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.

Match or Scoreboard?

January 28, 2007

by Aparajith Ramnath

I have written here on the joys of watching cricket at the stadium. The point of comparison, there, was television coverage. No doubt things were different in the pre-TV days, with people huddled around radios, hanging on to the commentator’s every word and trying to cobble those words together to form a picture of the action. It just occurred to me recently that we have, in a way, our own equivalent of the radio days (although the radio itself is still going strong) : following a match by tracking the score online.

How many of us, deprived of television coverage of cricket matches by location, the constant bickering of TV companies over telecast rights, or simply the lack of a TV, are now dependent on websites where you can get the latest score! Sitting in front of the computer screen numbly, waiting for the score to tick over, looking at the bottom of the page to see if fresh data is being sent. We stare at the names and numbers so long that all sorts of statistical operations begin to be performed in the mind; we notice, for instance, that it is barely half-way through the (ODI) innings and around twenty extras have been given away. Ah! The bowlers have been spraying it all over the place. Perhaps the wicketkeeper has not been at his most solid best. We make arcane calculations: ah, the other batsman is on strike now but the first one has not added to his score: a leg-bye, perhaps?

Sometimes we download a desktop scoreboard to save ourselves the trouble of using our browsers and wondering whether or not it is showing us the latest score. Invariably, this program is dominated by advertising, and before one knows what’s happening, announces something in the nature of a Javascript or unable-to-find-page error, prompting one to go back to the website itself.

This is the sort of stuff that can paralyse. Colonise the mind, to use high-falutin language. Not allow one to think of any other task in peace unless one is clicking away every few minutes. Yet, much of this can be said of TV coverage. And for those who don’t have the latter, there are times when scoreboard tracking can be a godsend, if a nerve-wracking one.

Follow-no?

November 25, 2006

by Aparajith Ramnath

‘Well, what did you expect?’ began Ted Corbett’s report (in The Hindu) of the first day of the much-hyped Ashes series. At the ‘Gabba in Brisbane, Ricky Ponting had just notched up century number 32 in a relentless march towards Tendulkar’s current total of 35, Justin Langer had scored 82 runs, and Mike Hussey was keeping his captain company at stumps with a fifty to his credit: 346 runs in the day for the loss of just three wickets. Corbett’s opening line captured acutely the utter dominance of the Aussies.

Now, the same line could probably be used to talk about the home team’s decision not to ask the Englishmen to follow on after having clinched a mammoth lead of 445 runs. They seem to have made this a part of their style. Just consider. At the end of Day 3 of the Test, they are at 181 for one in their second innings, so that they now lead by 626 runs with two days to go.

Conventional wisdom has always been to go for victory by the shortest possible route. So if the opponents are 445 runs behind and have only managed around a third of that total in their first innings, asking them to follow on would be the shortest route. The Aussies have, over the last few years, given a number of reasons why they do not prefer this – including their bowlers being tired, and not wanting to bat last on a wearing pitch. (Staunch Indian supporters will no doubt hypothesise that the experience of losing to an Indian team that was following on at Eden Gardens in the now-famous Test match of Laxman’s 281 has led to a distrust of the follow-on method). None of those reasons, though, seem to apply here; for the Aussies had to bowl all of 61.1 overs in the first innings, and batting again for any length of time was hardly a very likely scenario for the Aussies. Why then the decision to bat on?

The pragmatists would advance the theory that this is part of an overall strategy to demoralise the opposition for the rest of the series, for the Aussies to stamp their authority on the series early on. Somehow one is not convinced about the need for this. Yes, sport must be competitive, but it is not politics. Is so much long-term planning necessary?

(In this context, see my post titled ‘The Cricket World Cup is still a year away!’)

At the Ground

November 11, 2006

by Aparajith Ramnath

Reading about cricket always puts me in a good mood. Especially when the writing is top-notch, combining the evergreen qualities of literature with the warm glow of the sporting activity it describes.

Such are the entries in The Picador Book of Cricket, a book that I had heard much about but never read until recently, when I have been able to read some of the pieces in it.

Some of the writing about the pleasures of watching a cricket match led me to think about my own experiences of watching cricket live, in Chennai and in Pune.

The first first-class match I can remember watching was a Duleep Trophy match in Chennai (then Madras), at the MA Chidambaram Stadium at Chepauk, a ground which has been synonymous with high quality cricket for my generation (earlier generations saw some Test matches at the Corporation Stadium). I must have been younger than ten, but I remember clearly the experience of sitting in the Madras Cricket Club members’ pavilion, courtesy of a relative who is a member, and watching a Central Zone off-spinner bag a clutch of wickets against a West Zone team that featured, if I remember right, Vinod Kambli, Amol Mazumdar, and Sachin Tendulkar (though I think the last of these was not batting on the day). That off-spinner, Rajesh Chauhan, was selected to play for India soon after.

Watching Test matches was a step higher in terms of excitement. The cavernous stands at Chepauk with concrete roofs that helped to keep the sun out just a little, the colour in the stands, the chit-chat among neighbouring spectators, the Mexican waves that did the rounds every now and then – all these were new and stimulating experiences. I once saw a fellow spectator with a portable TV so they could catch the replays; years later when I saw my (so far) last Test match at the stadium, some of the stands had TVs mounted on the pillars, beaming live (well, almost live, there being a delay of about a second) action and replays. (The mammoth scoreboard at the Kumbhat Stand end of the ground, which used to have the players’ names and scores painted in bright yellow across a black background is now gone; in its stead stands an electronic replay-displaying scoreboard carted all the way from an Australian ground.) It was here also that I tasted first-hand the strange but palpable yearning of every spectator at the stadium to get his or her fifteen seconds of fame by being shown on television. There was much frantic waving of hands and witty banners whenever the cameramen turned his lens in our direction.

From there it was on to Pune. I don’t know if the Poona Club still hosts Ranji Trophy matches, but if it does, it must surely be unique in being a first-class venue with almost no seating for spectators – the only spectators being the ones in the club house. The ground itself was lush green, and its historical significance in being the venue of B.B. Nimbalkar’s famous 443 not out in years gone by made it glow a little more in my eyes. The sightscreen was a white cloth tied to a bamboo frame, quite unlike the Test match grounds where the practice of using sliding panels to use the sightscreen at the batsman’s end as an advertisement had already become established.

If Poona Club was the epitome of this dichotomous city’s ‘Camp’ or cantonment area, then Nehru Stadium was right in the middle of the more traditional ‘City’ area. This was where the one-dayers were played, and it seated thousands of people, though perhaps fewer than Chepauk. At this ground I did not have the privileged behind-the-bowler’s-arm view of the cricket, but watched the action from a shamiana-covered stand square of the wicket. The memories from here are not very detailed, except the way people rolled their paper caps into cones and shouted ‘oo-aa-oo-aa-oo-aa’ as the bowler began his run-up.

Watching the action on television just does not compare with the real thing. When you are at the ground, you can feel the speed at which the pacer hurls the ball, sense the quickness of the batsman’s reflexes, see the effort the fielder at fine leg actually makes when he sprints all the way to the square leg boundary. There is no commentary, and so you are closer to the players. You see things as they see them. You feel the heat they feel. You glance up at the scoreboard just as they do. When the twelfth man runs up with a bottle of water, you, sitting in the stands, reach for your own. Now which channel can top that?