Magnus knows his classics!

by Sagar Shah
4/20/2016 – It is always a joy to see Magnus Carlsen in action. His moves are accurate and there is a lot that we can learn from them. In his first round game against Harikrishna at the Norway Chess 2016, the World Champion made a move that reminded Sagar Shah about a game of Botvinnik played in 1941. Using this example as the base, the author delves into the topic of how studying classical games of great masters of the past can help you become a stronger chess player.

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Magnus knows his classics!

by Sagar Shah

When watching a game played by Magnus Carlsen, I often keep my engine switched on. The reason is to see the alarming consistency with which he makes the best moves suggested by the computer. How does he decode the most important elements of the position so quickly, and how does he know that it is more important to create a luft for your king than to go for a pawn grab on b7? How does he know that accepting a pawn weakness will be compensated by the dynamic factors in the position, and how can he be so confident that taking the knight will not lead to a decisive attack. Well, sometimes, no matter how deeply you think, you just don't have any explanations for this. "Genius" is the word that comes to mind and we understand the reason why he is the World Champion and leaps and bounds ahead of others on the FIDE rating list.

In the first round of the Norway Chess 2016 Magnus faced Harikrishna Pentala. The Indian number two was playing a super-elite Round Robin tournament for the first time after almost two years. His last one was the Biel Masters in July 2014. Facing Carlsen with the black pieces in the first round is not how you want to start such an event! Harikrishna played the Queen's Indian and Magnus replied with the relatively unambitious 4.Nbd2. Black has many ways to gain a completely playable position, but Hari decided to refrain from the well-established lines. Instead, he went for 8...0-0 which gave Magnus a very pleasant opening advantage. From that point onwards there was no looking back. The small edge turned into a pleasant one and the pleasant position was easily converted into a winning game. Magnus didn't make a single error and all his moves were extremely accurate. Here's the entire game with detailed analysis:

[Event "4th Norway Chess 2016"]
[Site "Stavanger NOR"]
[Date "2016.04.19"]
[Round "1.2"]
[White "Carlsen, Magnus"]
[Black "Harikrishna, Pentala"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "E15"]
[WhiteElo "2851"]
[BlackElo "2763"]
[Annotator "Sagar Shah"]
[PlyCount "81"]
[EventDate "2016.04.19"]

{Going into the game Magnus was definitely the favourite to win this battle considering the
limited experience Harikrishna has at super-elite tournaments and also because
the World Champion had the white pieces.} 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 {
Hari doesn't go for the QGD with 3...d5, and instead opts for the Queen's
Indian Variation.} 4. g3 Ba6 5. Nbd2 {This is known to be a pretty unambitious
line. Mainly because the knight is not so well placed on d2. Of course it
would like to go to c3. But the problem that White faces after the move Ba6 is
that any and every move that he plays to defend the c4 pawn has some drawback.
If he goes b3, the dark squares are weakened a bit and Black can take
advantage of it with Bb4+. If Qc2 or Qa4 is played then the control on d5 is
lost and hence after c5, d5 becomes a gambit. Though Nbd2 is not dangerous for
Black, whatever Magnus plays could be the start of a new direction in theory.}
Bb4 {Threatening to win the c4 pawn.} (5... Bb7 {is the main line and after} 6.
Bg2 c5 7. e4 cxd4 (7... Nxe4 $2 8. Ne5 $18) 8. Nxd4 Bc5 {Black has Hedgehog like
position.}) 6. Qa4 $5 (6. Qc2 {is the line suggested by Simon Williams in his
latest DVD on beating the Queen's Indian. This move was a favourite of Vassily
Ivanchuk and Anatoly Karpov.}) 6... c5 7. a3 Bxd2+ 8. Bxd2 O-O $6 {White
hasn't really scored well in this line in the past. But he has a decent
position with the double bishops and good chances of trying for an opening
edge.} (8... cxd4 9. Bg2 (9. Nxd4 Bb7 {looks a little uncomfortable for White
who now has to play f3} 10. f3 O-O 11. Bg2 Nc6 {I don't really see how Black
can be worse here.}) 9... Bb7 10. O-O Bc6 11. Qc2 Bxf3 $5 12. Bxf3 Nc6 {
and it is not going to be easy to win the d4 pawn.}) (8... Bb7 {is the main
line.} 9. Bg2 {Tranposes to the above variation.} (9. dxc5 bxc5 {looks pretty
okay.})) 9. dxc5 $146 {Technically this is a novelty but the character of the
position remains the same.} bxc5 10. Bg2 $14 {White has got what he wanted. A
slight pull from the opening.} Qb6 11. O-O Nc6 (11... Qxb2 12. Rfb1 {traps the
queen.}) 12. Be3 Rfc8 $5 (12... Ng4 $2 13. Bxc5 Qxc5 14. Qxa6 $16) 13. Rfd1 $1
{Avoiding the temptation of taking on c5.} (13. Bxc5 Qxc5 14. Qxa6 Qa5 $1 {
A strong move foreseen by Harikrishna.} 15. Qxa5 Nxa5 16. Ne5 Rab8 $44 {
And Black has enough counterplay.}) 13... d5 (13... Rab8 {Keeping the position
as it is, but still White is better after} 14. Bf4 Rb7 15. e4 $1 Nxe4 16. Ne5
$36) 14. cxd5 exd5 15. Bxc5 Qa5 (15... Qxc5 16. Qxa6 $16) 16. Qc2 (16. Qxa5
Nxa5 17. Nd4 $1 (17. b4 Nb3 $11) 17... Rxc5 18. b4 Rc4 19. bxa5 $14 {White has
a slight pull here. But nothing very serious.}) 16... Bxe2 17. Qxe2 (17. b4
Bxd1 $1 $17) 17... Qxc5 18. Rac1 Qb6 19. b4 {With the isolated queen pawn to
play against and the queenside majority White has a clear advantage.} h6 20.
Qe3 $1 {Why would a normal person be ready to accept a sickly looking isolated
pawn on e3. And that too voluntarily in a position where there are other
better moves? Well, the secret to this lies in the fact that Magnus is very
well acquainted with the classics. Most probably he drew this idea from the
game Botvinnik versus Boleslavsky.} Qb7 {Hari prefers to keep the queens but
now he just much worse.} (20... Qxe3 21. fxe3 {It is true that the e3 pawn is
weak, but now White has much greater control on the d4 square and it is not so
easy to take advantage of the e3 weakness. Meanwhile d5 is pretty ripe and can
fall any moment.} Ng4 22. Re1 $1 {Keeps the tension and prepares Nd4.} (22. Bh3
h5 23. b5 (23. Rxd5 Nxb4 $1 24. Rxc8+ Rxc8 25. axb4 Rc1+ 26. Bf1 (26. Kg2 Nxe3+
$19) 26... Rxf1+ 27. Kxf1 Nxe3+ $17) 23... Na5 24. Rxc8+ Rxc8 25. Bxg4 hxg4 26.
Ne5 {White wins a pawn but with all these weaknesses it should be close to a
draw.}) 22... Ne7 23. Nd4 Rxc1 24. Rxc1 Nxe3 25. Re1 N3f5 26. Nxf5 Nxf5 27. Re5
$14) 21. Bh3 $1 Re8 22. Qc3 Ne7 23. Nd4 $16 {White has absolute control on the
position and when white is Magnus this is surely a recipe for disaster.} Ne4 24. Qc7
Qa6 25. f3 Ng5 26. Bd7 $1 {The precision with which Magnus plays is just
mindboggling.} Red8 27. h4 $1 {The knight is almost trapped.} Nxf3+ {It's a
practical try but Black surely doesn't have enough here.} (27... Nh7 28. Re1
Qf6 29. Rcd1 {Doesn't look appetising at all for Black.}) 28. Nxf3 Qxa3 29. Kg2
Qb2+ (29... Qxb4 30. Nd4 $18) 30. Rd2 Qxb4 31. Re1 a5 32. Rde2 Ng6 33. h5 Nh8 (
33... Nf8 34. Be8 $1 $18 {The f7 pawn is the problem.}) 34. Bf5 a4 {Even
before the a-pawn could get even slightly threatening Magnus launches a
decisive attack.} 35. Ne5 Qd6 (35... a3 36. Nc6 $18) 36. Qc2 $1 {Keeping the
queens is the easiest way to finish off the game.} Re8 37. Bh7+ Kf8 38. Qf5 (
38. Nd7+ Qxd7 39. Qc5+ {was another pretty way to win.}) 38... Re7 39. Bg6 Kg8
40. Nxf7 Rxf7 41. Bxf7+ {And before he would be mated. Harikrishna resigned.
Overall I think it was a flawless game by Magnus Carlsen.} 1-0

Simon Williams DVD which was mentioned on the sixth move has recently been released and can be found in the ChessBase shop.

Magnus Carlsen didn't have any first round jitters as he scored a clinical victory over Harikrishna 

It was surely an impressive game and there are many things that we can learn from. However, the point that caught my attention was the following:

It was Magnus' (White's) move here. It is clear that White has the more pleasant position. The question that needs to be asked is how should White continue. The World Champion came up with this highly anti-intuitive move 20.Qe3!? To tell you the truth White had many decent alternatives in this position like 20.Bh3 or 20.Qb2. But Magnus chose this queen exchange that would leave him with sick looking isolated pawn on e3. Why did he do that? Harikrishna played 20...Qb7 refusing the queen exchange. But for a second let us imagine that Hari would have taken the queen with 20...Qxe3 and after 21.fxe3 we reach the following position:

The pawn on e3 is definitely not the pride of White's position, but it does a very useful function: it secures the d4 square for the f3 knight. At the same time the bishop popping out on h3 and can be quite irritating. This transformation of the pawn moving from f2 to e3 changes a lot of things in the position, but Magnus rightly assessed it in his favour. Carlsen thought for only a minute and a half for his move Qe3. How did he make such a quick decision? Magnus is very well versed with his classics and must have surely seen the game between Botvinnik vs Boleslavsky from Moscow, 1941.

Mikhail Botvinnik vs Isaak Boleslavsky, Moscow 1941

It's White to play. What is the move that Botvinnik came up with?

With his next move Botvinnik made sure that he took control over the d4 square and at the same time exchanged the active bishop on b6. Yes! He went 10.Be3!? It is true that after the exchange, the e3 pawn would be weak, but White would have excellent control on the dark squares. After the moves 10.Be3 Bxe3 11.Bxc6!? In his book "One Hundred selected games" Botvinnik writes:

"This move (in my first game with Boleslavsky in this tournament, I played 11.fxe3) led the commentators to draw the most profound deductions. They explained it as meaning that Botvinnik did not wish to repeat the same variation a second time and that he was afraid of some improvement that Boleslavsky had prepared. All this was, of course, sheer imagination. The fact is that after 11.fxe3 I got no tangible advantage whatsoever and so Boleslavsky was not averse to my repeating the variation. But my move 11.fxe3 has to be explained as due to a miscalculation. I also considered 11.Bxc6+, but in the variation with 11...Nxc6 (11...bxc6 weakens Black's c5 square and can be accepted even without analysis as favourable for White) 12.Re1 d4 13.fxe3 dxe3 14.Rxe3+ Be6, I overlooked that White wins a pawn by 13.Nfxd4.
This time, of course, I corrected my mistake and played 11.Bxc6+. So I was not avoiding any non-existent resource prepared by Boleslavsky. On the contrary, Boleslavsky himself, who had not analysed our previous game carefully, fell victim to the strengthened system I had prepared."

After 18 moves White had complete control of the dark squares and went on to win the game

While making the move 20.Qe3 there is no real way to confirm whether Magnus used this Botvinnik-Boleslavsky game to come up with the idea or he just thought of the move concretely over the board. Whatever be the case, I think this is the right way to learn from the classics.

On my DVD "Learn from the Classics" which was released in 2015, I use this same approach for making people understand the importance of studying the classical games. Let me put the point across with an example from my own praxis.

Sagar Shah - Velizar Sofranova, Golden Sands 2013

My opponent had just dropped back his bishop to f8. His plan is clear,
to start queenside play with ...Nb6. What should White do?

I would like to explain the answer with the help of another position. And once again Mikhail Botvinnik comes to the rescue!

Botvinnik - Pomar, Varna 1962

Botvinnik (White) found an excellent way to get a nearly winning position here. What was the crushing move?

[Event "Varna ol (Men) qual-A"]
[Site "Varna"]
[Date "1962.??.??"]
[Round "5"]
[White "Botvinnik, Mikhail"]
[Black "Pomar Salamanca, Arturo"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "A08"]
[Annotator "Sagar Shah"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "r2qk2r/pp2n1pp/2nbbp2/2p5/2PpPP1N/3P4/PP1N2BP/R1BQ1RK1 b kq - 0 11"]
[PlyCount "38"]
[EventDate "1962.09.16"]
[EventType "team"]
[EventRounds "8"]
[EventCountry "BUL"]
[Source "ChessBase"]
[SourceDate "1999.07.01"]
[WhiteTeam "Soviet Union"]
[BlackTeam "Spain"]
[WhiteTeamCountry "URS"]
[BlackTeamCountry "ESP"]

11... Qc7 $2 {A very bad move which lets Botvinnik execute a very common
positional idea.} (11... O-O $1 12. Ndf3 Qd7 13. Bd2 Rab8 $15 {Black has a
very comfortable position.}) 12. e5 $1 (12. f5 {is a very bad move here
because the h2 pawn is hanging, but even if that was not the case, still it
would be inadvisable because there is gaping hole on e5. The way that
Botvinnik plays in the game is that he blocks the e5 square and then goes for f5.
At the cost of a pawn, he shuts down the entire black army.}) 12... fxe5 13. f5
$1 Bf7 14. Ne4 {If we take a stock of this position we realise that White is
completely better.  1. He has a strong knight on e4.  2. The bishop on g2 is
breathing fire on the long diagonal.  3. The bishop on d6 has absolutely no
scope.  4. And the black knights have no central outposts. All in all a
very favourable situation for White.} (14. Qg4 $1 {was also very strong.})
14... O-O-O 15. Qg4 Kb8 16. Qxg7 Bh5 17. Rf2 h6 18. Bd2 Rdg8 19. Qf6 Nc8 20.
Ng6 Bxg6 21. fxg6 Be7 22. Qf7 Nd8 23. Qf5 Bh4 24. Rf3 Ne7 25. Qh3 Nxg6 26. Nf6
Bxf6 27. Rxf6 Qe7 28. Raf1 Nf4 29. R6xf4 exf4 30. Bxf4+ 1-0

Coming back to my game against Velizar Sofranov:

Sagar Shah - Velizar Sofranova, Golden Sands 2013

Using the way Botvinnik played against Pomar, I am sure you can now find what I played here.

[Event "Golden Sands open 2013"]
[Site "Jurmala"]
[Date "2013.06.12"]
[Round "3"]
[White "Sagar, Shah"]
[Black "Velizar, Sofranov"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "E69"]
[WhiteElo "2359"]
[BlackElo "2154"]
[Annotator "Sagar Shah"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "r1b1r1k1/1p1n1p2/2pp2pb/q1n4p/p1P1PP2/P1N2NPP/1PQ2BB1/3RR1K1 b - - 0 18"]
[PlyCount "19"]
[EventDate "2012.02.18"]
[EventType "tourn"]
[EventRounds "7"]
[EventCountry "LAT"]
[EventCategory "18"]
[SourceDate "2009.03.06"]

18... Bf8 {I think this is the key position. White pieces have reached maximum
activity and Black is passive. But it won't take time for him to make way for
his pieces with Nb6 followed by Ne6. White will be better but I
just felt that there must exist something. I must have thought here for
20-25 minutes before striking on the plan which is very similar to the
Botvinnik-Pomar game.} 19. e5 $1 (19. f5 Ne5 20. Nxe5 Rxe5 21. Bd4 Bg7 $1 22.
Bxe5 Bxe5 {I thought during the game that the control of dark squares should
give Black good compensation for the exchange. Maybe it is not sufficient but
maybe it is!}) (19. Ng5 Nb6 20. Bf1 Bd7 {followed by Rad8}) 19... dxe5 (19...
Nb6 {He said to me after the game that this was interesting but I think I
would have played} 20. Nh4 {preventing Bf5 and threatening to sac on g6.}) 20.
f5 $1 {This is a textbook idea of pushing the f-pawn against the weakened
kingside but not giving up the e5 square as I have already made a black pawn
occupy this square. I had first learnt this idea in Botvinnik-Pomar, Varna
Olympiad 1962. Its funny that I used this idea in a place which is just 20 kms
from Varna!} (20. fxe5 {of course this was my first intention but I didn't
see how to continue after} Bg7 {Black seemed okay to me.}) 20... Kg7 {He made
this move pretty quickly and I was sure that this is not the best. But it
was surprisingly hard to break through Black's position.} (20... e4 {of course
i thought this was the critical move.} 21. fxg6 (21. Nxe4 Nxe4 22. Rxe4 Rxe4 (
22... Qxf5 $2 23. Nh4) 23. Qxe4 Qxf5 {Black should be fine maybe not 100% but
I didn't want to go into an endgame.}) 21... fxg6 (21... exf3 22. Rxe8 fxg2 23.
Qf5 {and White just wins.}) 22. Nxe4 Nxe4 23. Rxe4 Rxe4 24. Qxe4 Qf5 25. Qxf5
gxf5 {we reach the same endgame but here White is not a pawn down and Black
has development problems. Should be an advantage for White.}) 21. Nh4 {I
realised that e6 was a key square in this position for Black's defense and hence
didn't exchange on g6.} (21. fxg6 fxg6 22. Nh4 Re6 {i just couldnt find
anything here} 23. Ne4 Be7 $1 {and i didnt know what I should do next.}) 21...
g5 {the only way for Black} 22. f6+ {I thought this is the only way to further
attack Black} (22. Nf3 f6 23. Nd4 Nb6 (23... exd4 24. Rxe8 dxc3 25. Qe2 {
i was happy that I found this move and now h5 is hanging.} Kh6 26. Rxf8 Nxf8
27. Qe7 {should be winning for White.} Nfd7 28. Rd6) 24. Ne6+ Nxe6 25. fxe6
Bxe6 {is just better for Black.}) (22. Qd2 {this was my other thought during
the game} Be7 {I think this was the important move} (22... f6 23. Ng6 {I win
the important dark squared bishop.}) (22... gxh4 23. Qg5+ Kh8 {I was sure that
white is winning this position}) 23. f6+ Bxf6 24. Nf5+ Kg8 25. Nd6 Re6 {
I am not sure if White has a winning attack here, but he can be better.}) (22.
Qe2 gxh4 23. Qxh5 Be7 {with the idea of Rh8. I thought Black can defend this.})
22... Nxf6 23. Nf5+ (23. Nf3 {This was also possible} e4 24. Nxg5 Bf5 {Somehow
I felt that black could defend this position} 25. Ngxe4 Nfxe4 26. Nxe4 Nxe4 27.
Bxe4 Bxe4 28. Rxe4 {White should have an advantage here but too much material
has been exchanged.}) 23... Kg8 (23... Bxf5 24. Qxf5 {is definitely better for
White} Ne6 25. Rxe5 $18 (25. Ne4 Nh7 (25... Nxe4 26. Bxe4 $18))) 24. Nd6 {
I am two pawns down but I am now going to win a key black bishop. If i win the
c8 bishop then the light squares will become terribly weak, especially the f5 square
and if Black takes Bd6 then after Rd6 the attack develops swiftly because the
f6 knight is undefended.} (24. Qd2 {was another consideration} Bxf5 25. Qxg5+ Bg6
26. Qxf6 Bg7 {I think Black has defended successfully.}) 24... Bd7 $5 {My
opponent gives an exchange to secure his weak squares.} (24... Bxd6 25. Rxd6) (
24... Re6 25. Nxc8 Rxc8 26. Qf5 Bh6 27. Rxe5 {should give me a good position.})
25. Nxe8 Rxe8 26. Qd2 {I just decided to keep the material advantage here and
attack the weakness on his kingside.} (26. Rxd7 Ncxd7 (26... Nfxd7 27. Qf5 Bh6
28. Ne4 $40) 27. Qf5 Bh6 28. Ne4 {I think there is too much pressure on Black's
position}) 26... Ne6 $2 {a bad mistake that prematurely ends the game} (26...
Nh7 27. Qe2 {White should be better here mainly because Black's king is so
exposed.} (27. Ne4 Qxd2 28. Rxd2 Nxe4 29. Rxd7 $16 {could be played.})) 27. Ne4
$1 {and he could do nothing better than to resign the game.} -- (27... Qd8 28.
Nxf6+ Qxf6 29. Qxd7 $18) (27... Qxd2 28. Nxf6+ Kg7 29. Nxe8+ Bxe8 30. Rxd2 $18)
1-0

This is my personal approach to learning from the Classics. You study games of the great masters of the past and create memory markers. A memory marker is something special or important that took place in the game. Once you have been able to save this pattern in your mind, you will be able to recollect it and reproduce it in your game, like Magnus did it against Harikrishna. If you are interested to learn more such examples from classical games then you are welcome to have a look at my ChessBase DVD "Learn from the Classics."

Learn from the Classics

By IM Sagar Shah

Languages: English
ISBN: 978-3-86681-500-1
Delivery: Download, Post
Level: Tournament player, Professional
Price: €29.90 or €25.13 without VAT (for Customers outside the EU) $27.06 (without VAT)

Wise and successful players of the game have always told us to study the classics – games by the great masters of the past. But in this age of cutting-edge opening theory, preparation and engines, is studying the classics really that helpful?

On this DVD, Sagar Shah does'nt merely preach. First, he shows you classical games of great legends such as Petrosian, Botvinnik, Fischer, Korchnoi and Kasparov, looking at typical patterns and ideas from the middlegame. The author then goes on to explain how you can use these ideas in your own battles – by showing you examples of applied classical knowledge from his own games!

As well as looking at the middlegame, Sagar also focuses on the opening. The information explosion has ensured that opening theory continues to evolve at a rapid pace. The author shows that playing through the classics can help us establish a strong and stable feel for the initial phase of the game, and analyzes the opening duel between Botvinnik and Petrosian from their World Championship match in 1963. Going over these games will give you an excellent idea of how the classics can be used to prepare your own openings.

Order Sagar Shah's Learn from the Classics in the ChessBase Shop



Sagar Shah is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant and would like to become the first CA+GM of India. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder of the ChessBase India website.
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sshivaji sshivaji 9/21/2016 11:01
I think the Qe3 move has a closer parallel from this game http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1031765
Aighearach Aighearach 4/22/2016 03:17
"there is no real way to confirm whether Magnus used this Botvinnik-Boleslavsky game to come up with the idea or he just thought of the move concretely over the board"

The Botvinnik comments give the answer. Even in that game, it was only good because of very exact tactical resources that were available in that position. Carlsen's game only has a few similar elements, and the particulars of the tactical resources are very different. So it is reasonable to assume he merely looked at the board, and correctly understood the position.

I'm not a very strong player, but Bh3 looks a bit silly from that position, without the knight or any other pieces doing anything. The bishop isn't going to make an attack on its own. And Qb2, I'm starting to like black's position now. Qe3 has to be considered, because there are so few squares. And once you look at it, with the queens gone the pawn weakness isn't such a problem. Actually, black went from having a weak passed pawn, to a weak unpassed pawn, and white's king is a step away from his so perhaps white's pawn structure has improved substantially, rather than being a weakness that was well compensated.
yesenadam yesenadam 4/21/2016 12:52
Thanks SS.
"..there is no real way to confirm whether Magnus used this Botvinnik-Boleslavsky game to come up with the idea or he just thought of the move concretely over the board" - well, you could ask him, that's a real way. :-)
noelgrade noelgrade 4/21/2016 12:40
This f5 idea also appeared in one of the games of Aronian in the Candidates. Although it was draw -if remember well- he got a very good position.
Denix Denix 4/20/2016 09:43
Magnus missed a mate just after the time control.
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