Magnus Carlsen in the Queenless Middlegame
You knew it was coming - Magnus Carlsen just won the title of World Champion by defeating Viswanathan Anand in Chennai, so it is time for an examination of the modern-day-Capablanca's play in complex endings.
There is a huge amount of material on this subject by Carlsen, who is known for his relentless fighting for a win in every position. I have chosen several instructive examples.
First, we see the 16-year-old Carlsen trading queens on move 12 against GM John Nunn, fighting on and on for the win and finally obtaining it. Even at this early age we can see the qualities that made Carlsen World Champion - his ability to use small tactical points to keep the game going, creating unrelenting pressure on his opponent until they finally - and inevitably - crack. We can see the same thing in his victories in games five and six against Anand in the recently-concluded match.
In this game we saw an example of Carlsen's persistence in fighting for a win even in positions which are equal or nearly equal. It's hard to call this game any kind of masterpiece, but in the end he managed to grind out a win.
Now let's move ahead four years, to 2010, by which time Carlsen was already a "super-grandmaster", with a rating over 2800. In the Kings’ Tournament in Romania, Carlsen beat GM Wang Yue with the black pieces in very thematic style, showing the ease and simplicity of Capablanca:
Next we will see a game from the Bilbao Grand Slam in 2012, against GM Francisco Vallejo Pons. Here it is clear that Carlsen obtains the more comfortable position after the opening. But it is only subtle positional themes and deep calculation that allows him to turn it into a win.
Finally let's see a game from this summer, from a rapid match against GM Borki Predojevic. This has some similarities to the previous example. I think by looking at several thematically-similar examples at a time, you can learn a lot about a particular class of position.
Just as in the game with Vallejo Pons, Carlsen enters a queenless middlegame soon after the game begins, losing castling rights in the process. After various exchanges, a position occurs in which - as in the Vallejo Pons example - Carlsen has the superior minor piece, a bishop against a knight in a position where White has some pawns fixed on the same color as the black bishop. Finally the game ends with a well-judged exchange sacrifice.
It was said about the difference in style between Alekhine and Capablanca that when you played against Alekhine, you never knew what to expect; while when you played against Capablanca you knew exactly what he was going to do but couldn't stop it. Carlsen is very similar to Capablanca. In the above examples Carlsen's opponents lost in ways which had to be very familiar to them, as high-class players. But if you dig deeper into the simplicity of Carlsen's play, you can find that there are much deeper calculations, in addition to the total absence of mistakes. Now the question is whether there will be a modern-day Alekhine who will come along to fight with Carlsen.