Carlsen – the nettlesome World Champion

12/29/2013 – "Carlsen won because he is the better athlete and not the better chess player," wrote a commentator after the Chennai match. In drawn positions the Norwegian plays on and on, sitting his opponent out, waiting for errors. That is profoundly misleading: Magnus Carlsen's success lies in his ability to play "consistently accurate moves that also maximise the chances of inaccuracies from the opponent," writes GM Jonathan Rowson.

The nettlesome World Champion

By Jonathan Rowson

'Nettlesomeness' is my candidate for 2013 word of the year.

There is a lot to be said for being stung by a nettle. The experience may not be entirely pleasant, but it brings your attention back to your body, renews your respect for nature, and encourages you to be more vigilant for the greater dangers that lie ahead. Indeed, sometimes you need to 'grasp the nettle' to get anywhere at all.

Nonetheless, nettles are a pain, literally and figuratively, and 'nettlesome' aptly captures the quality of something bothersome that prevents us from feeling at ease.

Our new World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, is obviously the player of 2013, but we needed the word ‘nettlesomeness’ to capture the quintessence of his strength, which lies in his capacity to induce errors by relentlessly playing moves that are not only good, but bothersome.

American Computer Scientist Ken Regan coined the term after a close examination of patterns of mistakes in the games of elite players, including an instructive comparison with former world champion Vladimir Kramnik, who is apparently as accurate as Carlsen, but is not as good at subtly discombobulating his opponents.

To be clear, Carlsen’s nettlesomeness lies in the difference between playing consistently accurate moves, and playing consistently accurate moves that also maximise the chances of inaccuracies from the opponent. The former style beats all but the very best Grandmasters, while the latter tends to beat them too.

I haven't checked the data, and I am sure a cross-examination would yield some nettlesome questions, but for me it's not about the methodology. As somebody who has played Carlsen and watched his games for several years, the conclusion rings true. Being a great chess player is as much about sucking the greatness out of your opponents as it is about demonstrating greatness of your own.

So how does one's play acquire this quality of nettlesomeness? Some of Carlsen’s personal qualities – his confidence and composure – can be attributed to years of invaluable emotional, financial, educational and logistical support from a dedicated family, but his games in 2013 point towards the following range of chess qualities which coalesce to deadly effect:

  • First, avoid errors yourself.
  • Second, play relatively quickly.
  • Third, see complexity where others assume simplicity.
  • Fourth, develop exquisite timing for when to change the nature of the position.
  • Fifth, navigate towards positions where there are no obvious moves.
  • Sixth, believe in your opponent's greater and ultimate fallibility.
  • Seven, keep going relentlessly.
  • Eight, be ever ready to pounce.
  • Nine, kill them without mercy.
  • Ten, smile for the cameras.

Carlsen is not the only player whose moves have a high nettlesomeness score relative to strength, and England’s Luke McShane for instance, comes to mind as a player with the practical acumen required to be thoroughly nettlesome for elite Grandmasters. However, it is Carlsen’s unique combination of managing to squeeze out the few mistakes waiting to be made by such opponents while also making very few mistakes himself that makes him the best in the world.

The following is my game of the year [from the Tal Memorial 2013], not for quality, but for being a microcosm of the changing of the guard we witnessed in November, where Magnus made a great Champion look helpless. I would signal out moves 8, 12, 16, 17 as ‘nettlesome’, but 25.Bh3! was the real sting.

[Event "Moscow Tal Memorial 8th"] [Site "Moscow"] [Date "2013.06.18"] [Round "5"] [White "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Black "Anand, Viswanathan"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E46"] [WhiteElo "2864"] [BlackElo "2786"] [PlyCount "57"] [EventDate "2013.06.13"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [EventCategory "22"] [Source "Chessbase"] [SourceDate "2013.06.27"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 O-O 5. Nge2 d5 6. a3 Be7 7. cxd5 Nxd5 8. Bd2 Nd7 9. g3 b6 10. Nxd5 exd5 11. Bg2 Bb7 12. Bb4 Nf6 13. O-O Re8 14. Rc1 c6 15. Bxe7 Rxe7 16. Re1 $5 Qd6 17. Nf4 Bc8 $6 18. Qa4 $1 Rc7 19. f3 $1 Be6 20. e4 dxe4 21. fxe4 Qd7 22. d5 $1 cxd5 23. Qxd7 Rxd7 24. Nxe6 $1 fxe6 {[#]} 25. Bh3 $1 Kh8 26. e5 Ng8 27. Bxe6 Rdd8 28. Rc7 d4 29. Bd7 1-0

Source: The Herald, Scotland

Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson is Scotland's strongest player and won the British Championship in three consecutive years (2004-6) before developing a career outside of chess. He holds degrees in a range of social science disciplines from Harvard, Bristol and Oxford Universities and is currently Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA in London. He is best known in the chess world for his books The Seven Deadly Chess Sins and Chess for Zebras and the 50 review columns he wrote for New in Chess magazine. He is currently preparing a compilation of his weekly columns for the Herald, Scotland's national paper, which he has been writing since 2006. He lives in London with his wife Siva, from India, and their three year old son, Kailash. He can be followed on Twitter at @jonathan_rowson.

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Topics Carlsen
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