Interview with Magnus Carlsen's second, Danish grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen, after the match
Magnus Carlsen and Peter Heine Nielsen in New York on the way to Fulton Market / All pictures by Max Avdeev / Agon
At the World Championship match in New York between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin you worked as second for Carlsen. You might know things no one else knows. For instance, before the match started the press reported that team Carlsen was afraid of Russian hacker attacks. Is that true?
Well, we cooperated with Microsoft. But we did not really fear a hacker attack.
How did Microsoft help you?
They installed modern, state-of-the-art programs to guarantee safe communication among the team. But it was important not to disturb well-established work routines. During World Championship matches everything is hectic and you just cannot allow that to interfere with your work – you need to stick to your routine. But it was fun to work with such professionals.
Now that the match is over: can you reveal the seconds of team Carlsen?
Of course, Laurent Fressinet was a second again – he has been a second of Magnus in all of his World Championship matches and even in some tournaments. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Jan Gustafsson and Nils Grandelius were also working as seconds for this match. Samuel Shankland took part in some training camps and Magnus also played training games against Richard Rapport. But I was the only one in New York.
The rest of the team was hanging out in Kragerø in Norway, which is a kind of resort Magnus has frequently used for training camps. Of course, you might say that it’s a bit inconvenient if your seconds are not in New York but on the other hand they had a quiet environment to work in and the six time difference also worked out quite well. After all, in Norway the games started at eight o’clock in the evening and so the seconds did not have to work in the middle of the night but could get up early and work during the day. I think this worked quite well.
Magnus Carlsen accompanied by his father Henrik and Peter Heine Nielsen, his only helper in New York
When did you start to prepare for the match?
Well, that’s not so easy to answer. Of course, after Karjakin had won the Candidates Tournament and became challenger you start to think what he might play, how he might play, what this means for you, etc.
But work in the training camp actually began after the Olympiad in Baku. Sam (Shankland) and Laurent (Fressinet) went from Baku straight to the training camp in Norway. Nils (Grandelius) and I were also there.
"Ian Nepomniachtchi was also in New York, but I’m not sure in what role"
Did you know who worked for Karjakin?
Well, Vladimir Potkin, for sure. I mean, Potkin was in New York all the time and we were chatting quite friendly with each other in New York, wishing other good luck and this kind of stuff. After the match I also saw Alexander Motylev, and I think it’s no secret that he is one of Karjakin’s trainers. Ian Nepomniachtchi was also in New York, but I’m not sure in what role, whether he was a trainer for Karjakin or did something else. Before the match we saw pictures of Mamedyarov and Karjakin in a training camp, so, obviously they were working together.
Probably Karjakin had more helpers but before the match they were kept secret and after the match I haven’t really checked. Now, after the match this is no longer that important and the next time I meet Potkin I will just ask.
Vladimir Potkin (l.) with Sergey Karjakin
The match was difficult for Carlsen. Did you expect that it would be that difficult?
Of course it was very difficult, that goes without saying. But no one denies that Magnus is the best chess player in the world, and obviously he was a clear favorite to win the match. But that the match became that close was a surprise. Before the match I thought Magnus might win convincingly or that the match might be very close and that both players could win it.
I still think that Magnus played better chess in the match and that he was dominating. In games three and four he outplayed Karjakin and I think in both games he had positions that were objectively won – or at least were very close to winning. Had Magnus won these positions we would have seen a completely different match. But Karjakin kept defending well, he then had huge chance in game five which he failed to exploit but in game eight he used his chances very efficiently.
Match game No. 8, before Karjakin's 51...h5!
You have to praise Karjakin for his defensive skills but when he got his chance he also found the strong move …h5 – that was high-class chess. Losing game eight obviously brought Magnus in a very critical position. He was on minus one with four games to go and he had to cope with the incident at the press conference incident… Well, I think everybody started to understand that there was a real possibility that Karjakin might become new World Champion. At this point in the match even the bookmakers saw Karjakin as slight favourite.
But if you look at the World Championship matches oft he past you see that they all have different stages. In some stages the defending champion dominates, in the other changes the challenger sets the pace.
In New York Magnus dominated the first four games, but then Karjakin took over and dominated the next four games – or at least the last part of game five, game eight and game nine.
Match game No. 9, before Carlsen's 38...Ne7
Maybe people still underestimate how crucial game nine really was. In fact, Karjakin was very close to winning and I think on 39 or 38 Magnus started to gamble when he played ...Ne7 – I think Magnus saw that he would be on the verge of losing if Karjakin found the right moves. If you look how the players behaved during the press conference after the game it is clear that Magnus saw all the complicated moves, even White’s possibility to play Bg8, followed by the retreat with Be6 and Bd5. I think, retreating the bishop back to e6 and d5 is the top-line of the engines which calculate deeply. I think Magnus really gambled here but it payed off.
Of course, that was an incredibly critical moment. Had Magnus lost this game he would have been trailing with minus two with three games to go. Not exactly an easy task. But Magnus managed to survive and this gave him confidence.
Match game No. 10, after Carlsen's 20.Nd2 and before Karjakins 20...d5
Game 10 was of course also crucial. I think Magnus played very well. But then came this string of blunders – well, not real blunders but the mutual oversights of the consequences of Nxf2+. This was an extremely crucial moment for Karjakin. If Karjakin takes on f2 with check, Magnus has a very tough choice: he can either play a dodgy position with two knights against rook and two pawns or accept the draw and then is more or less forced to win his last game with White. But, well, Karjakin didn’t see it and now the momentum definitely favored Magnus.
The World Champion on the stage
Was Carlsen very nervous after losing game eight?
I think he obviously was. After all, this was the first time that he was behind in a World Championship match. This is his third World Champion match but the first time that he is behind. He is not used to that feeling. He has to accept that in a week he actually might no longer be World Champion. But he managed to recover quickly and I think he just played chess. But I believe he was also thinking in terms of strategy. I cannot remember the last time when Magnus had played nine games in a row without winning a single one. That was also a bit strange for him. I think he then reconsidered his match strategy but in the end decided: No I actually believe that I have the right strategy, I am going to stick to it and sooner or later this is going to pay off.
Did Carlsen think he had the better chances in the tie-break?
I think he was confident about the tie-break. At any rate, he was focused and wanted to play his best chess without thinking about winning or losing. If you start to think about results you start to get nervous. When Magnus plays freely and does not care too much you see his best side. The play-off speaks for itself. He played the tie-break very confidently.
Tiebreak game No. 2, after Karjakin's 19...Bxe3
When we go into the details of the play-off, it is clear that not much happened in game one. But game two was a great game for Magnus because he managed to outplay Karjakin. One moment in that game made me particularly happy: that was when Karjakin played bishop takes e3. Now the computer says that you should take back with the rook which would give White some kind of nice stable advantage. But Magnus thought “Why not take with the bishop?” White sacrifices a pawn but creates a dangerous passed pawn. In this game Magnus made some very classy decisions. Although it was a rapid game.
But not winning this game was of course a huge blow. And Magnus had only ten or twelve minutes to recover. I think psychologically this was an extremely crucial moment. But in game three he then probably played his best game in the match. Instead of being defensive and cautious he played for an attack.
Tiebreak game No. 3, before Carlsen's 27...Qe8 - "I thought there is simply no way Magnus will find this move"
This game had some really great chess moments. At some point Black has the option to play his queen back to e8 to switch it from the kingside to the queenside. I remember seeing this moves and the computers also liked this plan but I also thought there is simply no way Magnus will find this move – it simply feels so counter-intuitive. But after thinking for a while Magnus played …Qe8. Later, people in the chat thought that Magnus had blundered because after being better he went for a position that the computer thought was equal. But Magnus had seen the positional sacrifice that followed. After his sacrifice he’s a pawn down but has a strong knight on e3, his queen can come to e5, and his rook enters along the a-file. And he thought that this position in practice would almost be impossible to hold.
Why do you think Karjakin blundered with Rxc7 instead of playing Rb1?
Well, Rb1 also loses. During the games I used to follow the Norwegian supercomputer "Sesse" and after Rb1 the Norwegian said +2 for Black at a depth of 45 while normal computers evaluate the position as almost equal or at best slightly better for Black. Black is a pawn down but the rook is on a2 and his queen is strong and basically it’s just over. Rxc7 was not the decisive blunder because White’s position was already extremely unpleasant.
Watching the match from the outside you had the impression that Carlsen’s preparation with Black worked very well but that he had problems with White. Is that correct?
Well, I think you basically answered your question yourself. Magnus’ preparation with Black indeed worked out very well. Of course, the opening in game nine was not ideal – Black’s position after the opening might have been okay but with Rh4 Karjakin found a great plan to put put pressure on Black.
But let’s focus on the other games in which Magnus played that Spanish line with Be7 – that worked amazingly well. Better than we expected. I think it was Kasparov who once said that any solid opening will hold up for three games but three games only in a World Championship match. But it seems to be a great opening and we had basically very few problems with Black.
We were a bit afraid to repeat our variations and therefore Magnus tried a couple of different systems against d3, but in general, the preparation for Black worked very well.
With White things were much more difficult. Magnus managed to get objective advantages in a couple of the games, but the overall trend in this World Championship match indicated that today people are very well prepared with Black.
In this match we have seen no opening ideas from White that will have a lasting impact. Magnus tried the Trompowsky, he tried the Colle, but this was obviously just to surprise Karjakin and try to play chess. Magnus also played some Spanish and Italian lines. But these were mostly what we call “one game ideas”. I feel that this is a modern trend, that it’s becoming considerably more difficult to create things with White.
Look at a player like Kramnik, maybe one of the strongest, if not the strongest creative force in opening preparation. He started playing Nf3, g3, he started playing the London, and now he started playing the Italian with White. I mean, normally we would expect sharper opening preparation from Kramnik. But the times they are a-changing, and it seems that modern computer preparation helps Black.
With Karjakin it was no different, right? A lot was said about all the resources they had and that basically all of Russia would help him, and that money would never be a problem for them. But I think he faced similar problems. He had a quite decent repertoire with Black, but difficulties to get something with White. He seemed to have huge problems to come up with ideas. I think, all-in-all the opening phase went extremely well for Magnus. I do not want to say that he always has to win the opening phase, he just has to get playable positions. That he managed quite well.
But let’s talk a little bit about Karjakins strategy. He’s been criticized a lot. Maybe with good reason, but I think you basically cannot argue with the results. Only very few thought it possible that he could reach a 6-6 against Magnus. I mean you can almost compare this with Portugal’s strategy in the European Soccer Cup or Leicester winning the Premier League in England. Of course, you need defense. But when you face an opponent that you consider stronger than you, I think you have to do something like this. Of course, if this strategy goes wrong, you easily look like an idiot who just played defensively and could not create chances of his own. But Karjakin came very close and then lost what in soccer is the penalty shootout, in which Magnus really showed his class.
I think in the rapid Magnus demonstrated that he is the better player, but I also think that Karjakin had never any doubts that Magnus was the better player. But Karjakin saw this as an important sports match. He said, "Okay, I have my chances and I am going to come up with the best possible strategy." Which he did quite well. I think that’s fair enough because sports is about winning. Of course, you want to prove that you are the better player, but I think he had a realistic approach and did very well.
There was a lot of criticism about the format. A lot of people thought that 12 games are not enough because the players are too nervous and have no time to take risks. What do you think? Is this format okay or would it be better to have 14 or 18 or even mores games?
(Laughs) You’re asking me? For one a half month I have been away from my family and you ask if I would like to stay away a bit longer? Well, not really. I think Magnus’ views on this matter are quite well-known. He actually prefers a big knock-out format. But let’s leave that aside.
In general, when choosing the format, it depends on what you want. I think a match of 16 games will favor the favorite even more. But do you want to have an exciting sports match or do you want the match to be mathematically completely fair? Twelve games obviously do not feel like a long distance, but 12 games are also a lot. I think there has to be some kind of limit and why change it? I think we had some exciting World Championship matches and we definitely had one now, so I don’t see a big problem. Personally, I think twelve games is fine, but to be honest, I don’t think there is not difference between a match ofer twelve or fourteen games.
What can you say about the organization, the venue...? And how did you experience New York?
I know it sounds strange but even though I have been in New York for one month I have basically lived in a vacuum. My hotel room was fine, we had great surroundings and we could play basketball around the corner, but I’ve never been in the playing hall, I did not hang out with the spectators, I did not read news on the internet, I simply tried to keep away from everything else but the match. So, the honest answer to your question is that I have absolutely no clue – but my hotel room was nice.
Peter Heine Nielsen's DVD on the Semi-Slav: