‘C’ for Chess, Carlsen and Caruana!

If 2013 ended with Magnus Carlsen re-affirming his status as the world’s strongest player ever, this year saw the rise of another youngster, Fabiano Caruana, to the World No. 2 spot. More importantly, the Italian showed that the all-conquering Carlsen was beatable. The year will be remembered as much for Caruana’s rise as for five-time World champion Viswanathan Anand’s resurrection as an elite tournament player, writes Rakesh Rao.

In more ways than one, the year 2014 saw a definite change of wind in the world of chess. If 2013 ended with Magnus Carlsen re-affirming his status as the world’s strongest player ever, this year saw the rise of another youngster, Fabiano Caruana, to the World No. 2 spot. More importantly, the Italian showed that the all-conquering Carlsen was beatable.

The year will be remembered as much for Caruana’s rise as for five-time World champion Viswanathan Anand’s resurrection as an elite tournament player. Though Anand could not reclaim the World title from Carlsen, he did enough to win three elite events, including the year’s most sought-after title, in the Candidates Tournament. He went on to add the Bilbao Masters crown with a round to spare and the year-ending London Chess Classic.

As a result, Anand will commence 2015 probably as World No. 5 with a rating of 2797 — his best at the start of the year since 2011, which he started at 2810.

Carlsen’s successful World title defence made many people believe that Anand had played his last match for the game’s highest crown. Though similar sentiments were expressed when Anand was dethroned by the Norwegian in November 2013, the Indian managed to turn the clock back and surprise everyone, including Carlsen, by earning the right to figure in another clash for the World title.

At 45, Anand surely understands that age is not on his side. With Carlsen 24, and Caruana 22, holding the top two spots in World rankings, besides Anish Giri, 20, and So Wesley, 21, also breaking into the World’s top-10 ranking list, new challenges await the sixth-ranked Indian veteran.

Here, it is important to remember that Anand, like no other player in any individual sport, continues to stay in the World’s top-10 list since July 1991. It is indeed a tribute to Anand’s consistency that he has not gone out of the top-10 after making it to the ninth spot more than 23 years ago.

Anand made it to the chess elite when Gary Kasparov was on his way to attaining greatness. After Kasparov retired in March 2005 at the age of 41, Anand was considered a worthy successor to the top spot. Eventually, in April 2007, Anand took the top spot and later that year regained the world title he last won in 2000. Thereafter, Anand defended the title against Vladimir Kramnik (2008), Veselin Topalov (2010) and Boris Gelfand (2012) before Carlsen came along and proved his superiority in 2013.

During Anand’s reign as the World champion, his performances in the elite tournaments were below expectations. Many felt that Anand was saving his preparations for the World title matches and played without striving hard for victory. Though in 2013, Anand played more tournaments than in the preceding few years, the results did not inspire much confidence.

The way Carlsen took away the World title from Anand left many doubting his abilities to top an elite field ever again. But two titles in 2014 and his gallant performance in a losing cause in the repeat clash against Carlsen raised Anand’s stock. He is seen as a competitor who has plenty of fuel left in the tank.

The coming year will be important for Carlsen to reaffirm his place at the top and the young brigade, led by Caruana, to ensure that it no longer remains a one-horse race. In what was the world’s strongest rated event ever — the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, USA, in September — Caruana won the first seven rounds before letting Carlsen off the hook in the eighth and missed an opportunity to score a second win over the Norwegian in the tournament.

Caruana went on to win the event with two rounds to spare and left the critics discussing the possibility of the Italian being a successor to Carlsen. The fact that Caruana reached a career-best live rating of 2851.30 — next only to Carlsen’s all-time high of 2889.20 (in April 2014) and Kasparov’s 2856.70 (in March 2000) — made the chess world take notice of the Italian’s prowess.

However, in the events that followed, Carlsen’s consistency stood out while Caruana struggled to do justice to his newly-acquired reputation. In fact, he finished last — the only contestant without a victory — in the elite six-player London Chess Classic that Anand won.

No doubt, Carlsen will be the one to watch out for in all the elite events of 2015, beginning with the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands in January. Caruana and Armenia’s Levon Aronian will also be around to test Carlsen. In February, Caruana will be playing in Zurich where Aronian, Anand and Kramnik are part of a strong six-player field.

Though Carlsen is expected to rule the chess world for a while, young challengers are gaining ground on the World champion. For the likes of Anand, whose experience of playing in the elite events is as much as the age of Carlsen and Caruana, it is time to play with very little to lose. Perhaps, the lack of pressure on Anand could see the determined Indian turn the clock back and delight the chess lovers with some vintage displays.