That neither has cracked yet should be a source not of disappointment but of wonder, writes Ian Rogers
That chess fans were universal in their praise of Wednesday’s fourth game between World champion Viswanathan Anand and his challenger Magnus Carlsen might seem a little strange to an outside observer.
After all, wasn’t this the fourth consecutive draw between the two players? Isn’t this a bit disappointing? Wouldn’t it be good if someone won a game?
However, chess, like Test cricket, is not about instant gratification.
Wednesday’s draw could be compared to a maiden over with Sachin Tendulkar facing Glenn McGrath, both at the peak of their powers. Every ball is precise and could take a wicket. The batsman is trying to score on every ball but is forced to defend. One mistake and the cause will be lost, but two world class sportsmen in peak form make mistakes very rarely.
So it is with Anand and Carlsen. The third and fourth games of the match have been violent and dramatic, and against lesser opposition either player might have crashed through for a win.
Of course, chess players and cricketers are not machines. Challenger and champion have each given only one half-chance in multiple sessions of more than four hours play; Anand missed a strong move in the third game and Carlsen returned the favour in the fourth, but ultimately the defence held firm.
Inevitably the dam will break, but for the moment equilibrium holds. The match score remains tied at 2-2, with eight games to come, plus — if needed — a day of tie-breakers at faster and faster time limits. Should none of those tie-breakers separate the two, the world title will be decided by the chess fan’s dream and nightmare — a single hyper-speed Armageddon game.
Of course, unlike many sports, watching a chess contest requires at least a basic familiarity with the game. Commentators can try to explain the players’ intentions but unless you know the difference in potential between a knight and a queen you cannot appreciate the true wizardry of Anand and Carlsen.
Yet, such was the quality of Wednesday’s fourth game that it soon became clear that only two players in the world truly understood what was going on — and they could not say a word until the battle had concluded.
Meanwhile, watching amateurs, Grandmasters and computers alike were trying to deconstruct the combatants’ moves, with limited success.
Anand’s former challenger Boris Gelfand believed Anand was close to defeat while legendary former world champion Garry Kasparov, watching from the venue, believed that Carlsen was the player under pressure. (When Kasparov heard about Gelfand’s claim he looked incredulous at first before conceding that his own assessment might also be fallible, sighing, “Maybe I have been out of the game too long.”)
Immediately after the game, the two players who had been bent on their opponent’s destruction for the previous five hours, chatted in friendly fashion about missed opportunities and possible improvements, trying to find the truth about the battle which had just unfolded.
Certainly they were about to explain the game at the post-game press conference, but the press consists of mere mortals, and first they wanted to talk to the only other person on earth who fully appreciated the ups and downs they had endured.
Just as McGrath could admire Tendulkar’s miniscule change of grip for a key shot — a change that might go unnoticed even by the commentators — Anand explained to the press the way Carlsen set him tricky problems even when they had believed that a draw was inevitable.
The pressure is building on both Anand and Carlsen. Anand is playing some of the best chess he has produced since 2010, yet cannot break through. Carlsen was supposed to be hot favourite, yet if he looks in the mirror he would be unable to say that he is playing better than the veteran world champion.
Surely someone is going to crack soon — the runs will flow or the wickets will fall. Anand and Carlsen are not superhuman; they will become more tired, more stressed, and make mistakes. But it hasn’t happened yet, which should be a source not of disappointment but of wonder.
Australian Grandmaster IAN ROGERS is in Chennai