The Winning Academy 18: Magnus Carlsen's diagonals

by Jan Markos
2/20/2023 – In chess calculation, width is more important than depth. Virtually every decent player can calculate a forced line till the very end. However, only few can sense all the flavours of the position, find all the hidden ideas. To see the exceptions where everybody else only sees the rules. To find something unusual while all the others follow well-known patterns. In this article, Jan Markos shows you how Magnus Carlsen is able to come up with unexpected solutions in situations where an average club player would be totally confused. | Photo: Lennart Ootes, Archive

Master Class Vol.8 - Magnus Carlsen 2nd Edition Master Class Vol.8 - Magnus Carlsen 2nd Edition

Let our authors show you how Carlsen tailored his openings to be able to outplay his opponents strategically in the middlegame or to obtain an enduring advantage into the endgame.


The Norwegian genius does calculate further. But in addition to that he is also able to see the position in its richness and find moves that are hidden to those with a more rigid approach to the position.

Funnily enough, in all the following examples it seems that central files are going to play the crucial role in the subsequent fight. However, we will soon find out that in fact not files, but diagonals will be truly important.

Therefore, we might half-jokingly say: "Carlsen sees diagonals where all the others only see files."


In the first example, a seemingly boring early middlegame has arisen:

Carlsen-Jakovenko, Nanjing 2009, White to move:


In this position without bishops, Black's c6-weakness does not play any major role. White's only advantage therefore lies in his small lead in development. Carlsen therefore needs to act fast. But how? Of course, 13.e4 seems to be very natural. But what to do after 13… dxe4 (Jakovenko played 13…0-0 and was significantly worse after 14.e5) 14.Nxe4 Qd5?


I use the position before 13.e4 frequently in my coaching sessions, and almost all my pupils get stuck in their calculations at his point. 15.Nc3 Qd6 seems to get White nowhere. 15.Re1 0-0 is also OK for Black.

However, Carlsen was able to discover the surprising 15.Qa3!. Unexpectedly, the a3-f8 diagonal plays the decisive role. White threatens to deliver a check on d6, and 15…0-0 loses material after 16.Nc3! (16.Qxe7?? Rfe8) Qe6 17.Re1.

Here's the complete game:




In the following diagram, White's positional advantage is undisputable. But how to convert it in the safest and most convincing way?

Carlsen-Anand, Moscow 2013, White to move:


Carlsen's pieces are harmoniously placed, whereas their black counterparts are occupying strange and modest positions. The a8-rook is undeveloped, the c7-rook is insufficiently protected, the e6-bishop is also vulnerable. Therefore, the position seems to be ripe for direct action. But how precisely should White break's Black's defences?

22.d5! is logical enough. And after 22…cxd5 it makes a lot of sense to exchange the queens, as Black has to retake with the rook: 23.Qxd7 Rxd7. But what to do next? Again, Carlsen has spotted a hidden diagonal. He first exchanged the black bishop 24.Nxe6 fxe6 and afterwards crowned his effort with an unexpected move:


I am sure that you can easily see that 25.Bh3! is the best move in the diagram position. However, Carlsen had to understand this before he played 22.d5.

Now Anand's position collapses, the e6-pawn is simply too weak. He tried 25…Kh8, but after 26.e5 Ng8 27.Bxe6 Rd8 28.Rc7 White was simply dominating the board.

Here's the complete game:




Vishy Anand also was the victim in the following example:

Carlsen-Anand, Bilbao 2012, Black to move:


White has a spatial advantage, and if he consolidates, he will simply be better. Anand therefore decided to try to throw some TNT into the middle of the board. He played the dynamic and dangerous 15…d5!.

For many club players, such an unpleasant surprise would be equal to a mental knockout. They would never recover, especially after finding out that the natural 16.exd5 Nxd5! 17.cxd5 Rxd5 leads to an edge for Black, as White loses the d4-knight.

However, Carlsen knew his way out of the danger zone. And again, a seemingly unimportant diagonal played a major role:

16.Nxc6 bxc6



Thanks to the threat Bc3-a5 White gets vital time, evacuating his queen out of the X-ray with a tempo. Because of this resource White is still a bit better.

In the following fight Carlsen skilfully increased his advantage, sacrificing a pawn for positional gains, and after Blacks 24th move the following position has arisen:


White has a clear edge. Black's knight on g7 is a poor creature, and the pawns along the e-file are very weak. Most club players would try to double or even triple along the e-file, trying to regain the e6-pawn. However, that would also allow Black to exchange his bad knight.

Carlsen, with his extraordinary chess vision, has discovered a different plan. He understood that not the e6-pawn, but the h7-pawn is the weakest spot in Black's camp. And again, a diagonal will be in the spotlight. The queen will travel along the c1-h6 highway.

Carlsen played 25.Nh3! and it soon transpired that Black is helpless against the Qd2-h6+Nh3-g5 maneuver. White won soon.

Here's the complete game:




All Carlsen's solutions in this article have something in common: once spotted, the ideas are pretty simple. Therefore, they might seem to be almost banal, not worthy of a World Champion. However, according to my coaching experience, they are in fact very difficult to find aboard.

Please remember that your own games are no different. Many positions that you will get in the following months will contain simple yet very original ideas, hidden gems. It is up to you to be creative and diligent enough to find them.

Once you will be able find unexpected and original ideas more often than your opponents, you will became a considerably better player.


Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.
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