Carlsen's secrets: How does he do it? (1)

by Frederic Friedel
2/10/2014 – Last November, when Magnus Carlsen won the World Championship match, a well-respected commentator offered some harsh criticism of his playing style, calling it "bloodless and soulless", similar to a computer. We beg to disagree. Magnus success lies in his ability to consistently play accurate moves while maximising the chances for inaccuracy by his opponents. What do you think?

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The chess correspondent, speaking in a radio interview immediately after the end of the World Championship in Chennai, said:

"There is no World Championship which I found so disappointing as the one that has just taken place. Carlsen won because he is the better athlete and not the better chess player. He plays and plays and forces the opponent, who is 20 years older, into the fourth and fifth hour. The position is basically drawn, but he plays on and on and sits Anand out, waiting for errors by the previous World Champion. This is from a chess point of view unconvincing. Because he does not play but simply makes no mistakes and waits for his opponent to make them. Carlsen's games are very similar to those of a computer: bloodless and soulless." Etc.

This person, a friend and colleague, is in the meantime quite embarrassed by his radio remarks, given on the spur and completely unprepared. After discussions he has tempered his view. In any case he will probably prefer that we do not reveal his identity.

In our opinion Magnus Carlsen's technique is a different one. He clearly has a very profound understanding of chess strategy, and can see deeper into the complexities of the game than most of his rivals. And he uses this to narrow down their options, giving the person sitting opposite him at the board one niggling problem after another to solve in an effort to keep his options alive. This is what he did to World Champion Anand in game five of the Chennai match, as reported at the time by Albert Silver:

After a somewhat dubious opening Carlsen had achieved exactly the type of position he thrives on: a slightly better endgame, with a variety of ways to try and exploit it. The battle was long as Carlsen kept near constant pressure on Anand, while the world champion stayed out of trouble with energetic play each time he seemed in danger of falling behind. The sequence just before the time control was nerve-wracking to say the least, with momentous decisions having to be made with only a minute or two of thought. And yet Anand still kept his head above water.

The biggest problem was not that the position was worse or lost for the title-holder, the problem was that the number of viable moves at his disposal was shrinking and he was getting very close to ‘only move’ territory, where any slip would be fatal. This is precisely what happened as he finally committed his last mistake with 51…Ke6? costing him the game. His only saving grace move had been 51…Re2! But it was already a nasty tightrope act he was performing, indicative of just how precarious his situation had become.

[Event "FWCM 2013"] [Site "Chennai"] [Date "2013.11.15"] [Round "5"] [White "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Black "Anand, Viswanathan"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D31"] [WhiteElo "2870"] [BlackElo "2775"] [PlyCount "115"] [EventDate "2013.??.??"] [EventCountry "IND"] [SourceDate "2013.10.12"] [TimeControl "40/7200:20/3600:900+30"] 1. c4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 c6 4. e4 dxe4 5. Nxe4 Bb4+ 6. Nc3 c5 7. a3 Ba5 8. Nf3 Nf6 9. Be3 Nc6 10. Qd3 cxd4 11. Nxd4 Ng4 12. O-O-O Nxe3 13. fxe3 Bc7 14. Nxc6 bxc6 15. Qxd8+ Bxd8 16. Be2 Ke7 17. Bf3 Bd7 18. Ne4 Bb6 19. c5 f5 20. cxb6 fxe4 21. b7 Rab8 22. Bxe4 Rxb7 23. Rhf1 Rb5 24. Rf4 g5 25. Rf3 h5 26. Rdf1 Be8 27. Bc2 Rc5 28. Rf6 h4 29. e4 a5 30. Kd2 Rb5 31. b3 Bh5 32. Kc3 Rc5+ 33. Kb2 Rd8 34. R1f2 Rd4 35. Rh6 Bd1 36. Bb1 Rb5 37. Kc3 c5 38. Rb2 e5 39. Rg6 a4 40. Rxg5 Rxb3+ 41. Rxb3 Bxb3 42. Rxe5+ Kd6 43. Rh5 Rd1 44. e5+ Kd5 45. Bh7 Rc1+ 46. Kb2 Rg1 47. Bg8+ Kc6 48. Rh6+ Kd7 49. Bxb3 axb3 50. Kxb3 Rxg2 51. Rxh4 Ke6 52. a4 Kxe5 53. a5 Kd6 54. Rh7 Kd5 55. a6 c4+ 56. Kc3 Ra2 57. a7 Kc5 58. h4 1-0

Carlsen is famous for playing on in "dead drawn" endings and actually winning them. In his recent article Jonathan Rowson wrote: "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."

Mathias Feist, the ChessBase programmer in charge of engines and databases, described Carlsen's technique quit succinctly:

"There is an equal position on the board, and the opponent thinks: this is dead drawn. I can play almost anything and there is nothing he can do. But Magnus plays on, seeking complications, setting up threats. He is narrowing the margin required to hold the draw. Soon his opponent is thinking: why is he still playing – I can hold a draw with any of these three moves. Then: I can hold with this move and with this move. And then: I still have one clear way to hold a draw. And under the strain of constantly having to solve deep and complex problems, more often than not the opponent will crack. Magnus wins not because it was in the position, he wins because he is Magnus."

There has been some debate about pitting Carlsen against a computer (the final hope for humankind?). But this will not work: computers will revel in finding only moves. It is what they do best, and they will never fail. On the other hand computers are perfectly capable of mounting the same kind of strategy against the opponent, and will not tire or relax the pressure as the hours pass. In fact Magnus may find himself on the receiving end of the narrowing draw window and the constant necessity of finding complex and dangerous defences.

Carlsen blitz

Here's another (very entertaining) example of Carlsen's resilience, and how it tends to disquieten his opponents, this time in a bullet game. It also reveals a further secret of his success in chess.

In the above video we see a bullet game, played in Kragerø (Norway), between Magnus Carlsen and his second Laurent Fressinet. It was posted on August 6 2013 on Magnus' Facebook page, where it apprears with the remark: "Winning a blitz game against my good friend at Kragerø. He's too weak and too slow, but a very nice guy" and a big smiley. The video shows the world number one getting into trouble against his second (ranked number three in France), but then pulling off a wonderful mate in the middle of the board. Once again the Carlsen strategy seems to be: always give your opponent ample opportunity to make mistakes.

[Event "Kragerø (Norway)"] [Site "?"] [Date "2013.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Black "Fressinet, Laurent"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A45"] [PlyCount "91"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. Bg5 e6 3. e4 h6 4. Bxf6 Qxf6 5. c3 d6 6. Nd2 g5 7. Bd3 Bg7 8. Ne2 Nc6 9. O-O Bd7 10. f4 O-O-O 11. e5 Qe7 12. exd6 Qxd6 13. Ne4 Qe7 14. Nc5 Nxd4 15. Nxd7 Nxe2+ 16. Qxe2 Rxd7 17. f5 Rhd8 18. Rad1 Kb8 19. fxe6 fxe6 20. Be4 a6 21. g3 Qc5+ 22. Kg2 Qe5 23. Rxd7 Rxd7 24. Re1 Rd6 25. Bf3 Qxe2+ 26. Rxe2 b5 27. Bg4 e5 28. Bf3 Ka7 29. Kh3 Kb6 30. Kg4 a5 31. Be4 b4 32. cxb4 axb4 33. Rc2 c5 34. b3 Rd4 35. Kf5 c4 36. bxc4 Kc5 37. Bd5 e4 38. Bxe4 Rxc4 39. Re2 Rc3 40. Kg6 Bd4 41. Bc2 Be3 42. Bb3 Kd4 43. Kxh6 Kd3 44. Rg2 Ke4 45. Kh5 Kf3 46. Bd5# 1-0

You will have missed a great moment in chess if you do not watch the video at around 2:10 min, where Magnus delivers the unexpected mate and then says: "What, you want to play on?" and bursts into laughter.

What is of additional interest to us here is the fact that Magnus, who was with his seconds Fressinet and Jon Ludvig Hammer, had a well-worn copy of Karsten Müller's Fundamental Chess Endings lying on his notebook computer. His bible? Anyway, now we know what it takes to be a world champion.

Apart from his signature book, and his regular columns and video lectures in ChessBase Magazine, Karsten Müller has produced a whole series of training DVDs, which are bestsellers in the ChessBase Shop.

See also: 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.

– Part two with Kasparov's take on Carlsen will follow soon –

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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iSeeThis iSeeThis 2/12/2014 03:17
I have a theory. The more someone win, the more he's got the charisma of winner. Carlsen's got the charisma of the top-of-the-world winner. This kind of charisma makes no one feel Carlsen can be beaten. And this kind of feelings control the thought in every move. Conciuosly or unconsciously.
hpaul hpaul 2/12/2014 01:26
Human chess is a game of error, and Magnus understands this and applies it in a way that no computer can. Like the computer, he is excellent at avoiding errors himself and at spotting and exploiting errors of the opponent. But unlike the computer, he knows that in a human game the likelihood of error is one of the most important elements, so he often plays to maximize this likelihood in the opponent. A computer knows nothing of the likelihood of error, and doesn't consider this element at all in rating potential moves, and that's one reason why MC often plays winning moves that don't appear among the computer's top choices. The computer's preferred moves are its recommendations for what to play against itself or a similar computer with no psychological limitations; they're not necessarily the moves that will give a human opponent the most grief. MC - like Lasker - often finds those moves, and leaves behind drained and frustrated opponents wondering where they went wrong.
iliesco iliesco 2/11/2014 11:34
I think that, apart from his formidable chess strength, Magnus' unbelievable string of successes is based mainly on psychological pressure he ably and constantly induces upon his chess partners.

Tha fact that his defeats are more and more rare as the time passes creates a sort of magic that hos opponents cannot deal with. Firstly he inflicts the psychological "pain"' and defeat , which makes up 50% of real, chess defeat. The crucial problem that any chess player confronting Carlsen must face is: how to avoid loss in front of such a "beast"? They do not think how to win or even equalise, they always tend to think in terms of "avoiding defeat".
This was Anand's case and most likely will be the next challenger's case!
John Stockton John Stockton 2/11/2014 09:46
Super great players like Carlsen also run a big risk of going insane to some degree. it is because their brains are too loaded with "meaningless stuff" (chess positions) that has no real value in life. If Carlsen is wise (not smart), he will make money and then dump chess, and then use his money for some truly significant purpose in life, somewhat like what Kasparov has done. To have a mind and brain like Carlsen, and then to wate it just on chess, is really sad. I think Kasparov realized this himself--you can only go so far in chess, and then what do you do before your time on earth is up? People with truly unusual minds ned to be doing something truly significant with them, or else it goes wasted (perhaps in eventual insanity, perhaps like Bobby Fischer?)
pawnslinger pawnslinger 2/11/2014 06:59
Larry Evan's once said of Bobby Fischer that it was not difficult for a strong player to get an equal position against Bobby. The problem was that it was incredibly difficult to keep the equality. Karpov also displayed this quality during his best years.

The champion that Carlsen most resembles though is Lasker. He uses his incredible tactical ability to makes seemingly dry positions dangerous for his opponents. He uses his knowledge of opening theory, not to spring some novelty on move 18 but to know the points where he can steer off of the beaten path and drag his opponent into the swamp.
John Stockton John Stockton 2/11/2014 06:14
After watching 2 programs on America's "60 Minutes" about adults and even children who can remember things many years back, and this is because their brains are "wired" differently than "normal" with apparently more nural connection to the brains "memory cells," it is super clear that you can never become a world champion like Carlsen--his brain has been "wired" in such a way that he can recall memories unlike all others. And if that is the case, then who knows how else his brain works. Comparing him to other players, who mostl likely do not have "rewired" brains, is like comparing apples with oranges. How he does it is not something we can really understand, except to say his brain can work, recall, think, etc. in ways we others just can not understand or grasp, and we will never be able to. These type of rewired brains people are rare occurances, and in Carlsen's he is got into chess. There are 3 areas of child prodigy's--chess, music, and math--it is inthe end because their brains work differently compared to "normal" people. We can talk about his work, his playing style, etc, but we can never duplicate it or really even understand it
DaTribe DaTribe 2/11/2014 05:53
"Bloodless and soulless".

This is a very interesting comment. In my opinion Carlsen is the embodiment of a true champion. No matter what the opening preparation of the opponent he survives and more often than not, wins. He takes the opponent to a fairly equal middlegame and systematically outplays them from there on.

Whose idea is it that you must always win out of the opening with a massive ream of opening preparation. If we take away all this computer opening preparation we might have to subtract 100-200 rating points from most GMs.

Isn't the test of the best player their understanding of the game and how they cope with various situations that arise at the board. Kasparov was exciting and dynamic and he was fantastic to watch but if you take away his opening preparation would he then have just been ordinary.

Each person can choose their chess path but simply because it doesn't agree with your idea of chess doesn't mean its wrong. Carlsen has brought to the forefront a true appreciation for the heart of the game. The Modern Capablanca.

Richard Lee
William Karneges William Karneges 2/11/2014 04:42
Chess has been called an art, a game and a sport. Carlsen proves just what a sport it is! Every move screams, "let's play chess." To say he "waits" for his opponents to make mistakes is a gross misunderstanding of his play. He waits for nothing. He is coming to get you. Be afraid. Be very afraid!
Lajos Árpád Lajos Árpád 2/11/2014 04:15
I noticed there is a bottle of orange juice near Müller's book, maybe that is part of his secret as well.
Paul Clerc Paul Clerc 2/11/2014 03:30
I somehow agree with the fact that the match was tedious, but look at it with different factors. What is somewhat upsetting, and I assume very difficult for other grandmasters, is that Magnus basically doesn't care about openings. He just plays chess at an about 2900 level. It isn't too thrilling because he won't deliver a killing blow within the opening's boundaries. This is just not his style. He is so certain of his strength that he doesn't mind playing "more or less at hand" a position, for as long as he isn't too much worse. It is hence no surprise that Aronian and Kramnik consistently give him headaches out of the opening, for their concern regarding the opening is way higher. On the other hand Magnus is far more stubborn, and knows he hardly ever plays a ? move. When playing 99% of his games, he knows he is more able to keep the position sane for as long as it gets. He most likely assumes -and with some reason, given he's after all World Champ- that his opponents don't keep a position's composure for so long as well as he does.
ChiliBean ChiliBean 2/11/2014 03:25
"Carlsen's games are very similar to those of a computer: bloodless and soulless."

Are you sure you are not talking about Borislav Ivanov.
Poulsen Poulsen 2/11/2014 12:13
We have become all too used to top-GM's of the Kasparov-era pursuing victory right out of the opening through computerprepared surprises, that takes the opponent into a realm, where he is less prepared. Now we have a WCh, that seeks to tip the balance into his favor in positions, that should form the basis for any GM - but in reality doesn't, since most of them use all of their energy on computerpreparations in complex openingsystems. Carlsens reconnects chess with the old-school chessdisiplines of the Rubinstein - Lasker - Capablanca-era. And I think this is a very nice development - one that migth end the trend of drawing in unclear positions.
sarangi sarangi 2/11/2014 12:06
To me it seems Carlsen has a real and deep playing gift. He can see instinctively deep in the position extracting the best chances and continuosly problems to the opponent . In addition he gives great attention to the ending often neglected by modern players and finally he enjoys playing so much that it helps his maintaining a ferocious concentration.
Personally i enjoy his attitude to the game very much.
Carl Berg Carl Berg 2/11/2014 04:10
I find it interesting that a player of such immense talent is often maligned for his playing style, one which is evidently good enough to become the undisputed world chess champion. If his style of play is so lacking, lazy or lethargic, then let his peers blow him off the board and stop whining.
I recall a moment in the military when I was in the desert, training with a group of experts in desert warfare. One of the young troops was griping about the conditions we were experiencing. A grizzled veteran grimaced and scowled, but gently quoted a general he admired saying something along the like this: " We are all of us facing the same difficulty, as are the soldiers over there, (as he pointed to an opposing force) but what will allow us to go home is how we handle it...and handle it better. Stop complaining and get to work. It's gonna be a long night!"
If someone cares to defeat Magnus Carlsen they must get to work! He just doesn't quit. A lesson for all of us!
Kaballo Kaballo 2/11/2014 01:39
I completely agree with the unnamed correspondent. Carlson's games show no true originality in terms of strategic conceptions (the way Aronian's games do). The real test here is to what extent one can learn anything from Carlson's games and how aesthetic they are. Carlson does not produce didactic or aesthetically deep games at all. He is a very strong practical player but he does not produce true gems of the art like Fischer and other greats of the past have done. He has the success but will leave no legacy in terms of artistic and didactic creations.
vinchnz8 vinchnz8 2/11/2014 01:23
I think, you have brought up a right point of view to see Magnus Carlsen's (The Greatest ever) strategy. which is clearly a never seen way of play in chess. Thanks to Carlsen for bringing this way of play to us.

Vinod Kumar