Cold-blooded, pragmatic, melancholic even...

by ChessBase
4/14/2013 – These were some of the words that Vladimir Kramnik used in a recent interview to describe the victor of this year's Candidates Tournament, Magnus Carlsen. In the latest entry for the Herald Scotland, GM Jonathan Rowson depicts how the young super-star dashes his chess game with realism and sombreness and how it separates him from his predecessors.

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How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? It’s not a trick question, but in case you think it’s too easy, keep in mind that it was posed by Abraham Lincoln. The answer is not five, but four, because “Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg.”

The importance of Lincoln’s steadfast realism is highlighted by the writer Philip K Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.”

But is it good for us to ‘keep it real’? Could any of us get through the day without a little pinch of self-deception, a few grains of denial, perhaps just a wee dram of delusion?

Most of us do defy reality in this way, and perhaps that’s no bad thing. The expression ‘depressive realism’ refers to the clinically established fact that those who suffer from depression often tend to have a more objective grasp of reality than those who don’t.

A review of the relevant studies in 2012 found that, on balance, those with a propensity for depression often have a more realistic perception of their reputation and their capacity to control events than those who are not depressed. They also tend to have fewer self-enhancing biases, including the optimism bias, the trait that leads us to congratulate ourselves for saying the glass is half full, even when it’s 58.3% empty.

I have close family members with serious mental health problems, so I don’t want to treat the issue frivolously at all, but perhaps we can speak of some milder forms of depression as a kind of ‘denial deficit disorder’. Imagine the dystopic scene in which a tanned suburban Psychiatrist flashes a radiant smile to his highly intelligent but somewhat despairing patient: “The trouble with you, my boy, is that you need a bit more denial in your life. These pills should do the trick”.

These thoughts were prompted by a recent interview with Vladimir Kramnik (above), who shared first place with Magnus Carlsen in the recent Candidates tournament in London, but lost out on becoming World Championship Challenger due to the vicissitudes of the tiebreak system. He discusses the new challenger’s qualities at length, and I was particularly struck by the line: “…That’s the way he is. Cold-blooded, rather pragmatic, somewhat melancholic even.”

Somewhat melancholic? At first blush this sounds strange because the heir apparent is energetic, he smiles, laughs, enjoys his success, and appears to have a balanced personality, grounded in the support of a loving family.

But I know what Kramnik means. I played Carlsen a few years ago, and have watched him several times since. He does have a latent lugubrious quality that manifests in his facial expressions and body language while playing. Perhaps this quality is merely a function of being highly objective for too many hours of his life, but I believe it may go beyond that.

Carlsen is not an idealist or a performer like Kasparov, who loved the narrative, the drama, the quest. Magnus just wants to win. So while there is plenty of creative amplitude in his play, the underlying motivational vector appears to be relatively sombre and flat.

Black faced lots of painful reality checks in the following game, after an impressive exchange sacrifice by India's number two:

[Event "Bundesliga"] [Site "?"] [Date "2013.??.??"] [Round "15"] [White "Harikrishna, P."] [Black "Howell, D."] [Result "1-0"] [PlyCount "63"] 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. d3 Bg7 6. Bd2 Nc6 7. g3 e5 8. Bg2 Nde7 9. O-O O-O 10. Rc1 h6 11. Ne4 b6 {[#]} 12. Rxc6 $1 Nxc6 13. Qc1 $1 Ne7 $6 14. Bxh6 Bxh6 15. Qxh6 Nf5 16. Qd2 Qe7 17. g4 Nd6 $2 18. Nxd6 cxd6 19. Qh6 $1 Bb7 20. Ng5 f6 21. Qxg6+ Kh8 22. Bxb7 Qxb7 23. Ne6 Rf7 24. Rc1 Rh7 25. Qxf6+ Kg8 26. Ng5 Rd7 27. Qe6+ Kh8 28. Ne4 Rg7 29. Nxd6 Qd7 30. Qxd7 Rxd7 31. Rc6 Rg8 32. f3 1-0

Source: The Herald, Scotland

Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson is Scotland's strongest player and won the British Championship in three consecutive years (2004-6) before developing a career outside of chess. He holds degrees in a range of social science disciplines from Harvard, Bristol and Oxford Universities and is currently Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA in London. He is best known in the chess world for his books The Seven Deadly Chess Sins and Chess for Zebras and the 50 review columns he wrote for New in Chess magazine. He is currently preparing a compilation of his weekly columns for the Herald, Scotland's national paper, which he has been writing since 2006. He lives in London with his wife Siva, from India, and their three year old son, Kailash. He can be followed on Twitter at @jonathan_rowson


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