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Talking With A Chess Grandmaster About The World Chess Championship

Last week, we published a statistical preview of the World Chess Championship in Sochi, Russia. I calculated, given their Elo ratings, that Magnus Carlsen was a roughly 84 percent favorite to defend his crown against challenger Viswanathan Anand. The match is underway. Anand just won the third game, tying the series — one win apiece and one draw. The match is a best-of-12, and an updated simulation has Carlsen as a roughly 74 percent favorite.

I chatted about all this with Robert Hess, 22, a chess grandmaster — the highest title in the game. He was runner-up at the 2009 U.S. Chess Championship and has also represented the U.S. at the Chess Olympiad and World Team Championships. He’s been a commentator for the U.S. Championship and the Millionaire Chess Open. (And I won a third-grade chess tournament at Greenwood Elementary.) Hess, a senior at Yale University, is also a co-founder of the The Sports Quotient. I spoke with him by phone. The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Roeder: What have you made of the match so far?

Robert Hess: The first game was a drawn game, but it was actually good to see Anand’s fighting style. He didn’t come out scared at all. It was very clear that he was trying to beat Magnus. Magnus was able to parry off the threat and whittle the advantage down to an equal game. It was a well-played game by both.

In the second game, Magnus really came out with nothing from the opening, but he showed his prowess in normal positions. When he gets to a position with neutral chances, he can outplay anyone in the world.

In the last game, today, Anand [as white] played an opening that’s well-known for being safe for black [the queen’s gambit declined]. But it looked like Anand was very well prepared in the line and seized the initiative early on. Ultimately, Anand showed a nice opening preparation and a nice ability to finish off games in style. It was a really huge win for his confidence after the last match.

OR: I wrote that Carlsen was a heavy favorite going into Sochi. Did you agree?

RH: He’s definitely the favorite, but I don’t think people gave Anand enough benefit of the doubt. Sure, the ratings favor Carlsen. But there’s a lot that goes into ratings. Anand hasn’t played as frequently. Infrequent playing means that when he’s playing in tournaments, he’s limited in his preparation. He doesn’t want to show his hand as much. He doesn’t want to give up his openings that he’s been working on for his next match. So, that’s limited him in tournaments leading up to the championship.

But I think Carlsen’s rating does speak for itself. It’s very, very high. He’s clearly a favorite. But at this level, it’s hard to see how the numbers would portray the match. I always have a hard time balancing statistics and practical play. I think a 75 percent chance of a Carlsen championship is on the high side. I wouldn’t say it was quite that high.

OR: What do you make of statistical predictions and analysis of chess?

RH: I think it’s sometimes difficult just because of the emotion factor. For example, a chess engine might say this ridiculous move — which opens up your king to a heavy attack, but an attack that won’t actually pan out — is “plus three,” meaning the position is three pawns better for you. A human won’t play that move most of the time because it looks scary. And you can’t take out the clock element — you have limited time.

At the same time, I think statistics are very important in portraying a picture: When these players with these ratings play each other, these are the chances based on history. I think that’s very, very important. One thing I found particularly interesting about your article was the part about the draws. I think it makes a lot of sense. But there are a variety of factors that should be taken into account that may mean Carlsen’s less of a favorite than people think.

OR: Do players update their strategies during a match? What can we expect from Carlsen and Anand going forward?

RH: Players definitely have to change their preparation depending on the score. Last year, it was definitely easier for Carlsen after a while because he had a huge lead. Here, it’s tied again. I can’t express enough how monumental this win [in Game 3] was for Anand.

I think you’ll see: one, more confidence out of Anand, realizing that he really can outplay Magnus, the world champion. Two, I think you’ll have to see Carlsen do a better job with his openings. I think he’ll put more emphasis on that. There were some comments by Carlsen after the game saying that it was a poor choice of opening and that he had to do better.

Anand, being the older player, does have an incredible amount of experience. That definitely helps in a way that ratings don’t show. I’m not trying imply that Carlsen doesn’t respect Anand — he definitely does. But when you beat someone so badly [in last year’s match], inevitably there is this implicit sense of confidence you have. I think now Carlsen will be much more cautious, especially with the black pieces.

OR: Handicap the rest of the match for us. What are Carlsen’s chances now?

RH: Carlsen has five whites left to Anand’s four. This is a number I’m throwing out off the top of my head: I’ll go with a 65 percent chance of winning. I think, Magnus being Magnus, he has to have the advantage. He’s been playing amazing chess for so many years now.

But I really don’t want to count Vishy out. I think the next game will really dictate my true evaluation of the match. Even though your statistics show that draws favor Magnus, with the trajectory of the match, a draw tomorrow would show that Anand is on the upswing.

For the moment I’ll stick to my, well … 63 percent. But that could easily change, depending on how the next game goes. I still trust Magnus, I think he’s probably the world’s best player at the moment. But I’d never underestimate Vishy Anand.

Game 4 starts Wednesday at 7 a.m. EST.

Oliver Roeder was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied game theory and political competition.