Softened up Carlsen looks less intimidating

Magnus Carlsen arrives at the airport in Soch on Wednesday.   | Photo Credit: Artur Lebedev

“Sometimes, I get into this ‘self-destructive mode’ and then everything I have planned before the tournament doesn’t matter.”

That was Magnus Carlsen touching upon his rarely-found fallibility over a chess board as he tried to explain the back-to-back defeats to Fabiano Caruana and Teimour Radjabov in April this year.

Though the world champion, also the strongest player in the game, begins as an overwhelming favourite to keep the title against challenger Viswanathan Anand this month, the signs of vulnerability are slowly beginning to show.

Since taking over as the world No. 1 on January 1, 2010, Carlsen has suffered 23 defeats, including 11 with white pieces. Presently ranked second, Caruana has beaten Carlsen four times in the last two years.

Five defeats

Since dethroning Anand last November in Chennai and going on to reach the highest ever rating of 2882 — surpassing Garry Kasparov’s high of 2851 that stood for 13 years — Carlsen has lost five times this year. Defeats to Germany’s Arkadij Naiditsch and little-known Ivan Saric of Croatia in the Olympiad showed that even this 23-year-old was not immune to fatigue.

In the Sinquefield Cup that followed in St. Louis, USA, Carlsen suffered his second defeat to Caruana this year. Softened up by these reverses, Carlsen will either come very hard at Anand in Sochi over the next three weeks or be less aggressive owing to the silently creeping self-doubt.

Though Carlsen has not lost to Anand since December 2010 in the classical time format, and dominated the Indian in their last world title clash, his game in recent times appears far from intimidating.

More often than not, Carlsen’s strong defence saves him from the slightly inferior positions he tends to get into while heading for the middle-game. Give Carlsen an equal middle-game position and watch him enhance his winning possibilities.

Being from the ‘computer generation’, the young champion possesses amazing end-game skills that set him apart. However, in the past six months, he has found it increasingly difficult to ‘grind’ his opponents, as is his wont.

Opening lines

More players are opting for opening lines that lead to dynamic possibilities instead of the ‘dry’ positions that Carlsen so loves to pursue. Though good at playing any opening, Carlsen’s strength lies in the ability to get his kind of position in the middle-game.

He tries patiently, but relentlessly, to win from an equal position. But Carlsen’s recent form shows that the percentage of victories has fallen by his own lofty standards.

Clearly, Carlsen is good at doing what he wants to do. He frequently gets away from the tough chess regimen to play football or basketball, with an undiminished desire to win. Unlike in Chennai last November, Carlsen is under pressure to win in Sochi.

He is comfortable in low temperatures if it doesn’t prevent him from playing football or basketball as a get-away activity from the grind that accompanies match preparation. In the past year, Caruana has clearly shown a way to breach Carlsen’s impregnable defence.

As Anand, too, remarked, “These days, the chess world is learning much from Caruana.”

In fact, the chess world needs no reminding that Anand remains a quick learner.

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2021 12:44:48 PM |

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