Thursday, January 7, 2016

Magnus is Back

  When FIDE the world chess federation published their December 2015 ratings Chessbase’s headline was ‘Carlsen Slumps’ in reference to World Champion Magnus Carlsen’s rating reaching 2834. While a rating of 2834 was still the best in the world it was the lowest Carlsen’s had been in four years. Since reaching his peak rating of 2882 in May of 2014 Carlsen’s rating held steady for around a year but had poor results in Norway Chess in June and the European Team Championships in November without any offsetting successes.

  It’s tough for a guy like Carlsen to improve his rating. As the highest rated player in the world he can only gain points by winning. In December, Carlsen played against the second, third, and fourth rated players in the world. He tied all three games and lost 1.4 rating points. Carlsen competed in the London Chess Classic in December against most of the top 10 players in the world. In a closely played tournament (35 of the 45 games were drawn) Carlsen was one of six players to not lose a game, winning two games and drawing seven. Two players drew all their games. Carlsen tied for first with Anish Giri and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, won the playoff to win the tournament, and the victory also meant an extra $150,000 for winning the inaugural Grand Chess Tour.

  Carlsen gained three rating points in London which he promptly lost in the first round of the Qatar Masters when he drew 2498 rated Nino Batsiashvili, which was the top news of the day in the Chessbase web site. Carlsen finished the tournament with draws against three top 10 players and five wins including an instant classic against top 20 player Li Chao to tie for first in the tournament which he won in a tiebreak playoff against 2014 Qatar champion Yu Yangyi to pick up another $27,000.

  Carlsen gained seven rating points in Qatar and his rating is now 2844. This is his second lowest rating since 2013 but there is no more talk about any slump with his two tournament victories. I think the London Chess Classic and Qatar showed me that Carlsen is no longer taking undue risks in order to outplay his opponents in the middlegame unless the tournament situation requires it and he is still head and shoulders ahead of anyone outside the top ten in the world.

  Carlsen has been playing a lot and his next tournament will come in less than two weeks in the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands where he will take part in the 14 player round robin that includes top ten players Caruana, So, Giri, and Ding Liren. In March Giri and Caruana will take part in an eight player candidates tournament that will decide who will challenge Carlsen for the championship in a match that is scheduled to take place in the United States later this year. Also taking part in the tournament will be former champion Anand as well as sort of former champion Topalov, top US player Hikaru Nakamura, and the winner of the 2013 and 2014 Norway Chess tournaments Sergei Karjakin.

  While the Grand Chess Tour is, well grand, the Candidates Tournament is in my opinion the most anticipated tournament of this year or last year because the stakes of a shot at the World Championship trumps the Grand Chess Tour’s prize money. All these players (Peter Svidler and Levon Aronian round out the field.) have won top level tournaments in the past and are capable of doing so in March. A lot will depend on if anyone breaks out to a fast start and forces the rest of the field to play catchup. Two years ago Anand won the tournament with 3 wins and 11 draws while Topalov finished last with 2 wins, 4 losses, and 6 draws. If this year’s tournament plays similarly close to the vest I can see Giri winning the tournament since he rarely loses. If it becomes a race to get wins I like the chances of Nakamura, Karjakin, or Caurana since they have demonstrated the ability to pile up the wins. Anand, Topalov, Aronian, and Svidler seem too old to win this sort of grueling 14 round tournament but it didn’t stop Anand two years ago.

  With the Candidates tournament, a World Championship match, the Grand Chess Tour, traditional tournaments like Wijk aan Zee, Qatar, Gilbralter, etc.. as well as an actively playing world champion 2016 has the possibility to be the best chess year ever.

  Another great tournament kicks off this week – the NFL Playoffs. For the fourth year in a row I will be making predictions for each of the four rounds in an attempt to win mythical cash and maintain my own playoff winning streak. In 2013 I won $95 after winning my Super Bowl catchup bet. 2014 saw me up $380 heading into the final three games of the season which I promptly lost to end up only $50 in the black. Last year I picked the over on the Super Bowl and ended up with $140 profit when the Patriots scored with 2:02 left in the game to make the score 28-24 and comfortably over the line of 47.5. The first round of this years playoffs are the most evenly matched I've ever seen so I will have to be on my toes to try to get off to a good start. I will be using the betting lines are from the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page for entertainment purposes only with no real money being wagered.

Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans
The 9-7 Texans are starting Brian Hoyer at quarterback while the last Chief quarterback to win a playoff game was Joe Montana in 1994. This should be a game where the defenses dominate, I think the Texans will be undone by offensive turnovers and will take the Chiefs for $110 to cover the 3 points and make me $100.

Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings
The high in Minneapolis is scheduled to be 10 degrees above zero on Sunday which is drawing me away from picking the over of 40 points. Instead I will pick the Seahawks to shut down Adrian Peterson, force Teddy Bridgewater into mistakes, and win this game by more than the 5 point spread and win me $100 on a $110 bet.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
It should be a rainy day in Cincinnati with temperatures in the 40's. This may hold down the scores but I think the Steelers offense is so dynamic and their defense is so porous that I will bet $110 on the over of 46 points. A 27-20 game sounds about right to me!

Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins
The Redskins haven't beaten anyone of note this year while the Packers have beaten their division rivals Vikings, Bears, and Lions on the road while losing to each of those teams at Lambeau Field. The Packers have been playing so poorly over the last 10 games (4-6) that I will bet $110 on home cooking and take the Redskins to win and cover the point they are giving the Packers.