Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sleeping til noon?

At 2pm this afternoon the wait will be over. The first pawn of the Anand-Kramnik World Championship match will at last be pushed and a couple of weeks or so afterwards all questions as to who has a legitimate claim to the crown will be laid to rest.

Vishy Anand may be the official champion since his victory at Mexico City but you don't have to be Russian to question the appropriateness of using a tournament, however strong the field, to decide the world’s strongest chess player. Bonn will consist of just a dozen games, half a traditional world championship contest, but a match of any length is better than none for those of us who consider Anand as no more than a pretender to the throne until such time as he overcomes his rival in hand to hand combat.

There are any number of match previews floating around on the internet (see for example Chess Vibes' visit to the pre-match press conference and Yusupov's summary of the players' strengths and weaknesses on the same site). Indeed ink has been spilling about this match ever since Anand wrapped up the win in Mexico City over a year ago.

One issue that often crops up in these articles is how the past, and perhaps future, champion prefers one-on-one competition rather than taking on multiple opponents at once. Back in November of last year, for example, Chessbase reproduced an interview that Kramnik gave to Izvestia. The Russian newspaper quote him as saying,

Everyone has their strong side. Mine is match-play, whereas Anand’s is tournaments

Similarly, in August this year Chessbase published another piece on Kramnik during which the interviewer, GM Robert Fontaine, tells the former champion,

We know that you are very strong in match play, maybe better than in tournaments.

This sort of thing gets repeated everywhere, and certainly I've become accustomed to thinking of Kramnik in this way myself, but is it true?

My friend and fellow S&BCC blogger EJH once wrote:-

... in the chess world, as elsewhere, there is a certain tendency to interpret the facts according to a preconceived narrative ....

I'm wondering whether Kramnik's alleged prowess at match play might be an example of this phenomenon.

Let's take a look at his record in candidates matches ...

1994: beat Yudasin 4.5 - 2.5
1994: lost to Kamsky 4.5 - 1.5
1994: lost to Gelfand 4.5 - 3.5
1998: lost to Shirov 5.5 - 3.5

and world title contests ...

2000: beat Kasparov 8.5 - 6.5
2004: drew with Leko 7 - 7
2006: drew with Topalov 6 - 6

OK, so those early games were played when Kramnik was in his late teens and early twenties and it might also be pointed out that he did go on to beat his Bulgarian rival in quick-play overtime. Perhaps more pertinently, if we ignore the off-the-board shenanigans last time around Kramnik can also claim to have won an eleven game match by six points to five.

Even so this is still hardly the record of an all-conquering colossus. It's rather as if Vlad, established his reputation as an early riser by beating Kasparov and the chess world has been indulging his long lie-ins ever since.

Don't get me wrong, Kramnik is clearly an exceptional chess player. There can only be a handful of human beings who've ever lived that could have equalled his achievements. His victory over Kasparov was a truly awesome achievement. Can we agree, though, when he and others state that he's better at matches than tournaments? I'm not so sure. His results, in any event, would suggest we cannot.

That said, if Kramnik beats Anand he won't give a damn what his record's been like up until now ... and nor will anybody else.


ejh said...

My view is that twelve games isn't long enough for a world championship match.

Kramnik says here:

To me, you know, I can play twelve or fourteen or sixteen games. Actually I played three matches of 16, 14 and 12 games. I’m happy with all of them, as a chess player. But I am not talking to you as a chess player but as a person who wants to promote chess, who wants to do the best for chess. As many chess players as you have , as many opinions you will hear. Somebody may be very fit and he will want 24 games. Someone who gets tired quickly will want eight games. This is the situation, this is the reality. I don’t even want to say what I prefer as a chess player. I prefer what is the best for sponsors and for FIDE. Of course it shouldn’t be too short, because then the value of the event would be much lower. It is also clear, I think, that it cannot be too long either. It cannot be 24 games any more, in modern times this is simply not possible. So somewhere between twelve and sixteen, something like this is okay. As a chess player and a sponsor I would accept this.

Now I'm not sure why Kramnik says "in modern times this is simply not possible" - it could mean "the media interest will not last long enough for a match of that duration" or it could mean "we won't get paid any more for 24 games than we will for 12 and so we'll lose valuable earning time". Either of these might be true, but it's clear that a match of 12 games isn't remotely the same test of all-round chess ability that was true of most matches in earlier generations.

Tom Chivers said...

Or rather:

2000: won World Championship
2004: retained World Championship
2006: retained World Championship

Still, I didn't think anyone cared about this stuff any more in the age of Live Ratings? In fact, hasn't Topalov just set a new World Record for longest ever stay at #1 in the Live Ratings!? That's the record both Anand and Kramnik will now be looking to beat :)

Anonymous said...

Ask any non-chess players around you to name some chess players. The best informed will only be able to name Fischer, Spassky, Kasparov, Karpov and Short, and I doubt if any will have ever heard of Anand and Kramnik.

If the '72 match had been a tournament, would it have gripped the world quite so much? If Short had been one of 8 competitors in '93, would the country have gone quite so chess mad?

Also, Anand won the title WITHOUT defeating Kramnik in Mexico; it was their results against Morrozevich, Aronian and Grischuk that decided the title. How can that be right? I know football leagues work that way, but Chess is closer to boxing than football (no, seriously!) - they're the only sports where the sole objective is to beat the person opposite you into submission. Imagine if Calzaghe had to defend his title in a league format!

Adam B.

ejh said...

Surely most racquet sports share that distinction?

ejh said...

At 2pm this afternoon the wait will be over

Give the half-hour time delay for internet transmission, this isn't, in fact, as true as it must have seemed at the time of writing.

ejh said...

And I'm confused. ICC is only on a fifteen-minute delay (and you seem to need a subscription, which I haven't got). The official site has a half-hour delay, i.e. longer than ICC, but Chessdom seems to be only fifteen minutes too: and their commentary says For a live broadcast go to the official site. Eh?

Anonymous said...

Game 1: an exchange slav.
Kramnik playing it safe as White?
I predict a Petrov from Kramink in game 2.
Hmmm.. after all the build up hope we get some interesting games.

Jonathan B said...

EJH: My view is that twelve games isn't long enough for a world championship match.


T.C. Still, I didn't think anyone cared about this stuff any more in the age of Live Ratings

Oh Tom you wound me with your sarcasm. On second thoughts is just your cynical old self coming through again???

ejh said...

Fencing, too...

Tom Chivers said...

Cynical schmnical!

Btw Anand lost 0.2 rating points in the live list from the first game - and I reckon he's lost 0.2 again today!