Pure genius

Magnus Carlsen... though only 22, he is the strongest player in the history of chess.-AP

Magnus Carlsen became a Grandmaster at 13 and the World No. 1 at 19 — the youngest ever to do so. He is difficult to beat, for he never gives up easily, in any position, writes P. K. Ajith Kumar.

He has been voted one of the world’s sexiest men by Cosmopolitan magazine. He has modelled with the Hollywood actress, Liv Tyler. He was offered a role in a Star Trek sequel. He has sponsorships worth millions. You won’t normally read such things about a chess player, but then, Magnus Carlsen is no ordinary chess player.

He is only 22, but he is already the strongest player in the history of chess. The difference between him and the No. 2 player is huge. It is almost as if Carlsen is in another zone.

According to the latest Elo ratings released by FIDE, the world governing body of chess, the Norwegian has 2870 points (the highest in chess history is also held by Carlsen at 2872 points). The second-ranked Levon Aronian of Armenia has 2801, and he is 31 years old.

Viswanathan Anand, who is playing Carlsen in the World Championship match in Chennai from November 9, has 2775 points. The Indian is one of the all-time legends of chess, with five World titles.

Carlsen himself is expected to win quite a few world titles before he makes the last move of his career. The question, however, is whether the first of those titles would come in Chennai. The majority of the chess world seems to think it would, given the Norwegian’s recent form. Carlsen, however, will be the first to admit that it would be foolish to underestimate Anand, that too in a long match.

Carlsen booked his ticket to Chennai by winning the Candidates’ tournament in London in March-April this year. It was a tough tournament featuring some of the elite players from the world of chess — former World champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, Aronian, Israel’s Boris Gelfand, who had challenged Anand for the World title last year, World Cup winner Peter Svidler of Russia, Ukraine’s Vassily Ivanchuk, Teimour Radjabov of Azzerbaijan and yet another Russian Alexander Grischuk. Carlsen had qualified for the event as the highest-rated player in the world.

It was a strong field no doubt, but Carlsen was the overwhelming favourite. Like all great champions, he is hungry for success. He must have been hungrier when he went to London, for, up for grabs was a place in the World title match. Yes, he had opted out of the previous World Championship cycle, saying the system was not sufficiently modern or fair.

Carlsen triumphed in London in spite of a weak finish in the double round-robin event. There were 14 gruelling rounds, but it was all exciting stuff. Anand had called it the best Candidates’ tournament in history.

Going into the final round, Carlsen and Kramnik were both on 8.5 points. The Russian, after a cautious beginning, looked to be in ominous form in the second half, posting four victories. He, however, failed to keep the momentum and went down in the last round to Ivanchuk. Carlsen, too, had lost to Svidler. Since both the overnight leaders were stuck on 8.5 points, the tiebreaker was applied, which favoured Carlsen, who had five wins to Kramnik’s four.

“Overall, I think I did pretty well,” Carlsen summed up what had been one of the most important campaigns yet of his career. “And I think I deserved to win.”

Carslen’s victory ensured that chess would witness one of the most anticipated World title clashes of all time — as in 1972, when American Bobby Fischer, a pure genius like Carlsen, took on Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union.

Carlsen’s rise has been even more meteoric than Fischer. Once his prodigious skills in chess were identified, his family ensured that he was on the right track.

Carlsen became a Grandmaster at 13 and the World No. 1 at 19 — the youngest ever to do so. It looks as though he would have a long reign at the top, regardless of what happens in Chennai, for he is difficult to beat. And he never gives up easily, in any position.

Carlsen has admitted he is not the most prepared of players in opening theories, but once he is out of the book, as they say in chess parlance, he has no obvious weaknesses. He has tremendous stamina too.

“Carlsen has a versatile game,” says Krishnan Sasikiran, one of India’s finest players. “He could play in any kind of position.”

Sasikiran, like many others, feels Anand’s experience of playing the World Championship matches — which is completely different from other tournaments — could be a problem for Carlsen.

In a recent interview though, Carlsen pointed out that he has the experience of playing at strong tournaments for the last six or seven years and that he had been playing Anand since he was a kid.

A few weeks ago, when reporters in Oslo asked Carlsen about his expectations for the World Championship, he said, “I expect to win every tournament I play.”

Over the last couple of years in particular, Carlsen has been living up to his expectations most of the time. He won his last event before the Chennai match — the Sinquefield Cup in the United States. He won the four-player, double round-robin event by one full point.

No doubt, it is an ideal warm-up for Chennai, but the World Championship will be entirely different. Carlsen, however, is unlikely to be daunted by the enormity of the championship. He will be charged up, for at stake is the most precious crown in the game.