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Anand in Blunderland
January/February 2015

Viswanathan "Vishy" Anand: He failed to spot his opponent Magnus Carlsen's elementary blunder (photo: Stefan64)

For as long as chess is played by humans, there will be dreadful blunders — even at world championship level. Proof — as if it were needed — came in the recent match for the supreme title between Magnus Carlsen and his challenger, the previous world champion Vishy Anand.

The scores were level going into the sixth game, but by move 26 Carlsen had established a tremendous bind on the position. Then he played an astonishingly careless move, allowing a simple combination which would most likely have given the Indian victory. If that had happened, Anand would have taken the lead in the match with a good chance of regaining the title — a sensation, given that at 44 the Indian was supposed to be over the hill.

But Anand, barely without pause, instead played the move which fitted in with his existing strategy. When he did so, Carlsen instantly rectified his error — and then slumped forward with his head almost touching the board. He was clearly trying to communicate to Anand that something extraordinary had just happened: only then did the Indian realise, and began shaking his own head.

This was close to gamesmanship by the Norwegian. He admitted later that he had realised his own blunder the instant he played it; but if he had shown any emotion at that point, Anand would have sensed something was not right and spent time to find the correct response. By somehow forcing Anand to understand that he had failed to exploit a tremendous opportunity, Carlsen played havoc with his opponent's peace of mind — as even the battle-hardened Indian showed only too well: he put up little fight in what remained of the game, or indeed the match.

Yet this was not the biggest blunder in the history of the world championship, not by a long way. Perhaps the worst — in terms of its immediate consequences — occurred in the 23rd game of the 1892 match between the defending champion Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin of Russia. Chigorin had achieved a winning position; victory would have tied the match at nine wins each, at which point the rules specified a play-off. Incredibly, however, Chigorin played a move which allowed his opponent to mate him on the spot — and the match ended there and then with Steinitz the victor 10-8.

Perhaps it wasn't so incredible: and not just because both players drank alcohol during the games (champagne for Steinitz, brandy for Chigorin). At moments of the greatest excitement, blunders are more rather than less likely to occur. That is why some beginners' chess books advise children to sit on their hands while playing. That was advice which even Bobby Fischer might have regretted not taking in the first game of his epic match against Boris Spassky in 1972. On move 29 Spassky left a pawn en prise and Fischer, without a great deal of thought, grabbed it with his Bishop. It turned out that with a simple manoeuvre six moves later Spassky could snare Fischer's voracious Bishop — a simple trap which normally Fischer would spot in a split-second. But the first game of a world championship match is anything but normal, especially if you have never been in such a situation before: I remember Nigel Short telling me how in the first game of his 1993 world title match against Garry Kasparov he had the peculiar sensation that he was looking down on himself — a true out of body experience and hardly conducive to calculating variations accurately.

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