Magnus Carlsen's Biggest Secret
Does Magnus Carlsen have a secret?

Magnus Carlsen's Biggest Secret

| 176 | Tactics

Magnus Carlsen is a genius.

I doubt that many people would argue about this well-established fact. It is a totally different question why we call him a genius. Is it because he is the world champion? I don't think so. Max Euwe was the world champion and an exceptionally strong player who beat the legendary Alexander Alekhine, and yet he is not frequently called a genius. From the other side, Vassily Ivanchuk was never the world champion in classical chess, and yet everyone calls him a genius! 

I think I found something in common between well-known chess geniuses. Capablanca, Tal, Fischer, Kasparov, Carlsen, Ivanchuk are all exceptionally strong blitz players! Let's talk about Carlsen, who won the last World Blitz Championship.

How did he do it? Was he much stronger than his opponents in the openings, and did he dominate there like Kasparov did in his best years? Actually, it is just the opposite: Carlsen usually tries to "skip" the opening part of the game in order to outplay his opponents in the middlegame or endgame.

So, he must be much superior in his calculations then? While indeed Carlsen calculates very well, I think that many super-GMs can calculate as well as him.

So, what's Magnus Carlsen's secret?

Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen. Photo by Maria Emelianova.

The long-term readers of my articles might notice that I always encourage you to share your opinions in the comment section since this way we all enrich each other. In the comments to my last article, the reader "zenghxa" expressed a very interesting opinion:

"We already know Magnus could memorize lots of city names and their population numbers when he was 5-6. So it is all about 'memory.' He keeps studying games and can remember all of them and bam! Just like AlphaZero...Magnus' secret has [been] revealed!! happy.png"

I bet "zenghxa" was just kidding. But maybe he hit the nail on the head! Think about it: Kasparov also had a phenomenal memory and knew the countries, their capitals and populations around the time when he was six years old! Fischer once claimed that he knew by heart all the games played by Steinitz. And don't even get me started about the unique memories of Tal or Ivanchuk. 

When I analyzed Carlsen's games from the World Rapid and Blitz championships in Saudi Arabia, I indeed noticed that Carlsen used dozens of different patterns in his games, and I am talking only about patterns familiar to me. Just imagine hundreds of patterns familiar only to Magnus! So, maybe Carlsen's unique pattern-recognition ability—based on his excellent memory—is the big secret of his success?

Let me show you some fragments from Carlsen's games, so you'll know what I am talking about.

First a very basic example:

This is one of the basic mating patterns that we discussed in this article. Not a big deal, since any experienced player should know this pattern by heart. But would you spot this pattern in the following position? Yet, Carlsen is looking exactly for this pattern, so he starts pushing his h-pawn even though it costs him some material:

Three years ago I wrote an article about what I called "a very simple trap which appears in the games of super grandmasters on a regular basis." I also added: "I simply cannot explain how the world's top chess players can fall for the same little scheme again and again and again."

Sure enough Carlsen trapped one of his opponents exactly the same way. Try to find how he did it.

The following position is shown in many books on chess tactics. Can you find the solution?

Now you should be able to find Black's win in the following position instantly.

Beautiful finish, but Carlsen didn't play 54...Re1!  If you are wondering how could he possibly miss such a simple combo, there is a good excuse for Carlsen. The actual position in the game was different. It looked very similar to this pattern, so I changed it a bit so you could test your tactical abilities. Here is how the actual game proceeded:

Most of the common chess patterns are familiar to any master or grandmaster. But only the very best players can see those patterns 20 moves in advance! Look at the following position:

It appears to be roughly even. But Carlsen sees Black's doubled pawns and envisions a well-known positional pattern common in the Nimzowitsch Defense and many other similar openings. We discussed this pattern in this article when we analyzed a very old game by Staunton:

Notice how Black suffered the whole game with his light-squared bishop. Carlsen follows the same strategy of blockade demonstrated by Staunton, and at the end Black's light-squared bishop was as good as dead!

I know, my explanation of Magnus Carlsen's unique chess talent might sound far-fetched. It is quite possible that it is not just memory and pattern recognition but something else.

But what's that? Endgame technique? In my opinion Kramnik and Caruana can play endgames equally well. Tactical abilities? Aronian, Nakamura, Ding Liren and many other top GMs can calculate very well too! 

The legendary GM Korchnoi seriously believed that Carlsen hypnotized his opponents. While we discussed this theory in my old article, I still find it difficult to believe. I hope our readers will share their opinion and help us to solve this mystery!

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