Anand vs. Carlsen
Matthew Lunn assesses the 2013 World Championship
In less than a month’s time Magnus Carlsen will challenge Vishy Anand for the World Championship. Carlsen has been world number one for 21 consecutive rating lists and, as of September 2013, he is 87 Elo points clear of the incumbent World Champion. Therefore anything worse than a 7.5-4.5 win for Carlsen would see him lose rating points.
Yet it is a little naive to base our expectations of the match entirely on a formula. There are a great many factors that will affect its outcome.
Head to Head Record
Anand and Carlsen have played each other 29 times at Classical time controls: Anand has won six times, Carlsen has won three, and the other 20 games were drawn. All of Carlsen’s wins occurred after the beginning of 2009 (by which time he’d consolidated his status as a top-10 player), with Anand winning just twice during that period. The Norwegian has won their last two encounters; their clash at the recent Tal Memorial (see pp.5-6 of the July issue) proved particularly dispiriting for the World Champion.
Favours: Carlsen, but not by enough to put Anand at a significant psychological disadvantage.
Until the final three rounds of the Candidates, Carlsen was in the form of his life. On the back of convincing victories at the London Chess Classic and Wijk aan Zee, it seemed foolish to bet against him dominating the field. Indeed, at times in the Candidates he was sublime. His third round grind against Boris Gelfand was vintage Carlsen, emblematic of his terrifying ability to outplay anyone in the world from a level middlegame. Convincing wins against Grischuk and Svidler meant he had a +3 score after just six rounds. Nevertheless, his Houdiniesque calculating ability failed him against Radjabov, and he was lucky to escape with a draw.
By round 12, Carlsen’s legendary self-possession seemed to have deserted him. Losses with the white pieces against Ivanchuk and Svidler would have dashed his chances of playing in Chennai had the enigmatic Ukrainian not managed a fine, final round win over Kramnik. Despite Carlsen achieving 2830+ TPRs at the Supreme Masters and the 2013 Tal Memorial, both events were blighted by avoidable losses, against Wang Hao and Caruana respectively. The former loss, where he blundered a pawn in a drawn rook and minor piece ending, was particularly troubling.
In 2012, Vishy Anand scored just three wins at classical time controls, with his 17 move triumph at the World Championship his only victory against a top-100 player. Yet he started 2013 on a high, achieving a +3 score at Wijk aan Zee, including a spectacular victory against Levon Aronian, as featured in last month’s 60 Seconds with.... The following month he ended a five year stint without winning a longplay tournament with an unbeaten 6½/10 at the Grenke Chess Classic. Indifferent performances at the Zurich Chess Challenge and the Alekhine Memorial preceded a solid +1 at the Norway Supreme Masters, including a fighting draw with Carlsen.
Nevertheless, commentators will likely define Anand’s form going into this match by his disappointing Tal Memorial. His three losses were uncharacteristically limp affairs, belying a tired quality antithetic to the moniker ‘The Tiger of Madras’. Still, one robin doesn’t make a winter. Anand has played a lot of chess these last nine months, so one poor result is nothing to get skittish about. Crucially, his dynamic play at Wijk aan Zee demonstrates that he is still capable of scoring victories against the world elite.
Favours: Carlsen. Three of his four losses this year have resulted from him overpressing in level positions, which he is less likely to do in a match situation.
Carlsen’s lack of match experience is a key factor in Vishy’s favour. This is an arena where Anand excels. To defend a World Championship on three occasions demonstrates just how well he can work the format. Carlsen’s recognised weakness is his opening repertoire and, as Garry Kasparov observed, it was Anand’s superior preparation that led to his convincing defeat of Kramnik in 2008. Furthermore, the final few rounds of the Candidates suggest that Carlsen’s play could suffer from the weight of personal (and public) expectation. By contrast, if the 2012 World Championship taught us anything, it’s that Anand is no slouch under pressure. The game after he lost to Gelfand he produced the quickest victory ever seen in World Championship history, an achievement which speaks of exceptional fortitude.
Is Anand’s superior match experience enough to prevent the comfortable loss that the players’ ratings predict? Honestly, I’m not sure. It feels strange to speak of Carlsen as an ‘unknown quantity’, but it is genuinely difficult to draw firm conclusions about whether he is suited to match play. It is highly likely that he has been working very hard on his opening repertoire, and that hiding it in recent tournaments (he played the Leningrad Dutch against Aronian in St. Louis, for instance) helps explain his uneven results. It will be fascinating to see someone who has been at the top for so long have to rise to a new challenge.
Favours: Anand, but it unclear by how much.
Will Anand’s familiarity with the venue be offset by the burden of perpetual recognition? Of course not. Indeed, I predict the opposite. He is such an empathetic character that the love of his countrymen will make him industrious at the board: he will want to win it for them. A fascinating dimension of this is that Anand is both the title holder and the underdog. Rather than be burdened by the weight of expectation, he will be spurred on by the promise of a fairy tale ending.
As well as lacking local support, Carlsen will be disadvantaged by the climate. November constitutes winter in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), but temperatures regularly reach 30-35 degrees centigrade. Furthermore Carlsen’s diet may fall foul of the unfamiliar local cuisine. Anne Waldrop, an associate professor in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo, notes that many people who visit India experience stomach problems, and that the food in Chennai is particularly spicy. Coupled with the humid conditions, there is every chance Carlsen’s challenge will be hampered by minor medical complaints. The world’s elite are very finely tuned, so this may adversely affect his performance.
Favours: Anand, without question.
“Youth and Energy”
In Janis Nisii’s fascinating profile of Magnus Carlsen (see the
June 2013 CHESS), she refers to Kramnik’s claim that the Norwegian’s
dominance over recent rating lists can be attributed to “youth, lots
of energy, a good nervous system, incredible motivation [and a] killer instinct”.
Indeed, the Carlsen quotation that concludes Janis’s piece suggests
it is this that will eventually secure him the title:
“The difference [between me and Anand] is that I’ve been winning tournaments and he’s been holding on to his title. It will be an interesting clash between two different ideas of what constitutes the best player in the world.”
Carlsen disingenuously compares the match with the philosophical problem of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. The phrase “holding on” suggests that Anand is not aggressive enough, and that by extension his position as World Champion is precarious. It is certainly hard to believe that Carlsen would have offered Gelfand a draw at the point Anand did in Game 12 of the 2012 Championship. Yet, as the cliché goes, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Carlsen’s ‘energy and motivation’ is only an asset if he can sustain it when playing against the same opponent over and over again. If Anand plays as sensibly as I expect, he will go some way towards undermining these attributes.
I think Carlsen will get off to a slow start as he adjusts to the climate and the pressure of the occasion. Anand’s match experience makes it unlikely he will lose early, although it is possible he will be surprised by an opening novelty. I would not be surprised if Anand won a game before Carlsen did. Yet if that does happen, I do not believe he will maintain the lead for long. Their recent head to head record suggests that Anand will be outplayed on at least one occasion, whilst their overall play over the past two years suggests it is far likelier for the World Champion to make a catastrophic blunder than his opponent.
Overall: Carlsen to win 7-5, losing one game on the way.
Source: CHESS October 2013.
CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by John Saunders. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organised the London Chess Classic.
Andrew Martin on the 2013 World Championship match
BCM Game of the Month November 2013 – commented by IM Andrew Martin
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