In Pawn Sacrifice, Bobby Fischer takes on the world again

November 24, 2014

Pawn Sacrifice is a dramatized version produced by Edward Zwick of Bobby Fischer’s iconic chess match with Boris Spassky in 1972

Pawn Sacrifice was previewed at the recent Toronto film festival

It is a more fictionalized version than the earlier film Bobby Fischer takes on the world, and confirms the relative normality of protagonists Carlsen and Anand who are currently slugging it out for the World Chess Championship in Sochi.

Mostly positive reviews

Reviews on Pawn Sacrifice have been mostly positive. The most negative one I found was from The Guardian, and even that whetted my appetite for watching the film.

Must see?

Probably a must see for chess players of a certain age, although a possible unsound sacrifice of two hours viewing time for the wider public.


In Chess, Carlsen keeps mum. In Cricket, Cook tells all?

November 14, 2013

In the build-up to the chess world championships Magnus Carlsen refuses to reveal who his support staff are. In Cricket, Australian captain Clarke says England’s captain kindly revealed his Cricket team to him. What’s all that about?

Two little stories about leadership, one from Chess, one from Cricket.

In India there are two sports stories this week about all-time greats. Sachin Tendulkar is playing his last international cricket match; and Viswanathan [‘Vishy’] Anand is defending his chess crown against the new chess prodigy and Norwegian ‘pawn star’ Magnus Carlsen.

Chess trends on Twitter

Yesterday, the official website of FIDE, the international chess organization, announced that chess had become the number one news item of all stories trending on Twitter. The rise of Indian chess owes much to Anand, who has help five world championships (if you include rapid play ones). Carlsen is being hailed as a mega-star who is bringing attention to chess globally .

Magnus keeps mum

At a pre-match press conference, the players were asked out their support teams. Vishy spoke glowingly of his back-up team who help in preparing openings and in studying the play of his opponent. The twenty two year old Magnus thanked him for the information but politely declined the invitation to respond.

Cook tells all

Half way around the world, Australia is hosting their fiercest cricket rivals England. In a remarkable press conference Australia captain Michael Clarke says England’s captain Alistair Cook has revealed the England team to him a week in advance of the test.

What’s all that about?

Vishy says that the players ‘exchanged information’ only after playing the first game. The rest could be no more than mis-information. The same might be true of whatever Cook did or did not say to Clarke.

Was Cook [or Clarke] being a silly billy?

We seem to be entering the region of mind games. Chess is the more obvious mind game, but more many athletes and sporting coaches have gone in for psychological warfare. I have trouble believing the headline that Cook told Clarke the names of the team for the forthcoming test.

Maybe Clarke is trying to make Cook look like a silly billy.


Chess provides excellent leadership lessons in the 2013 Candidates Tournament

April 6, 2013

The qualifying battles to become world chess champion in London this year showed why chess is considered an excellent metaphor for the processes of strategic decision-making

Magnus CarlsenI have often blogged about the merits of chess as a metaphor for strategic thinking. The last three weeks [March 14th – April 1st 2013] reinforced my beliefs.

The Candidates Tourney

London hosted the qualifying competition, with the winner going to a one-on-one shootout with current world champion Vishy Anand of India. In the UK, news coverage prior to the tournament was extremely limited. In contrast, chess enthusiasts had excellent live streaming of all games on specialized sites.

Watching live

For those with time to spend, you could watch the battles live in the afternoons (starting time 2pm local time). The format was our matches each day played simultaneously, with all eight contenders in action. This made it easy for the expert commentators (mostly grand-masters) to chat happily about moves played and about to be played, working their way from match to match. The technology did not quite work, but the commentators coped with the gliches well, particularly in the last hour of the last day, when the result still depended on the remaining two games. It seems an estimated million chess players world- wide had seized up the servers.

The Chess Federation [FIDE} website captured the tension of the last round of matches:

Magnus Carlsen [image above from wikipedia: Ed] won the FIDE Candidates’ Tournament in London on Monday after a bizarre finish of what has become a historic event for chess. Both the Norwegian and the other leader, Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, unexpectedly lost their game in the final round, and so they remained tied for first place and Carlsen won on the second tie-break rule: higher number of wins. This means that in the next title match, World Champion Viswanathan Anand will face Carlsen.

Marketability

The few popular news stories concentrated on Carlsen’s extreme youth, and marketability for himself and the game of Chess. “No problem with finding a sponsor for the World Championship” one commentator chortled.

Bizarre end

When the technology was restored, the rest of the chess world learned that Carlson had lost a game in which he had played weakly his standards as the highest rated player in the World. He could still be overtaken by former World Champion Kramnik who also seemed to be losing. After a nervous wait, Kramnik resigned, and Carlsen was declared winner.

Chess lesson

I am still reflecting on the lessons for strategic leaders offered by the players and their commentators. Carlsen, utterly fatigued at the press conference immediately after he had learned of Kramnik’s loss added one new lesson [for me, anyway]. “We were all tiring in the last rounds. My sense of danger weakened.” Worth remembering by business leaders needing to deal with their dilemmas…


Don’t Miss “The Queen of Katwe”

February 13, 2013

The Queen of Katwe jacket image

Book alert: The Queen of Katwe is a must-read for chess players and all who wonder at human triumph against adversity

Top of my reading list this week is a story of a little girl who wants to become a chess champion. As sports writer and author Tim Crother puts it bluntly and contentiously in his book:

“Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog… to be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. To be a girl is to be an underdog in Katwe.”

More to follow

Review comments welcomed from any LWD subscriber


Andy Murray: Advice from a chess trainer

March 4, 2012

After his change of coach and some evidence of strengthening his mental game, Andy Murray may be may be interested in advice from Stewart Reuben, a chess trainer who used to play odds games with Bobby Fischer

This week [March 2012], Andy Murray avoided a slump in form after a good performance in the opening grand slam of the season. His play in the tournament has been consistently strong. Even his serve percentage held up well until the final. LWD has commented for some while on his potential, and on recurring patterns in his play. Our observations are not backed up with any direct experience of competitive play. For this I draw on a shared platform of understanding of more experienced commentators which seemed pretty well summed up in the Guardian’s analysis of his Dubai performances:

Murray ought to be able to lose a final without forensic examination of his disappointments in big matches …[although] he is getting closer with a sound, improving game and an on-court demeanour that is noticeably calmer since he took on Ivan Lendl as his coach in January. He beat [world No 1] Djokovic on Friday with as good a service game as he has produced in a long time but it let him down against Federer, even though the winner’s 50% first-serve rate was only two points better. It is tough for Murray to overcome the ingrained instinct that he has a better chance of winning from the back of the court, even on his own serve. These fine calculations are often split-second ones and it is more comfortable for him to rely on trusted strategies.

Leaning from a Chess master

Stuart Reuben is a distinguished English chess administrator and teacher. One of his valued pieces of advice to young chess players is that weaker players tend to choose the cautious move against stronger players. This is a strategy which favours the stronger player. I can confirm from personal experience of playing as one of a hoard of amateurs against a visiting grandmaster taking us all on simultaneously. Too often, the chess bunnies play passively as their games drift away.

Reuben (a world-class poker player, by the way) encourages us bunnies to seek dynamic positions, avoiding trying to keep it simple as a primary factor in selecting each move. Not quite simple. The weaker player has also to avoid recklessness. In my case, this often shows itself as a futile attempt to break out of the passivity trap by being foolishly aggressive, a dilemma facing the chess player.

Over to you Andy

So there you go, Andy. If snooker players like Steve Davis and boxers like Lennox Lewis have found the value of chess as a metaphor for strategy in another sport, why not add it to your training regime. You may find ways of adding these vital percentage points to your play at crucial moments of important matches.

Acknowledgement

Image of Stewart Reuben from the Atticus website


Rugby is more like chess than you might think

January 22, 2012

Chess and Rugby games both start with two sets of eight ‘forwards’. In chess the forwards are called pawns and most of them get taken out of the battle as each game is played

The beautiful parallel came to my attention through the remarks of a commentator on one of the Heineken cup games yesterday [Jan 21st 2012]. Rugby is like a game of chess, he said. I began to look more carefully at the structure of the game I had been watching.

The dynamic structure

You may find what follows easier to understand if you already have some knowledge of both games, but the main point is easier to grasp. I am looking at the dynamic structure of two systems, chess and rugby. Some of the surface characteristics are similar. There is a deeper structure that has even more system similarities.

The forwards are like two sets of eight pawns …

The point was deeper than I first thought. First, consider the configuration of the forces involved. Each game begins with two sets of eight forwards. In chess, the pawns (forwards) advance towards each other, clash, and many are often are taken out of the game. Most rugby games start and end with two sets of eight forwards (pawns). The scrums and line-outs are mini-battles as the two sets struggle for advantage. Chess players are taught that the pawns are the soul of chess. Most forwards say the same.

The lineouts

I played rugby as far away from the forward skirmishes as possible. Their black arts are lost on me. Yesterday the wonderful replay-graphics revealed the deep structure of the lineout battle. It was far from the unitary structure I had imagined. I had ‘read’ lineouts as taking place with the two sets of very tall players rigidly assembled and arranged one against like two sets of chess pawns (only in two files, rather than in two ranks). Lineouts (and scrums) are after all called set-pieces.

The basic idea is that the ball is thrown into the lines of players. Elite jumpers compete to catch the ball, aided by support players who lift the jumper. Yes it is a bit like ballet although few rugby players will see it like that.

The three clusters

The lines of forwards moved more dynamically that I had imagined. Instead of obedient sets of eight, the system morphed itself into three clusters. Each cluster was a sub-system with players from each team. The three clusters are still arranged in a sequence at the front, middle and back of the line-out.

The chess nature of the contest was picked out in the video. Each cluster or sub-system has one of those elite jumpers plus an undefined number of support players. There is wonderful scope for feints and ploys to confuse the opposition. Some are obvious. A jumper will run back or forward, perhaps from one cluster to another, triggering responses in the opposing line.

A game of threes

Rugby players might want to think of the similarity in the structure of forwards in the scrums: the front row, then in the middle, and the back row. Then there are clusters of players across the entire team: the forwards, the half backs and the backs. Rugby is a game of threes.

In principle, in the line-out…

In principle, the team with the advantage of the throw-in should win the line-out ball. Increasingly complex moves of the kind makes the lineouts more interesting and competitive. The game also has rules and structures which permit intense and balanced competition. Systems theorists call that ‘requisite variety’.

Then there are the scrums

I have even less understanding of the dark arts of the scrums. But I now see again the rule of three, and the chess-like nature of the grunting and groaning. Who said that the backs play the music and the forwards are bred for carrying the piano?


Bobby Fischer takes on the world. This is personal

July 31, 2011

A new film explores the psyche of Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all time. This not a film review, but explores his chess genius to see what it tells us about the processes of creativity and leadership

The movie [released in July 2011] was Bobby Fischer takes on the World. The title makes play with an English expression which implies that here we have someone who was at odds with the whole of humanity.

Genius is a loosely used term

In Bobby Fischer´s case it refers to the exceptional talent he revealed at very early age. The attention he received even as a child bears comparisons with the fame heaped on youthful prodigies such as Mozart in music, and Gauss in mathematics.

Nature versus nurture again

There is still a lively debate around whether extreme talent is mostly innate, or whether it can be induced in a wide range of people by intensive effort under the influence of a mentor or parental figure. The recent advocates of this view include the father of the chess-playing Polgar twins each of whom attained status of grandmaster. Richard Williams has been quoted as selecting a tennis career and developing the great talents of his tennis playing daughters Serena and Venus.

The Cuban prodigy

Long before the arrival of Bobby Fischer, Chess had its earliest child prodigy in the Cuban Jose Capablanca who was to become World champion highly regarded for the clarity of his thinking in his play. Legend holds that Capa learned chess at the age of three, through watching his father play friendly games at home.

Heir to Capablanca?

In one respect Fischer could be seen as heir to the great Capablanca. At its best, his play is also marked by moves of an unexpected and beautiful nature. They could be said to be acts of creativity. The logic is obvious, but to others only after the event, when the moves of a game are re-analyzed by grandmasters and published in the leading chess magazines.

Bobby´s coming of age

His early promise was fulfilled in astonishing fashion as he moved from schoolboy talent to win the US chess championships at the age of twenty. It was the manner of his winning which produced headlines far beyond chess. He won with eleven straight wins. The 11:0 score line has never been equaled, before or since. The statistics are enriched by the style with which he demolished his opponents, including the strongest American chess players of the day.

Game of the century

One of his victims was the strong master Robert Byrne. Their match has been called the game of the century for the brilliance of Fischer’s play. His creativity is shown in moves which later were to appear as puzzles to be solved as training exercises for young chess-players. The first unexpected move must have come as a great shock to his opponent. Two or three other similarly brilliant moves took the result completely away from Byrne.

A pattern of excellence

For me, the pattern of excellence is of someone able to see beyond the conventions of the day. Chess players operate with sets of principles which guide them to find strong moves, and protect them from making weak ones. Most players operate by finding moves which conform the those principles such as ‘concentrate your forces towards the centre of the board'; ‘coordinate your pieces so that they support each other’. Fischer’s brilliance was in knowing when the principles did not quite apply because of specific circumstances in the game.

Byrne, playing white and had the first-mover’s advantage. He must have thought at first that his young opponent had blundered. Too late, he would then have seen that the shift to what looked like a weaker position had mysteriously revealed structural flaws in the disposition of his own pieces.

As the game drifted out of Byrnes’ control, Fischer uncorked another brilliant move. Not as radically original as the first, but still startling to all but the strongest players studying the game afterwards. The contest was as good as finished.

Creativity and leadership

The pattern of creative brilliance was to be repeated regularly throughout his brief but spectacular career. He went on to defeat Boris Spassky for the world championship. By then, he was showing signs of the mental illness which dogged Fischer for the rest of his life.

For me his creativity has something in common with that which marks the actions of great leaders who transform the way others act and think.

Acknowledgement

To Boylston Chess Club’s blog which has a wonderful set of images of chess players, including the one above, my all-time favourite for its echoes of Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi.


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