Done in by the Carlsen Conundrum

Viswanathan Anand… undermining his own chances and overestimating Carlsen’s capabilities.-PTI

Magnus Carlsen’s ability to engage his older rival in long games and calculate his own moves accurately with amazing consistency spelt Viswanathan Anand’s doom. By Rakesh Rao.

History will record Viswanathan Anand’s defeat to Magnus Carlsen in their World Championship match as “one-sided” or an “easy victory” for the Norwegian challenger. The margin, 6.5-3.5, however, does not reflect the true intensity of some of the games played. After all, numbers seldom tell the complete story.

The 12-game match, though far from a mismatch, never lived up to expectations. A clash involving a five-time champion and a young World No. 1, and that too with the world crown at stake, was seen as the best advertisement for the sport. The match had its moments but was not as close as it promised after four games.

If Anand lost thrice in the following five games to find himself on the brink of being dethroned, it was due to a mix of Carlsen’s ability to engage his older rival in long games and calculate his own moves accurately with amazing consistency.

Anand lost Games Five and Six due to singular error in the fifth and sixth hours of play respectively. In the ninth game, a desperate Anand got the position he is known to excel in, looked like checkmating his rival by force but misread his chances. He over-reached himself even after thinking for 45 minutes for one move. The Indian saw a certain victory for himself and played on. Before long, it became clear that Carlsen had his defence in place and Anand had to deal with another defeat.

With the advantage of hindsight, it can be said that Anand was misreading the positions after two games. For instance, at the press conference after the third game, he clearly underestimated his chances of winning, saying his “upside was not adequate” for a victory. On the contrary, the analysis showed Anand’s best chance of winning a game was here. Though Carlsen said he thought he was “basically lost” at some point, Anand maintained he did not have enough resources to press home the advantage.

Similarly, even in the two games he lost in succession, Anand’s assessment surprised many. In Game Five, he pointed to a rook move as the “decisive mistake”. On the contrary, Carlsen felt threatened by the same move. Computer analysis showed that the position was very much in balance at that point. Anand reiterated he was “lost” after that move although his position deteriorated much later.

Similarly, Anand’s reading of the crucial phase in Game Six also raised many eyebrows. As the match progressed, it became increasingly clear that Anand was undermining his own chances and overestimating Carlsen’s capabilities.

More than once, Anand’s observations during the press conferences gave an impression that his reading of positions was not as accurate as seen in the past. It was not clear whether Anand was making a conscious attempt to mislead Carlsen, but surely, it did not help Anand’s cause.

Much before the match, former champion Vladimir Kramnik had observed that Anand, perhaps, feared Carlsen. The fact that Anand held a 6-3 head-to-head advantage did not influence the Russian’s observation. He was looking at the manner of losses Anand suffered against Carlsen in their previous two decisive encounters. He had advised Anand to deal with the fear and play freely. Anand started well but the two defeats in the first half of the contest clearly swung the match in Carlsen’s favour.

Looking back, Anand said, “It is clear that he dominated. At the start of the match, I thought my chances depended on my ability to last long games without making a lot of mistakes. This year, I’ve had a lot of problems with mistakes creeping into my play. And I kind of tried to pay some attention to that. But in the end, it was in vain. The way I lost the fifth game was exactly the way, I thought, I could not afford to lose. A fine position in the opening and then, slowly it slipped and so on.

“The (defeat in the) fifth game was a blow because I had really hoped to not to be afraid of him in the long games but simply try to match him. This was not to be. After that, it just got worse and worse. I guess, when it rains, it pours. It is fair enough to congratulate him. My mistakes did not happen by themselves. Clearly he managed to provoke them.”

Factors like age, the difference in the international ratings and rankings of the World champion and the World No. 1, current form etc., did serve as pointers to the eventual result. More than the defeat, the manner of defeat will hurt Anand. After all, Anand knows he played into Carlsen’s hands.

Looking ahead, Anand will have his commitments to fulfil. He is due to play in London (in December) and Zurich (in February). He is yet to decide on taking his place in the eight-man field in March to decide Carlsen’s challenger in the next year’s title-match.

This is clearly not the end of the road for Anand. Many players have questioned his motivation, based on his age and the desire to spend more time with young son, Akhil. In life, priorities do change. Like Kramnik, Anand, too, can bounce back with renewed vengeance, reflecting his desire to prove that he is far from finished.

Objectively, why should Anand put his head down? After all, losing to the strongest player on the planet can never be a matter of shame.