Features Dec 31, 2014 | 1:55 PMby Colin McGourty

5 chess articles you might have missed in 2014

Although it’s hard to claim having Magnus Carlsen as a photogenic World Champion has catapulted chess into the limelight in anywhere other than Norway there’s been no lack of mass media interest in the royal game in 2014. Hugely popular websites such as Slate, Wired and Medium have featured articles on chess that you may have missed, including how chess will both destroy your mind and shrink your brain! We also found out about the survival rates for chess pieces and have some bonus year-end interviews with Viswanathan Anand.

1. Why Chess Will Destroy Your Mind  

Clive Thompson’s article on Medium has a great introduction:

Let’s take a trip back to 1859, when our mental environment faced a dire new threat. An upstart form of entertainment was exerting a hypnotic, addictive pull on our fragile minds, forcing them to engage in a useless, pointless activity that threatened everyday cognition. Sober cultural critics patiently critiqued and denounced the new pastime, but to no avail. The population was addicted. We were doomed.

I speak, of course, of chess.

The starting point of the article is an 1859 Scientific American report which lamented the chess craze caused by the spectacular rise of the all-conquering Paul Morphy. Just one highlight:

Chess has acquired a high reputation as being a means to discipline the mind, because it requires a strong memory and peculiar powers of combination. It is also generally believed that skill in playing it affords evidence of a superior intellect. These opinions, we believe, are exceedingly erroneous. Napoleon the Great, who had a great passion for playing chess, was often beaten by a rough grocer in St. Helena. Neither Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, nor any of the great ones of the earth, acquired proficiency in chess-playing. Those who become the most renowned players seem to have been endowed with a peculiar intuitive faculty for making the right moves, while at the same time they seem to have possessed very ordinary faculties for other purposes. A game of chess does not add a single new fact to the mind; it does not excite a single beautiful thought; nor does it serve a single purpose for polishing and improving the nobler faculties.

Clive Thompson doesn’t just dismiss the 19th century concern:

Here’s the thing, though: We can chuckle at what seems like a nutty, off-base argument — except the author makes some extremely good points.  

Read the full article on Medium here.

2. Beware, Playing Lots of Chess Will Shrink Your Brain!

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Christian Jarrett’s article for Wired had an even more alarming title, although when you read on you’ll find that you can add, in brackets, “but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing”. 

Here’s the introduction:

The newspapers love using neuroscience findings to make us feel bad about our less salubrious habits. Earlier this year they had a field day with a study that purported to show time spent watching online porn shrinks the brain. Even more recently, we were warned about multi-tasking with our digital devices: “Multi-tasking makes your brain smaller,” exclaimed the Daily Mail. Similar claims have been made for video gaming and junk food. The message is usually the same – you already knew porn/junk food/gaming etc was bad, well now scientists tell us it ACTUALLY SHRINKS YOUR BRAIN, as if this is the final definitive proof for the evilness of the deeds in question.

What none of these news reports tell you is that brain shrinkage can be a good thing. Indeed, it’s a mistake to think that bigger means better when it comes to brain power (this is “Myth 21″ in my new book Great Myths of the Brain). Elephants and whales have massive brains, but they’re not the cleverest animals on the planet; bees have tiny brains and are very smart. Moreover, localised brain shrinkage can be a sign of increased neural efficiency. Also it’s worth remembering how, through adolescence, our brains don’t just keep getting bigger and bigger; rather they undergo a massive pruning back of excess grey matter.

The idea that localised brain shrinkage isn’t necessarily bad is brought home wonderfully by a new brain scanning study of elite chess players. Jürgen Hänggi took structural MRI scans and diffusion tensor imaging scans of 20 male expert players (including three grandmasters and seven international masters) and compared them with 20 male inexpert players. This is only the second study ever to look at the structural brain differences characteristic of elite chess players, and the first ever to also include a measure of white matter tracts (provided by the diffusion tensor scans).

So, did the elite chess players have huge bulbous temporal lobes for remembering all those chess formations? Did they have massively engorged frontal gyri for considering multiple moves at once? Actually no. There were few structural brain differences between the elite and non-elite players, and those differences that were observed all pointed in the same direction – to localised shrinkage in the brains of the grandmasters and their ilk.

Read the full article in Wired here.

3. Grandmaster Clash: One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed

The previous article may cast doubt on Seth Stevenson’s description of “Carlsen’s enormous brain”, but his Slate article on the Sinquefield Cup was surely the best chess tournament report of 2014 written for a general audience. His portraits of the world’s best players included:

Levon Aronian, the world No. 2, is a trim, 31-year-old Armenian in tailored clothes. Sadly, his distinctive eyewear will turn out to be more remarkable than anything he accomplishes in this tournament. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave—colloquially known, like many a Frenchman, by his three-letter monogram—is the weakest here by ranking, though, at 23 years old, MVL still has time to level up. Veselin Topalov, 38, is a former FIDE champ, but he now clings to world No. 6. The balding Bulgarian, narrow in face and lapel, is the eldest here by far and is already contemplating his inevitable fade from the top 10. He’s grown tired of the travel and the time spent away from his family. He doesn’t have the same thirst to study the game anymore, to keep up with new trends. “I don’t know what I’ll do,” he told me in a quiet moment when I asked him about his retirement plans. “I’m not going to show little kids how to move the pieces around. I’ll have to think about it.”

Or how about this in reference to Magnus Carlsen (note that here on chess24 Carlsen’s manager Espen Agdestein denied a couple of the claims Stevenson made in the article):

Carlsen is the only active chess player in the world whom someone other than chess geeks might recognize. That’s partly due to his accolades (grandmaster at 13; simultaneous world champion of standard chess, rapid chess, and blitz chess; highest-rated player of all motherfreaking time) and partly due to some external factors (a Western not Soviet upbringing; his excellent spoken English; his Viking bone structure, fjord-colored eyes, and hay bale of hair). Carlsen is followed everywhere he goes by a small Norwegian news team captained by a beautiful blonde woman who interviews the champ on camera after every one of his matches. He’s arguably the biggest international celebrity in a 10-mile radius. Maybe 20.

Of course what made the Sinquefield Cup such a good journalistic opportunity was that in arguably the strongest tournament of all time Fabiano Caruana went on an incredible seven game winning streak.

World-renowned photographer Harry Benson focuses on Caruana during the final round of the Sinquefield Cup. Caruana's opponent, Levon Aronian, saw his place as world no. 2 slip away during 2014 | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Stevenson talked to Caruana, who gave the following opinion of his greatest rival:

When asked to describe Carlsen’s play, Caruana raved about the Norwegian’s tenacity. “When he has an advantage he almost never lets it go. Where other players are maybe ready to accept a draw and go home, he's ready to work the extra two, three hours and convert his advantage, even if it's a really tiny one.” Caruana also confessed that he tries to “avoid” certain types of games against Carlsen. “In some positions you can't compete with him. Certain pawn structures he just plays like a machine. There are certain openings where I say, ‘I just can't do that.’ But OK, certain positions he's not as comfortable with. Just like any player, he can also play unconfidently.”

Read the full article on Slate here.

4. Practice Does Not Make Perfect

Another article on Slate – by David Z. Hambrick, Fernanda Ferreira, and John M. Henderson – began with chess:

A decade ago, Magnus Carlsen, who at the time was only 13 years old, created a sensation in the chess world when he defeated former world champion Anatoly Karpov at a chess tournament in Reykjavik, Iceland, and the next day played then-top-rated Garry Kasparov—who is widely regarded as the best chess player of all time—to a draw. Carlsen’s subsequent rise to chess stardom was meteoric: grandmaster status later in 2004; a share of first place in the Norwegian Chess Championship in 2006; youngest player ever to reach World No. 1 in 2010; and highest-rated player in history in 2012.

What explains this sort of spectacular success?

It goes on to discuss the theory, popularised above all by Malcolm Gladwell, that it’s nurture not nature that produces superstars in any field, with the magic number of 10,000 hours of practice required. The good news for any of us who feel we couldn’t become strong chess players regardless of how much effort we put in is that the theory seems to lack convincing evidence. The bad news when it comes to chess, though, is that starting early may make a difference:

In their study, Gobet and Campitelli found that chess players who started playing early reached higher levels of skill as adults than players who started later, even after taking into account the fact that the early starters had accumulated more deliberate practice than the later starters. There may be a critical window during childhood for acquiring certain complex skills, just as there seems to be for language.

Read the full article on Slate here.

5. What are the chances of survival of individual chess pieces in average games?

This question was posed on the hugely popular question-and-answer website Quora. The resulting answers included the following diagram:

As you can see, if anyone offers you the chance to be a “living” chess piece if you can’t be a king your best bet, perhaps surprisingly, is to be the h2-pawn, while the d2-pawn is all but doomed.  

Read the answers in full on Quora here (and note the animated version of the above diagram which shows the chances of a piece still surviving after a certain number of moves).

Bonus: Interviews with Viswanathan Anand

In 2014 India finished third in the Tromsø Olympiad and won the U16 Olympiad, results that unquestionably owe a lot to former World Champion Vishy Anand. It’s not only his success on the board that’s inspired a new generation, but his promotion work with his sponsors. Whenever he sets out on a tour of India a Google news search will bring up countless interviews. 

1. A New Interview with Anand

Articles in the Indian media can often appear a little shallow for a chess audience, but Jaideep Unudurti provided The Chess Mind with the full text of an interview he conducted with Anand after the London Chess Classic. It starts:

Q: Let’s go back to the dramatic last round. You got into the Berlin versus Adams who’d worked as Carlsen’s second. Were you worried about falling into ‘prep’?

I assumed if they had found something, Carlsen would have actually used it in the match. So there was some consolation that in fact they didn’t find anything very effective.

We had also checked it very well and in the end, it comes down to ‘do you trust your own analysis or do you get scared by ghosts?’

And the other thing I wanted to do was to avoid indecision at the last stage so I took a very quick call to just play this and stuck with it.

Keep reading here.

Vishy Anand ended 2014 the way he began it - with a trophy, this time for winning the London Chess Classic | photo: Ray Morris-Hill

2. Viswanathan Anand on the two C's in his life: Chess and Carlsen

Ashish Magotra’s interview for First Post is perhaps the best to appear in a non-specialist publication. He asks Anand, for instance, whether it’s intimidating to play against Carlsen given the way the World Champion still wins despite “sleeping” at the board and other potentially distracting behaviour:

I also close my eyes during matches - I have done it many times in the match. I have yawned too - sometimes when you are concentrating very hard for a while, you yawn. The tension is high and all of that happens. But all of that… doesn't matter. What matters is that at the end of all that, he makes good moves. His mannerisms don't amount to much and they are certainly not his weapons. Intimidation doesn't matter if you can't back it up with the right moves. That is what Carlsen does. There are no big mistakes and to do that consistently is very difficult.

The record is unbelievable. He has been at over 2860 plus Elo rating points for a long time now and he has maintained that rating with ease. It is the kind of rating that many people will never achieve and even in this lot, it is only Caruana who is close. So is he the most formidable player ever? That is hard to answer but in the current generation no one comes close.

There was good news for Vishy’s fans when he was asked about his plans for 2015 and beyond:

Well for starters, I am not thinking about retirement. I have been going around the country and in every press conference, they have asked me whether I am retiring. It is almost as if they have all gone and googled the question. But they haven’t googled my answer. I am not going anywhere. I am feeling good about my chess and in the next year, I am going to play a lot of chess. There are other tournaments than the World Championship and I want to go out there and enjoy myself. That is my plan... my only plan for now.

Read the full interview in First Post here.

That’s all for now… except to wish all our readers a Happy New Year from everyone here at chess24!

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