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Updated: November 6, 2013 23:23 IST

Masters prepare with mind, men and machine

Rakesh Rao
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In chess, a World title-match offers much more than what meets the eye. Unlike in most other disciplines, pre-match preparations in this cerebral exercise are aimed entirely surprising the rival in unknown territories during the clash.

In the upcoming battle, since Viswanathan Anand and challenger Magnus Carlsen are well aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, an element of surprise could prove a lethal weapon.

Use of ‘seconds’

To prepare, the contestants employ a team of players, commonly known as ‘seconds’. Their collective wisdom, aided by custom-built super computers, guides the players towards their objective. But it is far more complicated than it appears.

The identity of these ‘seconds’ is usually kept a secret by the players concerned. These ‘seconds’ may not be elite chess players. They are hired because a contestant feels the need to use the services of a particular player due to his mastery over a given position with a certain colour. Without doubt, the comfort zone shared by the player with ‘seconds’ is of paramount importance.

Since 2008, when the World championship returned to match-play format (Best-of-12-game match), defending champion Anand continued with his team of seconds — Peter Heine Nielsen, Rustam Kasmidzhanov, Surya Sekhar Ganguly and Radoslaw Wojtaszek — till 2012.

This time, Nielsen and Kasimdzhanov are not around. Nielsen, who accompanied Carlsen as his ‘second’ during the Candidates Tournament in London earlier this year, has chosen to be neutral.

Kasimdzhanov opted to “rest”. Anand is believed to have hired Sandipan Chanda and one other player, whose identity has been kept a closely-guarded secret.

Carlsen, on the other hand, has Norwegian teammate Jon Ludvig Hammer among those assisting him.

Coming back to the role of ‘seconds’ and use of technology in match preparation, it is important to remember that the enormity of work involved is hard to comprehend for casual followers of chess.

“Usually ‘seconds’ are assigned different jobs based on the style of play and their working approach towards chess. Some are assigned to find new ideas and then it will be checked in depth by different ones and the final part is to clean and give the relevant material to the player,” says Grandmaster P. Hari Krishna, ranked next to Anand in the country.

K. Sasikiran, who for long was country’s second highest-rated player after Anand, said, “Mostly the ‘seconds’ check the openings and look to make their plans foolproof. That is the main idea of seconds. They explore new areas and find viable options for this level of play. It concerns the opening and the first part of the middle game. But you never know. Sometimes the analysis could go well into the endgame.”

Technology factor

On the use of technology for preparations, Abhijit Kunte, another former National champion and part of several Chess Olympiads, said, “Most of the top players use custom-built computers. For instance, today if we are commonly using quad-core or 8-core, the top players use configurations that process the data 400 times faster.”

Hari Krishna said, “I expect both camps will be using modest 32-core processing systems. It could be even higher. There is also cloud engine which you can take advantage of. This giant machine, of around 100 cores, can be accessed by your laptop!”

On the preferred choice of search engines, both Hari and Sasikiran promptly pointed to Houdini 3 Pro, which supports up to 32 processor cores and 256 GB of Ram.

“Houdini 3 is much faster than other engines and is the choice of all top players these days,” said Sasikiran. “But then, one must remember that all engines don’t understand all positions. I feel, of all the engines available, Houdini 3 is incomparable.” he added.

Anand and Carlsen, have for long put their minds, men and machines to prepare. Soon, it will be time to test all preparations.

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