Could a novice beat Magnus Carlsen with a month to prepare? (Spoiler alert: No)

Someone said that headlines formulated as questions almost always have the answer “No.”

I came across this column on Chess.com which is a reaction to this Wall Street Journal article on a recent chess match between Max Deutsch, “a self-diagnosed obsessive learner” and Magnus Carlsen, current World Chess Champion and arguably the greatest chess player of all time..

The original WSJ piece has a certain breathless quality which alternately grates and endears. The piece follows Deutsch’s various one-month learning quests which culminated in his challenge against Carlsen:

Max’s year of monthly challenges had already been more successful than he could have imagined. He’d been contacted by students in a Belgian school who started their own projects after discovering his blog. Max, too, had been inspired by “Month to Master.” He left his job in August, raised money and started a company, Openmind, to guide people through the learning process.

Max hadn’t started thinking about chess at the end of September. He was still learning how to freestyle rap. “I don’t have a plan until the month begins,” he said. It was fairly conventional at first. He played Magni of different ages on the Play Magnus app.

Naturally enough, the Chess.com piece by GM Greg Serper takes a more jaundiced view of the enterprise. He also recounts an entertaining story reminiscent of Stefan Zweig’s The Royal Game:

Let’s rephrase the question: can a non-master amateur beat a world champion in a regular one-on-one game? While I never heard about such an event, let me tell you an unusual story that supposedly happened about 35 years ago.

The city of Kharkiv (the former Soviet Union, now Ukraine) has always had many very strong chess players. Currently the former women’s world champion Anna Ushenina and the super-GM Pavel Eljanov as well as a number of “just very strong” GMs live there. So, one day in the beginning of 1980s an unknown man entered Kharkiv’s chess club and started playing blitz with everyone for money. Despite giving serious time odds, the stranger kept winning. The strangest thing was that the guy had a bag full of cucumbers and he was munching them non-stop during the games!

Eventually the local masters entered the fray, but the mysterious guy was beating everyone! The situation looked more and more like Fischer’s famous visit to the Central Chess Club in Moscow. The young American prodigy demonstrated his amazing blitz skills beating famous Soviet masters! Eventually grandmaster Tigran Petrosian came to the rescue and successfully defended the honor of the Soviet chess.

Back to our story, Kharkiv’s strongest blitz player, Mikhail Gurevich, was called. The stranger recognized Gurevich and said: “If you were just a regular master, I would give you odds of three minutes vs. five minutes, but you are a very strong master so we are going to play five minutes each.”

The man was absolutely correct: in a couple of years Mikhail Gurevich won the Soviet championship, got a GM title and in the June 1990 rating list he was number seven in the world! So they played for several hours but the total score was about even. At the end of the day the bizarre stranger picked up his winnings and the remaining cucumbers and left the speechless crowd.

He was never seen again. The word on the street is that the man was returning home after many years spent in prison where, just like the protagonist of “The Royal Game,” he learned to play chess. Personally, I don’t buy this version since I totally agree with the famous statement by Botvinnik that no amount of analytical work is a good substitute for a tournament play.

So, if the mysterious man never played chess tournaments, he had no chance to beat a strong master like Mikhail Gurevich even in one blitz game. From the other side, the Soviet Union had a very closed chess community since during the years of the iron curtain you couldn’t just go abroad and play chess. Therefore all strong chess players, even candidate masters were well known, and the guy wasn’t one of them!

It is a great pity that the “cucumber guy” was never again seen playing chess.

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