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    « Zug, Alekhine Memorial Updates | Main | A Short Interview With Peter Heine Nielsen »
    Saturday
    Apr272013

    A Thought On The Nielsen Interview

    One quotation from the Peter Heine Nielsen interview especially caught my attention:

    It seems indeed that the days of big novelties are over...

    You may recall the recent news of Garry Kasparov's offering to work with Magnus Carlsen in the latter's forthcoming world championship tilt with Viswanathan Anand. In my post on the subject (and in the comments section too) I suggested that Kasparov's excellence in opening preparation could be a real boon to Carlsen. One commentator objected that when Kasparov strode across the chess world like a colossus, opening preparation was about finding "killing novelties", but that this was no longer the case.

    I disagreed there, and with great respect to grandmaster Nielsen, I'll disagree with him as well. (Or at least I think I will. There is a way of interpreting what he said that might make everyone happy. More on that below - though it too recapitulates something I wrote in the comments section of the Kasparov-helping-Carlsen post.) In fact, not only do I disagree, but I disagree in a state of perplexity, as Anand not only was but continues to be a player who shows "big", "killing" novelties on a regular basis. It was with such novelties that he won his match against Vladimir Kramnik, and in case that or some other examples are dismissed as being too long ago, how can we forget his brilliant massacre of Levon Aronian in Wijk aan Zee earlier this year? At a certain point Anand needed to reconstruct his analysis and then overcome a final tactical hurdle, but the fundamental work was simply preparation - glorious, huge, murderous preparation.

    Nor is it only Anand among top players whose preparation is concrete, deep, and highly ambitious. One of the most remarkable games played this year was Sergey Karjakin's win in Zug over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, featuring the absolutely stunning novelty 16.Nxh6+. Sacrifices of that sort aren't so remarkable when White gets a second pawn for the piece and has half his army in front of the black king, but nothing of the sort occurs in this game. White gets just one pawn and some of the slowest-looking compensation you've ever seen associated with a sac of this sort. And yet it is sound and was most certainly preparation.

    There have been some other games from the ongoing super-tournaments featuring similarly deep preparation. Perhaps in those games the novelties weren't "killing" because both players had done their homework equally well, but this had nothing to do with players going for a "low-theory" approach aiming for nothing more than a playable position.

    So I respectfully disagree with Nielsen's remark (as well as the similar comment to my earlier post). But there is perhaps a way of splitting the difference. As long as there are diligent chess players, there will be big novelties, and while some of them will be neutralized by their equally diligent opponents some will show forth in all their intellectual and aesthetic splendor. It's consistent with acknowledging this to also think that an increasing percentage of the chess world will bow out of that hunt, preferring instead to find positions where one must simply play, and cannot just draw (or win) by successfully recalling and demonstrating their homework. I'm not really sure that this is right, or at least that the shift represents a sea change rather than a slight tendency headed by players like Carlsen, but it could be. Nielsen is a player who works in that rarified air, and it's very reasonable to think that he would be alert and sensitive to such trends.

    To some extent, I expect the world championship this fall to be a battle between those two visions. If Anand can impose opening problems where concrete computer preparation is practically necessary to stay alive with Black or to have any hopes of an advantage with White, then I think he'll have excellent chances to retain his title if he's in good playing form. On the other hand, if Carlsen can impose this "new" chess on Anand, where big novelties play no role and one must simply solve smaller but non-standard problems at the board, then I think he's a serious favorite.

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    Reader Comments (5)

    Well, killing novelties or not, the computer has certainly leveled the field in preparation. So I think it is pretty reasonable to say that getting a big opening advantage regularly! like Kasparov did, is no longer in the cards in todays top level chess.

    Concentrating on the term "killing novelties" in this debate is rather misleading I would say, or at least it misses the point of what seems to be changing in top level preparation. But if you insist ...;-) : Topalov is playing well in Zug, but no crushing attacks so far, as he used to get.

    On a related note: It seems to me that for chess players of all levels, opening preparation is like taking an amphetamine. It promises (and often gives) you easy games, but you quickly start to depend on it. And of course it's highly addictive ;-)
    I think concentrating too much on opening preparation is the most common reason for stagnating playing strength above the level of let's say 2000 Elo.

    April 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhille

    I understand your points, but (as I am the commentator who objected) you may misunderstand or overstate my point - and not just because I wrote "I am actually a bit skeptical about Kasparov performing miracles for Carlsen" rather than "it won't work at all". Let me explain:

    My first point was that as Nielsen couldn't perform miracles for Carlsen, why would Kasparov?

    [DM: Obvious prima facie answers: (1) He's 200 points stronger than Nielsen, and using computers isn't just about blindly hitting the space bar; steering is required too. (2) His insane work ethic. (3) More speculative: I suspect based on his past performance that he knows better than everyone, or at least better than everyone who was at it as of 2005, which would certainly include Nielsen, how to best work with computers and how to prepare in general.]

    You may be right that Kasimdzhanov was the scariest member of Anand's usual team [by now it's "was" rather than "is" - bad news for Anand] and Nielsen's role may have been a different one - hard worker double-checking ideas by others? But it may also be due to Carlsen himself. At least in the weeks and months before an event, I would assume a two-way collaboration rather than seconds doing all or most of the work. The "boss" might come up with ideas to be checked by his team, or if a team member has an idea the boss has to say "I like it, continue the good work!".

    [DM: It's certainly possible that Nielsen brings distinctive strengths to the table that Kasparov wouldn't duplicate. But that doesn't mean that bringing Kasparov in wouldn't be a huge gain for team Carlsen.]

    "novelties weren't "killing" because both players had done their homework equally well" - that's part of my point. It gets harder to find killing novelties because they might be anticipated by the other team - either an antidote is found, or the line will be avoided. BTW while Karjakin now gets credit for the stunning 16.Nxh6+, Leko claimed that he found the same idea but didn't get the chance to play it. At an earlier GP event, Leko anticipated a Topalov exchange sacrifice which he wanted to play himself with colors reversed, and could neutralize it. So that's another point: even if Kasparov is (despite lack of recent practice) still strong in that department, he is no longer the only one.

    [DM: That sort of thing (more than one player finding a big novelty) happened in the past too, even in the pre-computer era. Conversely, Kasparov didn't win every single game, despite his vaunted preparation. My thinking is that Kasparov was the best at what he did, not that he's a divine creature. Maybe the gap will have been lessened, but prima facie it still strikes me as wildly unlikely that Nielsen would be as good at generating prep for Carlsen as Kasparov would.]

    I also mildly disagree with "either-or" in the last paragraph.

    [DM: I disagree with (the) "either-or" in the last paragraph too. Fortunately, I can say with some confidence, being on very intimate terms with the writer, that interpreting it in that way is a straw man. :) Remember why I thought bringing Kasparov in would be a good idea for Carlsen? It's because he was especially strong in the realm of concrete prep. If I thought that Carlsen could only compete by avoiding concrete prep and going for more amorphous positions, that would tend to undermine my pitch for his bringing in GK. Of course both players can win games in each other's style; I'm making the more modest claim that each player has relative strengths compared to the other, and so I'm predicted or forecasting or suggesting that it would behoove them to try to impose that sort of play on the other.]

    If team Carlsen finds a "killing" or at least challenging novelty, it will probably be played (assuming Anand allows it). On the other hand, Carlsen's approach to "find positions where one must simply play" isn't all new or unique. Kramnik's preparation for the candidates event was widely praised (even Carlsen praised his opening preparation), but it was also mostly about getting playable positions - which suit his style, where he knows what to do next, where he gets an advantage on the clock. Someone (was it Mark Crowther?) even tweeted that Kramnik copied Carlsen's approach.

    I would also suggest that the -Bb7 concept that +- decided the Anand-Kramnik match wasn't "killing" (in the sense of black getting an advantage by force) but more towards the "playable" side: getting a position that suits your strengths and hits the opponents weaknesses (at least at the time). To my knowledge, it wasn't repeated ever since - but who avoided it, white or black?

    [DM: I think very few of the mega-novelties we would think of simply win by force. To take two other examples from Anand's play, the ideas he used on Aronian in Wijk aan Zee this year and against Adams in San Luis (in the Zaitsev Ruy) didn't win by force. In both cases, the victim could have escaped with equality. I didn't originate the "killing novelties" terminology, and have been using it far more broadly than to mean "a new move that leads to a forced win". Whatever term we like, what I believe Kasparov and Anand have specialized in to a far greater degree than Carlsen or most other elite GMs is in finding opening concepts that demand very accurate, concrete play from the opponent. (They have also found very concrete draw lines, which are "killing" in a purely negative sense.) Make an error in a paradigmatic opening or early middlegame against Carlsen, and the slow torture begins. Make an error in the corresponding situation against Kasparov or Anand, and get beheaded in the middlegame.

    Finally (at least for now), while I agree that Anand's 14...Bb7 didn't win (but see the last paragraph), you're mistaken (or I'm misunderstanding you) in claiming that it has disappeared. There are 67 games with it in ChessBase's online database, and Black has a plus score with it. To the extent that people are avoiding the line, I would say it's White, with the last major turn-off point coming on move 10 with the other main move, 10.d5.]

    April 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

    It's a very interesting topic. My impression is that games like Aronian-Anand are now very much the exception, and stand out for that reason. Another example is perhaps Svidler-Grischuk from the Candidates - in his commentary on the Alekhine Memorial Grischuk said when he found the sac with his second the night before the game they were literally dancing around the room - and it took him 3 hours to get to sleep afterwards.

    I translated Vladimir Tukmakov's "Modern Chess Preparation" and his thesis there is that the objectively best moves - Houdini's first lines - are going to be completely ignored by the top players when playing against each other. Everybody has the same analysis, so instead people will search flea markets (his analogy) for the 6th or 7th best lines that can be polished up to surprise your opponent. And he notes Carlsen is the torchbearer of that approach.

    Vladimir Kramnik apparently agrees. He just gave a very interesting interview to Vlad Tkachiev for WhyChess: http://whychess.com/node/11150 (in Russian for now, but I think an English version should appear at any moment). It's absolutely worth reading in full as Kramnik gives a very good account of the psychology of opening preparation and a long assessment of the London Candidates, but I've translated the most relevant part for this debate below:

    ----

    Tkachiev: Getting away from psychology, in this tournament you managed to reassess a number of fundamental areas of opening theory, finding new directions a la Rubinstein.

    Kramnik: I'm not sure you can talk about a reassessment, as however you look at it everyone understands that objectively there's a draw everywhere. It's very difficult nowadays to fundamentally reassess anything, although you can introduce new shades... It's simply that unfortunately there's no choice, as for example you can see that in this tournament there were almost no long theoretical duels. You understand yourself that it's no accident. It's because many variations have been exhausted, everyone has powerful computers and everyone has already grasped that that approach to developing chess is a dead-end.

    In my view everyone's already trying to get away from that and come up with something sooner, something for one game, particularly with White. That's going better for some and worse for others, but personally I consider that the clear trend of modern chess.

    Tkachiev: It seems to me you came to that conclusion relatively recently.

    Well, that's because it happened recently. For example, back in the tournament in Mexico I employed a different strategy. I played a lot of principled lines and overall I did pretty well in the opening. But now, it seems to me, that's changed, particularly with the appearance of the equaliser Houdini, which makes a draw in any position: a pawn down - it doesn't care - it still finds a path to a forced drawn in some way or other. You just need to remember it. A lot has changed irrevocably with the appearance of strong engines.

    Tkachiev: So you could say that in the 21st century Houdini has done what the Colt did in the Wild West in the 19th: it's put simple bandits and aristocrats on a level footing.

    Kramnik: Yes, you're absolutely right! Actually, when it comes to the principled forced variations it now makes almost no difference if I analyse them or someone rated 2600. Most likely the conclusion will be about the same. Therefore, of course, if you want to use your advantage in understanding the opening, or simply in class, you need to look for some new paths. You need to force people to think on their own at the board.

    And the main adherent of that approach is, of course, Magnus Carlsen. In that regard he's very progressive, even if many don't realise it. He was the first to adopt that approach a few years ago and for now he's sticking to it. Essentially you skip the opening. Well, perhaps the approach is a little too extreme, but it has a point. In actual fact it's quite pragmatic. It's better than working for days on end and ultimately getting +=. It's better to get playable equality, but be fresh with a huge amount of energy and instead work on the ending. It was simply that from childhood on I focussed on the opening - well, that phase where you switch from the opening to the middlegame. That nevertheless became a part of me, something in my blood. It's hard to change that, and I'm not sure that I could any longer, although the other approach is, perhaps, more effective. It's hard to say.

    April 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermishanp

    Kasparov has the best record against Anand. This implies that he has a good understanding of the type of positions that Anand dislikes and this can be invaluable in match strategy.

    I wonder if Kasparov working with Carlsen intimidates or motivates Anand? Probably, it does a little of both.

    Anand's comments about Carlsen have been ridiculously gushing "Anand on Carlsen: the greatest talent I have seen"..."'Carlsen will be ridiculously difficult to play against." I guess that is Anand being honest but it seems like an odd thing to say before the match. Conversely, Carlsen clearly stated that he believes he will beat Anand when questioned on the Charlie Rose show.

    http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/12895

    April 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Karen

    well since we are talking about Kasparov and Svidler-Grischuk from the candidates... none other than Kasparov himself was live commentating on the Svidler-Grischuk game where he claimed he had also discovered this novelty back in the 90s and never had a chance to play it.

    April 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

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