Full circle to the commentary box

The latest issue of New in Chess magazine arrived yesterday. It is as wonderful as ever, but I was particularly struck by two things.

The Carlsberg of chess magazines? On second thoughts, forget that – there’s no “probably” about it…

The first was a comment by Kramnik, on the subject of opening preparation. He made the interesting suggestion that the wheel may be turning full circle. Far from having to work more than ever, in order to keep up with the development of opening theory, he claimed that both he and other elite players are now working less than before. He says:

The times are changing. The opening knowledge of all players is now so huge that you cannot really make a difference in the opening anymore….You can see this recent tendency. Hardly any games are won in the opening any more. Even against a lower-rated player, you just don’t catch him anymore. Basically, these days you have to win a game with your playing qualities”

If he is right – and Kramnik should know – then I can only call for three cheers. Those of us who deplore the excess of opening preparation, to the exclusion of practically all else nowadays, can be greatly reassured by the thought that the top players are now spending less time on this aspect of the game, and more time on improving their endgame technique and raising their energy levels. Kramnik also makes the point that this approach suits Magnus Carlsen, who has never been a theory monster, to the same extent as the other top players. Carlsen strikes me as quite Laskerian in his approach, avowedly preferring to avoid a theoretical discussion and just fight in the middlegame and endgame.  Long may it continue!

The other revelation in  NIC 2012/1 came from the ever-frank and outspoken Nigel Short. Discussing his recent results, notably the London Classic, and the general issue of aging, he candidly confesses that he finds it really difficult to face extremely strong opposition these days, and that “these anxieties produce in me a chronic paralysis of action…Whereas a young enthusiast would relish the opportunity to cross swords with the world elite, for me it is the exact opposite”.

The chess world’s answer to Brian Johnston. Start baking your cakes now! (photo: Chessbase)

Never one to back down from confronting reality, he reveals that at the end of the last London Classic, “…I proposed to the director, Malcolm Pein, that perhaps he could invite me back in another capacity next year”. Thankfully, Malcolm is said to have “responded warmly” to this suggestion, and it looks as though next year, Nigel will be moving to the commentary box for the duration of the event. Those who have heard his immensely entertaining contributions to the commentary room over the past three years of the event will be delighted, although older hands, such as myself, cannot help feeling a tinge of regret at seeing one of England’s greatest players calling time on elite events. Anno domini, ’tis a cruel beast…

PS. Just for absolute clarity, I should emphasise that Nigel is very far from calling time on his playing career – organisers please note! All he is saying is that he no longer likes playing against members of the 2800 club day after day. As far as any kind of “normal” tournament is concerned, he is as keen as ever to play and do well. He makes the point in the NIC article that he won four first prizes in international events in 2011. Since the article was written, he has scored his best result for some years, in winning Gibraltar. So, in the words of the Russian saying, “there is still some gunpowder left in the powder-keg”!

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