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Nerves of steel: Chess Grandmasters prove their mettle
Published time: 4 Dec, 2016 20:17

Preparing for victory means nothing if you’re not prepared to win. Without self-belief and a winning mentality, all the money in the world will not prepare you to be first across the finish line, the recent Karjakin-Carlsen battle shows.

I could barely feel my arms, let alone lift them. In addition to broken bones in my left hand, in warm up I’d broken my right thumb. With the fight hinging on my conclusively winning the third and final round, my opponent was in control of the result. The people who’d cheered me into the ring, my team-mates who looked on expectantly – they would lose heart in our project if I failed. I had three minutes to win, not just survive…

Mental strength and the ability to translate this into action is the most important part of sport. Physical fitness is important, though, when you reach the deciding moments of a hard-fought match, if your brain and heart don’t work as one and you step out of the moment, you lose. You can be afraid, fearful even, though not of victory. This is not psychology, it’s simple logic. The conclusion of the World Chess Championship this week illustrated that perfectly.

Sergey Karjakin came into the showdown having only ever beaten Magnus Carlsen once in 21 classical matches. Even removing the 16 draws, a .200 (20%) win rate is pretty terrible. On November 10, I read a short preview in a Russian publication that called it even, with Karjakin a slight favorite. The financial support for Karjakin’s preparation touched on the one-million-dollar mark, and for a while it seemed Russian tax money well spent. He fought hard, led at one point before tying the classical series 6-6. Before he got to the tiebreak, however, he’d already lost.

In Game 4 of the tiebreak, Hungarian Grand Master Judith Polgar called Karjakin’s mental state into question, saying that he was “terribly passive” and not doing enough to create winning chances. In Game 3 of the playoff, for me, it was done and dusted. He had upset Carlsen in Game 2 when the Norwegian looked a surefire winner. Momentum and opportunity was his. And he bottled it as if he’d bottled the classical series.

My opponent that night was fitter, younger, stronger, heavier, and better than me. He had sauntered through the first round, picking me off at will. My fightback in the second hadn’t dampened his spirits. He smiled at me and walked to the center of the ring to touch gloves for the start of the final round. Momentum and opportunity was his…

The Fischer-Spassky Battle Royale

In 1972, Bobby Fischer took on the dominant Boris Spassky to battle for the title of World Champion. The series took place during a period of détente in the Cold War, with the American Fischer looking to break the Soviet stranglehold at the top of chess. His accusations of unfair practices and match-fixing made the shootout into a battle between Good vs Evil, not just West vs East. Forty-four years later, the bile and hypocrisy which greeted Julia Efimova in Rio’s Olympic pool would not have been unfamiliar to Spassky.

The brilliant and erratic Fischer channeled his inner Conor McGregor to psyche out his opponent before the matches even began. Showing up late, insisting on changes from chess board to payments, he used every last weapon he could to gain an advantage over the World Champion. It didn’t appear to pay off as Spassky jumped to a 2-0 lead. The normal script reads – when the favorite and champion gets their nose in front, they keep it there and do what they have to for the W. But in true Hollywood style, the underdog had their day.

Bobby won Game 3 and broke Boris. It was the American’s first ever win over the Soviet Hero and he firmly placed his foot on his opponent’s throat. Winning just one more game in the next 18, Spassky cracked and hid. Resigning without coming to congratulate his foe showed just how good a job the American had done.

Yet consider this. There was the pressure of the entire Soviet Union on Boris’ shoulders. He was up against everyone outside of the Soviet satellite states and allies. The match took place at a time when the ideological battle for global dominance was showing itself on the track field and every conceivable forum. Every advantage to be gained was sought by the USA and USSR. It was a heavy burden for one person to carry, and it proved too much for Boris.

Full article here.

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