Other Sports

From respect to fear

Dateline: October 2010, Nanjing, China

Viswanathan Anand is sitting down to dinner, exhausted, after a six hour struggle against rising star Magnus Carlsen.

Anand had scraped a draw by the skin of his teeth and his words were full of praise for the Norwegian teenager; “That kid is amazing,” said Anand. “He can do things even Vlady can’t do.”

Anand was referring to his immediate predecessor as World champion Vladimir Kramnik, a master of manoeuvring. Yet even Kramnik could not take a dead equal position, generate a slight edge, turn that edge into an attack and then turn the attack into a winning advantage, as Carlsen had just done in Nanjing.

Earlier in 2010 Anand had scored a spectacular victory against Carlsen, taking his lifetime record against the youngster to 6-1. After the Nanjing game, Anand was not to win another regular time limit game against Carlsen.

Respect for your opponent is necessary, but before the current title match Kramnik pinpointed Anand’s great respect for Carlsen as a possible handicap, saying in May, “I think Anand is somewhat intimidated by Carlsen — he’s scared of him.”

From respect to fear is a significant leap, but either can lead to one of chess’ deadly sins — pessimism.

Pessimism leads players to lose trust in their own play; to fail to look for winning opportunities and to give up hope when defensive resources are available. Pessimism leads a player to jump at ghosts.

Chess follows some of the more basic martial arts principles and one is related to making every move count. If an opponent’s punch is going to miss you, you don’t move, but start your counter-attack. You do not jump out of the way — that wastes energy and makes your position worse.

If your opponent’s punch is going to glance you, moving just enough to escape the blow saves energy and gives you more time for a counter.

But if you are pessimistic and think all of your opponent’s punches are haymakers, you will be constantly running away, exhausting yourself.

Dateline: November 2013 Chennai, India

Three years after the Nanjing tournament, Anand knew that if he was to retain the world title, he needed to believe that he could start beating Carlsen again.

However if the first half of the World Championship match in Chennai has shown one thing clearly, it is that Anand’s self-belief has gone missing; he has underestimated his chances in many games, and this has cost him points.

In game three Anand, despite outplaying Carlsen, confessed that he never thought his advantage was going to be enough to win. With this mind-set, he failed to find — or perhaps failed to look for — a trick, available on two consecutive moves, which would have put Carlsen under extraordinary pressure and would likely have decided the game in Anand’s favour.

At the press conference following Wednesday’s game four, Anand described his position straight after the opening moves as “just basically lost”. In fact, while the opening moves may not have gone according to plan, Anand had real compensation for the lost pawn and the further course of the game showed that the result was far from a foregone conclusion. Saddest of all was Anand’s opinion, voiced after his round five loss on Friday, that he had effectively no chance after a mistake on the 34th move. Yet objectively his position was fine, as Carlsen confirmed — but the game saw Anand drift to defeat, dismissing active defences which might have saved the game only a handful of moves before Anand resigned.

Carlsen has been more than willing to feed Anand’s pessimism. It is no coincidence that Carlsen’s reply to Anand’s 34th move in the decisive game five was played, after long and careful deliberation, with a fraction more than the usual force, subtly saying ‘Now you’re in trouble’.

Anand took the subliminal message to heart, played like a doomed man, and 20 moves later Carlsen played another rook move with even more decisiveness, saying even more clearly ‘I’ve really got you now.’

Against Veselin Topalov in his 2010 title defence and Boris Gelfand in 2012, Anand immediately bounced back to level the scores after his first loss, but Carlsen is made of sterner stuff. The challenger not only held his own easily in the sixth game, he was ready to pounce when Anand had a terrible lapse in concentration in the fifth hour. Even then, Anand had one saving move but he thought he was losing and played accordingly. At the halfway mark of this 12 game world title match Anand is two points behind; a significant but not insurmountable margin. However to turn the match around Anand will have to trust in himself more, truly believing that his best is good enough to win a game or two against the Norwegian juggernaut. Anand has little to lose in taking risks and nothing to fear but fear itself, plus the incredible Mr. Carlsen.

Australian Grandmaster IAN ROGERS is in Chennai

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