Rise of Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen won the world crown comfortably in Chennai.-R. RAGU

Magnus Carlsen managed to waylay Viswanathan Anand three times in 10 games. The hapless Indian realised he had walked into his rival’s comfort-zone twice in succession, midway through the contest, but could do little to elude the youngster’s grasp. By Rakesh Rao.

One of the most significant events in global sports during 2013 was the crowning of Magnus Carlsen as the World chess champion. After miraculously qualifying as the challenger, the World No. 1 dethroned five-time champion Viswanathan Anand by a convincing margin in the most-anticipated clash of the year.

Going by form and the international ratings of the two players, the outcome was in keeping with the 95-point cushion that the Norwegian enjoyed over Anand in the world ranking. Then what was so significant about this triumph?

Primarily, the manner in which Carlsen won the 12-game match, with two games to spare. The victory raised the stock of the young champion. Though playing his first World Championship title-match, and that too against Anand — who had retained the title three times in match-play format against Vladimir Kramnik (2008), Veselin Topalov (2010) and Boris Gelfand (2012) — Carlsen proved that form was a good substitute for lack of experience.

He managed to waylay Anand three times in 10 games. A hapless Anand realised he had walked into his rival’s comfort-zone twice in succession, midway through the contest, but could do little to elude the youngster’s grasp.

It is this ability of Carlsen, to grind his rival to defeat, in slow, long games, that separates him from his illustrious peers. This is one of the reasons for the large number of victories that he has managed to post in the elite tournaments over the past few years. As Carlsen said in April this year, “You need to have that edge, you need to have that confidence, you need to have that absolute belief that you’re the best and that you’ll win every time. It’s just a feeling I had... (that) I’m probably going to be the best at some point.”

Indeed, Carlsen’s confidence to come out stronger from equal positions has played a huge role in making him the world’s most followed chess player. He may not possess an exciting style like Garry Kasparov, considered the greatest player of all times, but effectively finds moves of optimum strength over a period of time, that eventually tilts the scale in his favour.

A big factor for Carlsen’s mass appeal is his persona. He has shattered the stereotype image of a chess champion. He has modelled for a leading apparel company and declined a role in the latest offering of Star Trek series. This year saw him make the Time magazine’s top-100 list of influential people in the world and the Cosmopolitan magazine listed him among the sexiest men of the year. Carlsen loves to get away from the chess board and play football and basketball. A Real Madrid fan, Carlsen had named Shaquille O’Neal as one his favourite basketball players. He is active on the social media, even as he holds the World No. 1 rank since July 2011. This year, Carlsen achieved peak rating of 2872 — highest ever in chess history — in February and December.

Carlsen’s coronation as the World champion has attracted the attention of millions of non-chess followers, globally. And many believe, his rise will have a lasting impact on chess, much like the one Bobby Fischer made in 1972.

The temperamental American brought international spotlight on chess by beating Boris Spassky in their much followed clash to end the 24-year Soviet monopoly of the world title. The victory during the Cold War days made the American media play-up the achievement and the sale of chess-sets touched unprecedented figures in most non-chess playing countries.

If one goes entirely by on-board results, Carlsen’s rise also coincides with the decline of Anand. Though Anand produced better quality chess compared to his 2012 showing, and won a title, there were plenty of areas for concern.

Unlike in his prime years, Anand appears inconsistent in converting his chances. He has failed to convert comfortable positions to victory and clearly needs to re-discover himself.

Anand may not be too keen to play the Candidates tournament, in March 2014, since his chances to top the eight-player field appear slim. Even if Anand, at 44, manages to reproduce vintage form and qualifies as the challenger to Carlsen, will he be as keen to go through the grind of months-long preparations again?

Looking at his obvious priorities — including spending time with his son who will turn three in April — it will be a tough call for Anand to take. He sounds keen to get back to tournaments and show the fire of old. After all, it takes a lot of motivation and consistency to remain in the World’s top-10 from July 1991.

Now it remains to be seen if the past presents an apt pointer to the future!