random chess, a variant in which the starting positions of the back-rank pieces are randomized (with some stipulations, such as retaining the opposite-color bishop pair and the ability to castle to either side). Even with the stipulations, there are 960 possible set-ups (which is why it is also called Chess960). Engines would still be engines, and as spectators we would no doubt still have their evaluations, but for the players it would mean that opening preparation would be pointless, and they would be forced to play the game “over the board.” However, this variant also introduces problems that I have neither the time nor understanding to discuss, and not everyone is in love with it.
I will leave the solutions to those brighter minds, though. I have not actually gotten to my main point yet, the whole reason why I started writing this entry in the first place. But I am already approaching three thousand words now, it is getting late, and—perhaps like Magnus—I am tiring. I think I will be back when the WCC is over to finish up my thoughts, although it will probably not be immediately afterward, as my schedule over the next couple of weeks looks a little hairy. Chess isn’t going anywhere, though. And, so, it is in this position that I will adjourn for the evening.
[Update (2018.11.29): Since it is going to be a while before I get back to this subject, I thought I would at least put a coda on my comments. Magnus ended up retaining his title with an absolutely dominating performance in the rapid games, defeating Fabi three games in a row (agadmator covered all three games with his own “rapid” commentary). When Fabi blundered in the second game I knew it was over; the third game, which Fabi absolutely needed to win and Magnus only needed to draw, was painful to watch. One might think that this justifies Carlsen’s decision to offer the draw in the last game of classical time control, but as Magnus himself said during the press conference afterward, you should never judge a decision based on the outcome—you can only judge whether a decision was the right one based on the information you had at the time. That being said, Magnus maintains that it was the right decision, and who would argue with him? He’s the champion, and he won because he was the better player in the end. So congrats to Magnus, and to Fabi as well for being up to the challenge in classical.]