The Carlsen Era

by admin on November 21, 2013

Pigs could still fly, dodos could still walk the Earth, and Viswanathan Anand could still save his world championship match against Magnus Carlsen. But I wouldn’t bet on it!

Carlsen now leads the best-of-twelve match by 6-3, and needs only one more draw to become the new champion of the world. And not just any world champion, but a kind of world champion we haven’t had for a generation — a dominant one who stands heads and shoulders above his contemporaries, as Garry Kasparov did. Given that Carlsen has White tomorrow, needing only a draw to win, I think it’s likely the match will end at 6½-3½ in his favor, which is exactly what I predicted at the outset.

One thing that impresses me is how easy it’s been. In nine games, has Carlsen even made one clear mistake? I don’t remember one. It’s true that he did appear to be in trouble in the latest game (round 9), yet he waved a magic wand and defused Anand’s giant attack. It looked as if Anand was close to winning, but it’s quite possible that Carlsen knew better all along. You certainly cannot say that Carlsen made any clear mistakes; he took his chances and played very principled chess, refusing to be intimidated by the pawn storm.

On the other hand, Anand has played very human chess. In positions that were difficult but drawable, he has too many times not been able to find the right solution. You could say that he hasn’t put up the best resistance, but that would ignore the amount of pressure that Carlsen has put him under. Chessbase give some undoubtedly computer-aided analysis showing that Anand could have drawn game 9 up until his very last move, which was a terrible blunder. But who can blame him? It was such a weird position, with Carlsen having two queens on the board, that normal intuition goes out the window. In such a position the more exhausted player will blunder first.

One thing I really love about the impending Carlsen victory is what it will mean for opening theory. I’ve said for years that Opening Theory is a Scam. I had to qualify this statement a little bit in my debate with Dennis Monokroussos; what I mean is that the preoccupation with memorizing the latest grandmaster-approved variations up to the n-th move is very unhealthy for class-level players, say anyone under 2000. (On the other hand, understanding general opening principles is very healthy.)

Carlsen has proved that my claim holds true even on the very top level. He plays whatever openings and variations he darn well pleases, and he does just fine in all of them. I’m sure that he does study openings a lot, but he isn’t a slave to them. He understands that the way to be a dominant world champion is to be better than your competition in all phases of the game. I hope that the next generation of players will emulate him, and I’m sure they will. One of the perks of being a world champion is that everybody will try to copy you, although few will succeed. We are in the Carlsen Era now. Enjoy it!

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashish November 21, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Yup. Carlsen’s approach to openings transcends even Fischer and Chess960. Pretty awesome.


Matt November 22, 2013 at 6:49 am

After four games I was all ready to say “I told you so!” I had said I thought the match would be close and that Anand would catch Carlsen out in his opening preparation. That did indeed seem to be the case a few games in but then Anand had a meltdown, lost 3 games out of 5, and that’s all she wrote. Your prediction of 6.5-3.5 turned out to be exactly correct!


Willy November 22, 2013 at 9:38 am

I enjoyed your thoughts on chess openings. I find myself being less of a slave to the book moves the more I play. I think the chess wit goes hand and hand with this idea…”There is something to be said for not allowing yourself to be derailed when you know that perfection already has eluded you. ”
Knowing why I make opening moves is more important than mindlessly putting my pieces in the same position every time. This is not an easy habit to break.


Horatio November 25, 2013 at 6:40 am

I totally agree with your point about the openings but I also think that there are few players who could play like Carlsen. Take the fifth game where he played 6.Nc3 instead of Bd2 in the Marshall Gambit (1. c4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 c6 4. e4 dxe4 5. Nxe4 Bb4+ 6. Nc3).
I am a dry player but I would never feel comfortable in a line where I am just equal (not dynamically but statically equal) as White out of the opening.

So I think the lesson here is that players, even the best ones, play (or should play) variations they feel comfortable with and ignore whether the lines are objectively best or not.


admin November 25, 2013 at 8:23 am

Hi Horatio,

This was an interesting game to me because I have played 6. Nc3 a couple times and would do it again. The first time was against Belle (then computer world champion and the first computer program to achieve a master rating) in 1983. I played 6. Nc3 in complete ignorance (I didn’t know the 6. Bd2 line), but it turned out to be a good choice. The computer opted to double my c-pawns relatively early — not a bad decision necessarily, but one which made the position much more dynamic because it gives White nice lines for his pieces. So it’s not necessarily as static as all that.

I talked about that game in one of my very first Chess Lectures, and maybe I should take another look at the variation now that Carlsen has played it.


Horatio November 25, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Hi Dana,
I guess Bb4 leads to some imbalance in many queen pawn openings (unless it is played to provoke Bd2 when White wants the bishop rather on b2 like in some Catalan lines … but then again we could label reducing the piece coordination of the opponent an imbalance).

About Nc3 vs. Bd2. of course having had good experiences with a line is an important influence. But wouldn’t a move like Bd2, gambiting one or two pawns for time and dark square domination, not rather suit your style?

Personally, and I could have very well misread you back then so please correct me if I am wrong, this is what I took from your opening philosophy discussion: play the stuff that suits your style and don’t care about theory in the meta sense (e.g. I am a beginning player and I respond to the French with the third and fourth best moves, the advance or the exchange variation, in order to get into a gambit line respectively get an open game).
Or to paraphrase a nice aphorism I once read: “If God played God in the Benoni, I think that White would win. But among mortals Black has decent chances.”


admin November 25, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Hi Horatio,

Yes, the gambit with 6. Bd2 would be more in my style, especially now that I know about it. Back in 1983 I was more unsure of myself in the openings and less willing to give up a pawn in an unknown situation. So 6. Nc3 seemed kind of forced to me. The reason that I would play it even today is that it’s a move that a lot of players dismiss. Dana’s opening philosophy also talks about looking for moves that are unfashionable yet fundamentally sound. That describes 6. Nc3 pretty well.


Dennis M November 27, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Dolly Parton famously said that “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”, and the same is true for Magnus Carlsen’s allegedly anti-theoretical approach. Achieving the sorts of semi-innocuous positions where he can get the kind of play he likes takes a huge amount of work!

It should be said that the definition of “Opening Theory” given above is meaningless for GMs, as they don’t primarily memorize others’ moves but create their own theory. And indeed, Carlsen did a lot of theoretical work for the match, most obviously in the Berlin. Also, in games where his prep was poor (e.g. games 1 and 3) he was in trouble. No hip hip hooray for anti-theory there! Game 9 was also pretty theoretical as well, both conceptually and in the details, while the “untheoretical” line he chose against the Sicilian in game 10 continued a theoretical duel he had with Anand.

So the idea that Carlsen is some sort of avatar for an anti-theoretical approach strikes me as badly mistaken. The kinds of positions he is trying to achieve are different from those that players like Kasparov or Topalov wanted, that’s certain. He’s not aiming to kill his opponents from the get-go. But Kasparov and Topalov only represent one GM approach to the openings; they are not proxies for the whole profession. Carlsen’s victory will inspire a few players to become endgame specialists, and may inspire some more players who misunderstand him to play dull openings thinking they’re imitating him. But in general it won’t change much, nor should it. You like to play the King’s Gambit, which lends itself to very deep analysis. Are you going to quit just because Carlsen likes unforcing lines? Of course not. Just because what you play is outside the mainstream of theory doesn’t mean you’re really emulating Carlsen’s approach. People will continue to play what they want to play, and the get rich quick mentality isn’t going anywhere either.


Dennis M November 27, 2013 at 12:16 pm

I don’t mean that playing the King’s Gambit doesn’t mean you’re embracing a “get rich quick” mentality. It might, and it might not, depending on the person. Those are two different points: playing what one wants to play and going for quick kills.


Dennis M November 27, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Oops, looks like I typoed or put in too many negation-words. Of course it should read “I don’t mean that playing the King’s Gambit means (implies) you’re embracing a “get rich quick” mentality.”


admin November 27, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Hi Dennis, Good to hear from you! By the way, I really enjoyed your lecture on Englisch vs. Tarrasch. That was a neat game to find.

Duly noted on the multiple negatives. I play the KG for a variety of reasons. Mostly it’s to force myself to play uncompromising chess. Other reasons are to avoid the Petroff (Russian) Defense and to avoid the Berlin Variation of the Ruy, although those aren’t the best reasons. However, it’s true that you can’t play the King’s Gambit if you don’t know any theory. You can rightfully accuse me of inconsistency for that.

I have been thinking for some time that I should find a calmer, more Carlsen-esque backup as White in case responds to 1. e4 with 1. …e5 and I don’t feel in the mood for a super-sharp, semi-unsound game. Currently my solution is simply to play 1. d4 if I don’t want something sharp.


Dennis M November 27, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Thanks, Dana!

I think there are really two keys to the Carlsen repertoire. First, it’s not calmness per se that he’s after but the absence of forced lines. He wants to make sure, if possible, that the positions he’s getting aren’t ones that have been or can be “killed” by the computer (meaning that they lead to a forced draw or that analysis can bring about a position that is a routine draw for his opponents); it’s at most a by-product of this that the positions are (relatively) calm.

The other key is the hit-and-run element: if his opponents have to prepare for everything then they really can’t prepare. Give any good GM a stationary target, and he’ll be ready even for a Magnus Carlsen. All top players move around and work like crazy to create new theory, theory that can’t easily be predicted by engine prep.

Going back to Carlsen, his ability to play everything goes back to the Dolly Parton quip. What the unsuspecting amateur might regard as a labor-saving approach is anything but: he has to know “everything” to be so flexible. In that respect he’s not a very useful model, nor a needed one either: his problems aren’t those of the rank-and-file master, whose problems (you rightly note) aren’t those of the average club player.


Horatio November 29, 2013 at 9:56 am

“Achieving the sorts of semi-innocuous positions where he can get the kind of play he likes takes a huge amount of work!”
Precisely, it takes a huge amount of work to beat somebody our of an equal position. But opening prep is not part of that work and if you seriously claim that he did e.g. prepare anything in 1. c4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 c6 4. e4 dxe4 5. Nxe4 Bb4+ 6. Nc3 you are making a fool out of yourself.

So yeah, sorry Dennis but you are wrong whereas Dana (and Jesse who also argued for not overemphasizing the relevance of openings) are right. Carlsen does not care as much about the opening as other players because his strengths are in the middlegame and endgame. That’s where his “huge amount of work” happens.

Given that amateur players like myself study the opening far too intensively relatively to other areas (probably because it creates an illusion of treading on safe territory) Dana’s opening philosophy is very important didactically.


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