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Does all-conquering King Magnus have anything left to annex?

Magnus Carlsen. File

Magnus Carlsen. File

On a pleasant November afternoon at Chennai’s Hyatt Regency, Ellen Carlsen said with pride: “I am the first victim of Magnus Carlsen. I am also one of the players to beat Magnus; there are not too many of them, after all.”

What she said about her brother during a chat eight years ago holds true even now. Carlsen is still the planet’s best chess player by some distance. He won the World title for the fifth time at Dubai last week in brutal fashion.

Carlsen had claimed the first of those titles a few days after Ellen — she was a medical student then and is now pursuing a PhD after completing her MD — predicted on Twitter that her brother would break through in game five. The match against local hero Viswanathan Anand had been evenly poised until then; the first four games had all ended in draws.

Once the Norwegian tasted blood, he gave Anand, already a legend and five-time World champion, little chance to recover. He won two more games and the match was over; Carlsen made the last two games redundant.

Anand watched history repeating itself at close quarters in Dubai — thankfully from the commentators’ box (his commentary was just as brilliant as his moves on the board, by the way). He saw Ian Nepomniachtchi getting destroyed by Carlsen after the sixth game, which became the longest in the 135-year history of the World championship. The game lasted seven hours and 45 minutes and produced 136 moves, beating a record dating back to 1978, when Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi played 124 moves.

It was a game of missed opportunities for Nepomniachtchi, which he might rue for the rest of his life. For Carlsen, it was almost another day in the office.

One of the hallmarks of his game is his ability to convert the smallest of advantages into a win, pushing his rival to submission. At the highest level in chess, you cannot afford to make mistakes. If you make them against Carlsen, all you can do is to pray that he returns the favour. But then, he rarely does.

The Russian didn’t recover from that defeat. He lost three more games — in the following five — and thus the match. This time, Carlsen ensured the last three games were redundant. He had scored the requisite 7.5 points from 11 games.

It was his easiest victory in five World title matches. In 2014, he had beaten Anand — the Madras Tiger had made a roaring comeback to earn the right to challenge again, silencing his critics — with a game to spare; in 2016 and 2018, Sergey Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana, respectively, had taken him to the tie-breakers, which are played in a shorter time control. The problem for the challengers is that Carlsen is just as good in rapid and blitz chess too.

Carlsen is in fact the reigning World champion in blitz and rapid. He will be defending those titles at Warsaw later this month.

He, however, said he might not be defending his World (classical chess) title if his challenger is not Alireza Firouzja, the 18-year-old Iran-born prodigy who has been making stunning progress of late. Carlsen had earlier said that he was motivated by the recent performances of Firouzja, who left Iran’s chess federation in 2019 and now plays for France.

It would be interesting to see what Carlsen does if Firouzja fails to win the next Candidates tournament, the qualifier that determines the challenger for the World championship match. Will he forfeit his World title, like Bobby Fischer did in 1975?

Fischer had done it because he did not agree with the world chess governing body FIDE’s format for the title match with Karpov. Speaking of Fischer and Karpov, Carlsen has been called a combination of the two legends.

“Yes, Fischer and Karpov — to a lesser extent Emmanuel Lasker — are the two World champions closest to Carlsen’s style, and that is a deadly combination, mind you,” says Mumbai-based Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay. “He has the courage and accuracy of Fischer and the tenacity of Karpov, who too could turn small advantages into decisive ones.”

Chennai-based Grandmaster R.B. Ramesh feels Carlsen now reminds him of another former World champion in another aspect. “His opening preparation now is like that of Garry Kasparov, who was the best in that department,” says the widely respected coach. “In the match against Nepomniachtchi, you could see how strong his preparation was.”

When a player has the qualities of three of the strongest players in the history of chess, it is little wonder that he looks unstoppable. Imagine a batsman with Sachin Tendulkar’s technique, Brian Lara’s strokes and Rahul Dravid’s temperament. Or a tennis player with Pete Sampras’ serve, Roger Federer’s touch and Novak Djokovic’s backhand.

Like Federer and Tendulkar, Carlsen has been able to bring new followers to his chosen game. “Chess is becoming increasingly popular and Carlsen has played a role in it, especially in Europe and the United States,” says Ramesh. “He is doing a great service to chess by the big tournaments he organises. He has also brought more money to chess.”

He is making a lot of money himself, too. Besides the prize-money from chess sponsorship deals, he co-founded a company, Play Magnus, which is listed on Norway’s stock exchange and is worth $115 million.

During the pandemic, when chess became the world’s only sport to grow in popularity, Carlsen’s company conducted a series of online tournaments featuring top players, including himself. No prizes for guessing who won the tour.

Thipsay believes Carlsen will keep on winning just about everything in the foreseeable future. “Among the current crop of players, Firouzja is the best bet to challenge him,” he says. “It remains to be seen if he can maintain the improvement he has recently shown.”

Looking further ahead, there could be contenders for the World title from India too, in the form of Arjun Erigaisi, Nihal Sarin or R. Praggnanandhaa. “Yes, they are all talented players,” says Thipsay. “I feel Carlsen will be able to retain his crown for several more years (if he doesn’t choose to abdicate). And even if he were to lose in a World title match, I think he would remain World No. 1 for a long time.”

Kasparov was there for 21 years, until he retired. Carlsen has been the World No. 1 since 2011. “I won’t be surprised if he beats Kasparov’s record,” says Thipsay.

So is Carlsen the greatest chess player of all time?

“Yes, he is,” says Thipsay. “There has never been a player like him.”

There has perhaps never been a more energetic and prolific player, either, given the volume of online chess he plays.

Ramesh, who was a commentator for the Chennai match, feels that if Carlsen isn’t already the greatest, he will be by the time he retires. Not many will disagree with that assessment.

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Printable version | May 15, 2022 2:34:43 pm |