Inscrutable Magnus

"How is Anand doing?” I asked. I had met an acquaintance on the street while the ninth game of the world championship match was in progress and I knew that he would have a smartphone. Personally I consider these things a hateful form of electronic surveillance, but at that moment I would have liked to have one with me, to watch the game.

“I don’t dare to look,” he said. “I pity Anand, whom I consider almost as my contemporary.” Like me, he is more than twenty years older than Anand, but I understood what he meant and I shared his feelings. I realized that I had asked how Anand was doing and not how Magnus Carlsen was doing.

By the time I had arrived home, Anand had already lost. The match was basically over, though a tenth game would still be played. Anand had kept his promise that he would play aggressively in the ninth game, and for a long time Carlsen seemed in dire straits. But Carlsen, fearless as always, had let him play aggressively, by not playing solidly, as his two-points lead would seem to indicate. On the contrary, he had really provoked Anand’s massive attack against his king.

No one can doubt that Carlsen’s victory is good for chess and its stature in the world outside our niche. During the match, I learned that Norway had gone chess-mad, just as the Netherlands had in 1935, when Euwe beat Alekhine. Kids skipped school and respectable employees watched the computer screens not to study the trading results of their company, but to follow the games. Chess sets in Oslo were sold out and youngsters, used to swift whirling and fluttering, saw Carlsen and Anand during the live TV broadcasts of the games sitting motionless at the board for many minutes, and they found the spectacle “fascinating” and “full of suspense.”

Years ago, the Norwegian grandmaster Jon Tisdall had already said that Carlsen was his pension plan. He meant that while Carlsen was around, there would be no lack of commissions to write articles on chess. It won’t buy me a pension, but for me too, the presence of Carlsen has provided some extra income.

But how does he do it? It is expected that he will write a new chapter in chess history with new ideas, but it is very difficult to pinpoint his ideas. It was easier with other modern world champions such as Kasparov and later Kramnik and Anand, who could show grand concepts, often right out of the opening, leading directly to their objective. With Carlsen, it often seems as if he is playing move-by-move, like a computer.

Carlsen is known for not indulging too much in the modern habit of unraveling popular opening lines in great detail, assisted by engines, up to move 20 or later. “Carlsen is playing without openings and Anand without endings,” tweeted Kasparov during the match.

But in general, Carlsen is doing quite alright with his openings. Asked at one of the press conferences what he thought of Fabiano Caruana’s remark that he was very good in choosing opening variations which were unpleasant for his opponent, Carlsen smiled and said: “Fabiano is a strong player and a clever guy. If he says so, there must be something to it.”

Fearlessness, tenacity, patience, an instant grasp of the correct evaluation of almost any position (dixit Kasparov) and great calculating powers if needed. It is easy to give a list of some of his many virtues. Judit Polgar has said: “He sees things that we don’t see. He knows how a position will develop in the next ten moves.”

Still, often he remains inscrutable, at least to me. Have a look at two diagrams. 

This is Carlsen – Karjakin, Wijk aan Zee 2013 after White’s 30th move.

And this is Carlsen-Anand, 3rd match game after White’s 25th.

We already have the expression “Alekhine’s gun,” which stands for a battery of two rooks and a queen on a file, with the rooks in front. An American heavy metal band has been named after it. The battery of bishop and queen in the corner should rightfully be named after Carlsen. It’s a bit of a pity that it is so difficult to obtain two bishops of the same color in a serious game, and though this may be considered a small blemish on the pictures, I expect to see a Norwegian band named after Carlsen’s battery soon. 

When you play over these games, you will be especially amazed by the game against Karjakin. Ten moves before the diagrammed position, White’s queen was on the normal square c4, where it seemed to be doing reasonably well. Who would conceive the idea to maneuver it to the strange square h1? The way Carlsen shuffled his pieces around during these ten moves reminded me of the solving of a Rubik’s Cube or Sam Loyd’s 15-16 puzzle more than a normal chess game.

The game against Anand is a bit less amazing, because in that case, Carlsen was forced to put his queen on h1. But still, he probably already had seen that his queen would be chased to the corner when he played 20.Qf4, and apparently he wasn’t worried too much by the prospect.

Kasparov, who should have a better judgment of Carlsen’s style than anyone else, has put him in the tradition of Capablanca and Karpov, players who had an instant grasp of where the pieces should go. But in a way there is also a resemblance to Emanuel Lasker.

Like Carlsen, Lasker did not have an easily definable style. He was pragmatic, willing to play all kind of positions, equanimous in defense and in attack. He wasn’t well-versed in the latest wrinkles of opening theory, but he knew to choose his variations well. He was a fine endgame player, like Carlsen. (And yes, I know that in the past Carlsen has lost two rook endings that should have been drawn. But nobody is perfect.)

Even after he had become world champion, Lasker’s successes were attributed by some to luck, psychology, bad cigars or even hypnosis. We are not that naive anymore. I just accept that Carlsen’s play is often way above my head.

Click to play through the games:


Wijk aan Zee


2013 World Championship (3)