Chess faces off with the digital age

Chess faces off with the digital age

This year’s edition of the World Chess Championship will be the first to feature two combatants who both grew up in the sport’s digital era

Magnus Carlsen is the ideal face for contemporary chess. He’s good looking, well-spoken, and tremendously good at what he does. The Norwegian is more media friendly than young stars of the past.

Magnus Carlsen is more media friendly than other previous chess champions. Pic: Getty

Magnus Carlsen is more media friendly than other previous chess champions. Pic: Getty

Magnus Carlsen is the ideal face for contemporary chess. He’s good looking, well-spoken, and tremendously good at what he does. The Norwegian is more media friendly than young stars of the past.

A grandmaster at 13, he took the world title aged 22 in 2013, and has helped give chess the mainstream media it craves in the west. He was also the first world champion to grow up in an era where computer programmes could truly aid elite prospects. For context, Garry Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in 1997 when Carlsen was 6, just a year after the Norwegian had first played the game. Now there is freeware that can best the mightiest player.

Carlsen’s ascension to the top of the sport has come through a transition of generations. When he won the title and retained it in 2014, his opponent was India’s Viswanathan Anand. At 41, Anand is part of the relative old guard – the generation that followed Kasparov’s peak, for whom their formative years could only truly gain from playing other humans but who could see the rise of technology in chess.

While still a crucial part of a player’s development, it isn’t the same environment that this new generation of grandmasters grew up in – one where there was expectation to lose to the machine, using that experience to best the best humanity could offer.

The access to training at a high level is simply better now. In the old Soviet Union days, the greatest asset to players from the USSR was their proximity to talent. More games against top players allowed more top players to develop. It was why it became by a broad margin the deepest and most dominant nation in the sport.

Today, players anywhere can access top grade software to aid their development. That’s leading to a lot more good players hitting the top tier young. Of the 10 youngest players ever to achieve grandmaster status, eight are currently under 30. The other two are 30 and 33.

There’s far more depth at the top with the increased access to digital tools. There is now huge preparation in advance of games, with more data than ever available on opponents. These past games aren’t just easier to access with a computer, the software can suggest ideas on what to do about the way that opponent plays.

Even the human factor is being influenced by the digital age. Prodigies in a country or region without direct access to top coaches now regularly engage in Skype sessions with the best trainers. When Bobby Fischer broke through in his mid teens he was the exception, prodigies needed time and those outside the USSR needed more of it to get to the top.

In the Cold War, a Norwegian like Carlsen not only wouldn’t have been likely to make the breakthrough to grandmaster status so young (he remains the third youngest GM ever) it’s hard to see how he could ascend to the top of the tree at any stage purely because of how limited his access would have been.

In November Carlsen faces off with Sergey Karjakin, a 26-year-old Russian, for the title in New York. This is the first time two men who have only ever known this digital age will square off for the title. Like Carlsen he also became a grandmaster while young, in fact he’s still the youngest GM on record having become the first only player to do so before turning 13.

What these two players represent is the growing depth of top tier talent the digital age has brought to chess. An extraordinary once in a generation talent like Fischer would, at his best, still be up there but there are far more Fischer grade players now than ever before. Software is, to some degree, democratising chess. More players have more of an opportunity now to prove they can be the best. They just make one click and get to work.

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By Emmet Ryan

Emmet Ryan is editor of Connected and a business & technology reporter with the Sunday Business Post. Ryan is also the beer and betting columnist along with hosting our successful Connected podcast. In 2009, he was named Journalist of the Year at the IIA NetVisionary Awards and won the Alumni Choice award at the 2014 Business Journalist Awards.

 

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