Tag Archives: Carlsen

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.

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Picking up the Pieces

“Cause Jacob’s golden ladder
Gets slippery at the top
And many a happy-go-lucky saint
Has made that long, long drop”

– Jesse Winchester, Step by Step

For whatever reason, those lyrics popped into my head for the finish of the Candidates Tournament. (The full song can be heard here, it really doesn’t have anything to do with this, but that snippet seemed vaguely appropriate.)

[Another aside – I originally started writing this last week, but didn’t get around to finishing it. Instead of shelving a half-done entry like I’ve done so many times, I’ll just force this one out the door.]

If you’re reading this, you probably know how the tournament ended – Carlsen and Kramnik both lost in shocking fashion, and due to the precedence of certain mathematical tiebreaks, Carlsen automatically advanced to the title match with Anand.

As I’ve written here before, I was hoping Carlsen or Aronian would win the tournament. And this was easily the most exciting tournament I’ve ever watched (the only other chess event that compares for me was the rapid playoff between Anand and Gelfand). The quality of play in this Candidates was spotty, but the drama was off the charts (and maybe each likely leads to the other?!). But given how Carlsen ended up qualifying, I’m somewhat disappointed by the whole thing.

Anand’s interview (published at Indian Express), one that has been making the rounds now on some major chess sites, puts it well – it’s fair, as the rules were laid out in advance and everybody knew them, but it’s less than ideal. There are definitely some who confuse those two – the fact the tiebreaks were written down, agreed to, and followed makes it fair in a legal sense, but that doesn’t mean the chosen tiebreaks were good. And I imagine that whenever the next similar event takes place, that part will get a little more attention and be modified.

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Oh, the humanity!


Those of you following the Candidates will know that Round 12 was a day of high drama as the leaders swapped places. Carlsen lost his first game of the tournament, and that too, to a tail-ender in Ivanchuk. Meanwhile, Aronian continued his slide, falling to Kramnik as white.

That combination (and Kramnik’s current 4.5/5 run), means that Vlad takes a half-point lead with two games to play. Tomorrow, it’s Kramnik – Gelfand and Radjabov – Carlsen; on Monday, it’s Ivanchuk – Kramnik and Carlsen – Svidler.  It’ll be very interesting to see how Magnus responds and whether Kramnik continues his run.

I have a lot of thoughts on how things stand right now … so as the king said, I’ll begin at the beginning, but then I’ll go on till I pass the end of this event.

First, I should say that I was hoping to see Anand go up against some of the young blood in Carlsen or Aronian. While I think Kramnik’s chess level might never have been higher (his middlegame play has definitely improved since his 2008 loss to Anand, and his opening preparation is as deep but broader than in his 2000 win against Kasparov), I’ve already seen an Anand – Kramnik match. But chess-wise, it’s hard to argue with Kramnik. 

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Who Are You Rooting For?

Stories have a way of writing themselves. As an example, I give you two games from the 7th round, Gelfand-Kramnik and Carlsen-Radjabov.

I’ll start with the Gelfand-Kramnik game. Here’s the position after Kramnik’s 18…Nf6-e8.

Gelfand - Kramnik Candidates 1

(FEN: rq2n1k1/1b3ppp/pp1bp3/8/3PN3/3B1NP1/PP2QP1P/2R3K1 w - - 0 19)

ChessVibes’s writeup has the following: “For a moment Kramnik was in big trouble, but he escaped with a draw when his opponent Boris Gelfand of Israel refrained from playing actively on move 19.”

That’s true – White can win with the very nice 19.Neg5! g6 20.Nxf7! Kxf7 21.Ng5+ Kf6 22.Qxe6+ Kxg5 23.Qh3!! (the only  move to win). Of course, White’s work is not yet done, for example 23…Kf6 24.Qxh7 Bb4 (covering e1, freeing the Qb8 to come into the game), he should find 25.Rc2!, winning.

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Thoughts After One Trip Through the Lineup

The Candidates Tournament in London has just completed the first set of rounds. It’s been a very interesting event so far, although with a lot more bizarre time management than I remember from previous events similar to this one (e.g., San Luis 2005 and Mexico City 2007, although both were officially title events).

The games themselves have – almost without fail – been interesting. The one completely uninteresting game that comes to mind was the Round 7 game between Ivanchuk and Svidler. That’s not to say every game has been interesting throughout, just that there were interesting moments in those other games.

At the halfway point, Carlsen and Aronian are ahead of the pack on +3 (5/7). Nobody else even has a plus score, while the elder statesmen among the group (Ivanchuk and Gelfand) are on -2 (2.5/7).

I think it’s pretty clear that Carlsen or Aronian will win this event. A Topalov-like run (6.5/7 in one half, 3.5/7 with all draws in the other) is still theoretically possible for Kramnik, but it’s just a a theoretical possibility. And given that unlike the 2005 and 2007 double-RRs, a good portion of this field appears to be in poor form (relative to even their normal results/rating), I expect Carlsen and Aronian to win some games in the 2nd half as well.

I wouldn’t quite count missing something like in this poor form:

Aronian - Gelfand Candidates

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Big Fish, Little Fish

Big Fish Little Fish

Only 1 day and change before the Candidates begins!

There’s been some talk about whether having no clearly overmatched players helps or hurts Magnus (or the others). While guys like Gelfand and Svidler are clearly much lower rated, it’s a very different thing to play them versus playing a mere mortal of a 2600 GM.

My own suspicion was that it would bring the field slightly closer together, as the conventional wisdom is that Magnus beats those guys on-demand. He’d play some offbeat opening line, get a random position, and slowly go to work. Looking at the numbers though, that’s partly true, but that’s not really what sets him apart. However, two other things first …

First, Giri’s comment about Magnus having 80% chances to win this. It’s true he’s been pretty dominant in his recent events, but from Tata Steel 2011 through Tata Steel 2013, he didn’t win 80% of those events (and most of those weren’t as strong as the Candidates will be). As far as I can tell, he’s played at:

  • Tata 2011 (3rd behind Naka and Anand);
  • Bazna 2011 (tied for first with Karjakin);
  • Biel 2011 (clear first);  
  • Bilbao 2011 (clear first);
  • Tal Memorial 2011 (tied for first with Aronian);
  • London 2011 (3rd behind Kramnik and Nakamura);
  • Tata 2012 (2nd behind Aronian);
  • Tal Memorial 2012 (clear first);
  • Biel 2012 (2nd behind Wang Hao);
  • Bilbao 2012 (tied for first with Caruana);
  • London 2012 (clear first); and,
  • Tata 2012 (clear first)

Obviously it’s an impressive run (and better than anybody else’s run at the same time), but that’s 12 tournaments with 5 clear 1sts, 3 shared 1sts, and 4 others. So even counting ties, that’s “only” 2/3 of his events.

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Revelations: Anand, Carlsen, Gelfand, Kasparov, and Kramnik

There was a nice 2-part interview with Gelfand about the World Championship match over at ChessVibes: part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

Here are a few things that I found interesting:

  • Kasparov offered to help Gelfand as his second! And Gelfand declined! Haha, there’s really nothing more to say about Kasparov at this point. He is what he is. As for Gelfand, he too is what he is and at least in that aspect, he commands more respect as a person in my view.
  • Gelfand’s second coach told him that to help remember what he should be playing, he should repeat the moves at an actual chess board, not just review them in a book (or on the screen). At some point, I realized this helped me remember my opening lines better, and I began traveling with a regular chess set, in addition to the usual professional second (the laptop). A lot of players were surprised/amused by this habit of replaying moves on an actual board, but it’s nice to know at least one other person has found it useful!

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The Scandinavian Connection

“But where you at, I was, and where you been, I left
Utilize my experience to guide your step”

– Mos Def in “Little Brother”

I was flipping through Lars Bo Hansen’s book Improve Your Chess the other day – I haven’t played in 11 months now and I haven’t seriously studied in about as long, but I still enjoy flipping reading a chess book now and then – when I came across an example from page 96 of the book.

(FEN: 6k1/1prnnp1p/p5p1/3p4/3N1N2/1P2PP1P/P5P1/3R2K1 w - - 0 29)

The game is Larsen – Gheorghiu, Palma de Mallorca 1968. Hansen gives the game as an example of how to play against Isolated Queen’s Pawns, but for me, the interesting part starts here.

White played 29.g4!, and Hansen gives the comment “White prepares to open a second front, a typical theme in strategic endings; you usually need two weaknesses to win.”

The game continued 29…h6?, to which Hansen notes, “It is understandable that Black does not want to wait passively, but this merely aids White.”

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Predictions, past and present

The Tal Memorial started today in Moscow, and it’s a great lineup. In fact, I can’t remember a top round-robin with as exciting a field in the past few years. As much as I’d like to see Anand play well, he hasn’t been a very compelling tournament player recently, so I’ll happily take Aronian, Kramnik, and Grischuk representing the 2770+ crowd here.

The rest of the field with Mamedyarov (2763), Karjakin (2760), Eljanov (2742), Gelfand (2741), Nakamura (2741), Shirov (2735), and Wang Hao (2727) is filled with a nice blend of young fighters and grizzled veterans.

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Who’s Afraid of the Exchange Slav?

After my stop for some R&R in London, I caught a flight to Brussels and then got on the ChessBus from the airport to Cappelle la Grande. After last year’s event, I was not so keen on returning (mostly because of the food situation), whereas the other American players in the same group (Josh Friedel, Jesse Kraai, and David Pruess) were generally more interested on playing again. However, one year later, and I’m on the only one of the group who has made it back.

Cappelle is an interesting chess event and in many ways is like none other across the world. The organizers essentially give conditions (free room + food) to most titled players, as well as modest appearance fees for GMs. Meals are served in a mess hall of sorts, where they provide lunch and dinner for hundreds of players every day. Although the prizes are relatively small (the prizes don’t seem to be advertised, but my guess is that first prize is around 2500 Euros), the tournament is quite strong because of the generous conditions. About 100 GMs show up every year, the record being 112 in 2005. While Gibraltar is a bit stronger at the top, Cappelle has much more depth.

The tournament also attracts a number of lower-rated players, and this year there are about 700 players in all. If this was paired as a straight swiss like the US Open, then the top players would be stuck playing way down for a number of rounds. In order to make things more competitive and interesting, they accelerate the pairings. Thus, last year I played a 2350 IM in the first round, while this year, I played a GM in the first round.

Pairings for the first round went up soon after the masses were served their lunch – I got the black pieces against GM Arkadi Vul. He’s an old GM whose rating has dropped quite a bit from its peak, but still, I couldn’t take him lightly. More troublesome than playing a GM, though, was that when I pulled up his games in ChessBase and made a tree to see his opening choices, I noticed that in 22 of 23 games against the Slav, he took on d5 right away!

In Gibraltar, I had to deal with the Exchange Slav in my first round game, and I really seem to get a disproportionate number of them in my games. Well, this time I was having none of it. Instead of my standard …d5/…c6 move order, I played with the Triangle approach – …d5/…e6/…c6. If he wanted to play an Exchange Variation, he was going to have to play an Exchange Queen’s Gambit Declined – White might have better chances for an advantage in some of those lines, but it’s often less boring than the Exchange Slav!

Instead of taking on d5, though, he played an early Nbd2 and e3, and the game effectively transposed into an Anti-Meran with 5.Nbd2. I played my normal response to this system and the game was channeled into an IQP position:

(FEN: 2r2rk1/1p1bqppp/1bn2n2/pN1p4/3N4/PP2PP2/1B1QB1PP/2R1R1K1 w - - 5 21)

The position is dynamically balanced, and in fact, I almost saw this position as a bit of a mutual zugzwang! Both sides have a couple weaknesses (White has weak pawns on e3 and a3, while Black has a weak pawn on d5 and a weak square on b5), but neither side can really go after them without jeopardizing something in his own position. My opponent had already eaten up a lot of the clock in the late opening and early middlegame phase, and he continued to do so here. It’s not clear what either side’s plan should be, and as a result, this is a position where the time can just tiptoe by without you noticing.

He played 21.Bd3, which looks quite reasonable, possibly threatening 22.Nf5. I didn’t particularly want to play 21…g6, but I also didn’t want to see him put a piece on f5. The long diagonal is weakened, but it’s difficult for White to take advantage of that.

After another long think, Vul slid his king over with 22.Kh1. A somewhat mysterious move and it was accompanied by a draw offer. Objectively, I think the position is balanced, but with him only having 15 minutes (and the 30-second increment) to get to move 40, I decided there was no harm in playing on a bit. I played 22…Rfe8.

This is where he really started losing the thread – his next 4 moves were 23.Bf1, 24.g3, 25.Kg2, 26.h4, 27.Qc3, and 28.Qd2. Not exactly the most inspired play. To fill in the blanks, the game continued: 23.Bf1 Nh5 24.g3 Nf6 25.Kg2 h5 26.h4 Ra8 27.Qc3 Ne5 28.Qd2, reaching the following position:

(FEN: r3r1k1/1p1bqp2/1b3np1/pN1pn2p/3N3P/PP2PPP1/1B1Q2K1/2R1RB2 b - - 4 28)

I now played 28…a4, trying to wrest control of the c4-square from White. He had already made some unnecessary kingside weaknesses (with g3 and h4), and now I was hoping to get something on the queenside as well. Down to a few minutes, he now blundered with 29.Nc7 – after 29…Bxc7 30.Rxc7, Black has 30…Bh3+!, picking up the exchange. Admittedly, White does have the two bishops and there is no opposite number to White’s bishop on b2. Unfortunately, once the b3-pawn goes, a knight will land on c4 and remove that piece before it gets too strong.

The game continued 31.Kxh3 Qxc7 32.Bb5 Red8 33.Bxa4 Nc4! (one of the bishops will go now) 34.Qc3 Qc8+! 35.Kg2 Nxb2. White is left with only a bishop and pawn for the rook and that’s not enough compensation in this position. Although it took another hour or so, I reined in the full point without any real trouble.

In round 2, I was white against the young German IM, Tobias Hirneise. He had played in Gibraltar as well, and he was on the board next to me while I was playing IM Irina Krush. Amusingly, both games followed the same variation of the Slav (the Sokolov …Nb6 variation), and I was debating whether to copy his opponent (GM Pia Cramling), who was playing the opening moves for white quite quickly. I decided to deviate though, and although I got a better position, I ended up losing – Cramling, though, ended up winning!

Over the past 2-3 years, he had played the Slav, the King’s Indian, and the Nimzo/QID complex, so I couldn’t prepare for everything. I concentrated on the Slav, since that was all he had played the past few months. For better or for worse, he forced me to throw my preparation out the window when he played a KID. In the following middlegame, though, he made an instructive error:

(FEN: r1bq1rk1/1p4bp/3p2nn/p1pPppp1/2P1P3/P1N2PP1/1P1NBB1P/1R1Q1RK1 b - - 0 17)

This was a new position for both of us, as while I had never looked at it before, he had just left his preparation on the previous move (and had gained 6 minutes on the clock along the way). On his own, he played 17…g4?, which has been played before, and turns out to be a serious error in my view. I didn’t realize it right away, but after a 20-minute think, I realized how to continue.

I played 18.fxg4 Nxg4 19.exf5! Nxf2 (forced, as otherwise the Ng4 hangs) 20.Rxf2 Bxf5 21.Nde4. He had seen this position when he played 17…g4, but had assessed the position after 21…Bh6 as fine for him.

(FEN: r2q1rk1/1p5p/3p2nb/p1pPpb2/2P1N3/P1N3P1/1P2BR1P/1R1Q2K1 w - - 2 22)

It’s true that his position looks fine at the moment, but after 22.Qd3, what is Black to do? His bishops look nice on f5 and h6, but they’re not actually doing much. Meanwhile, the Ng6 is silly, the Bf5 will be hit soon with Rbf1, and the d6-pawn is under fire from the Ne4 and potentially a Nb5.

On a side note, this incident reminded me of Magnus Carlsen’s response in a recent TIME Magazine interview.

Q: How many moves ahead can you calculate on the chess board?
A: Sometimes 15 to 20 moves ahead. But the trick is evaluating the position at the end of those calculations.

The full interview is at: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1948809,00.html#ixzz0fXpO4w80

Back to my game though … After 22…Qd7 23.Rbf1, White threatens to take on c5! If then 23…dxc5, 24.Rxf5 nets White a pawn, while on 23…Bxd3 24.Nxd7, Black has no way to get his material back – 24…Bxe2 25.Rxe2 and 24…Be3 25.Bxd3 don’t help his cause. Meanwhile, if the bishop moves, then a knight fork on f6 will be devastating, so he found nothing better to do than to give up his bishop with 23…Bxe4.

He managed to later get all the rooks off (this wasn’t necessary to allow, but as it happened later on, I wasn’t in the mood to calculate too much at this point and just wanted to cut off any chance of counterplay) to reach the following position:

(FEN: 5n2/1p2q1kp/3p3b/p1pPp3/2P1N3/P4QP1/1P2B1KP/8 w - - 2 29)

I played 29.Qg4+ Kh8 30.a4!? – this is another luxury, but I figured I could afford it as he can’t keep me out forever. Meanwhile, the pawn on a4 means that …Bc1 can be met with b3, and Black doesn’t even get the small consolation of a queenside pawn. Instead, 30.Qc8 was obvious and strong (planning 31.Qb8 and 32.Nxd6), but I didn’t want to give him anything on the queenside in return.

He tried to keep me out with 30…Nd7, but his efforts were in vain. After 31.Qf5 (threatening 32.Bd3 and 33.Nxd6 – it’s mate on h7!) Kg7 32.Qe6!, Black is completely lost. He resigned a couple moves later when it was clear that he’d either have to shed a piece or the d6, b7, and c5 pawns.