Youth versus experience

To win the World title, Magnus Carlsen, tipped as favourite, faces the reigning champion Viswanathan Anand, undefeated in three title-defences in ‘match-play’ format. Carlsen has no experience of match-play at this level. This is one of the few factors likely to work against the ‘favourite’ for the title. By Rakesh Rao.

“I think being the World number one is a bigger deal than being the World Champion because I think it shows better who plays the best chess. That sounds self-serving but I think it’s also right. I hope someday I’ll become World Champion. But even if for some reason that doesn’t happen, it won’t stop me getting pleasure from chess. I’m sure of that. — Magnus Carlsen in 2012

Much has happened since Magnus Carlsen expressed these views. At 22, this prodigious Norwegian is playing at a level never seen before. He has scaled the heights none of his great predecessors could.

As per international rating points, an indicator of an individual’s playing strength, Carlsen tops the all-time list. His best of 2872 stands 21 points more than the previous record that stood in the name of the irrepressible Garry Kasparov. In fact, the Russian contributed to the rise of Carlsen by working with him in 2009.

To win the World title, Carlsen faces the reigning champion Viswanathan Anand, undefeated in three title-defences in ‘match-play’ format. Match-play involves two players facing each other in a pre-determined number of games. Carlsen has no experience of match-play at this level. This is one of the few factors likely to work against the ‘favourite’ for the title.

Going by the form shown by Carlsen in the past couple of years, a majority of chess followers are backing him to dethrone Anand. The obvious reason behind this thought is the stark contrast in the tournament results of the two players.

Carlsen has won six of the last nine tournaments. Anand has triumphed just once this year to end a title-drought that began in 2009. Here it is important to remember that, since 2007, when Anand regained the World title he won in 2000, he does not look as desperate to play and win tournaments like he once did. Sometimes, it appears as though he does not care for tournaments.

Since doing well in these tournaments enhances a player’s rating, and with it the World rankings, Anand’s ordinary showings coupled with the consistency of some younger players have seen him slip to the eighth spot in world rankings.

It is interesting to note that Anand has not gone out of the World’s top-10 once he made it to the list in July 1991. At that time, Carlsen was just seven months old!

The point also illustrates that Anand has been in the chess elite through the years that Carlsen has been on this planet. The experience of Anand, more so in handling match-play situations, could well be a factor when the two face-off in the 12-game battle in Chennai. Looking at the playing styles and strengths of the two, Anand’s opening preparations are known to be superior to that of Carlsen’s. The Indian can handle a variety of opening challenges, has a thorough understanding of the middle-game complications and enjoys a reputation of being very sound in defensive and endgame techniques.

Carlsen, on the other hand, can play any position without appearing to be impressive in his opening lines, considered very crucial in the way a game turns out. But his ‘feel’ for any position is astounding. Given his youthful energy, Carlsen is not the one to agree to short draws. He is capable of playing dull, drab positions for hours while making moves of optimum strength. In equal position, Carlsen continues to play regardless of any apparent possibility of victory. Results have shown that many of his rivals have erred in long battles, unable to concentrate in listless positions.

Therefore, the chess world expects Carlsen to play the waiting game and tire Anand out of the contest. This could be one of the ways of bringing pressure on the champion, who is well aware of his rival’s ability to squeeze blood from stone.

Anand needs no reminding the role peak fitness can play in a demanding match of this nature. He is believed to have lost a few kilograms through cycling and swimming as part of his training in Germany. But over the board, Anand is the one expected to create possibilities and do his bit to prevent the game from moving into Carlsen’s comfort zone.

Much will depend on the opening preparations of the players, who are working with their team of ‘seconds’ — Grandmasters of reasonable strength but known for their expertise in certain areas of the game.

Opening moves that lead to sharp positions, which require precise calculations, should favour Anand. He is feared for his ability to calculate precisely in complicated positions. Carlsen, in contrast, has excelled increasingly in not-so-exciting positions.

Going by the head-to-head statistics, Anand has won six and lost three in decisive contests spread over 29 encounters. But the last two decisive results have favoured Carlsen. In fact, the last clash between the two this year saw Carlsen crush Anand in a short game.

Anand may not enjoy any home advantage but it remains to be seen how Carlsen deals with the conditions in Chennai. He is known to go for long walks during tournaments in Europe. Doing the same in rain and humid conditions of Chennai may be difficult. Given his love for the outdoor, Carlsen could find it tough if confined to the hotel for three weeks.

Overall, the result of this ‘experience-versus-energy’ clash could significantly impact the careers of the two path-breakers of their era.