Polgar: Playing Carlsen feels like you're drowning

11/29/2014 – The World Chess Championship in Sochi finished a week ago, but news reports of this achievement and result have not died down. Even the Financial Times has devoted space to analysing the result and interviews people like Judit Polgar on Carlsen's strength. Playing him feels like drowning,” she said. "It's frightening is to see him close to 2,900 points”. Judit thinks he can play even better.

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His victory was, as Frederic Friedel, co-founder of the Chessbase chess software company, put it, “like a tennis player turning up to Wimbledon with an ancient wooden racket – and winning”. [Carlsen] does not rely on computer analysis nearly as much as his opponents and pays relatively little attention to opening theory. “With the modern computer age, there are some new ideas,” he said a couple of years ago. “But the principles are basically the same... I try not to over-focus on preparation.”

The result of this old-school approach has turned modern chess on its head. Whereas computer analysis has raised the relative importance of the opening for most players, Mr Carlsen has relegated it. He looks instead to win a game later on via the steady and patient accumulation of sometimes almost imperceptible advantages. “The space that chess occupies is so gigantic that in spite of all the computer work done today, you can get out of it,” says Mr Friedel, who occasionally chaperoned Mr Carlsen at tournaments when he was a teenager. “Magnus goes off into sidelines... then he just outplays people. It is extraordinary and amazing.”


For a professional chess player, he is utterly atypical. Most develop an obsession for the game within a couple of years of learning to talk; Carlsen was eight by the time he finally came around to it. Most eschew other activities; Carlsen loves football and skiing. As a boy, he practised ski-jumping. When he plays [chess], often in ripped denims, he fidgets and slouches. A few moves into the eighth game of last week’s match against Mr Anand, he propped his square jaw on his left hand – and appeared to take a nap.

But the most remarkable thing about this largely self-taught player is his unorthodox approach to the game. He sidesteps almost all of the computer wizardry that others consider essential. Paying far less attention to opening theory than his rivals, he is happy to go down paths that may offer no advantage yet have the benefit of dragging opponents out of their “openings book”. Once beyond the reaches of computer-aided openings, Carlsen starts to turn the screw.

Carlsen’s style is positional, relying more on the accumulation of tiny advantages than the attacking pyrotechnics of, say, Kasparov. For his victims, that means slow asphyxiation as he methodically snuffs out their hopes. Just ask Judit Polgar, one of the greatest chess players of all time, who has found herself more than once on the wrong end of Carlsen’s merciless technique. “When I played him, it felt like I was drowning,” she told the FT.

What next? Having arrived at the top, it is tempting to think that the only path runs downhill. But Ms Polgar thinks otherwise. “What is frightening is to see him close to 2,900 points,” she says. “I think he can play much better.”


November 23, 2014

In the end, Magnus Carlsen was simply the better player. Viswanathan Anand, the challenger, certainly made a fight of the World Championship match in Sochi, Russia, but he could not keep up with Carlsen. Anand acknowledged as much in the press conference after he lost Game 11, and the match. “In the end I have to admit he was superior,” Anand said. “His nerves held up better.”

Nerves and the ability to deal with them played a large role at critical points throughout the match. Anand cracked under pressure in Game 2, missed a golden opportunity after Carlsen blundered in Game 6, and then ceded the match with a questionable decision in Game 11. Anand called his 27th move, in which he sacrificed an exchange, “a nervous decision” and added later, “I obviously wasn’t thinking very clearly at this point.” Carlsen agreed in his own press conference, saying “There definitely were nerves, but I think I handled them better than he did.”

Anand was an unlikely challenger this time around as very few people expected him to bounce back after losing the title last year to win the Candidates tournament earlier this year. But he rose to the occasion, not only then, but in the match, playing much better than he did in Chennai. “I kept getting interesting positions to play, which wasn’t happening much in Chennai,” Anand said. Carlsen agreed : “For sure, he played better than he did last time.”

Still the odds of Anand doing it again will only grow longer as he will be 46 years old by the time of the next Candidates tournament in 2016. Viktor Korchnoi managed to become the challenger for the title in 1978, when he was 47, and again in 1981, when he was 50, but that was another era. Today’s players mature faster and there are now many young players, particularly Fabiano Caruana of Italy, currently No. 2 in the world, who is only 22 years old, who would seem to have a better chance.

As for Carlsen, who will be 24 in a few days, he is still very much in his prime. He doubtless will benefit from the experience that he gained in the last two matches. But, for the moment, he can relax and enjoy being champion for the next two years.

Source: Official match web siteDylan McClain wrote the chess column for The New York Times for eight years until the column was discontinued last month.

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