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.