Carlsen Iconoclast

In the ninth round of the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Magnus Carlsen was Black against Samuel Shankland. The game started like this: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 a6. A bit of a strange move, that 3...a6 from Carlsen, but not really exceptional. That day I was commentator in Wijk aan Zee and I told the public that the great Akiba Rubinstein had played it against Alekhine (after 3.Nf3, but that doesn’t make a real difference), that Alekhine in one of his game collections had been quite disparaging about that move, but that times have changed and that nowadays a7-a6 appears in all kinds of variations of the Queen’s Gambit and Slav. 

OK, nothing earth-shaking yet, but then followed 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 h6. With this move, all the laws of of sound opening play seemed to have been broken by Carlsen. First a6 and then h6, can you really play like that? Shouldn’t pieces be developed?

 If a coach saw a game of an anonymous student who had played like this, he would say that there is no future in chess for this student. As Botvinnik seems to have said once about Anatoly Karpov.

 Nevertheless, a few moves later Carlsen had obtained quite an acceptable position. I had to think of a short poem by the Dutch poet Riekus Waskowsky: Poetry is like cooking:/you just throw some things in the pan/if cooking is what you can. With chess it is apparently the same, if you are Magnus Carlsen.

 After ten rounds, three rounds before the end, Carlsen was a clear leader, a half-point ahead of Anish Giri, but then in the next round Giri managed to catch up as he was presented with a bizarre but much appreciated gift by Shankland.


Final position of Giri-Shankland after 45.b6.

All Black has to do to draw is going with his king to c8 and stay close to this square, but Shankland extended his hand. “Do you resign?” asked Giri. Afterwards he said that if it had been a draw offer, he would also have accepted.

 Peter Svidler, one of the commentators for the chess24 website, told the audience that he could well imagine the agony of Shankland after being told by Giri that he had resigned in a drawn position, because he himself had once made the same mistake. That had been against Vladimir Kramnik in 2004, also in Wijk aan Zee.


 Final Position of Kramnik-Svidler,Wijk aan Zee 2004 after 49.Bb7.

Here all Black would have to do is stay on the diagonal g1-a7 with his bishop and prevent White from playing c4-c5. He can give up his a-pawn and if White ever plays Ka6, Black can play Kc7 to prevent White from coming to b7. Probably Svidler had calculated that after 49...Be1, to protect his a-pawn, 50.c5+, he would have been lost.

 In both cases the way to draw was basically to do nothing. I too have resigned in a drawn position. It was in a junior tournament against Coen Zuidema, who later in 1972 would become Dutch champion. He is a nice man and once I spent a pleasant week on his sailboat. I don’t meet him often, as he stopped playing serious chess long ago, but when I do, I always think about that horrible resignation and then briefly the sun darkens. Also in my game the way to draw was simply doing nothing.

 To come back to the Tata tournament, Carlsen regained the lead in the penultimate round and was a half-point ahead of Giri when they met in the last round. It was an uneventful draw and Carlsen became the winner of Wijk aan Zee for the seventh time.

 Afterward, he mentioned the games that he was most proud of. Two of these were long endgames in which his opponents (Anand and Duda) cracked late in the game, and one was another long endgame against Fedoseev in which Carlsen had successfully defended a difficult but theoretically drawn position.

 About his win against Richard Rapport, which can be seen in the game viewer, he had been remarkably unenthusiastic. “The game played itself,” he had said, which also reminded me of the little poem that I quoted above. I must say that I liked that game very much.

Click here to view Carlsen-Rapport, Wijk aan Zee 2019