After alleged world title ‘blunderfest,’ chess world turns to St. Louis

The fun thing about watching chess in the Internet age is that you have no shortage of ideas about what’s going on. Yesterday, around move 40 of the 12th and final game in the World Chess Championship, defending champion Vishy Anand had either all but officially retained his title, blundered away his advantage, come up with some diabolical plan or run off to a corner to sing Carry On My Wayward Son in a fetal position.

Former world’s women champion Susan Polgar was among those who thought Anand had blown it on move 40, which was the last move before more time was added to the players’ clocks. He had a 40th-move mistake earlier in the match but was under much more time pressure in that game.

Polgar has since revised her post, but at the time, she was stunned. Before Anand played, she posted this: “40. Rf8+ The last hope for Topalov is for Anand to blunder with Kg7.”

Which is, of course, what Anand played. “Blunderfest,” screamed one of her commenters, in reference to that and an earlier blunder (confirmed upon further analysis) by challenger Veselin Topalov.

Over at Mig Greengard’s Chess Ninja Daily Dirt blog, several commenters were running computers to help them analyze the game for themselves. They found Kg7 wasn’t so bad after all.

Then Mig chimed in: “Did she really say that? Bizarre. Why would such a strong player, and she’s very strong, rely on 5 seconds of computer eval. … Maybe someone else with a comp is filling in for Susan at the moment. And he/she needs a quad-core.”

For the record, Polgar had said earlier that she wasn’t using computer analysis.

Anand made a few more surprising moves down the stretch, running contrary to several commenters’ suggestions that were bolder but may have backfired. The champion instead showed why he’s the champion, squeezing an advantageous position into a win.

Did either player fall apart on the big stage with big stakes? Jennifer Shahade, the chess organizer/commentator/writer/grandmaster, isn’t interested in second-guessing:

“I think it’s hard to be objective about the level of their play if you are exposed to computer analysis, which makes things too easy to find 🙂 That’s why I never do live commentary running an engine.”

You may have seen Shahade recently on ESPN2’s First Take or on in this promo for the U.S. Chess Championships, in which she and her brother compete to name the competitors:

Hikaru Nakamura is the last player named, but he’s also the favorite. He’s the defending champion and the highest-rated player. He isn’t just going to St. Louis for the U.S. Championships — he has relocated there because of the burgeoning chess scene.

“I think he’ll get great support there and this will help increase his chances of seizing the World Championship crown,” Shahade says. “I love Nakamura’s style, so I certainly will be rooting for him all the way.”

Geography, though, matters a little less in the Internet era. Shahade says Nakamura, who became a grandmaster at 15, “pretty much grew up” on the Internet Chess Club. And Shahade’s brother, Greg, is the commissioner of the U.S. Chess League, which eliminates travel costs by competing online.

Nakamura isn’t set to compete for the world title just yet. Gata Kamsky, who played Anatoly Karpov for one of the two pre-unification world titles in 1996, came back from a hiatus of several years in 2004 and worked his way back into the world championship cycle, losing to Topalov in the match that determined Anand’s challenger.

“I believe in Gata Kamsky,” Shahade says. “He’s a determined fighter.”

That doesn’t mean he’s taking up the new sport of “chessboxing,” though, which has drawn some publicity just because it seems so strange. Not that it’s strange to want some exercise while playing — Shahade sometimes gives demonstrations while hula-hooping. (Surely someone is hard at work creating hula-chess for the Wii.)

Clearly, the sport’s image is changing. Shahade, who wrote Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport (not quite as lurid as the title implies, but a compelling exploration of gender and competition), is one of many chess players encouraging more women to play. Her organization 9 Queens teaches girls and at-risk youths to play. Polgar has set up shop at Texas Tech. Women’s world champion Alexandra Kosteniuk keeps up a dizzying travel schedule.

And if you’re bored with fantasy baseball and can’t wait until fantasy football, play fantasy chess. My team is Nakamura, Shulman, Hess, Lenderman, Shankland and Krush. Catch me if you can. Tournament games start Friday.