Carlsen's secrets: How does he do it? (2)

by Frederic Friedel
2/18/2014 – Just two weeks ago Magnus Carlsen won the strongest tournament in the history of the game, the Zurich Chess Challenge 2014, and climbed to Elo 2881 on the rating scale – an all-time record. In our series on this unique chess talent from Norway we look back at his first encounter with the best players in the world – ten years ago as a 13-year-old in Reykjavik. Prepare to be enchanted.

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Magnus Carlsen's earliest encounter with the world's greatest players – or shall we say their first direct encounter with him – came in early 2004, at the Reykjavik Rapid, where the 13-year-old Norwegian cherub (that how we referred to him at the time) faced two legendary former World Champions, both charismatic personalities. Our report "Boy meets Beast in Reykjavik", written at the time, describes the encounter.

In the blitz qualifier before the rapid chess tournament Magnus faced Anatoly Karpov

In a pre-tournament interview, in a swimming pool, Magnus had made some predictions

In this video you can see how the game against former World Champion Anatoly Karpov went. The 13-year-old beat the chess legend. At 1:25' Magnus gives his family – father Henrik, mother Sigrun, and his sisters Ellen, Ingrid and Sigrun – a thumbs up. Immediately after that you can hear a very appreciative assessment of Magnus' talent by Karpov ("He plays like an adult, he produces ideas that are very strange for a boy of his age.") Unfortunately we have not been able locate the notation of this historical game.

Confrontation with Kasparov

On the day after his win against Karpov Magnus Carlsen was paired against former World Champion Garry Kasparov, then the top-rated player in the world.

The thirteen-year-old waits in anticipation for the strongest player in the world ...

... who understands what, from a media point of view, is at stake. Magnus is at the time ranked
number 700 in the world, Kasparov of course number one. He has never played against this young.

During the encounter the kid is relaxed and in fact strolls around to watch other games

His face says it all: Garry is clearly relieved that he survived this first game

Video report of that first important encounter

At the time IM Almira Skripchenko was visiting us and annotated the game

The second game, which can also be viewed in the JavaScript player above, was won by Kasparov, who simply steamrolled the kid. Later that year he visited Magnus in Oslo. The following video was made of that training session.

– Part three on Kasparov's assessment of Magnus Carlsen will follow soon –

See also our previous article:

2/10/2014 – Carlsen's secrets: How does he do it? (1)
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?

At the bottom of this page you can give your opinions on the subject. There were many contributions to the above article, but also a number of readers who preferred to sent us email feedback. Here are some of their views. Don't miss the "little darling of ChessBase" letter at the end.

Joaquin Font, Boston, Massachusetts
I am under the impression that part of Carlsen's "nettlesomeness" is also choosing positions in which there are multiple fronts and irregular pawnstructure/piece combinations. I believe this is a "nodal" strategy, i.e., seeking positions in which there are different nexus points for a position to be kept in balance and/or for counterplay to be generated. This reminds me actually of the strategy of FC Barcelona: to keep control and execute with precision across the different theaters of operations, producing a sense of loss of control, and errors, in the opponent. There is also the related strategy in Chinese Martial Arts, where the most advanced practitioners vary points of attach and defense, change styles, and patiently "dissolve" their opponent's initiative, prior to turning it on themselves --or inviting them to do so (place the sword, invite the person to fall on it). After all, why not make the opponent run fight in war in sectioned labyrinths, when, through superior calculation and positional sense, Carlsen can find his way through the maze better and with great ease in critical positions?

Romek Hanys, New Zealand
I can only hope that Magnus has started a new era in chess, or rather, has ended the old era of "dead draws". What can be more boring in the world than a four-hour chess game which ends in a draw. It's not even interesting to the players who agree on the draw. It's easy to see how chess benefits from the fact that Magnus is crushing grandmasters who just are not prepared to fight to the end. This fighting spirit has done more for chess than anything before. Perhaps this should be a formal FIDE rule: "No matter how tired you are, you must play." No two players are equal and surely, sooner or later, one will crack either through an error or on time.

David Herzr, Paris, France
The (Indian?) journalist is expressing bitterness at having seen his champion lose. Carlsen represents everything we should hope for in chess: imagination, perseverance, brilliance, depth, relentlessness, thoroughness, playing to the end. And remember: a chess is a game requires two players. This journalist is really slamming Anand and his inability to come to terms with Carlsen over the board in every aspect of the game (middle, ending and psychology).

Niima, Canada
Carlsen’s chess reminds one of Capablanca's – boring to some perhaps, but often simple, unpretentious and elegant. To win the way he does – building on small advantages while avoiding errors – is difficult to imitate for most. It also has a long and illustrious lineage. Just look at the games of Capablanca, Rubinstein, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Petrosian, Andersson and Karpov – to name just a few.

Saulo Silva, São Paulo, Brazil
Since 2005/2006 I guess, Carlsen has been the little darling of ChessBase and most specialized media. I myself don't like him very much, mostly because of the boring style of play – sometimes looking like a worsened version of Kramnik and his lack of charisma. Being a 48 years old amateur, I've had my share of Smyslov, Karpov, Portisch, Shirov, Morozevich so I can tell Carlsen doesn't add much to my chess life. Now if Aronian were world champion that would be my choice of a world chess leader, but anyway the results speak for themselves. Carlsen reigns for now. But I predict it won't last long since he'll soon lose his apetite for the chess crown. And when it happens, Aronian and Nakamura will be there down the corner waiting for him. Long life to chess and no to dry, arid, tasteless chess.

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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