Thoughts on Carlsen

December 27, 2013

by Anand Bhaskaran

 Aron Nimzowitsch, an influential Danish chess-player and -writer, observed that “the beauty of a move lies not in its appearance but in the thought behind it.”  It follows that chess isn’t an easy game for a layman to appreciate: a move may not be properly adjudged beautiful or ugly unless one knows the reasoning behind it, the possibilities it considers, the insights into the opponent’s mind it incorporates. What you see is merely a player taking a little piece of wood and moving it from one square to another. What you don’t see is the tangle of intermingled calculations and emotions fusing into a move.

Even so, the game of chess has had its share of players distinctive even to the layman (a somewhat informed layman, you might argue; and yes, that’s probably right, I’d concede). Consider Mikhail Tal, the eighth world champion: one look at his daring material sacrifices — a knight in one game, a rook in another, why, even a full queen when he felt particularly adventurous — and you’d feel a giddy romance rarely felt in relation to a chess game:“The Magician of Riga” they called him, and it isn’t hard to see why. Likewise, a look at just a few of Tigran Petrosian’s games would be enough to convince you that here was a stubborn, ferociously defensive player — he was called “Iron Tigran” in fact, this chessical equivalent of Geoffrey Boycott. And in Bobby Fischer’s games you’d recognize a cold serpent-like menace, perhaps even sense the incipient onrush of madness.

With Magnus Carlsen, the current and 16th World Champion, no such immediate associations come to mind. The media has made its comparisons — with Mozart and Rafael Nadal — but these both seem forced and superficial. The Mozart association has nothing going for it apart from the fact that both men were child prodigies; the Nadal connect is marginally better, in that Carlsen’s stamina and grinding style of play is somewhat reminiscent of Nadal’s. However, it misses one important point about Carlsen’s style of play and that, I think, makes all the difference.

In his younger days, Carlsen would play with dare and vim — as an example, I need only cite the thrilling “Carlsen vs. Sipke Ernst”, a game played in 2004 when Carlsen was barely fourteen, wherein he played in the cavalier style of Tal. Doubtless he could still play that way today if he chose to, but at what cost? He’d likely be winning fewer games.

And that’s simply unacceptable to Carlsen. So no unnecessary risks, just the best move he can think of, move after move after move, flair be damned if that’s what it takes. Vladimir Kramnik, a Russian grandmaster and former World Champion, makes exactly this point when he says that every player has to decide on the style that makes him most effective: Kasparov played aggressively, he remarks, not because it would please the galleries but because it gave him the best chance of winning. Here’s where the Nadal association falls flat: I doubt Nadal could play like Federer even if he wished to, while Carlsen could well play in a different style albeit with slightly less success than he enjoys currently.

Playing in his style, Carlsen has achieved the highest Elo rating of all time, besides being the World Number 1 and World Champion for good measure. Whom, then, does he most resemble? I’d propose Donald Bradman. A peculiar choice, you might well say. But the Don’s batting was focused on scoring as many runs as possible. He scored only six sixes in his career — hitting the ball in the air clearly wasn’t compatible with his objective. He wasn’t as exciting as Trumper, as Carlsen is not nearly as thrilling as Kasparov. And then there’s the fact that the young Bradman would practice hitting a golf ball with stump instead of bat all by himself, for hours on end; likewise, little Carlsen would sit with a chessboard all by himself to play out the moves of the classics. And then there are the kindred stats that speak for themselves, Bradman’s 99.94 Test average to Carlsen’s 2872 Elo. So I say why not drop the comparisons with Mozart and Nadal and pick the Don instead?

Fifty50?

August 25, 2007

by Aparajith Ramnath

The pavilion seat always commands an excellent view of the playing field. You readers (if any) must be saying now: ‘Yes, it’s a great view, but the field’s been deserted for so long!’ Despair not, my friends. Stay put in that seat. You’ll get your free ticket’s worth.

For those who watched the second NatWest one-dayer between India and England at Bristol, I need hardly ask whether you enjoyed it. Wait a minute – don’t I? Any media pundit will tell you it was a cracking match. With over 650 runs scored, a pile of sixes struck, and a run-chase that was technically on until the last over, it’s difficult to quibble with that.

But then I watched the highlights. Oh, it was action-packed. The ball whizzed to the boundary before you could say ‘leg-glance’. It was what commentators love to call a ‘lightning-quick outfield.’ Except there wasn’t much of an outfield. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I get the feeling that the Bristol ground would fit comfortably inside Lord’s and still leave enough room for an athletics track on the remaining area. Add a flat wicket, and there were plenty of baseball shots (in the extremely unlikely event of the existence of a person who is reading this article AND is a baseball fan, I hasten to say that this is no comment on the aesthetics of baseball – except that it looks funny on a cricket ground) going for six. Ganguly’s straight six was especially ungainly for a batsman usually capable of great elegance. Dimitri Mascarenhas’s valiant knock later in the day was commendable for its spirit, but there wasn’t very much science involved there. All this is not to say that the players did not play well. Tendulkar was in his element with his leg-side whips and Player of the Match Dravid was at his one-day best, and one of his late dabs to the third man boundary was as subtle a stroke as you could expect to see on any ground (though he played one fairly ugly stroke to mid-wicket too, at the beginning of the slog overs). And one mustn’t forget the excellent work from Chawla and Powar, who turned the tide in India’s favour with their brave and wily bowling. I’m glad India decided to play five bowlers finally. It paid off here.

It was nice to see India pull off a win, and they should have done so much more convincingly if it hadn’t been for some atrocious fielding. But at the end of the day (or the hour, for I was only watching highlights, after all), I got the feeling that this match was little more than an extended Twenty20 game. My opinions on that version of the game – it’s fertile ground for debate, with much to be said for and against – I will reserve for another occasion.

WWF Days

July 2, 2007

by Rishabh Kaul 

‘Matches 145, clash!’

‘Oh shit! I can’t believe your Undertaker beat me!’

The melee of card clutching youngsters could be seen everywhere. School buses, corners of class rooms (when the teacher wasn’t looking obviously), canteens and homes. WWE (then WWF) was truly a sensation. In an era when Playstations hadn’t quite become available (leave alone affordable, wait a second, are they affordable yet?) to the Indian market and computer games hadn’t graduated above those that required a RAM of greater than 16 MB (ah, sweet reminiscence), WWE ruled. It was a plague, every kid would clutch on to it as though it were his life savings, religiously following the sport on TV. Cheering the face, cussing the heel and becoming a theist whenever a bra and panty match would take place, WWE had taken over.

The story line would be discussed over the lunch break with enthusiasm far exceeding that of when some folks sit down and chat about which soap had the maximum number of divorces. A difference of opinion would invoke fights of the highest order and would sometimes create havoc and even destroy friendships (and forge new bonds).

I would buy thermocol once every fortnight and would make a virtual table out of it. Then we’d have the greatest of all matches- TLC. The sheer joy of lifting my 12 year old langotiya yaar and pushing him through the chasms of hell and breaking the pseudo table (and hence winning the game according to the self imposed rules) would easily overshadow another moment. Glory indeed!

We would also partially heed their advice, the famous ads where the gods would themselves ask us to “not try this at home!” No kicking, no punching at the “shame shame”. We’d share their joy, their grief during the darkest hour and cheer them, these neo-gladiators with bodies of steel.

Post 2004, I gave up on wrestling. The unbelievable solace that WWF provided couldn’t be matched by the unbelievably juvenile plots of WWE. I didn’t see myself cheering these new stars for they didn’t have the same zeal, nor did they seem loyal to the game. And the old ones didn’t seem the same as before. They seemed to have evolved into something more commercial, someone the fans couldn’t associate with.

Or maybe I grew up.

by Rishabh Kaul

Lagaan, though fictitious, with all its espionage fused magically with the British pulverizing the villagers off-field gave a very wrong impression of cricket in the nineteenth century.

In the early years it was truly a gentleman’s game.  The game was an embodiment of class and dignity coupled with sophistication and elegance. The phrase It’s not cricket was in use as much off the field as on it, and was used for events not necessarily related to the game of bat and ball.

The ideal cricketer would adhere to the spirit of the game which was sportsmanship. He would call the batsman back if a false verdict was given in his favou, he would walk off the field if he knew he was out though the rival team didn’t appeal for it and would surely beg for forgiveness for excessive appealing.

Ah, those were the days, with Victor Trumper and W.G. Grace with their technically sound drives dominating with the bat and legendary greats such as Spofforth (nicknamed the Demon, and single-handedly responsible for the Ashes as we know them today) scalping wickets.

The great Don himself, who was known for putting most bowlers to shame, respected the spirit of the game and himself would sacrifice his wicket if he noticed that a bowler was trying too hard and wasn’t meeting success (by a whisker) for a long time.

People say that the game has changed, with the spirit no longer prevailing amongst the players. It’s easy to support the argument with the numerous instances of players having rows with umpires, mutiny by team members against the captain, swearing (remember the Sarwan/Mcgrath tamasha), excessive appealing (spearheaded by Souravda).

But what were the players playing for back in the old days? Honour and Pride. Add millions of dollars, contracts, deals and all the other complexities that govern the game today. Would the scenario still have been the same? Players back then didn’t depend on the game for their bread and champagne, nor did they see the need to get their body insured. Man of the Match winners back then didn’t receive Audis and Land Rovers.

Each appeal that’s not given the finger costs the team thousands of dollars. Everything is digitized, even the slightest of remarks gets blown out of proportion (and almost immediately the Chappell Finger fiasco comes to mind).

There comes the occasional incident that brings back memories of the olden days, but for the greater part, the gentleman’s game has a huge cover of bureaucracy and hundred dollar bills resting over it.

Truly International

March 2, 2007

by Aparajith Ramnath

It is not unusual in cricket to find players representing a country different to that of their birth. Nor is it unprecedented to find players who’ve played for more than one country. A number of South Africans illustrate the point: Robin Smith and Allan Lamb, and more recently Kevin Pietersen, all of whom went over to England. John Traicos played for South Africa before they were banned from the international arena, and then for Zimbabwe in the 1992 World Cup, when in his forties. Kepler Wessels, of course, played Tests for both Australia and South Africa, famously scoring centuries on debut for each country.

The modern-day World Cup, with its profusion of teams, is a prime candidate to furnish more such examples. This year’s tournament in the Caribbean has its share.

The man who scored an important century in the recent tri-series in Australia in the course of a remarkable turnaround in England’s fortunes, Ed Joyce, was an important part of the Irish team until fairly recently. Ireland, on the other hand, goes to the World Cup for the first time, and is captained by Trent Johnston, who came over from Australia a few years ago.

Followers of Indian cricket from the early nineties will remember a certain opposition seam bowler, Andy Cummins, who used then to play for the West Indies. Wonder of wonders, he is at the World Cup this year: he will play for Canada.

Does anyone know of other such instances from this year’s World Cup?

by Aparajith Ramnath

As the World Cup inches closer, it is natural that all cricket discussion is dominated by it. Every run scored, every wicket taken, every selection made is viewed in the light of its implications for this Holy Grail of one-day cricket. While the pundits pontificate on these significant happenings and the whole cricket machinery gears up for the frenzy that will begin next month, let us sit back in our armchairs and allow our minds to wander back to earlier editions of the World Cup, pulling out those disjointed wisps of memory to see if they might not be stitched together.

 The earliest World Cup memories I have, for practical reasons, are from the fifth edition. Held in 1992 in Australia and New Zealand, it had, in many ways, all the trappings of today’s ODI culture: floodlights, coloured clothing, even a rain rule. And with just nine teams participating, it was a thorough tournament if ever there was one: each team played every other team in the league stage.

India’s opening match was against England. Subroto Banerjee was one of India’s quick bowlers in that match; aside of that I remember little of the first innings other than my father saying that India had given away a few runs too many in the final overs. In the end, India lost by nine runs. I remember distinctly that I went downstairs to play ‘compound cricket’ (i.e. cricket played in the building’s compound) with my friends, either as a reaction to the loss or towards the latter stages of the game when it seemed a lost cause.

New Zealand was, in many ways, the dark horse of that tournament. As I remember it, they played all their matches – at least in the league stage – at home, and won most of them. They were stopped by Pakistan and Inzamam’s superlative performance in the semi-finals. Enduring images from their campaign: Mark Greatbatch’s pioneering of the role of the pinch-hitter; Deepak Patel, the off-spinner, bowling at the start of the innings as a containing bowler; and the fact that the New Zealand matches would have the score on the corner of the TV screen displayed in English parlance (Runs/Wickets) as opposed to the matches in Australia, which used Aussie parlance (Wickets/Runs, which still causes much confusion for me during the early stages of an innings).

As an aside, the Australian style of reading out the score was imprinted on my mind by a typical Tony Greig passage of commentary during the Australia-South Africa league match, which I watched – partly at least – at the house of my grandmother’s neighbour: “Not a good over for [Meyrick] Pringle, nor for South Africa, Fooooiiiiive for One-Forty-One!” This was also a match in which I mused on the meaning of the term ‘breakthrough’ that the commentators seemed to keep using. I had assumed previously that this referred to the first wicket a team took in an innings; here they were using it to refer to the second wicket. The first had been a run-out, which led me to the assumption that the term referred to the first wicket taken by a bowler during the innings!

India’s campaign during that tournament was largely unsuccessful, their only victories coming against Pakistan (with a sterling performance by Tendulkar with the bat) and Zimbabwe, and another point from a rained-off match against Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, they had their bright spots. One especially was the match against Australia at, if I remember right, the ‘Gabba in Brisbane. India were chasing, and were rather unfortunate to have a tougher target set for them after rain had eaten into their innings (the rain rule – though it must be remembered that these were early days for this device – got to its most absurd point in the SA vs Eng semi-finals, when, after a rain delay, the Springboks found themselves with a target of, I think, 23 runs off 1 ball). Sanjay Manjrekar played a handy knock in the middle to late overs, and the match went down to the last ball, with, I think, four required for a win. Srinath was on strike, and clubbed the ball towards the long-on boundary. Steve Waugh – those were the days when he still fielded at the boundary – dropped the catch, but got the ball back in time to complete a run-out (was it Raju?) as the Indians scrambled for a third run. It was a good lesson for an Indian fan in the making, for such heartbreak was to become a regular feature when following the team’s fortunes.

In the end, Pakistan came from behind to win the crystal globe, with a match-winning performance from Imran Khan, who scored seventy odd and took the final wicket when Richard Illingworth skied a shot.

Those were the days before Australian supremacy, and I do not think that, before the tournament began, there was a clear favourite. None of the following World Cups could afford to have the same format, with the number of participating teams swelling; this year there will be a Super Eight stage following the league matches. Will there be parallels with the 1992 World Cup this year? With the West Indian pitches universally diagnosed as ‘slow and low’ nowadays, could this World Cup be a throwback to the days before the batting fest and the mammoth total became the defining features of the one-day match?

Vote for us

February 13, 2007

by Amit Goyal

We have been nominated in the Best Sports Indiblog category for Indibloggies 2006. The entire team is thrilled and requests you to vote for us.

Vote for me!