Musings on a Chess Style: A Winner Just Wins

“His deep, infiltrating style, subtle positional feeling, and extraordinary persistence, practicality, and flexibility rapidly raised him to the very summit of chess … [He] was not a researcher in the openings and he did not work so much on chess, but he was very skillful at selecting and absorbing new ideas, and then making brilliant use of them in practice …”

There was an interesting discussion in the comments of my last post, brought about by the question (from a certain Unshod fellow): “What do you think of the increasingly repeated claim that Carlsen wins by being more consistent, and a tougher fighter, but brings no new chess ‘ideas’?” There was a short discussion there, but basically, I wanted to take that discussion out of the comments because it deserves its own post I think.

First things first, my general response to the question …

As I said in those comments, I think it’s too much to say he has brought no new chess ideas forward, but I do think his style has taken a clear turn over the past few years towards the “more consistent, tougher fighter” approach. (As a very rough measure, you can see how his average game length has simply gotten longer over the past couple years, moving up from about 40 moves to 49 per game.)

Now for the actual details …

His goal is simply to win games. How can you win games at that level? Every game starts with the opening phase, so in a way, you can think of a continuum with two extremes. On the one hand, you can do only the minimum amount of opening work (this extreme can’t be to absolutely ignore the opening, as then you’ll simply never get close to the top to begin with), try to get a normal position, and make more good moves than your opponent. If you blunder (or even slightly err) less often, you might be able to accumulate enough advantages to win. At the other end of the spectrum, you work through a repertoire as deeply as you can, to essentially claim an advantage as often as possible. Despite starting the middlegame ahead, you still need to play good moves, but you might be able to get by with a few more small mistakes and still have enough to win.

His chessic contribution seems to be that he’s been the first top player in the last few years to fully make this move to the former – it’s a more practical style, eschewing the deep opening study and innovations that characterized every top player from Kasparov on. However, he was not the first to start moving in this direction.

Starting with Kasparov’s reign in the mid-1980s, the only way to compete for the top (i.e., with him) was to start exploring your openings much more. The middlegame and endgame still counted for a lot, but a serious investigation of the opening was necessary to make it to the top. And while this investigation was certainly aided by databases, even by the mid-2000s, computer programs were no lock to beat the very top players regularly, and so much of this work was done the good ol’ fashioned way — by chessplayers.

Now, though, I think all the top players realize that the openings arms race is a race for smaller and smaller payoffs. With extremely powerful chess engines, anybody (even me!) can follow the first line from the computer. It makes the kind of home preparation seen in Aronian – Anand, Corus 2013 much more rare:

Aronian - Anand Corus 2013

Take a look at the top novelties from Informant in the 1990s and compare to them to the top novelties from 2005 onwards and you’ll see a marked shift in their type. As evidence, I’ll go with the World Championship events from 2005 onwards: San Luis (2005), Kramnik – Topalov (2006), Mexico City (2007), Anand – Kramnik (2008), Anand – Topalov (2010), and Anand – Gelfand (2012).

In the 2005 and 2007 FIDE Championships, Topalov and Anand certainly won with good play, but their opening play was marked by deep preparation in relatively well-trodden lines. It’s not hard to find 15-20 moves of mainline Najdorf or Semi-Slav theory.

The 2006 match with Kramnik and Topalov discussed the Semi-Slav and Slav in extreme detail. As a practitioner of both openings, this was extremely interesting, but it was almost a referendum on just those two openings. There were maybe a couple Catalans thrown into the mix, but I can’t remember much else being played.

However, by the 2008 Anand – Kramnik match, you could already see the seismic plates shifting. Almost every game featured different openings: three fundamentally different Nimzo Indians, two fundamentally different Slavs, a QGD, a Vienna, three Semi-Slavs (two Merans, one Moscow Variation), and a Najdorf.

The one repeated line was the virtually new …Bb7 line of the Old Meran. Objectively, the move is not enough for any advantage as Black, but it’s a practical swampland, and playing those positions over the board are incredibly difficult. Similarly, Anand’s tiny h3 novelty in the Nimzo is not one that is earth shattering, but simply poses some new problems over the board.

Anand - Kramnik Wch 7 Nimzo 2008

The 2010 Anand – Topalov match was more of the same. Lots of non-computer-approved lines to get new positions: Topalov won a game with preparation in the Grunfeld and then had an amazing exchange sacrifice as Black in the Catalan, but most of Anand’s openings with White were more practically worthwhile than objectively strong.

Anand - Topalov Wch 2 2010

Nobody will be writing home about the objective quality of Qb3-a3 here for White, although it threw Topalov off enough to provoke some mistakes and equalize the score for Anand.

Anand - Topalov Wch 7 2010

Nor will anybody be trumpeting Ng5-h3 here, but again, in middlegame complications, he outplayed Topalov and had a winning advantage but wasn’t quite able to hammer it home.

Finally, in the Anand – Gelfand match, Anand eschewed almost every main line with White, playing relative sidelines of the Grunfeld (with 3.f3) and then with novelties in the first 10 moves of the Rossolimo (despite the fact he’s long been one of the world’s experts in main-line Sicilians).

With Black, though, Anand still relies quite a bit on opening preparation to equalize, but this move to a more practical approach has long been in the works. In fact, you can see other people picking up precisely these lines because they’re relatively unexplored. How many 2700+ 3.f3 Grunfelds did you see before that match? Now many, many people are playing it. The same goes for the Rossolimo.

General principles have been established, numerous concrete exceptions have been introduced, and chess is at a stage now where it’s well known that the objective drawing margin is quite large. So as long as you stay out of your opponent’s heavily prepared cross-hairs  you will have good practical chances.

I do believe that in this transition, Magnus has been the first to embrace this approach with both colors. And while I think this is good for chess in the long-run (in the sporting sense), this is more like addition by subtraction than addition by addition (in the chessic sense of expanding the breadth and depth of opening and middlegame tactics and strategies). As noted above, the top players seem to recognize that focus has diminishing returns now, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t fundamentally new approaches to be made, and so even in this sense, he’s not doing addition by addition.

In any case, this move to less opening study and more focus on the middlegame is not fundamentally new in a chess sense. It feels a bit like a return to the 1970s/1980s, by which point chess had gotten beyond the phase of only Ruy Lopez, Nimzo Indian, and King’s Indian games (e.g., Zurich 1953), and many more openings were being played. The top players since then have contributed quite a bit to the richness of chess by showing that there are many equally “good” moves that can be played in the opening.

So unlike the 1970s and 1980s, the space of moves to consider is much wider thanks to those innovations in the interim – we all stand on the shoulders of giants, so there are just as many exceptions as principles at the top, which is why Magnus can play a maneuver like the one in his game with Grischuk from the Tal Memorial in 2012:

Carlsen - Grischuk Tal Memorial 2012

Nobody in the 1970s and 1980s would have even conceived of such a plan to entomb the Bishop on g3, but as more concrete play became the name of the game, more and more exceptions to the first principles were found.

But what about his opening variety?

As Kramnik has said, somebody of Magnus’s talent level can pick any style he wants, but he seems to have made a conscious decision to play in this straightforward and consistent manner as much as possible. His dad confirmed this when talking about the first game against Svidler from the London Candidates where he didn’t consider 25…Bxh3!!, winning on the spot.

Svidler - Carlsen London 2013

The entire winning line isn’t obvious for sure, but the first move looks like an obvious candidate with the Q+B battery and rook on the 5th rank. Instead, he played the much more prosaic 25…exd3 with a clear plus, but it certainly wasn’t winning on the spot. Under pressure on the board and the clock, Svidler blundered terribly on move 33 and lost. Paraphrasing his dad about this game, as Magnus has matured, this is the style he prefers.

This style is one that prioritizes good moves (often the best, but not necessarily so like previous maximalists following Kasparov) and fighting as long as possible. To me, this style permeates most of his decisions now, and so flies against the claim that he plays many openings. That used to be the case, but it’s a tougher claim to defend these days I think.

From about 2012 on, he’s stuck to a relatively narrow repertoire when facing top opposition. He’s still ambidextrous with White, but against top opposition, he plays 1.e4 almost exclusively. The only ones who can really make him deviate regularly are the very top guys who defend the Berlin often and well, e.g., Kramnik, Karjakin, and to some extent, Aronian – that’s a post for another day though. It’s to the point where he admitted at the London Candidates that nobody was likely to be too surprised by his first moves there. (This was in response to a question after the last round from a reporter trumpeting his prediction that the Svidler game would be a Ruy Lopez.)

Meanwhile, as Black against 1.e4, he’s dramatically reduced the breadth of his repertoire, eliminating almost all Sicilians  (he used to play a variety of them), while focusing almost exclusively on 1…e5. As Black against 1.d4, he’s settled into a pretty steady diet of the Nimzo/Bogo/QGD complex with a few Grunfelds. In sum, he probably shows about as much opening variety as the average top-10 player, possibly even less.

After the opening, he can still play almost any type of middlegame. In that sense, he’s like pretty much every #1 player starting with Spassky:  he can play with or without the initiative, tactical or strategic positions, and so on. But while he’d prefer to have the initiative, he doesn’t work quite as hard to get it anymore. You can pit any number of games from 2009 through 2011 against his games from 2012 to 2013 to see this distinction.

Instead of deep pawn sacrifices to get lasting pressure  (e.g., his game in the Scotch against Leko), you see a lot of d3-Ruy Lopezes and various other bland positions where the position just stays equal for 30 moves until his opponent’s start to err. The game against Karjakin from Corus earlier this year was emblematic of this approach: lots of shuffling around, not much going on, but finally Karjakin made a mistake or two, and Magnus had an opening. It still wasn’t over, and the kingside breakthrough towards the end was quite nice, but I’d still mark that one down as an ugly win. The win as black against Radjabov from London was even less satisfying in my view. There are more many games like that these days. I could add in the insipid efforts against Kramnik for example, which are a far cry from how he approached those games in 2009 and 2010.

None of this is to say that Carlsen isn’t anything special. There’s a reason he’s far and away the highest rated player in the world. But it doesn’t necessarily follow from the clear #1 ranking that he’s innovating in a chess sense, and in fact, based on his games, I’d say the opposite – he’s narrowing his chess focus and instead playing to his even bigger comparative advantages in terms of focus and stamina. It all goes back to his primary goal: he just wants to win. And while in a more direct, move-to-move fight, there are people who can hang with him, nobody can put in the same energy move-in and move-out, day after day.

Finally, in case you’re wondering, the above quote is from Kasparov. But who was it about? You’d be forgiven for thinking it was Magnus – the resemblance is uncanny.

But it’s actually about Karpov, well before Magnus ever reached #1.


4 responses to “Musings on a Chess Style: A Winner Just Wins

  1. Thanks for this blogpost Really enjoyed it and your analysis. But based on your final conclusion, ie, Carlsen’s comparative advantage of focus and stamina, that is an advantage of youth over age, is it not? Does that mean the 15-21 year olds of today will be threatening his dominance soon? ie Caruana?

    Secondly, taking your earlier conclusion, that “This style is one that prioritizes good moves (often the best, but not necessarily so like previous maximalists following Kasparov) and fighting as long as possible.”, that begs the question, does it not: How does he consistently finds the best move? Is it pure calculation? But even calculation is dependent on correct evaluation of the position reached at the end of the line etc. Query whence his “knowledge” is derived from? Nikos Ntrilis, co-author of Quality Chess GM Rep 10 on the Tarrassch has this to say over at ChessPub Forum (
    “Calrsen, from very young, combined as a player the deep classical education with enormous chess talent.(reply#21) [……] What i said and probably passed unnoticed, is that Carlsen (according to his coach’s book “Wonderkid”) was raised by studying EVERYTHING! Really, there was not a single book (and opening book ones) that Carlsen didn’t read and practicaly memorised (in this book there are many anecdotical stories about Carlsen’s memory). So, Carlsen HAS a huge opening knowledge. Maybe not in the sense of knowing the most recent novelties like Aronian and Kramnik for example, but a wide general opening knowledge. This fact doesn’t contradict your opinion about his approach to chess, but it puts it in a different level. Carlsen doesn’t play like this because he doesn’t know theory or because he is bored to work on openings (althought this may be true!), but because he can has a broad knowledge of opening and stored patterns and has chosen to avoid sharp theoretical lines.” (reply#23)”
    BTW, I have excerpted some of your conclusions on that ChessPub thread. Hope you don’t mind.

    Any thots and analyses on the Alekhine Memorial games and the Grand Prix?

  2. Brilliant ending, it was like watching a good episode of Seinfeld where things slowly connected themselves.

  3. @JG and weng siow: Thanks! Haha, and as Seinfeld is my favorite comedy show (and generally one of my favorite shows), that’s about as good as I could ever hope for.

    @weng siow: Part of his advantage in focus and stamina is likely a product of being younger — it looks to me like there are more 20-somethings in the top 20 of the world than at any other point in time. That’s probably partly due to computers leveling out the information gap and partly to an advantage of being younger in long, grueling events.

    But Magnus is certainly supremely talented, more so than relatively young players like Karjakin or Caruana in my view; given his prodigious memory and talent, maybe he’s internalized the lessons and patterns of everything he’s read/studied/seen to a greater extent than the rest. I don’t think he’s doing it through pure calculation — Kramnik is a calculating machine, Carlsen, much less so. He can calculate at a high level if he’s forced to, but I don’t think he prefers to choose his moves that way if possible.

  4. gurjendersihe2012

    Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting.I will be waiting for your next post.
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