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?

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


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.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register