New-age champion

Print edition : December 27, 2013

Magnus Carlsen with the trophy in Chennai on November 25. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

Viswanathan Anand. He failed to gauge Carlsen's style. Photo: R_Ragu/The Hindu

Magnus Carlsen defeats Viswanathan Anand by winning three and drawing seven games to become the second youngest World Chess Champion after Garry Kasparov.

“IT was certainly easier than what I had expected at the start. I thought, if I managed to play at my highest level, [Viswanathan] Anand would not manage to win any game. And I thought that usually I should be able to press him in a number of games and in one or two of them he should crack. And he did.” These words, coming from the newly crowned World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, a week before his 23rd birthday, have the potential to be interpreted as a sign of arrogance. For the moment, forget his age. Just focus on his abilities, his achievements, and everything will fall in place.

If Anand symbolises a champion with immense abilities having won the title in three different formats and five times in all, Carlsen is the new-age god of chess. He became a grandmaster at the age of 13, took the top spot in world rankings at 19, and became the highest-rated player in the history of chess soon after his 22nd birthday.

Young, at times brash, and supremely gifted, the Norwegian player not only outmatched Anand but also turned the 12-game World Chess Championship (WCC) match, held in Chennai in November, into a non-contest. He dominated the 43-year-old world champion in what turned out to be a 10-game contest. He won three and drew seven to claim nearly Rs.10 crore in prize money.

Before the contest started, Anand led their head-to-head score 6-3. Anand’s last victory over Carlsen was in 2010, and after that the young challenger had won two decisive games. Now, at 6-6, Carlsen has set the record straight.

As a result, the pre-match predictions obviously favoured Carlsen. His Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE) rating of 2,870 points, which reflected his playing strength, was 95 points more than what Anand, the World No. 9, had. Going purely by the difference in their ratings, experts predicted that the match should finish in 10 games with Carlsen scoring 6.5 points. It happened that way.

So, if everything went more or less along the predicted lines, what was disappointing about the final outcome? It was the failure of Anand, despite his huge experience, to gauge the style of Carlsen. It was not that the Norwegian pulled something new out of the hat. He did just what he was expected to do—engage Anand in long, slow games, and then force the error from his tiring rival. Anand knew it all but could do little to prevent it.

The first four games ended in draws, with Anand having his chances in the third game and Carlsen pressing hard for victory in the fourth. Just when the match seemed to have warmed up for some exciting action, Carlsen struck. He won the fifth game by slowly improving his position even as a hapless Anand battled on. It was just the dry, equal position on the board with very few pieces, a situation that Magnus loves to encounter. Anand realised too late that he had walked into his enemy’s territory. He was ambushed after missing out on several opportunities even to get away with honours.

A crestfallen Anand was candid in defeat. He explained how he had made a series of moves that were sub-optimal in strength. “Actually, there were small mistakes here and there. I didn’t lose the game in one move. I lost it over several and it is exactly what I had hoped not to do but it was exactly what I did. Game Five was one of those losses that hurt because you do it bit by bit. Not one blunder; you do it bit by bit and it slips away from you.”

Reflecting on his triumph, Carlsen chose to go deeper. “Basically, Game Four gave me a very good feeling. It was a good fighting game. Although I did not manage to win it, I felt I had seized the initiative in the match and that he [Anand] was as nervous and vulnerable as I was.” Talking about the mistakes committed by Anand, Carlsen said, “I would like to take some responsibility for his mistakes. That’s for sure. It’s been like that for me for a long time. I just play and people crack under pressure. Even in a world championship. That is what the history shows. We have to keep on pushing. Eventually, usually things go right. Obviously, the blunders that he made, each of them, are, of course, unusual. That is what I really wanted to do in this match. Make him sit at the board and play for a long time.”

In the last two title clashes, in 2010 against Veselin Topalov and in 2012 against Boris Gelfand, Anand had bounced back immediately after losing a game. Therefore, expectations were high for Anand to do a hat trick of comeback victories. That was not to be.

Anand returned to play with white pieces, once again misread the position and slowly lost the grip to lose in the sixth hour. Two successive defeats, with each colour, turned the match on its head. The score read 4-2 at the halfway stage, leaving Carlsen to chase another 2.5 points from six games. Anand supporters expected him to make a heroic comeback. It was very difficult but not impossible.

In an introspective mood, Anand said, “Your strength comes into play when you are able to stop your opponent playing to his strengths. But I never really succeeded in doing that or only did that briefly. In the end, he was just stronger and he was able to impose his style of play. I never really adapted to his style well. Clearly, he has refined his style a lot recently. He has become stronger and more effective with it. So, I also had this feeling that if I had managed to pull it off, it would have been a different story. But I didn’t manage to get a grip on his style.”

The next two games ended in peaceful draws. It was clear that Anand wanted to distance himself from the successive defeats and those two draws had allowed him to re-work his strategy. He was to play with white pieces in Game Nine. The world expected him to make his move. Anand did not disappoint his fans with the start. But the end turned out to be a painful one.

Anand chose a dynamic opening and kept Carlsen under pressure for the better part of the 28-move game. But a rare miscalculation in a position Anand is known to thrive on gave Carlsen another victory. Remarkably, Carlsen won this game without moving his queen and one of his bishops from their starting squares.

Looking back at the games after his defeat in Game Six, Anand said, “I felt it was okay to take these two games [five and six] off in seven and eight. If you are going to succeed in your comeback, it doesn’t matter how late you start. If you are not going to succeed in your comeback, it doesn’t matter how early you start. I understood that I was giving up two games. I said, ‘Two draws and now we’ll make a big effort. Time is running out.’ But it did not work out.”

The 10th game ended in a fighting draw and Carlsen was home. He became the second youngest world champion in history, failing to beat Garry Kasparov’s record by a few months. (Although Ruslan Ponomariov of Russia won the 2002 world title when he was 18, his effort is not considered a record because he did not win it in the time-tested match-play format.)

After winning the match with two games to spare, Carlsen revealed how he wanted to go about his title clash. “Nothing special apart from playing 40 to 50 good moves in every game. That was my main goal. I had to keep playing because I think you’ve worked so hard before the match. You’ve worked so hard to get there. So I think you need to work very hard on the board. If the position is not a draw, you should not agree for a draw. You should play it out. That’s right. If you want to win a World Championship match, you need to play well not only for one or two hours, but four or five or six….”

Anand admitted that his choice of opening, when playing with white pieces, was not the best. “I made a big strategic decision to focus on e4 [pushing the king-pawn to the fourth rank]. With hindsight, that was the worst move of the match. Again, with hindsight, many things are clear. For this match, for some reason, I just felt it was simpler to play e4 and there were grounds for it. On the basis of my tournament results and all, I felt it was better to concentrate on e4. And it turned out to be a bad mistake.”

The world of chess is already preparing for a long “Carlsen Era”. Meanwhile, in India, some sections are readying for Anand’s retirement, much like they did for Sachin Tendulkar’s. Anand has stated clearly that retirement is not on his mind.

Many wonder if Anand would take part in the eight-player Candidates tournament in March 2014 to determine the challenger to Carlsen.

For the moment, the genial master has plenty more events on his plate. Anand is due to play a 16-player rapid event in London in December and a classical-cum-rapid event in Zurich in January-February. About taking a call on participating in the Candidates tournament, Anand said, “Hopefully, after London, I’ll have some time to think about it.”

Even if he does not win another world title, Anand’s greatness shall remain undiminished. It is equally true that for a player who has remained in the world’s top-10 ranking list since July 1991, and won every elite title at least once, getting motivated to win more will surely be challenging. As Carlsen said, “If Anand decides to come back, it’s wonderful. If he doesn’t, he has every reason to be very happy with what he has got.”

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