Top players and their limitations – open for debate

On Friday we received an email from a book reviewer congratulating us on the outcome of the referendum, where the Scottish people declined the proposed secession from the United Kingdom. I answered him, stating that we were actually divided in the office on the best way forward, with one declared supported, two clear no-votes, one “evil referendum” opinion and two undeclared.

Only 45% voted that “Scotland should be an independent country”. 55% voted for – well, the politicians are still debated what, because no one really knows. Let’s call it “something else”. Amusingly the Yes-campaign leaders are now furiously trying to define it, while the Conservative Prime Minister is trying to make it all about England…

Ok, I have now mentioned politics. Can I move on please? I suffered enough nervous breakdowns during the never-ending campaign. I do not wish for another one…

I am very busy this week, holding a training camp for a young promising player. It is reminding me how difficult chess really is, while the skills we need are very simple. We were talking about strong players and what their failings were. My favourite example is one of my favourite players, Peter Leko.

Leko almost took Kramnik’s crown in 2004, but has since slowly declined. He is only in his mid-30s, but despite leading Hungary to silver medals in Tromso, he is very much seen as a has-been. Also by his fans (me).

So what is wrong with Leko? Just to be controversial, I will give it an unashamed swing.

Leko has great opening preparation, though it has been a bit less fantastic in recent years (maybe the motivation is lacking).
Leko’s technique is quite good. When he was at his best, he tried to get an opening advantage and then outplay his opponent’s technically. When it worked, it was very impressive.
Leko is very good at simple positional decisions. He hardly ever gets them wrong, no matter how difficult they are (simple and easy are not the same words).
Leko calculates reasonably well.

The problem as I see it with Leko is that he does not have a good sense of dynamics. This is far more common than you may think, but the reason it is especially clear with Leko is that he opens with 1.e4 in most of his white games. I have seen him annotate many games where he explains that he missed some dynamic option on account of a miscalculation. Well, only computers calculate accurately at all times. As humans we have to sense that something is going in the right direction, so we can dig deeper in the right direction. If the winning lines are outside human reach, we need to be able to trust our feeling. And if you have little dynamic feeling, you simply will not find the right way often enough to stick in the top 5.

At least this is my analysis. The floor is open for discussion (of top players and their limitations! Not politics).

45 thoughts on “Top players and their limitations – open for debate”

  1. Ivanchuk and his nervous system is the easy one.

    Grischuk I guess that his weakest point is his time management.

    Anand is old ( and in the good old days… too fast?)

    Morozevich doesn’t have a good repertoire.

    Aronian… humm maybe is not in good form in the right moment?? or just maybe he is very nice guy… and like Fischer said you have to be one the bad guys.

    Just for naming some players I am pretty sure that it is much more complicated than that.

  2. The Leko critique sounds like something I read in the “Attacking Manual” annotations to Leko vs Topalov, San Luis 2005, rd1. Also similar to a comment from the 2003 game collection by Soloviov: “At age of 14, Peter Leko’s knowledge of the modern chess theory and technique are much better than his evaluation of the dynamic positions. It would be more correct to say that Leko feels not entirely confident in a dynamic fight. Nevertheless he’s got a perfect sense of danger.”

  3. Are you really saying that Leko is not dynamic in play because he begins with 1.e4?
    I don’t think your first move will influence how dynamic your play is. There will be an move response by black, which quite often determines the opening and frequently white in the next couple of moves may influence the variation of this opening, which may steer toward open, semi-open or closed. So often white has a huge influence where the dynamics of the game will steer. To attribute just to 1.e4 is not true I think, especially as the game evolves in the middle game.
    The placement of pieces, tempo and king safety etc all features of dynamic play in the game I don’t think can be attributed to 1.e4. Possibly Jacob you are making us think about how we play rather than the merits of 1.e4 v 1.d4 or alternatives.

  4. I’m a big Leko fan as well but sometimes it looks to me like he’s addicted to control. But sometimes, in chess as well as life, it’s not holding on that makes us stronger but instead letting go.

  5. I’m a big fan of Leko as well, his commentary at Zurich earlier this year was incredible. I remember he also did a couple rnds commentary during the Anand-Gelfand WCh match with Dirk Jan Geuzendam, this was very good too. He has a beautiful way of getting to the heart of any position he’s looking at telling you what each player is thinking about in the given position, if Chess ever gets a serious viewing audience I hope he gets a commentary role for it. As a player I like his technical but solid and positional style. I see him as a cross between 2 other players I like i.e. Kramnik and Adams. It’s sad that he was unable to draw the final game of his match with Kramnik, I imagine it took a lot of out him to narrowly miss out like that. We see a similar thing with Kramnik today, I don’t think Vladimir has fully recovered from the London Candidates 2013. Sticking with Leko though; 35 years old in chess terms is still young, 4 out of the top 6 are now in their 30s. Gelfand’s run to the WCh in his 40s is a prime example of what can be achieved with the right motivation and determination. It’s hard for me to visualise Leko getting another shot at the WCh, I think he’s capable of it if he can get his mojo back.
    Aronian on the other hand is a sad case, he has always been earmarked as a WCh contender for such a long time but I fear he doesn’t have that “killer instinct” when it comes to the Candidates tournaments. I think his problem is may be his too nice of a guy, I think the best thing for him would be to work with someone like Kasparov for a month. I was watching the Kasparov-Carlsen doubles exhibition games after the Sinquefeld cup and you could see how passionate Kasparov still is at wanting to win even in friendly games. I think all the World Champions have this “killer instinct” and Aronian needs to develop it, at 31 yrs old he has plenty of time but it would be a great tragedy if he never got his chance in a WCh match.
    Ivanchuk’s is probabaly the saddest story of all, unlimited potential, but he has no nerves left. Nothing would give me more pleasure to see Ivanchuk tear up a future Candidates tournament and take the crown by force.
    Nakamura is a true fighter and has great tenacity, he reminds me of a tazmanian devil when he’s on form. I think it’s well documented his personal score against Carlsen, his loss against Carlsen in Zurich was painful to watch. I think he’s capable of becoming WCh, however, he really needs to solve his psychological problems when it comes to facing Carlsen. I realise Carlsen is the strongest player in the world, but Nakamura should not have a -10 (something like this?) score against anyone in the world, regardless of whether it’s Carlsen.

  6. @Ed
    Isn’t it true that in general play after 1.e4 is more dynamic than after 1.d4, so any shortcomings in this area becomes more apparent if you play 1.e4? That’s how I understoord Jacob’s remark on this.

  7. @Ed: The way I read it, he’s saying that Leko’s problems with dynamic play are especially noticeable because he plays 1.e4. Maybe if you play 1.d4 you can rely on technique more, but with 1.e4 you need the dynamic instinct more often.

  8. Nakamura seems to lack some depth in his play. He is very dangerous, but he rarely outplays the top guys. I fear that you cannot rely on practical skills to the extent he does and make it to the top spot. But I am not sure.

    Kramnik’s downfall is quite interesting. He said that he had no idea why things were not working at the moment. It really is not easy to see.

    Ivanchuk has been great for 25 years, but I doubt he has ever been the strongest. Not only because of his great nerves.

    The few comments that did not understand what I said I will just ignore.

  9. Any opinions on Giri? As a complete amateur I sometimes feel there’s something missing, his play seems so dry, he doesn’t play often enough… and then he always show just how little I understand by just continuing to rise in the standings. I note he’s #7 on the live list right now at 2768, unbelievable.

  10. Well…even Carlsen is not so strong…he plays solid but dull…he hasn’t a good dynamic instict…he isn’t so good in defending slightly worse position…and he hasn’t a good opening repertoire…

  11. Nakamura seems to lack the positional subtlety I see from Carlsen, Caruana, Karpov etc. He seems more like a calculator who likes risk. Giri reminds me of him a lot as well. I enjoyed watching Morezevich wipe him out and then shrug him off when he rattled off variations in the post-game analysis. Kasparov seemed to have it all – the positional strength (which clearly developed leaps and bounds in his matches with Karpov), good opening prep and a great feel for dynamics. His weakness is not really on the chess board but off of it – because he is so arrogant; that doesn’t win you friends. Karpov, I sense, may have been lazy. Then there was his endurance. Carlsen also strikes me as lazy but can hyper-focus when needed. I’m not seeing much weakness from Caruana lately other than the weird impulse to castle in the Carlsen game.

  12. So we’re dissing top players?

    Excellent! Allow me to join in. (Just for fun obviously, no disrespect intended)

    Carlsen: Risk of underestimating the opponent and not working hard enough at home.
    Caruana: Some difficulty in sealing the win. Doesn’t see himself as an absolute top player.
    Topalov: One sided style. Wants to play brilliantly rather than good.
    Aronian: Bit of a swashbuckling style. Not good at defending dry positions.
    Grischuk: Doesn’t take chess seriously enough to be the best.
    Anand: Lost some of his sharpness. Doesn’t handle pressure all that well.
    Giri: Strong classical player. Missing some creativity. Doesn’t play well when taken out of his comfort zone.
    Karjakin: Strong classical player. Missing some creativity. Satisfied with his current strength.
    Nakamura: Overconfident, doesn’t learn from mistakes.
    Mamedyarov: Loves complications a bit too much, not practical, not the greatest sense of danger.
    Kramnik: Over reliant on his class. Prone to blunders.

  13. @Raul
    Oh yes…just for fun I’d add
    Capablanca – bad opening repertoire
    Fischer – doesn’t handle well irrational positions
    Kasparov – not good in defending passive positions

  14. I think Kramnik simply has the problem that todays tournaments are more hard fought than the ones of his high time. It is simply not enough these days to win two games and draw the rest to become the winner. Kramnik lacks the energy to go for more, if he tries, plunders occur.

  15. @Thomas
    I know Nakamura said something similar about Kramnik – that he won the rapid match against him because Kramnik was not used to people defending well against him.

    Personally I found that a bit, well what should I say, rubbish?!

    Anand just won the candidates, the most important event of the year, by three wins in 14 games and the rest drawn. I am not sure this strategy is dead.

    Kramnik clearly has struggled with form lately. He said in a Chess24 interview that he had no idea why, that it was just what happened. I also have no theory. The suggestion that he has not recovered from losing the last game of the 2013 candidates is interesting, but he did win the World Cup subsequently…

  16. Iirc (corrections are welcome) it was former US women champion Lisa Lana saying about Bobby Fischer, that he was the greatest chess player ever. Confronted with this statement Mr. Fischer said something like: She is right, but she cannot assess it.

    My respect for every player once in the FIDE 500 top players list let me handle the articles question in another way. (And Leko IS stronger than top 500!) What would make me study Leko’s games? According to several strong masters he’s good at squeezing little advantages. So I would try to understand his thinking there. Observing sometimes his games online I was confronted with (for me) surprising and interesting tactical motives too.

    The question of decline is a personal one and the reasons should be kept in the dark as each person has the right of his private life. Sometimes this has nothing to do with chess and if so only the concerned has the right to tell more.

  17. interesting topic.

    I am not much aware of Anand winning long games like Carlsen. Caruana is still growing as chess player and seems to lack the intutive understanding of certain positions like Anand but compensates by calculating better

    Nakamura and topalov have a similar attitude of wanting to be aggressive like Kasparov but not able to digest the complications

    Carlsen doesn’t seem to have a chess weakness. maybe a psychological weakness like Ego maybe?

  18. @Jupp53
    Leko’s games are super instructive. Especially when he annotates them himself. It is not for nothing he is one of my favourite players. This does not mean he has no weaknesses of course.

  19. @Jacob Aagaard
    Leko really is a very very gifted player and although he made it to a match for the Word Championship there was always the impression that he never really fullfilled the promise, whatever the reason is for that.

  20. @Jacob Aagard. Any word about Caruana? he’s growing fast and after Sinquefield Cup seems nobody can stop him to fight against Carsen for the crown. The main difference between them is – imho – that Carsen has a great talent, while Caruana has strong will and he’s a great worker on the chessboard. After K vs K we will have a C vs C struggle 🙂

  21. @simone Dont forget to ask Anand what he thinks about it. Carlsen should work more on openings and on respect to “weaker” players. He played like coffe player on olympiad in some games. Giving material for no compensation playing strange openings. I predict Anand will return his crown. Fide is also making some nonchess pressure on magnus because of kasparov. There is a lot if good players but they dont have opportunity to show their talent and knowledge on closed competitions.

  22. Kostas Oreopoulos

    There is a clear correlation between age and creativity, or better education and creativity. The more “educated” you become the less creativy you are, because you learn to think on predifined patterns.

    Carlsen: Main weakness is the reluctance to enter complications. Many times, not willing to giving chances to the opponent ends up bad n his side. Pro: super precise. Very good even when off form.

    Anand & Kramnik: Age is a huge factor here. Affects both consistency and creativity, with Anand being the less creative (and thus more predictable).

    Caruana: I really like the way he plays. He is very balanced. He does not avoid complications, his preparation is excellent. He is the one with the most chances against Carlsen. The main drawback for him is that its much harder to play consistently the type of chess he plays, so more fluctuations in his play is more likely to happen than Carlsen. In a very long much , Carlsen would have the upper hand, but in 8-12 games, if Caruana is on top form the much is open.

    Aronian: Very creative, plays the correct amount of non-standard chess to outbalance his opponent. It looks to me that as he grows up, he will face more problems because he will have much harder time to off balance opponents

    Nakamura: He is the perfect example of thinking out of the box. The problem is that with players like Carlsen and Caruana, this kind of play is not effective. What’s more in a match, it requires to much energy which is not humanly possible to have. If you remember the young Kasparov in the first match, he tried to play dynamically against Karpov and that resulted in a 5-0 lead for the Karpov side. He had to adjust and that was a big achievement. I do not think that Nakamura can adjust. Its too late for that to happen.

    Grichuk: If he could play at his best all the time, he could be at the top of the ranking list. He has a great balance of strategic play and non-standard chess. He can change pace in a game. But probably nerves are missing

  23. @chessman
    Carlsen’s chess at the Olympiad was a combination between a few factors in my opinion. Lack of opening preparation (Peter Heine Nielsen on maternity leave…), lack of motivation (Norway were never going to do really really well) and indeed lack of respect for his opponents.

    I felt it was (embarrassing and) immature behaviour. But we have all experimented and been punished. If he had been 30 years old, I would have removed the brackets. When you are 23 you are allowed to learn these things on your own.

    Anand will be freer in the match. Playing in India is clearly not good for him and he never wanted it or looked for it. I think he was ok with Chennai 2013 because he in his heart of hearts had given up defending the title. I do not think he feels he is without chance this year and you can see that his play in Bilbao is good this time, while previous years before matches it has been appalling.

    I do not believe his creativity is impaired. Look at the game with Aronian last year. I really cannot see why people at age 45 should have less creativity by definition. People who continue to want to be creative, will be, in my opinion. A lot of people stop wanting to change things, stop wanting to be revolutionaries. Grow content if you like. And sure, this happens rarely to 20 year olds and often to 40+ guys like myself :-).

  24. @Lars
    Can I give the short answer: He cannot calculate. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I think it is true. Otherwise he is an amazing player and in no way do I mean any disrespect. Everyone have weaknesses and to me this seems to be his.

    Btw. By calculation I mean the ability to find things you do not see quickly. I know this is not the traditional term, but it is the only one that makes sense when you teach the damn thing :-).

  25. @Simone
    I was chatting to Caruana at the Carribian party in Tromso. It is a pleasure to see how he is these days. Friendly, happy, confident. The Italian team of young great guys is really good company for him, I think. And he is good company for them.

    The only quote I want to share is concerning the Berlin: “I don’t mind it anymore.” But this is also a good one.

    I think he is coming close to being the ideal player. He has been trained for a decade in constant solving. Most of his chess education has been without computers. With Chuchelov he has finally focused on openings in a way that suits him and has also benefited in other ways from working with him, I think, but really, I do not know.

    The Sinquefield Cup performance was of course out of this World and by far the best result in chess history (though I am not sure the tournament was the strongest in chess history; Las Palmas 1996 is the contender). But why did it happen? The other players really played poorly. I mean, really really.

    The thing about random is that it does not spread its fruits evenly. That is what planning looks like. So, in a tournament where Caruana was in top form, Carlsen played poorly against him and ridiculously took on f7. Losing in a way he rarely does. Nakamura played awfully in the tournament – look at how he lost to Carlsen. Aronian dropped I don’t know how many rating points.

    Luck is the fortuitous collision of happy factors. In this case luck was with Caruana.

    Does this mean that he is the threat to Carlsen? No. Aronian has been close for years, but placed nowhere in the Candidates match.

    With Boris we estimated that winning a World Championship match is hard. Maybe Short had the least chance in modern times, but all other challengers had at least 35-40% chance. We can easily see a lot of matches ending with a different winner, if only he had played…

    But winning the candidates? Carlsen was on top form in 2013 and won by a collision of happy coincidences. Radjabov gifted him 2x 1/2 a point. Losing in the last round did not cost him the win and the tie-break was with him.

    What was his chance to win, looking afterwards? 35%. Is that even high?

    Caruana could easily run into a Gelfand and an Anand on a good day and be out of the running before the tournament had gone underway.

    We just do not know. Reaching the top spot is really really hard. And the credit for doing so is greater now than it was for someone like Kramnik, who played two matches as challenger, without qualifying for them at all. Not that he was not strong enough to be a fair choice; but that qualifying by being chosen is an easier and less fair way than qualifying by qualifying…

  26. @Kostas Oreopoulos
    Good observations. If I agree with one of two details, I think it would be ungrateful for your contribution here to start of a discussion on it. I agree with most and I am happy for your contribution.

  27. Jacob Aagaard :
    Leko’s games are super instructive. Especially when he annotates them himself. It is not for nothing he is one of my favourite players. This does not mean he has no weaknesses of course.

    What about a QC book: “My best games” by leko 😉

  28. @Fer
    I would love it if Peter annotated the games. He annotates his games brilliantly. But I should mention that the Chess Stars book on his games is fantastic.

  29. ChessInquisitor

    Interesting thread. I always taught Leko was simply burnt out with chess. He was an amazing child prodigy and so has had a long career despite his young age. At some point I think he got frustrated by the inability to maintain his level among the elite without putting in a lot of hard work. I get the impression being at the top is no longer a driving ambition and he’s happy with his chess achievements to date.
    There are other prodigies for whom chess came so naturally that it became a hindrance for progress. Reshevsky is my favorite example, touring all over Europe giving simuls as a kid and burnt out as an adult that he never put in the hours of study that could let him compete at the same level as the Russian stars. Among the champions, Capablanca had the same shortcoming, an incredible natural talent but defeated by the harder working Alekhine.

    1. I do not see any suggestion in Leko’s play or development that he was a special talent. He reacted very well to the training he did with Karolyi and later others. Is this talent? Maybe. But clearly he was very focused. I just feel that he went the wrong way at some point, focusing 95% only on openings (his words in 2003/4). I think 50-70% is probably a better ratio at that level.

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