Magnus Carlsen's amazing unbeaten streak

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/9/2020 – Fans, professionals and anybody who follows the world of professional chess agree on the fact that Magnus Carlsen is on a class of his own. Besides reigning as World Champion in all three formats (classical, rapid and blitz), the Norwegian has managed not to lose a single classical game in over twenty months. Let us recap Carlsen's astounding — and ongoing — streak! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

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Undefeated

The eternal controversy regarding who is the best chess player of all time will probably never come to an end. People give valid arguments to support their choices — Fischer, Kasparov and Carlsen seem to be the favourites. While Fischer dominated his rivals and contributed greatly to the game and Kasparov held the world title for an incredible amount of time, Carlsen's reign so far has been undoubtedly impressive. Perhaps, one of his biggest achievements has been to go undefeated — for the moment — for 121 classical games. It has been 618 days since the time the Norwegian resigned his encounter with the black pieces against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in Biel.

As Tarjei J. Svensen tweeted on January 26th, Carlsen only lost one other game in 2018. Since this tweet was published, the world champion has won one more classical game, so his current record is +54 =113 -2.

His latest victim was not Ding Liren, Fabiano Caruana or some other chess superstar, but Manuel Ramirez Garrastacho, a 38-year-old untitled player from Spain. Carlsen needed 35 moves to beat him with the white pieces while representing Offerspill, his team in the Norwegian League — they have won all their matches of the season and have a comfortable lead in the standings table

Carlsen also represented his team in the first two rounds of the season, when he also beat much lower-rated opposition. Other than that, he has kept his streak by facing almost exclusively players from the elite. Furthermore, he has scored a commendable amount of wins, getting full points in almost one out of three games (40 out of 121). The following table shows his win-draw ratio in all the events he has played while going undefeated:

Tournament Wins Draws
Biel 2018 1 0
Sinquefield Cup 2018 2 7
European Club Cup 2018 1 5
World Championship Match 2018 0 12
Tata Steel Masters 2019 5 8
Shamkir Chess 2019 5 4
GRENKE Classic 6 3
Norway Chess 2019 2 7
Zagreb GCT 2019 5 6
Sinquefield Cup 2019 2 9
Grand Swiss 2019 4 7
Norwegian League 2019/20 (rds. 1&2) 2 0
GCT Finals - London 2019 1 3
Tata Steel Masters 2020 3 10
Norwegian League 2019/20 (rd. 11) 1 0
  40 81

The world champion's form since July 31st, 2018, when he lost against Mamedyarov, has had some ups and downs — going by his extremely high standards. To illustrate this point, we have divided the streak in four stages. We include below the times he came closest to lose his unbeaten run.

The beginning

Carlsen's loss against Mamedyarov came in the penultimate round of the Accentus Grandmaster Tournament in Biel. The world champion played the King's Indian Defence, looking for a win, as he was trailing the Azerbaijani by a full point. The Norwegian overestimated his chances, lost, and Mamedyarov got tournament victory with one round to spare.

Thus, the first win of the streak was the one Carlsen obtained over Nico Georgiadis in round ten. The champ then played the Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis. After the nine rounds were completed, Carlsen was tied with Levon Aronian and Fabiano Caruana atop the standings. The rules stipulated that a drawing of lots would decide which two players would go to the playoff — Carlsen objected, as he thought it to be 'ridiculous'. Finally, the players and organisers decided all three would be declared co-winners!

At the Sinquefield Cup, the time Carlsen came closest to losing was in round six, when Alexander Grischuk missed a big chance to take him down. Replay this game and the loss against 'Shakh' with expert analysis in the viewer below:

 

Magnus Carlse

The expressions of the world champion | Photo: Venkatachalam Saravanan

The drawing streak

After the shared first place in Saint Louis, Carlsen travelled to Porto Carras, where he played board one for Valerenga at the European Club Cup. He rested in round one and beat Vladimir Potkin in round two, but then went on to draw his remaining five encounters. In round six, he needed to defend hard to salvage a critical draw against Ding Liren.

Those five draws in Greece were only the beginning of what would turn out to be a 21-game streak of half points. The Euro Club Cup was the last classical event before the long-awaited World Championship Match against Caruana in London. The clash for the crown famously ended with twelve draws in the classical section, followed by Carlsen's clear win in the rapid playoff. During the classical phase, however, both the champion and the challenger missed chances, with Caruana getting the closest to victory in games 6 and 8.

The key games mentioned, with first-rate analysis:

 

Magnus Carlsen, Nils Grandelius

A team player | Photo: Niki Riga / eurochess2018.com

Domination

Having already secured the world crown, Carlsen did not play any more classical chess in 2018. When the next year started, he returned to Wijk aan Zee, where he broke the streak of draws by beating Jorden van Foreest in round five. He would go on to get his seventh title at the Dutch coastal city with a 9/13 score. This would be the first of a series of remarkable tournament victories. 

In Shamkir, he scored five wins and four draws to end the event with an astonishing 2988 rating performance. At the time, Tarjei J. Svensen compared this outing with Carlsen's previous strongest results:

3002: Nanjing '09 (8 out of 10)
2994: London '12 (6½/8)
2988: Shamkir '19 (7/9)
2981: Shamkir '15 (7/9)
2930: Wijk aan Zee '13 (10/13)
2918: Bazna '10 (7½/10)

Little did we know that the world champion would then go on to get a 2990 rating performance in Karlsruhe, where he collected six wins at the Grenke Chess Classic! At that point, the chess world started wondering whether the champ would manage to break the 2900 rating barrier anytime soon.



A little over a month later, Carlsen played at the Altibox Norway Chess Tournament, which was trying a new format, making the participants play an Armageddon game in case the classical encounter finished drawn. Carlsen won the event after scoring two 'classical' wins and showing his prowess in the accelerated tiebreakers. In round two, Aronian almost beat him from the white side of a Rossolimo Sicilian.

As part of the expanded schedule of the Grand Chess Tour, Carlsen played the first 11-round tournament of the year in Zagreb. His performance was superb, as he got five wins and six draws to equal his peak official rating of 2882 points in the next list. In the post-tournament interview, Carlsen talked about how he had never had a chance to show his strength at a lengthy elite event. This was his eighth consecutive tournament triumph!

Carlsen's draw with Aronian from a difficult position in Norway was analysed by Constantin Lupulescu:

 

Magnus Carlsen

In black and white | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Quieter times

After a dream first semester of 2019, the champion could not get any more tournament wins in classical chess. At the Sinquefield Cup (now also including eleven rounds), he caught up with Ding Liren in the final round to force a rapid playoff, but the Chinese grandmaster surprised by beating him in a rapid tiebreaker, perhaps Carlsen's biggest specialty.

At the Grand Swiss, Carlsen had a good performance with four wins and seven draws, but he was worse against Alexey Sarana in round two and close to lost in round four against Vladislav Kovalev. In December, the Norwegian finished third at the GCT Finals in London, where Aronian almost defeated him in their second classical encounter. Incidentally, that was Carlsen's last classical game of the year. 

These three subpar events — again, for his extra-high standards — were followed by a great double gold at the Rapid & Blitz World Championships, thus getting the triple crown. And when 2020 began, he once again played in Wijk, where he came very close to losing the streak while facing two rising stars — first against Jeffery Xiong in round three and then against Jorden van Foreest in round four. He got half points both times and, precisely with his draw against Van Foreest, he surpassed Sergei Tiviakov's 110-game unbeaten run! 

With all over-the-board chess action cancelled or postponed, it is almost certain for the streak to reach the two-year mark. When will it stop? And who will be the one to break it? Only time will tell.

 

Magnus Carlsen

During round three of the 2020 Tata Steel Masters | Photo: Alina l'Ami


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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.