Carlsen's ability to improve pieces is exceptional. In last week's article we explored some of the diagonal piece maneuvers from the new world champion's practice. Either a queen or a bishop moved to a more active position, so that another piece could occupy the space left behind until a full harmony had been achieved.
Talking about the World Championship Match, on Twitter Garry Kasparov mentioned:
Both of these former world champions mentioned by Kasparov valued piece harmony highly and had an exceptional feel for where the pieces should be placed. While last week's article explored piece coordination, in this one I want to outline some of Carlsen's games where pawns play an important role - particularly rook pawns.
First, I give two examples that show how pushing the a-pawn weakens the opponent's flank. The third example shows the creation of a passed pawn, and the fourth one shows how the a-pawn move fixes the opponent's pawns on weak squares. The last one explores a pawn push that prevents a favorable set-up for Black.
In the position below McShane has just played 21.Qe1?! with the idea to transfer the queen to the kingside. At first sight this plan is logical and consistent, with the idea that White should play on the kingside. However, White has not enough control over the dark squares there, as Bb2 ideally should be on the c1-h6 diagonal. For now it is passive on b2.
Still, it seems that not much has changed with the queen being on d1 or e1 as the d3-pawn is poisoned. Carlsen finds a subtle difference in the position after the queen moved to e1 and exploits it masterly. In his comments for New In Chess magazine he comments on his 21st move: “Taking advantage of the fact that b2 is no longer protected by the queen, and forcing a weakening on the queenside.”
In the following position Carlsen built up pressure against the f5-pawn. However, his knights are not properly placed to attack this pawn. The position is objectively about equal. Let's hear what Carlsen has to say about his approach towards the solution in this position: “I was considering all kinds of ways to activate my knights and attack the weak pawn on f5, but I just couldn't make it work. So I decided to attack the only other possible target, the knight on b6.” The knight does not have good squares to go to after a4-a5, as after Nd7 the f5-pawn will be undefended. If Black decides to block the a-pawn with with a7-a5 then the b-file will collapse after Rb1. Kramnik finds a way to get the d5-square for his knight.
Carlsen has a better endgame as with the pawns on both flanks the bishop is better than the knight. The only passed pawn present on the board is the d-pawn, which is easy to block for White with the king or knight. Carlsen creates a second passed pawn with the pawn break that requires a temporarily pawn sacrifice. It seems that he calculated everything deeply before playing the following.
The next position is fairly balanced: each side has his own weaknesses. The d3- and b6-pawns are especially weak. Black naturally wants to rid of the b6-weakness and pushes it forward. However, Carlsen puts a question mark to the 15... b5 move as it allows White to fix the pawn structure on the queenside.
Instead, a better set-up would be to place the pawn on a4 and the bishop on c5 to shield the b6-weakness. b5 being a mistake is not so obvious at first sight, but the b5-square collapses and the white queen gets the nice c4-square. Meanwhile, Black cannot counter the pressure on his queenside built up by the white bishops.
The last example of the a4 and h4 pushes from Carlsen's play is my favorite one. It happens in the early game and it is very powerful as it cuts down some of the Black's planned development schemes at their roots. It is not just preventing b5 but it is also securing the c4 and b6-squares for the knight. The plan with the knight transfer to c6: Ne7-c6 is not as promising as White has enough time to play a5-b3-Bb2-Bc3 to defend the a5-pawn and secure queenside grip. Svidler chose a creative way to develop his pieces but the problem with it is that White has an easy game to play, whereas Black suffers from lack of development.
Next week we will further dive into the world of positional ideas from Carlsen's play!