Pressure takes over preparation

Magnus Carlsenis crowned champion as (from left), Russian President Vladimir Putin, Viswanathan Anand, and FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov look on.-AP Magnus Carlsenis crowned champion as (from left), Russian President Vladimir Putin, Viswanathan Anand, and FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov look on.

Though the 3-1 defeat with seven draws from 11 games is going to push into background many key moments of the match, it is important to analyse what really proved the difference between two of the finest chess players ever, writes Rakesh Rao.

In sport, the result is often a reflection of one’s effort. The winner is deemed to be stronger on the given day. Past records and preparations get pushed into the background. In short, one’s form is considered as good or as bad as his or her last performance. The closeness of the contest often gets buried.

That’s what happened in the recent World chess title-match where Magnus Carlsen’s victory over challenger Viswanthan Anand came on expected lines. Like in last November, the Norwegian again won three games to end Anand’s campaign before the 12-game match could go the distance. But the Indian performed way above his projected playing-strength reflected by the individual rating.

For instance after Game 10, Carlsen, rated 2863, was performing at 2728. In comparison, Anand’ rating-performance was 2727, after having begun the match with a rating of 2792. Indeed, the victory in Game 11 tilted the balance decisively in Carlsen’s favour.

From Anand’s point of view, the biggest positive he could draw from the match was that he performed better than expected. A rank underdog, going by ranking and rating, Anand had his moments against the best in the game and the highest-rated player in history.

Though the 3-1 defeat with seven draws from 11 games is going to push into background many key moments of the match, it is important to analyse what really proved the difference between two of the finest chess players ever.

If the first game, where Anand played white, reflected Carlsen’s much-feared abilities to improve his chances from an equal position, it also brought to the fore the Indian’s defensive skills.

The following day, Carlsen dealt a blow to Anand’s preparedness with black and outplayed him. But Game 3 saw Anand bounce back to level the score after gaining the edge in the opening phase and not relenting the pressure through the contest.

Games 4 and 5 were drawn with the players engaged in theoretical battles, silently debating the possibilities and testing the preparations.

Since the rules allow the change of colours (of pieces) for the players at the half-way stage, Carlsen had white in Games 6 and 7, with a day of rest separating these encounters. Carlsen called it an advantage and looked keen to strike at least once with the brighter pieces. He did not have to wait too long to move ahead once again.

In Game 6, Anand mishandled the opening and got busy trying to save the position from worsening. Carlsen, looking good to press home the advantage, shocked the chess world by committing a blunder on move 26. At this point, had Anand responded by capturing Carlsen’s centre pawn with his knight, the probable continuation appeared a winning one.

Anand thought for a minute and played a defensive pawn-move. The pressure of defending the position had its effect on Anand and he missed what could have been a game-changing or even a match-winning move. Carlsen made good of the escape and never gave Anand a second chance in the game.

As Carlsen recalled later, “There was a ridiculous exchange of blunders in that game. But I did, pretty much, control that game. So it wasn’t unfair that I won it. But there were many twists and turns. I thought after the first couple of games, that I was playing, much better than he was. Game 3 obviously got me. Game 7 was the key one. If I had won that one, it would have been pretty much finished.”

At this stage, many felt Carlsen was plain lucky. The champion responded by saying, “No, that is a myth. When you put pressure on your opponents they tend to make mistakes. Sometimes, in some tournament, they make more mistakes, sometimes less. But it has nothing to do with luck.”

The second-half of the contest began with Carlsen looking to post back-to-back victories. Softened up by the defeat with black, Anand was again under pressure with Carlsen holding the upper hand. Anand, sensing danger, sacrificed a bishop for a pawn and defended accurately in a game lasting 122 moves — two short of the longest played in title-match history.

Here, it was to the credit of Anand that he saw a defendable position when most chess experts, aided by some of the world’s finest chess engines that analyse a given position and recommend preferred continuations, predicted a victory for Carlsen in this game.

What followed in the next three games were equal battles, ending in draws. In fact, the way Carlsen chose to force a draw with white pieces in just 20 moves of Game 9 was a testimony to Anand’s improved preparations with black pieces.

With two games remaining, separated by a day of rest, it all came down to pressure rather than preparation. The one who handled the pressure better was tipped to win. Anand still needed a victory to draw level but his rising confidence gave ample hope to his supporters.

In Game 11, Anand again looked good in the opening phase and for once, started improving his position to bring Carlsen under pressure. Just when Anand was looking more comfortable than Carlsen, the Indian erred. In what turned out to be a match-ending mistake, Anand overestimated his advantage in trading a rook for a bishop on the 27th move. Carlsen grabbed his chance and sealed the title.

“In general, I am a believer in material,” explained Carlsen and continued, “I like to grab it instead of giving it up. So I was fairly happy when Anand played that move since I thought he should not have enough compensation. And I thought, after other moves, he should be doing fine. I was pretty relived about that.”

Indeed. Carlsen had covered the journey by capitalising on two obvious errors of judgement by Anand in Game 6 and Game 11. Without doubt, the contest was far closer than the one involving the two last year. Over all, Anand’s opening preparations were fairly good but despite all the experience, he did not think right under pressure. His improved effort was laudable but did not prove good enough. In the chess world, the respect for Anand stood enhanced.