The Greatest Natural Talent

World champions used to be courteous towards their predecessors, at least when they spoke in public. Among friends or good acquaintances it might have been different. My friend Tabe Bas (1927-2009), who was a good player and a great kibitzer, claimed that Alekhine had liked to admonish his colleagues with the words: “Gentlemen, please, you don’t want to behave like Capablanca, do you?” I suppose that Tabe had this from Euwe, or from the Dutch chess writer Evert Straat, who had known the chess giants of the interbellum well.

Nowadays it’s considered a virtue to flap everything out. When Magnus Carlsen, after winning the tiebreak against Fabiano Caruana, was asked what he thought of the harsh criticisms of the former world champions Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik on his strategy in the twelfth and last classical game, when he hadn’t really tried to win even with a clear advantage and more time on the clock, he didn’t beat about the bush and simply said: “They are entitled to their stupid opinions.”

Stupid opinions from the great Kasparov and Kramnik? Sacrilege! They were certainly not alone in being shocked by Carlsen’s play in that final classical game. Even his former second Jon Ludvig Hammer tweeted: “Extremely cowardly.”

But the winner is always right. Carlsen had steered the match into the tiebreaks, thereby already securing his first place on the world’s ranking list, and when two days later he beat Caruana 3-0, all criticism was silenced.

I didn’t really realize it at the start of the match, but during the next weeks I noticed that I was rooting for Caruana. Not only because a changing of the guard might be refreshing, but most of all because I think that I can understand Caruana’s play better than Carlsen’s.

Carlsen is a bit mysterious, like Karpov used to be. All of a sudden his pieces are in the right places and then he often manages to beat water out of a rock, and you really don’t understand how it happened. That mysterious skill to make the right moves without thinking is pure chess instinct, which comes into its own in fast games better than with a longer thinking time.

In his last two matches for the world championship, in 2016 against Sergey Karjakin and now against Caruana, Carlsen has won one of 24 classical games, he lost one and he made 22 draws. It is not the impressive supremacy of the recent past. Carlsen himself said at a press conference that he was not quite the man he used to be about four years ago. He remains world champion for a very good reason, because he is the greatest natural talent around.

I think there is not much sense in showing one of the games from the match in the game viewer, as they are available all over the internet, often well-analyzed. I give a win by Caruana from 2014, not only because it is a beautiful game, but also because the position after White’s 20th move reminded me of a dictum of the German player Emil Josef Diemer: “If there are two of your pieces en prise, put a third piece en prise.” You might also call this a daring and dicey lesson for life.

Diemer (1908-1990) was a fanatic supporter of hysteric-romantic attacking chess. In life he was more than a bit bonkers, but in chess he had a strong following, not only in Germany, but also in the Netherlands, where he was a frequent visitor.

The Blackmar-Diemer gambit, one of his greatest claims to fame, starts with the moves 1.d2-d4 d7-d5 2.e2-e4. For many years after his death his admirers, on the day of his death, would hold a torch-lit walk around his grave, chanting in German: “Dee zwei dee vier, dee sieben dee fünf, ee zwei ee vier, Emil Josef wir sind hier.”

The sober calculator Caruana is certainly not a hysterically romantic attacker, but in this game he followed Diemer’s advice to put a third piece en prise at the right moment, and his brilliance was rewarded.

Click here to view Carlsen-Caruana, 2014 Sinquefield Cup