The world’s best chess players are too good to win

Since Friday, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen and Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi have been spending their days in a glass box in Dubai, vying for the 2021 World Chess Championship. It is a title that the challenger Nepomniachtchi hopes to snatch from Carlsen, the World No. 1, who has held it since 2013. But neither has given up yet, and Tuesday’s Game 4 ended in a draw of 33 moves in 2.5 hours , the fastest match of the game so far. After four consecutive draws, the score is 2-2. The top 14 game could run until mid-December.

Although none of the Grandmasters have won a game, their match remains impressive in itself: it appears to be the most accurate world chess championship ever played, the closest to Platonic perfection of the game.

Carlsen checked the white pieces on Tuesday, his 31st birthday. After two pawns and two knights entered the fray, mirror images of each other, the Grandmasters found themselves in Petrov’s opening for the first time in the match, to the surprise of many spectators but probably not to Carlsen.

“Magnus has prepared a lot for the Petrov,” said Robert Hess, commenting for, noting that Carlsen had faced Fabiano Caruana, the top American and one of the great practitioners of the opening, in the previous championship. of the world.

Checkers were traded early on the chessboard, and the game stayed well in the known database until move 18, when Carlsen attempted a new knight in h4, which was soon accompanied by a boldly thrown pawn. in g4. Maybe an attack was launched!

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said expert Petrov Caruana, commenting alongside Hess.

For a moment it looked like Carlsen was on to something – if something small. “We are talking about microscopic benefits, but there is no one in the world better to experience microscopic benefits than Magnus Carlsen,” former world champion Viswanathan Anand said on the game’s official broadcast.

But the microscopic advantage never multiplied, dying on his lab slide. Nepomniachtchi responded accurately – despite (or because of) the fact that he had both removed his blazer and unfolded his shirt – and the game ended after perpetual control and a triple repetition of position.

“I tried something concrete, and it didn’t work,” Carlsen said after the game. “The state of modern chess, what can I say? “

Exact is the word of the game so far. Inevitably, the series of prints is Dubai’s main narrative; no one has won a regulation game at the world championship for more than five years. But wins at this rarefied level are more often than not due to an opponent’s error, as Nepomniachtchi himself noted earlier in the game, and these players simply didn’t make any mistakes. Many suspect that chess, with a perfect game, is a guaranteed draw.

The Lichess chess website and its community of developers investigated this accuracy this week, using the Stockfish computer engine to analyze every world championship match ever played, comparing the actual movements of players to the calculated movements of the computer. .

Accuracy has increased over the decades and accelerated as superhuman computers passed on their lessons. So far, this year’s world championship has seen the most perfect game in the event’s 135-year history; Sunday’s Game 3 looks like the most accurate league game ever, and Game 4 looked just as strong.

Chess games are often rated by computers using the “average centipion loss” metric – that is, how many hundredths of a pawn on average a player deviates from the strongest move available. Zero represents a perfectly precise game. The graph below shows the combined average loss of centipawns per game, slipping to zero over more than 1,000 games.

Despite near-perfection, the series of draws renewed calls, led by Carlsen himself, to revamp the world championship format. A common suggestion is to cut down on the time allotted to players, giving them less time to think about their computerized preparation and reintroducing – dare I say it – the human element, errors and all. (Nepomniachtchi, for example, suggested on Tuesday that he had gone over all the moves that would occur in Game 4 in his preparation.) It might even – gasp – reintroduce wins and losses. Nepomniachtchi, for his part, said he values ​​tradition.

Game 5 begins Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. EST. We’ll cover the whole game here and on Twitter, and we too will strive for computer perfection, clinging to our centipawns.

Seven games by Oliver Roeder

For even more articles on chess and other games, check out Roeder’s new book, “Seven Games: A Human History,»Available in January.

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