Magnus and Hikaru -- the Ali-Frazier of Chess?
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I love sports.
In years past I’ve been to Super Bowls, Sugar Bowls, Rose Bowls - even college football’s meaningless Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
I’ve gotten on a plane and flown to Indiana not once but twice to watch Notre Dame play football.
Basketball games, hockey games, golf -- you get the gist.
But I can’t tell you I’ve ever been more excited about a game than one that lasted five-and-a-half hours Thursday and ended in a tie.
The sport was chess.
If in everyday conversation you throw around terms like ‘zugzwang’’ and ‘pawn island,’’ you would have found the 59-move contest riveting. But even if you don’t, the storyline was irresistable.
Playing the white pieces was Hikaru Nakamura, the reigning U.S. chess champion and at 22, perhaps America’s best hope for capturing the world title. On the other side of the board was Magnus Carlsen, the 19-year-old Norwegian phenom who is now the top rated chess player in the world.
Both are brilliant grandmasters on the rise. Each wants to be world champion some day. But the parallels end there. Magnus is rooted in a European tradition, where the best players compete at the civilized pace of one round a day.
Hikaru grew up in the more freewheeling American chess scene, where the competition is uneven. Top players may be paired against amateurs in large open tournaments where anyone can compete as long as they pay the entry fee. The pace is grueling; American grandmasters often must persevere through two or three rounds a day. Think back to final exams and you get a sense of what’s required.
I spoke to Magnus’s father, Henrik Carlsen, about the differences between U.S. and European chess circuit. ‘Certainly from what I’ve heard, having tournaments where you have less days than the number of rounds is difficult,’’ he said. ‘At a certain level, you want to set conditions so that the best player wins. And it’s not obvious that the best player is the one who is doing best if the situation is not optimal.’'
That argument made sense to me. I’ve interviewed U.S. grandmasters who say they prefer the playing conditions overseas.
But when I asked Hikaru to contrast the two, he stuck up for the American chess scene. He said it has honed his tactical skill and combative spirit, forcing him to press for a win whether he has the black or white pieces (in chess, black moves second and is thus at a disadvantage).
‘In Europe, drawing with black and pressing with white is the standard,’’ Hikaru told me, after finishing a game earlier in the week at the Corus Chess tournament here. ‘Whereas in the American system, you pretty much have to play to win every single game. And so it creates a certain style. Overall, growing up with the American system you play more exciting chess and are much more aggressive. I prefer that style of play to the European style.’'
Hikaru is considered a tactical whiz. He likes speed chess, which tends to reward sharp play. Magnus is considered more of a positional player in the vein of ex-world champion Anatoly Karpov. Maybe not exciting, but deadly accurate.
So when these two faced off Thursday, it was a clash of chess cultures, playing styles -- even temperaments. Hikaru is the more expressive of the two. Watch him at the board and you get a pretty good sense what he is feeling. Magnus is impassive, his emotions tough to read.
Hikaru arrived for the game first and sat down at the table, on an elevated stage reserved for the 14 grandmasters in the ‘A’’ group. Magnus showed up a few minutes later. They shook hands, avoiding eye contact. A gong sounded (yes, a gong). A half second before he made his first move as white, Hikaru dipped his head and closed his eyes. Then he moved his king pawn two squares up the board.
The mood was tense. My wife Clea is here with me and she described it this way: ‘The room is silent, but it’s as if inside their heads they’re all yelling.’’
Every few minutes a player gets up and paces back and forth on stage, glancing at other boards. Pacing is as much a part of the tournament as thinking. The Ukranian Vassily Ivanchuk, thick eyebrows twitching, started pacing even before the gong sounded.
The Hikaru-Magnus game was a complicated one. Playing white, Hikaru was determined to win and for a time enjoyed a small advantage. After making his 29th move, Magnus asked Hikaru if he wanted a draw; Hikaru declined.
About mid-way through the contest I asked Dutch Grandmaster Hans Ree, who was in the press room, what he thought of the position. At that point, Nakamura had an extra minor piece (bishops and knights are minor pieces) while Magnus had three more pawns. When pawns reach the 8th rank, they can be converted into a queen. So they’re dangerous in the endgame.
‘I really don’t know,’’ Ree said. ‘I would tend to prefer white (Hikaru).’'
The board was emptying as the players exchanged pieces. I looked at a live analysis of the game on chessdom.com. At move 43, one commentator wrote: ‘It’s a draw. Not enough material for win.’'
The analysts praised Magnus’s defensive skill. He had neutralized Hikaru’s advantage, simplifying the game. And the American champ knew it.
In the last half dozen moves Hikaru looked anguished. Though it was his turn to move he would look down from the board, look away, shake his head and rub his forehead.
After the game I asked him what he was thinking in those moments.
‘At that point I knew it was going to be a draw,’’ he told me. ‘I was thinking about earlier in the game -- about whether I had missed anything obvious. That’s what I was thinking about at that point. It wasn’t anything to do with the current position.’'
By move 59, neither player had pieces with which to checkmate the other. The game was drawn.
Hikaru believed he had a chance to win and let it slip away. The game was complex -- ‘unbalanced,’’ he said. Such positions suit his style.
‘I definitely had winning chances,’’ he said. ‘No question, because I was the one pressing more or less for the whole game trying to win. I think at some point I went wrong. ... Obviously, I’m quite upset with the result, but it’s the way it goes.’'
Standing next to his father, getting ready to leave, Magnus said he made a ‘really stupid mistake’’ on the 10th move, pushing a pawn in a way that was too ‘ambitious.’'
He downplayed the notion of a rivalry. For all his potential, Hikaru is still 28th on the world rating list. So for now, Magnus said, ‘I consider my main rivals to be (world champion Vishy) Anand, (former world champion Vladimir) Kramnik, and (Levon) Aronian. But Hikaru is playing very well now, so I guess in a short time I will consider him one of my main rivals.’'
And a correction: In a previous blog post I mentioned a ‘Tweet’’ that had supposedly come from world champion Vishy Anand and that was posted on the Corus Chess website. Anand told a reporter that the ‘Tweet’’ did not come from him.
-- Peter Nicholas in Wijk Aan Zee, The Netherlands