WHY CARLSEN’S LAID-BACK ATTITUDE NEARLY COST HIM THE WORLD CROWN GM Danny Gormally

08 December 2016

Tagged: Gorm, Opinion

In life your personality can be both a strength and a weakness. This was certainly the case with Magnus Carlsen, who’s rather laid-back attitude to defending his title nearly cost him.

No doubt the playing strength of his opponent, Sergey Karjakin, took him by surprise, as it did so many others including this commentator. Karjakin, through months of sheer hard work, raised his play to a level we have not seen from him before and subsequently was able to match Carlsen accurate move for accurate move.

Normally Carlsen is able to exert domination of his opposition as they are unable to match his surpreme accuracy for very long. However the fact that Karjakin was able to do so, and indeed at times outplay his much higher rated opponent, upset Carlsen and caused him to overstretch. We could see worrying signs of this is the fifth game of the match as Carlsen came very close to defeat:

A lucky escape for Carlsen.

MAGNUS THE OBSTINATE

As I said Carlsen’s personality was really what dictated and dominated this contest.

You can make suggestions about how Carlsen should work harder on his openings and how he wasn’t really prepared and had no opening novelties, but it’s all irrelevant as he isn’t going to change. Carlsen believes in his approach, believes that what he is doing is correct and will continue to eschew sharp, cutting edge opening theory in favour of aiming for positions where he can outplay opponents in the late middlegame and endgame.

But what this match showed for me is how Carlsen is VULNERABLE to a well-prepared opponent. Granted, Karjakin didn’t come to the table with a lot of opening novelties either, but what he did show was that in a pure playing sense he was the match of Carlsen.

I wouldn’t go as far as some commentators who claim that Carlsen merely preys on his opponents mistakes and his approach to chess is negative in general. However what was clear was that his insipid approach to the openings wasn’t really working in this match, and it was only later when he began to steer the games towards more familiar territory that he began to fight on more level ground.

It would have been fine to adopt the normal approach if Carlsen was playing with his usual accuracy, but here he was just a little bit “off”, an example of which was provided in the key eighth game:

Carlsen however struck back in the key 10th game:

MISTAKES IN MATCH STRATEGY

Both players made mistakes in match strategy. Carlsen I believe should have pressed Karjakin from the beginning. As the challenger, he surely would have been extremely nervous, and yet Carlsen just let him ease into the match.

In a 12 game match you don’t get much chance to recover if things go wrong. Carlsen was lucky to reach the rapidplays, when he was again the big favourite, because I believe that if Karjakin had changed his match strategy midstream it might never have gone to a playoff.

When Karjakin won game eight, Carlsen was reeling. This is when I think Karjakin should have changed strategy and played much more sharply. To change tack at this point and started to play much more aggressively would have put Carlsen under unbearable psychological pressure. We heard a lot before the match about how strong Karjakins team was, but where were the novelties?

In game ten Karjakin could have played a Sicilian, when Carlsen would have had to think about the possibility of losing the game. Instead he was happy to remain a statutory target. He stuck to his original strategy, of taking slightly worse but defensible positions. This was a completely predictable strategy for Carlsen to work with, albeit one that gave him serious problems.

THE NARROW PATH TO VICTORY

After yet another missed chance for Carlsen, I was franctically posting on Twitter about how Magnus was now going to lose. Generally speaking if a player or a football team for example did what Carlsen did, the general feeling is they’ll end up paying for their profilgacy. But Carlsen is no ordinary player. The fact that he had been dominating those games indeed proved more relevant.

In a sense a win for Karjakin would have fit in with the storyline so for of 2017, where we’ve seen the shocks of Brexit and Trump.

Just a word about Trump. I’ve said to others that I realized that Trump was going to win the presidency many months ago. I was watching a golf tournament and in typical Trump style, his helicopter lands in the middle of the fairway. Trump strides out then starts chatting to this old fella, and just the way he was interacting with this person made me think Trump had more “people skills” than most of these politicians.

On the night of the election, we heard a lot about how Trump had a “narrow path” to victory, meaning he had to win a lot more swing states than Hilary to win the presidency. Karjakin also had a narrow path to success, but in this case he was relying on playing better than he ever did before (Which was the case) and also Carlsen playing below his level. It was almost enough.

BTW, I don’t really think Trump becoming president is a good thing. He’s recently appointed a guy nicknamed “mad dog” to be his secretary of defence, and if you have any doubt of the dangers of putting an egomaniac like the Donald in control of the red button, I suggest you read the book The Dead Zone (or see the film). Trump IS Stillson.

WHO WILL CHALLENGE MAGNUS NEXT?

Thoughts now turn to who will be the next player to challenge Magnus.

I have mixed thoughts on the idea of Karjakin being his next challenger. Let’s be honest here, although the match was quite interesting from the psychological perspective, many of the games were quite turgid. I think the problem is that as I said before the match, both of these players have quite similar styles. You might be looking at someone else to create more a match dynamic.

I do think though that the obvious improvement in Karjakin’s playing strength that we saw in this match makes him one of the clear favourites for the next candidates tournament. I would only place him below Caruana and Kramnik in the betting for the 2018 candidates tournament. Caruana-Carlsen would be an interesting match-up, Fabs is closing in on Magnus on the rating list although I’m less convinced about a possible Kramnik-Carlsen match. I think that would just be more of the same with Kramnik accepting defensive positions and hoping to profit from any mistakes. I also think that Carlsen would break down Kramnik’s defence much easier than he did with Karjakin’s. Simply because Kramnik is much older and I don’t think he’d be comfortable defending technical endgames into the seventh hour.

I think those are the three outstanding candidates to qualify, Caruana, Kramnik and Karjakin. Looking beyond those three you’d be looking at MVL, but I’m not completely convinced his nerves will hold up to a candidates tournament. Of course Anand also comes into the picture, but really another Carlsen-Anand match would be the ultimate snoozefest. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.

If you are looking at a player who might provide more fireworks and take it away from the turgid chess we’ve seen in the last few world championships then you are probably looking at Nakamura, although the more cruel of us might say that’s simply because he’d lose a lot more games to Carlsen than someone like Karjakin would. I should also mention Giri, although he has his knockers would be a good match up against Magnus simply because he does very well against the Norwegian.

Even further ahead still, as I don’t really believe in the chances of those already mentioned to “knock” Carlsen off his pedestal so to speak, I think you’ve got to look at people like Yi Wei, and perhaps an even more promising young talent, Nodirbek Abdusattorov from Uzebekistan. I think they are more likely future world champions than the likes of Karjakin or MVL.


About the Author

GM Danny Gormally

Danny Gormally is a talented English Grandmaster. He lives in the bustling market town of Alnwick, somewhere near Scotland.

Danny’s first DVD for Ginger GM, Improve Your Practical Play was released in September 2013. His new book “A Year Inside the Chess World” is available now.