Magnus Carlsen's Best Positional Wins

Magnus Carlsen's Best Positional Wins

| 43 | Strategy

At the recently concluded Grenke Chess Classic in Baden-Baden, Magnus Carlsen defeated German grandmaster Arkady Naiditsch in a scintillating blitz playoff for first place. It was the latest success in a dazzling career, an encore to his resounding victory at Tata Steel earlier this year. 

Unfortunately, players are often fascinated with Magnus' rating progress and tournament results rather than with his actual games.

GM Paco Vallejo remarked in his excellent article "Why does Magnus Carlsen Win?" that "it's curiously rare to see Carlsen mate his opponent and he wins few games by attacking." Indeed, many of his victories appear to be tedious, yawn-inducing affairs in which Magnus outplays his unsuspecting opponent in a dead-equal position. 

While Magnus' playing style is undeniably less spectacular than that of Kasparov or Tal, his games invariably reveal a positional understanding and psychological tenacity unequalled by any of the previous world champions. 

This is certainly an audacious claim, and to support it I would like to examine two of Carlsen's finest positional victories in recent years. Hopefully, you will enjoy them and learn from them as much as I have! 

In late 2009, 19-year-old Magnus — having recently crossed the 2800 boundary—won the 2009 London Chess Classic a whole point ahead of the field. His fifth-round effort against Chinese GM Ni Hua is a game worth repeating many, many times. 

This game reminds me of the legendary coin toss scene from No Country for Old Men (Javier Bardem, anyone?):

One moment [0:00-0:22] White is in perfect control of the situation, his position solid as a rock. The next [0:23-4:24], he is put through the meat grinder without having made a single noticeable inaccuracy.

Magnus' ability to confront his opponent with challenging strategic problems — even in objectively equal positions — is without peer. 

Of course, to say that Magnus wins most of his games by grinding equal positions is to denigrate a vital aspect of his prowess: technique. Time and time again, he finds a way to exploit the tiniest structural defects in his opponent's position, turning a slight edge into a devastating attack or crushing positional pressure in the blink of an eye.

The following tour-de-force, played just a few weeks ago at Tata Steel, is a case in point. 

Magnus' games are so potent, so inspiring, that analyzing more than two of them at one time will lead to sensory overflow!

Next week, we will continue our investigation by scrutinizing his endgame technique. For now, let's raise our glasses to the Leviathan of positional chess. 


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