Magnus Carlsen: A mix of the marathon and the sprint!

In chess, when not playing well, finding the best moves is not easy. Consistently making the best moves is more difficult. In spite of all the worries, to filter out a school-boy finish — sacrificing the strongest piece on the board — to keep the world title is not expected from lesser mortals. Magnus Carlsen did it all in welcoming his moment of glory. Not many doubt that he is firmly on course to attain greatness.

Magnus Carlsen of Norway celebrates with the trophy after winning the World Chess Championship.   -  AP

Magnus Carlsen has done it again. With his third world classical chess title in three years, the Norwegian had an added reason to celebrate his 26th birthday.

In what was clearly his toughest world chess championship match, Carlsen overcame spells of self-doubt, a frustrating loss and a gritty rival in Sergey Karjakin to keep the title he snatched from five-time winner Viswanathan Anand.

The two young talents, with proven credentials, battled for 12 games in classical format in New York. A 6-6 deadlock, after Karjakin won Game Eight and Carlsen bounced back in Game 10, meant it was time for tie-break rapid games. Carlsen won the four-game decisive phase 3-1.

 

Since the latest world title was also decided on the results of the rapid games, the debate stood reopened regarding the format of the championship. How could rapid games decide the world champion in the classical format? The debate continues with Carlsen, in spite of coming through the format three times in as many attempts, not in favour of the current system.

Coming back to the championship, the progression from Game 1 reflected Carlsen’s superiority that he eventually asserted in the tie-breaker.

The world of chess appreciated Karjakin’s resilience throughout the contest and the spirit with which he took the result. The Russian challenger was also candid in admitting that he committed some mistakes and could not recall, in time, from the huge amount of opening preparation right through the match.

Pre-match poll suggested that every eight out of 10 chess fans thought Carlsen would win. Not surprisingly, the duration of the classical battle saw Carlsen looking better 80 per cent of the time, pressing for victory on more occasions than Karjakin.

Before the match, most chess followers expected Karjakin to reinforce his abilities in defending positions that most deem lost. Without doubt, Karjakin had his moments. But when it mattered, Carlsen unleashed the knockout punch.

After the first two games were drawn, Karjakin managed to escape in the marathon third game. In the fourth, too, Carlsen was left frustrated after Karjakin eluded his grasp.

In the fifth, Karjakin almost punished Carlsen for an error. This time, Carlsen played a poor 41st move to get into serious trouble. But Karjakin missed the opportunity to exploit his rival’s weakness. On the 43rd move, Karjakin chose to place his bishop on the centre of the board over a far more powerful option of placing his rook to the nearest corner on the kingside.

Carlsen admitted, “I was lucky,” after the match and looked very unhappy with his play during the press conference.

In Games 6 and 7, Carlsen played with black pieces and easily obtained a draw as the deadlock continued past the halfway mark.

Finally, Karjakin drew first blood. In the eighth game, Carlsen played far too aggressively, took unjustified risks and despite Karjakin missing the first opportunity to seize the advantage, did not relent. Finally, Karjakin nailed it to emerge as the new favourite, with four games to go.

A visibly-upset Carlsen did himself more harm by declining mandatory post-game interviews. When he slammed the door of the press room, the act resulted in a fine of five percent of his prize-money — amounting to 27,500 euros!

In the ninth game, Karjakin managed to bring Carlsen under pressure, but could do no more. Now Carlsen had two games with white against one with black and the world waited for the champion to be tactically sharper in order to draw level. And Carlsen did not disappoint his fans.

In a marathon lasting 75 moves spread over six and a half hours, Carlsen proved his class in a game where Karjakin’s defensive skills almost forced a draw. The score now stood at 5-5.

Perhaps, at this stage, Carlsen was already looking to take the match into the rapid tie-break games. This was reflected in the manner he approached the last two games. A comfortable draw with black pieces in the 11th game was followed by a rather uninteresting, but quick draw with white pieces in the final game.

The final game saw 30 moves in 40 minutes and clearly suggested that Carlsen had no plans to push for a win. This ploy worked in favour of the champion since he was mentally ready for the rapid games before Karjakin, who had to ensure a draw with black before planning ahead.

As Carlsen was to mention later, “It was an advantage not to think so much about Game 12 and he (Karjakin) did. Playing four games instead of one seemed a very good idea.”

Things did turn out that way with Karjakin struggling to switch from the classical format to the rapid games where the players are given 25minutes of thinking-time each, on their clocks, at the start of the game. These games usually end in an hour and witness more moves of less-than-optimum strengths.

Carlsen dominated the rapid games after experiencing some discomfort in the first of the four encounters. The second game saw Carlsen almost holding a winning advantage, but given Karjakin’s defensive skills, it was difficult to find the lines that led to victory in this 84-move encounter.

At this stage, many believed that Karjakin held the psychological edge since Carlsen had failed to squeeze out a victory from a clearly winning position. But that opinion did not last long.

 

Once the players returned to the board, the third game went Carlsen’s way in 38 moves after a piece-sacrifice gave the Norwegian the cutting edge. Karjakin, unable to manage his time, was under serious pressure from the clock and eventually gave up.

Now facing a must-win situation in the final game, Karjakin got the opportunity to attack, but Carlsen had everything worked out nicely as he finished off in great style. He offered his queen, but Karjakin knew he would be checkmated a move later, whether he accepted Carlsen’s offering with his king or a pawn.

That’s how the world title was decided. Since the match went into the tie-break games, Carlsen received 550,000 euros and Karjakin, 450,000 euros. As per the rules, if the title had been decided in the 12 classical games, the champion would have received 600,000 euros and the loser 400,000 euros.

The expected happened in a more or less predictable manner with Carlsen needing to draw from his reserves and needing tie-break games to pull through.

The clash also brought forth a simple fact: Carlsen proved he could win against a well-prepared rival after not playing at his best.

In Carlsen’s words, “I think when everything is under control it is very, very difficult to beat me, but obviously, my playing strength drops quite a bit when you know everything is not going according to plan. I think, I will have to work more seriously in the future. I mean it’s very easy when things are going my way and I am going from victory in one tournament to another. The confidence is there, but when it’s not there, things fall apart a bit. So it is something I’ll have to think about and work on.”Again, though happy with the outcome, Carlsen was far from happy with the way he executed some of the plans.

“I think, I did a lot of good things in this match, in terms of general strategy and openings and such. I mean, to some extent, my failure early in the match to win very good positions is a statistical coincidence. But when it happens over and over again, of course, there is something wrong.

“Usually, I should’ve been up +1 or +2 (won one or two games) early on, and then it is a whole different ball game. But when he managed to hold those positions, early, I don’t know — maybe I should’ve been more focused on that in my preparations — to train for the fifth, and sixth, and even seventh hours of play. I felt it was clear that I was better than him in the second and fourth hours of play, a lot better, but then he started to defend and it became difficult.

“But, in some games, I made blunders that I don’t usually make, but I don’t think there was anything like too unusual. Both games 7 and 8 were really just awful. In game 8, I made a gamble at some point which just didn’t pay off and to his credit he really grabbed the opportunity.”

The honesty with which Carlsen analysed the match reflects on his clear sense of purpose. He needs no reminding that he is considered the best player on the planet for a while now. But he is willing to work on certain areas that left him worried in New York.

For instance, this is how Carlsen looked at his worst moment, following the unexpected defeat in Game 8. “I did not have a positive state of mind. I still felt I was the strongest player, but it would be very difficult to prove since I had only a couple of chances to win games. I mean, a part of me still believed in it, but it was very, very difficult. Again, I think in those moments the important thing is to focus on the process instead of the results, but it is very, very hard and even a bit during the games, I was thinking how am I going to win this, rather than trying to make the best move, which is not a very good strategy.”

Here is a chess champion who is young, presentable and wins more games/tournaments every year than any of his predecessors. As a man of his age, Carlsen is known to party hard with friends, loves football and passionately follows his heroes. He also takes time off, from what he loves doing, to earn a few million annually through endorsements.

Carlsen’s next world title defence will be two years from now. At present, the champion’s closest challenger is Fabiano Caruana, who represents America after shifting base from Italy. By the time the next Candidates tournament comes up, Hikaru Nakamura, also from the US, and Levon Aronian from Armenia could also be among those in the hunt.

The evergreen duo of Viswanathan Anand, who turns 47 this December, and Vladimir Kramnik will have to be consistent enough to find a place in the field that decides the next challenger.

For now, Carlsen is not unduly worried. For him, the celebrations will continue. His latest conquest brought to the fore a fact not seen in his two previous world championship matches against Anand: Carlsen, all of 26, is mature enough to handle self-doubt in the face of severe pressure and a grave loss of confidence.

In chess, when not playing well, finding the best moves is not easy. Consistently making the best moves is more difficult. In spite of all the worries, to filter out a school-boy finish — sacrificing the strongest piece on the board — to keep the world title is not expected from lesser mortals.

Carlsen did it all in welcoming his moment of glory. Not many doubt that he is firmly on course to attain greatness.