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Chess giant Magnus Carlsen's 'play to win' attitude separates him from the rest

Monday, 18 November 2013 - 7:13am IST | Place: Chennai | Agency: DNA

Much before the 2013 FIDE World Chess Championship got under way, Viswanathan Anand knew his clash with Magnus Carlsen would be decided by style. While training in Germany, the world champion had told this correspondent, via email, that “style is something that can define how the match will be played”.

Anand would have never thought that Carlsen’s dry style would consume him in such fashion.

Two games that could have been drawn were converted into wins by the World No. 1. Quite simply, the past few days have marked the arrival of a new chess phenomenon.

If the fifth game was bad for Anand, the sixth was worse. He came up with an opening novelty in the Berlin Defence and threatened to wake Carlsen up into a few kingside attacks. But after scoring those minor points, he gave up his plans and went for an ending where he could take a draw.

However, he forgot that his opponent does not go by the book. Chess books and computers would say rook and pawn endings are drawn even if one of the players had an extra pawn. He was ready to play mind games. He knew his opponent was suffering because he had lost one game the previous day but he was not yet ready to go for the kill.

This was psychology at its best. The natural temptation for Carlsen would be to take a draw, enjoy the rest day and wait for Anand’s plan of action, with white pieces, on Monday. This was what Anand and most other top players would have done. But Carlsen did not come up the ladder by waiting for things to happen. He had ventured into unclear waters many a time and fished success. That is why he is on top of the world.

“Fortunately I was a little bit lucky and I won in the end. Obviously I am in a good mood now. I won two games and with six games to go that’s obviously a healthy lead,” he said on Saturday. These were superficial words. Luck favours the brave and, in this case, it deserted Anand, too, because he is too direct a player to press when he is in a slightly better position. He reckons his rival as his equal and plays accordingly. So, if he saw a draw, he would consider his opponent also saw it. Very objective consideration but over the board there are other factors that make it a sport, not just art or science.

One, draw is the last word in Carlsen’s book. Like the legendary Bobby Fischer, Carlsen hates draws. Look at the percentage of wins he’s scored in the last three years. In near-equal positions, he would sit like a monk, giving the impression that he was trying to save the game, though in reality, he would be looking for progressive methods to test his opponent. He would follow unconventional moves to reach his goal but finally his effort would give him returns.

Then, there is this killer instinct. It is in this respect that Carlsen is streets ahead of the rest. He plays to win. In contrast, Anand, the match player of recent times, would go for a win only if the position allowed him.

In both the games that he lost, Anand was comfortable getting the draw-ish positions but then Carlsen kept him on the board with little manoeuvrings. Engines and humans would write off such positions as draws but then, in Carlsen’s book, the one sitting against him is a human prone to errors. It doesn’t matter if the opponent is Anand or Garry Kasparov. Carlsen always tests his opponent.

The Chennai match is at a crossroads: Anand has to do something differently and create dynamic positions early to try and beat Carlsen if he has to stay alive in the championship. The good part is the World No. 1 would not be content sitting on his two-point lead. So get ready for some more intense battles in the remaining games.


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