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Was Magnus Carlsen lucky in London?

Chess TalkPosted by Lars Bo Hansen Wed, December 16, 2015 19:17:58
As most chess fans will know, after a bumpy year World Champion Magnus Carlsen finished 2015 on a high note by winning the London Chess Classic this past weekend. In the process the World Champion claimed overall victory in the inaugural Grand Chess Tour - the new series of tournaments consisting of the Norway Chess Tournament in Stavanger, the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, and the London Chess Classic.

The fine line between Luck and Skill
The road to victory in the London Chess Classic was far from easy for Carlsen, though, and some chess fans – and even one or two competitors – mumbled that Carlsen had been “lucky – again”. While there is some truth to that statement – Carlsen did indeed have some luck in the final round and the playoff – I believe there is more to it than that. Where was Carlsen allegedly lucky, specifically? Let’s take a look.

Most of the muttering seems to have been about the dramatic final day, one of the most exciting rounds of top level chess for a long time! I was live on the air for 9 (!) hours, commentating with GM John Fedorowicz on ICC, but it didn’t feel that long – who says top level chess is boring?!

On this day Carlsen may indeed have been said to have had some good luck. To edge his way into a playoff with Anish Giri and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (MVL) the World Champion first had to win his game against the ever dangerous Alexander Grischuk. This game was far from plain sailing, though – Grischuk had several chances in his habitual time pressure, both to get an advantage and to force a perpetual, but blundered and lost. You may say there was some luck here, but clearly Grischuk’s notorious problems with managing his time was the most critical reason for his downfall. Carlsen isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last who takes advantage of that.

Then came the playoff, and this is where I would say luck played the biggest role in Carlsen’s victory. Magnus Carlsen got seeded directly into the playoff final because of better tiebreak, while Giri and MVL had to battle it out to earn the right to play the rested World Champion. Clearly some luck here, as almost everybody agree that using tiebreaks in such a way makes little sense in a round robin format where everybody plays each other - makes more sense in an Open where players might have played vastly differing levels of opposition.

MVL won a highly dramatic match against Giri that went down to the wire and earned the right to a bout vs. Carlsen for a combined first prize of $150,000. Not surprisingly, though, MVL was worn out by the dramatic semi-final vs. Giri. He defended well for a long time as Black in the first game, but then collapsed in a simple drawn endgame with rook vs. rook and pawn. The drawing method is well-known; it is also described in my Kindle book on technical rook endgames. MVL of course knows this, but when you have been playing for 8 hours under great pressure and with tens of thousands of dollars on the line, these things happen. The World Champion easily secured the required draw in game 2 to win the match, the London Chess Classic , and the Grand Chess Tour 2015.

Exceptional skills, good luck and cumulative advantages
It is clear from this story that some of the events had some degree of what we traditionally call “luck”. But there is clearly much more to Carlsen’s London success than luck. Specifically, two important components: 1) Exceptional skills and 2) Cumulative advantages.

Cumulative advantages is a term borrowed from the social sciences. As a researcher in Sport Management and Business Strategy at FIT, I use it to describe advantages that are rooted in and intensified by past events. This is also the term that first came to mind when following Magnus’ games in London. Call it THE POWER OF REPUTATION.

Carlsen’s exceptional talent and ability to put the opponent under continuous pressure deep into the endgame are well-known and feared among his opponents. In London, Carlsen’s persistence earned him crucial wins vs. Hikaru Nakamura after six initial draws and the playoff win vs. MVL that basically won him the tournament. As a personal anecdote, Carlsen has been adopting this relentless approach from the outset of his career - when I played the then 14-year old Magnus in 2005, I had to suffer for 7 hours and 82 moves to earn a draw after making an inaccuracy in the opening.

At the same time, this style has a positive side-effect. It has earned Carlsen a well-deserved reputation of tenacity, which I believe is a cumulative advantage for him, rooted in his dominant performances since 2009-2010. When the other top players sit down opposite Carlsen, they know they are in for a long and tough game, which may add some psychological pressure. Attributing Carlsen’s victory to luck is clearly inaccurate, but it is fair to say that luck played a role – together with other factors.

Coming up next

In just a few days from now, Magnus Carlsen will be participating in his first Open tournament in many years, the Qatar Masters. According to some sources, this is the first time a reigning World Champion has played in an Open tournament since Spassky in the Canadian Open in Vancouver in 1971 (tied for first with the Dutch GM Hans Ree). It will be interesting to see how Carlsen fares. Clearly he goes in as one of the hot favorites together with top players like Giri, Kramnik, So, and Karjakin, but in such an Open, when players are not playing the same opponents, there is an even bigger need for all three sources of success – exceptional skills, some (earned) luck, and cumulative advantage.

Chances are that the eventual winner will have relied on all three to win.

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Chess, Music and Greatness

Chess TalkPosted by Lars Bo Hansen Tue, November 03, 2015 13:05:19
Last week Jen, Martin and I went to a concert with Mark Knopfler, the legendary Dire Straits guitarist. An amazing experience! No big light shows or steam on the stage, no warm-up bands, no gimmicks - just indescribable good music and extraordinary synchronization between Knopfler and the rest of the band. Truly a group of great musicians, masters of their craft.

The experience led my thoughts to greatness in general: How do people become really great at something – music, art, business, chess, anything. How do they start out?

I saw two recent interviews where greats – Mark Knopfler in music and Baadur Jobava in chess – talk about the beginnings of their journey into their respective crafts. View the interview with Knopfler, and the interview with Jobava.

A common denominator – not just in these interviews, but in most if not all interviews and biographies I have seen with greats – seems to be that greats always respect the heritage of their craft and spend hundreds of hours working on the fundamentals early on.

To be able to later break the rules – necessary to become great, not just good at something – you first need to learn the fundamentals. Study the history of whatever you want to excel in and practice the fundamentals again and again – and again. Then, and only then, you can start experimenting with new ideas. If you are an aspiring musician, attending a Mark Knopfler concert should be mandatory and spend hours going 5-4-6-4; if you want to advance in chess, study the games of Capablanca, Alekhine and Rubinstein and make sure you know all the technical endgames inside out!

Unfortunately this requires extraordinary patience and focus, and we live in times that don’t seem to align well with such virtues. The modern world is fast-moving and diverse, with so many different activities that side-track people. On the one hand we have much easier access to the information needed in the first step to greatness – just go on YouTube and watch tutorial videos on playing guitar or turn on ChessBase and look for all Rubinstein’s rook endgames – but apparently less time for doing so. This is the paradox we are facing in the search for greatness.

As Mark Knopfler says: You need to have an obsession to get through the bad times, and the good times. Same thing in chess! Not an obsession with ratings, results and performance – this would be the road to struggle and disappointment. We all need an obsession with the game itself, that’s the only way to becoming great players.

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Asymmetries, expected scores, and competitive advantage

Chess TalkPosted by Lars Bo Hansen Sun, July 26, 2015 16:26:16

As always over the summer, many Open chess tournaments are in progress with huge rating differences in Round 1. It is not uncommon for some players to be playing opponents rated 200-300 rating points lower – and vice versa.

Although the starting position is even - most experts agree that chess is a draw with perfect play - the higher rated players are expected to win based on previous performance. That’s the core of the ELO system, where players gain or lose rating points for the world rankings by comparing their actual results to their “expected score” in each game.

But how to win, if the starting position is just even? Because each move creates asymmetries that can be exploited. The starting position may be even and symmetrical, but the symmetry – albeit not necessarily the equality - will soon be broken, for example by pawn moves or trades. Trade-offs are made, for example one player gives one of the two bishops in exchange for damaging the opponent’s pawn structure (like in the Nimzo-Indian or French Winawer) or he concedes the center to his opponent’s pawns in the hope of attacking it from afar with pieces (like in the Gruenfeld Defense or Reti Opening).

These trade-offs lead to asymmetries that give the player with the best sense of the relative value of both sides of the trade-offs a change to grab the advantage – getting the better side of the deal, so to speak. That’s what better and more experienced players often exploit to live up to their roles as favorites: They assess asymmetries and trade-offs more accurately than the opponent.

The same process unfolds in business strategy. Two firms, even if operating in the same industry selling more or less similar products, are never identical in their trajectories; all business actions create potential asymmetries that cumulate over time. The shrewd strategist identifies these asymmetries, accurately judges the relative value of each trade-off, and may be able to obtain a competitive advantage by exploiting them.

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Good Strategy / Bad Strategy in chess improvement

Chess TalkPosted by Lars Bo Hansen Sun, June 14, 2015 23:57:25
As a chess coach, one of the most common questions you are asked is “How do I improve in chess?” It’s a complex question, and unfortunately there is no easy answer to it.

Many books have dealt with this subject (including some of my own – see more about those here), and understandably they usually focus on GOOD strategies for chess improvement – outlining possible paths you can take if you wish to improve in chess. Here I will focus on another issue: What you definitely should AVOID DOING if you want to improve in chess – outlining some BAD strategies that will have no or even counterproductive effect on your chess.

One of the best books on business strategy that I have read in a while is UCLA Professor Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy / Bad Strategy. In it Rumelt points out three typical warning signals of bad business strategies. These are applicable to chess improvement strategies as well:

1) FLUFF TALK. If business executives only talk in loose, fluffy headlines, it is a good sign that something is wrong. Good strategy requires precise, contextual analysis, zooming in on the most critical issues, and then coming up with creative and firm-specific solutions to these issues in ways that accurately address the critical issues.

Chess improvement is the same. As Jen observed at our Orlando Chess House strategy meeting this morning (read: Sunday morning coffee at the patio), most chess players don’t have a clear picture of where they are chess-wise - what their specific strengths and weaknesses are; and when asked they are often very vague and fluffy about what they believe they need to improve, jumping from issue to issue when working on their chess. That’s the first important task of a coach – to help the student cut through the fluff and zoom in on the most critical issues in need of improvement. When we take on a new student, we always ask to see 25-30 of that student’s recent games to perform that diagnosis.

2) CAN’T EXPLAIN THE MOST CRITICAL STRATEGIC CHALLENGE. Similar to issue 1, it is a big warning sign if the business executives cannot clearly explain the most critical strategic challenge facing the firm. What is the mountain the firm needs to climb to be successful?

The main challenge is not always as straightforward as it may seem. Remember the movie Moneyball starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s GM (General Manager, not Grandmaster) Billy Beane? Forgive the frequent sports references in this blog; I am after all a Sport Management professor as well as a chess Grandmaster. There is an epic scene where Beane is discussing the A’s challenges with his scouts: The scouts keep coming back to the immediate problem of replacing three key players who left the team, but the GM bluntly explains how he sees the deeper challenge - and the need to adopt a different approach of using statistics to identify cheap and undervalued players: “There are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there are 50 feet of crap, and then there is us. It is an unfair game and if we play like the Yankees in here, we are going to lose to the Yankees out there!”.

Similarly in chess: Be sure that you and your coach diagnose the real mountain you need to overcome for sustainable progress, not just isolated hills here and there. While you do need to pass some hills on the way, it is identifying and overcoming the mountain that really brings success. For example, adopting or repairing a specific opening line may only be a hill; in contrast the mountain might be the need for a total overhaul of your opening repertoire to be competitive at higher levels. As I have discussed elsewhere, many chess players stall because their opening repertoires are not suited for the next level; to progress they must fundamentally change their opening repertoire.

3) HARD CHOICES ARE AVOIDED. As Rumelt points out, it is a bad sign if business executives don’t want to make hard choices. Strategy is as much about what NOT to do as about what TO do. It might be that you like Alekhine, Tal or Nakamura and want to play like them – but if the analysis of your play indicates that your natural style is more like Petrosian, Karpov or Carlsen, then you had better make the hard choice of giving up on trying to play the openings or the style of the former ones (or vice versa).

Choosing CHESS is a hard choice. Cause once you are in, you are in for good, you can never leave!

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How hockey imitates chess (and vice versa)

Chess TalkPosted by Lars Bo Hansen Tue, June 09, 2015 15:29:27
This season I have started following a new sport: NHL hockey. Right now my new favorite team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, is fighting a tense battle vs. the Chicago Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup. Go Bolts!

Although my native Denmark plays in the A-group in the ice hockey World Championships and a few Danish players are performing well in the NHL, the sport is not really big in my country where soccer dominates. But since most of the other local Major League teams here in Central Florida, like Orlando Magic in the NBA and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL, are currently rebuilding (another word for “we know we are not competitive; please have patience, dear fans”), my son Martin and I have this season predominantly followed our new MLS team, Orlando City Soccer, and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL.

We even went to our first live hockey games ever. And that’s when I realized that hockey is in fact a lot like chess in the ways goals are scored and games are decided. Clearly, hockey and chess are very different, but the basic strategies for scoring are remarkably similar.

From my admittedly limited hockey experience, it seems to me that most goals are scored in one of four major ways, and each of them can be found in chess as well:

1) A lonely shot from afar. A player takes a shot from significant distance and the puck goes in. In most cases, though, this is pretty unlikely to be successful at the pro level. The goalie will typically be able to see the puck and make a save – if not, he is often credited with an error. It’s the same in chess: Sometimes players “take a shot” by initiating an attack out of the blue, but in general such an attack is not likely to strike through in the absence of weaknesses in the opponent’s defenses or mistakes by the “goalie”. I have written about this in a previous blog, and it is a core theme in our ongoing Attack-Defense-Counterattack Online class (more about those classes here ...) Unfounded attacks on a king’s position with no weaknesses against a strong player are not likely to succeed. At lower levels it is maybe possible to score with a lonely shot in hockey (I am guessing here; as I said I have never watched a hockey game below the NHL level before) or an unfounded attack on the king in a chess game, but typically not at higher levels where defensive skills are strong. It often takes more than that to score in chess and hockey.

2) Create traffic in front of the goal, disturbing the goalie’s vision of the puck and get ready for rebounds. This seems to be a very powerful strategy in hockey, leading to many goals, and the same strategy can be used in chess. The key point here is to get attackers in attack position close to the goal, in chess the king’s position. Garry Kasparov, frequently referred to as the greatest chess player ever, has often stated that an attacking knight on f5, close to a castled king, is worth at least a pawn. That’s one of the most important rules of attack: Get more and more pieces to join the attack. The attack is especially powerful if it targets a weakness in the defense. Against a strong defender you will often have to create weaknesses; your opponent will not voluntarily weaken his kingside. In hockey there will often be rapid puck movement in order to catch the goalie and any blockers out of position. The same in chess: Identify targets and shift your point of attack as the opponent rushes to defend the first target, leaving another vulnerable.

3) Counterattacks that create 2-vs-1 or 1-vs-0 situations. Clearly many goals are scored – in basically any sport, including hockey – as a result of a fast break where the attacking side outnumbers the defense. In chess, an important attacking concept is that of the “Attacking (or “Assault”) Ratio: Try to create a situation where you are able to outnumber your opponent close to his goal/king. In chess, there are basically two ways of doing so, each associated with a former World Champion. The first one was often used by Mikhail Tal (especially the version I called “Tal 1.0” in a previous blog post): Launch as many of your pieces towards the opponent’s king as fast as you can. Using this method, Tal scored a lot of rapid victories in his early years, before opponents started to learn how to play better defense against such quick assaults (causing Tal 2.0 to adopt a more calculated attacking style). The other approach is associated with Alexander Alekhine who would often start by maneuvering on the queenside, and only when the opponent was distracted on that side of the board he would launch a swift switch to the kingside, outnumbering and crushing the opponent on that wing.

4) Power Play. In hockey, the power play is basically an institutionalized version of c) above, playing 5-vs-4 for two minutes as compensation for some offense committed by an opposing player. Chess doesn’t have an institutional equivalent, but it is common to create situations with a positive Attacking Ratio because of an opponent’s piece being out of play on the other wing – very similar to Alekhine’s attacking method as mentioned above.

Understanding strategies for “creating scoring chances” is fundamental to success in all sports – it is interesting how sports might be able to learn from and imitate each other in that respect.

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The symbiosis of attack and defense

Chess TalkPosted by Lars Bo Hansen Fri, May 29, 2015 19:55:06
When a chess player first starts out in the game, the first he or she will learn is how to attack. Coaches will show brilliant attacking games by Morphy, Tal or Fischer and ask the student to solve hundreds of tactic exercises. It is easy to understand why many young players believe chess is about attack.

But as you grow in chess, it becomes increasingly clear that at higher levels, defense equals attack. The two form a kind of symbiosis. Being on the attack is not an advantage in itself!

One of the biggest leaps in chess understanding over the last hundred years has been in the progress of defensive skills. These days, you cannot just throw caution to the wind and advance pawns or sacrifice pieces left and right – a skilled and experienced defender will easily pick such a reckless style apart and initiate a crushing counterattack. For an attack to be successful, it has to be well-founded. This means that the attack must meet the demands of the position and follow the rules for sound attacking play.

Already the first World Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, pointed this out. You should only attack if you have an advantage – when your attack is well-founded – but on the other hand you have to attack in such circumstances or the advantage will disappear (this advice has since been refined, but the basic point stands).

To be successful at the Master level or higher, you must be able to both attack and defend – attack when appropriate and defend when that is what the position calls for. You cannot just say “I always want to attack”.

This realization has struck even some of the best and most creative attacking players in the history of chess. Many players like the style of an attacking genius like former World Champion Mikhail Tal, but as the Dutch Grandmaster Genna Sosonko has noted, there are two versions of Tal – Tal 1.0 and Tal 2.0, so to speak. The first version of Tal was the one that tore apart the older generation of top players, earned the nickname “The Magician from Riga” and became the by then youngest World Champion in 1960 at the age of 23 by defeating Botvinnik.

When people talk about “playing like Tal”, they implicitly refer to Tal 1.0. But that version of Tal lost the title again already the following year and gradually – while remaining a hugely dangerous attacking player when given the chance – adopted a more universal and calculated attacking style, underscored by the fact that Tal still holds the record for the longest streak among Grandmasters without losing a game (96 games in 1973-1974).

Karpov once said that “Tal “came, saw and conquered”… But gradually players became accustomed to his attacks; it can be said that Tal taught them to defend. In turn, having found the keys to his attacking style, they forced Tal to relearn…His style changed completely compared with the style of the 1960s and became more universal”. Tal himself said in an interview in 1979: “It’s nothing to do with me – it’s my opponents! My style is the same. But I have become a little older and, perhaps, I see a little more for my opponents and a little less for myself. I am convinced that, protected by all this armor, I would simply have torn to pieces that challenger of 1960!”

This can of course never be tested, but the point is clear – good defensive skills are as important as attacking skills, and the two cannot really be separated! At the Master level, you have to have both and to be able to switch seamlessly between them.

That’s why our next Online Master Course focuses on the dynamic relationship between Attack, Defense and Counterattack. If you wish to learn more about the Master Course concept, click here ...

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