The match for the World Chess Championship will start Saturday in Chennai, India between World Champion Viswanathan Anand and top ranked Magnus Carlsen from Norway. Carlsen’s ascent to the challenger and top-ranked status and the prospect of a youthful champion (22 years old) from the Western Hemisphere has electrified the chess world and increased worldwide interest in the sport.
The increased interest in chess has provided the basis for worldwide chess investment. FIDE (the international chess federation) has sold the rights to the World Championship cycle to entrepreneur Andrew Paulson, whose company (AGON) is rebranding the World Chess Championships with increased prize funds and corporate sponsorships. Paulson has also been elected president of the English Chess Federation which he openly admits is a means to an end to securing 'legitimacy as a spokesman for chess in Africa and India'. Carlsen has a lucrative endorsement deal with European clothing giant G Star Raw and competed in the United States for the first time when he took part in September’s $170,000 Sinquefield Cup tournament held in St. Louis and sponsored by American chess sugar daddy Rex Sinquefield, the multi-millionaire investment banker who is also bankrolling Garry Kasparov’s run for FIDE president along with a Belgium businessman and a Sheik from the United Arab Emirates.
While Carlsen has finished first or second in every tournament he has played in over the past 2 years and convincingly defeated Anand in their encounter in June’s Tal Memorial, Anand’s tournament record has been very spotty with his best result being a third place finish in January’s TATA Steel tournament (won convincingly by Carlsen).
Carlsen is twenty years younger than Anand, has the highest rating of any chess player ever, and beat Anand convincingly in their last encounter so it is no surprise that Anand is a 5-2 underdog in the match. If I was going to make a wager, I’d pick Anand, not because I think he is a sure bet to win the match but because I think he would win 4 out 10 matches and that the makes the odds of winning $250 on a $100 Anand bet more attractive than winning $28 on a $100 Carlsen bet. I’ve been looking all over for a football type line to see if a bet could be made on Anand getting a game or two but I haven’t found one which is a shame because I think this is going to be a very close match and that is the bet I’d like to make.
Not discounting Carlsen's youth, highest ever rating, and stellar tournament results, Anand has a number of things in his favor heading into the match. Firstly, the match is in his home city of Chennai. The tournament site was decried by many as smacking of favoritism by FIDE but there were no competing bids until Carlsen was confirmed as the challenger. Anand is a national hero in India and since he was the only known participant when the bids were taken, it was only natural that his home country (and city) would bid for the championship. When chess obtains Super Bowl or Olympic status, then perhaps World Championship venues will be scheduled years in advance. I don’t think it will be especially harmful for Carlsen to play in India, but Anand should get a boost playing in his home country and home town.
When asked about the upcoming match, Carlsen said "The difference is, I'm winning tournaments and Anand is holding on to this title. It will be an interesting clash between these two ideas as to what constitutes the best player in the world." I don't see it as a clash of ideas – it’s a match for the world championship. While Anand has played in three championship matches over the last 6 years and won all three (the last by tiebreak), a world championship match will be a new experience for Carlsen. Anand’s recent tournament results only have bearing if they are regarded as proof of form before the match. The World Champion’s tournament results weren’t stellar before his matches against Topalov in 2010 and Gelfand in 2012 yet he managed to win both matches and must be given credit for knowing the difference between how to prepare for a match as opposed to how to prepare for a tournament.
In general, the winners of the round robin (all play all) super grandmaster tournaments succeed by beating the lower rated players or the players in poor form and drawing the other leaders and Carlsen’s tournament successes have been no different. His rating has skyrocketed because he is a better player that wins more and loses less than anyone since Bobby Fisher. He has a stellar record against tail enders and an excellent winning percentage when he pushes on in even positions against players of all strengths. There will be no ‘tail-enders’ for Carlsen to win against in the match. As long as Anand is close to his top form there may be very little to choose from between the players.
Carlsen’s youth will serve him well in the match but the match is only 12 games long and every third day will be a rest day with additional rest days before the last round. This is a far cry from the common 10 to 14 player super tournaments that have only one or two rest days. This will mitigate Anand's age disadvantage in much the same way that veteran basketball teams seem to improve when moving from the regular season with back to back games and stretches of four games in five days to the playoffs with the opportunity to have a day or two of rest after each game. I expect to see Anand given credit for having more stamina than recent tournaments because of the relatively leisurely schedule.
So who do I think will win the match? I think Carlsen’s supreme self-confidence combined with his habit of taking risks in objectively even positions will cause him overreach and lose a game early in the contest and Anand will find a hole in Carlsen’s opening preparation to take another game somewhere along the line. Carlsen will outplay Anand in two games, leaving the match tied at two wins apiece with eight draws. So I predict the match will be decided in the tie breaks and as long as I've been priming the pump for Anand's chances I'll pick Anand to win the four game/25 match with 1 or 2 wins to none for Carlsen.
Of course Carlsen could go on a roll and destroy Anand or win a close match and it wouldn’t surprise me but the runup to the match reminds me a lot of the first Kasparov-Karpov match in 1984 where the younger and more brilliant Kasparov was heavily favored to beat the battle tested Karpov only to lose four of the first nine games (the match was a race to six games). Kasparov then hunkered down to draw 35 of the next 37 games before winning games 47 and 48, whch caused FIDE President Campomanes to cancel the match in one of the most controversial chess decisions ever. Kasparov reacted well to being hit in the face by Karpov with the string of draws but in a 12 game match Carlsen would have no such luxury at his disposal should he face a similar situation.