Positional Methods From Carlsen's Play, Part 1
This article introduces new series of articles dedicated to the magnificent play of our current world champion - Magnus Carlsen. A series of five or more articles will span different positional and tactical ideas that Carlsen effectively uses in his practice. As Kasparov noted in his recent Time Magazine article, "Carlsen comes from a different world champion lineage, that of Jose Capablanca and Anatoly Karpov, players who sense harmony on the board like virtuoso musicians with perfect pitch."
Hence, the first article is dedicated to this harmony of pieces that Carlsen creates. I am particularly attracted to his intricate maneuvering with his pieces along the diagonals. The queen or the bishop creates a way for other pieces to be more harmonious. Seeing the whole picture at the board, where each piece is participatining and then trying to reach this harmony with a strategic plan, is a true mastery that only very few can achieve. Today you will see four examples where Carlsen found an optimal way for his pieces to coordinate, something that Capablanca was very good at.
The first position is from a game Svidler - Carlsen where the Norwegian's pieces are more active. The a5-pawn is a painful weakness and the d3-c3 pawns would like to move forward to clear some space for the bishops, but it is not that easy as Black has a good grip on the d-file. With the following maneuver Carlsen improves the position of his pieces even further, which puts even more pressure on White.
In this balanced position below, Black is aiming for the d5-break after which his bishop on a8 will become active. For now it is not realistic as after the pawn moves to d5 the e5-pawn becomes weak. White, having the knight on f5, will play on the kingside. It would be nice to transfer the queen somehow to the queenside and Carlsen finds an indirect method to activate the queen.
Svidler gave an excellent annotation in New in Chess Magazine for Carlsen's move: "This move changes nothing objectively - but it succeeded in freaking me out completely. More than one person asked me why I did not play 20...Rb8 here, which to me is a clear sign that people are watching the first line too much - but the fact that the machine completely ignores the 'attack' on the kingside is a very good indication that there was no reason to panic."
It seems that Qc1 does not achieve much but nevertheless it is such a strong move! After this move there is harmony for the white pieces that wasn't there before. Black has to consider Nxg7 captures and some other attacking threats. Suddenly, Svidler has to work harder at the board than the move before and of course he doesn't like it.
It seems the pieces are scattered all over in the position below. It is the type of position where players are prone to blunder because of the huge number of lines they have to calculate. White has three pawns for an Exchange, which is more than enough material-wise. Both kings are exposed and with the black rook on the first rank it seems that the white king is in bigger trouble.
As Carlsen annotated for New in Chess "with two very powerful bishops and a strong knight on e4, White is really controlling a lot of squares now." The two bishops are strong, indeed, and Nb6 seems to be out of play at least for now. The world champion finds a beautiful solution in this position, adding a half-serious comment that "by now, I had got quite used to playing with an exposed king, so making the decision to make room for the king on d3 was an easy one."
In the last game of this article a particular moment caught my attention because of the way Carlsen once again managed to put his pieces on the most active squares. For now, Black puts some pressure on the queenside and on the d3-pawn. If you look at the black pieces closely, you'll see that Bc7 and Nc6 are limited by black pawns. Carlsen commented the following, explaining the Qb3-move: "Now the queen is active, and soon the knight will be taken to d2 and e4, when all the white minor pieces will be much more active than their black counterparts." This seems like a very straight-forward, simple comment but Qb3 does make the white pieces more harmonious and is much better than Qc2, for example.
We will continue exploring the different positional ideas in Carlsen's play in the next article.