Luke McShane

Streaks of brilliance

Last week, snooker ace Ronnie O’Sullivan won his sixth World Championship at the age of 44, a full 19 years on from his first title. A few days earlier, he had taken a pop at the younger generation: ‘They’re not that good really… I’ve probably got to lose an arm and a leg to fall outside the top 50!’

You wouldn’t expect the same blunt turn of phrase from Vishy Anand, but in terms of longevity, he’s the obvious counterpart in chess. Almost 25 years have passed since he first challenged Kasparov for the world title. Anand turned 50 last year, and just three years ago added another World Rapid Championship to his collection. Interviewed during the recent online ‘Legends of Chess’ event, Garry Kasparov noted his respect for today’s top players, but struck a critical note: ‘I still can hardly see the same competition that I experienced in the 1990s… While I thought about Ding, maybe Caruana, they don’t show the same kind of class and continuity as Vishy [Anand] or Kramnik…’

I don’t think his criticism was aimed at the absolute level of chess being played, which I suspect has never been higher. It’s more about perceiving an indefinable streak of brilliance in his rivals from the older generation. One can speculate that a chess education without computer assistance at its foundation was a key ingredient for those players, adding a dimension that later players can never fully appreciate. Still, Kasparov seems unduly harsh to Carlsen’s contemporaries. Caruana lost to Carlsen on tiebreak in their 2018 World Championship match, but the classical games were drawn 6-6, so his class is not in doubt. At the time, Caruana was just a year older than Anand was when he lost to Kasparov in 1995.

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