The penultimate part of the Carlsen series plots his ascent to World No.1 as a teenager
It’s said that appetite improves during the meal, and Magnus Carlsen was proving the adage right. With every taste of success, he grew hungrier. The New Year’s Day of 2008 saw him ranked 13th in the World with a rating of 2733. But he would have a special reason to rejoice at the end of the month.
Carlsen was back at Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, for the Corus tournament. Eager to make amends for the fiasco on his debut — he went without a victory in 13 games — the previous January, Carlsen came well prepared after being made part of the strongest field assembled by the organisers.
What followed was Carlsen’s finest performance, reinforcing his place among the chess elite. He tied for the top place with Levon Aronian by scoring eight points. His list of five victims included Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar. One of his two losses came against a third-placed Viswanathan Anand.
Carlsen performed at the level of 2,830 — almost 100 points above his rating. “Before the tournament, I thought if I could score 50 per cent, it would not be a bad result. I wasn’t expecting to win, of course, and sharing of first place was a pleasant surprise to me,” said a modest Carlsen.
By this time it was clear that Carlsen was perfecting his positional understanding, and the technique to play simple positions, especially in the endgame. Gone was the eagerness to get into sharp, exciting positions and brilliant finishes. Instead, it was more businesslike execution of what he discovered as “playable” positions.
From the success at Corus, Carlsen arrived to take on an even stronger field at the Morelia-Linares super tournament. In this hand-picked eight-player field, Carlsen finished second behind Anand. He posted five victories, including two against former World champion Veselin Topalov and once over Vassily Ivanchuk. Again, one of his three losses came against Anand. Creditably, Carlsen had performed 75 points above his rating — a performance that would launch him into the top-10 in the next publication of the rankings.
After Corus and Morelia-Linares, noted Russian chess journalist Yuri Vasiliev wrote: “Magnus, this little mongoose, rising sharply and swiftly over the board when he needs to grasp the nape of another cobra, is the new super-hero!”
It was apt enough a metaphor for the 17-year-old’s dynamic and uncompromising play. These successes earned Carlsen 32 rating points from 27 games. That meant that when the rankings were announced in April, he had jumped to fifth spot with a rating of 2765 — at the age of 17 years and four months.
Later that month, Carlsen started as the ‘rating favourite’ in the 14-player Grand Prix at Baku, where he eventually became part of a three-way tie for honours. For the rest of the year, Carlsen progressed at a slower pace and climbed only one more rung in the world rankings. However, the chess world knew it was only a matter of time before Carlsen scaled ‘Peak 2800’.
For the better part of 2009, the 18-year-old trained with Garry Kasparov. What followed was a path-breaking performance in the Nanjing Pearls Spring event in China. In a double round-robin format, Carlsen destroyed the six-player field by scoring 8/10. He defeated everyone in the draw at least once, and performed at a whopping 3002.
The performance saw Carlsen catapult to the second spot in World ranking with a rating of 2801 — at 18 years and 11 months, the youngest among the five players at that point of time to ever breach the 2800-mark.
His pursuit for the World No.1 spot continued when he finished tied-second behind Kramnik in the super strong Tal memorial tournament in Moscow. Carlsen left the city after winning the World blitz title finishing three points ahead of Anand.
Carlsen then dominated the year-ending London Classic. He defeated Kramnik in the opener and maintained his lead to claim the title.
By taking his rating to 2810, as on January 1, 2010, Carlsen seized the World No.1 spot from Topalov, becoming the youngest to reach the summit at 19 years and one month.