Positional Methods From Carlsen's Play, Part 4

Positional Methods From Carlsen's Play, Part 4

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Today's article is inspired by a trend in media posts - calling Carlsen's play in the World Championship match “nettlesome” - his opponents tend to make more mistakes when playing him compared to their play vs. the other opponents. Originally, the term was coined by Ken Regan, a professor of computer science, who does an incredibly interesting research on chess players' performance using a metric called Intrinsic Performance Rating (IPR). Back in 2010 in a comments section for The Chess Mind blog, Ken commented:

“...such partial quantitative work as I've done so far indicates that the right word for Carlsen is ‘nettlesome’, especially when he's a half-pawn or so behind. Since no one says "Fischer fear" is at work, he must be doing something on the board to induce such inexactness from his opponents...”

This term gained popularity especially during the recent World Championship match and I am afraid that it will stick for a while as it seems to be rather to the point when describing Carlsen's style. No doubt the Norwegian is by far the best chess player nowadays and having a style that is unpleasant for your opponents should not be taken as an offense. The moves that might not be objectively best but pose the most problems to the opponents can be considered nettlesome moves.

This aspect of chess is still not that well developed; at least from my experience I haven't had too many lessons in nettlesomeness (considering I come from having a classic chess education). GM Jonathan Rowson in his recent excellent article for the Herald and reprinted at ChessBase highlighted several characteristics of nettlesome play. Here is his list:

  • First, avoid errors yourself.
  • Second, play relatively quickly.
  • Third, see complexity where others assume simplicity.
  • Fourth, develop exquisite timing for when to change the nature of the position.
  • Fifth, navigate towards positions where there are no obvious moves.
  • Sixth, believe in your opponent's greater and ultimate fallibility.
  • Seven, keep going relentlessly.
  • Eight, be ever ready to pounce.
  • Nine, kill them without mercy.
  • Ten, smile for the cameras.

Today we will look at examples from Carlsen's game where in my opinion he played some of the nettlesome moves and thus posed problems to the opponents that were hard to resolve over the board. Particularly, pay attention to the fifth, seventh, eighth and ninth points from the above list as they will reappear in the examples below many times.

The first game is very interesting as Carlsen starts this endgame in a worse position. The weakness on a5 and Black's control of the d-file constitute Black's advantages. Rc5 is also well-placed attacking the a5-pawn and at the same time defending the e-pawn. White cannot get his hand yet on Black's weaknesses: the b4-pawn and e-pawns. Instead of holding on to the a-pawn and ending up in a position without counterplay, Carlsen opts for a pawn sacrifice but gets a position with plenty of play. Then, the maneuvering part starts where I think Aronian is made to believe that his position is very safe and only he can play for a win. A pawn is a pawn after all, right? With few inaccuracies from Aronian, Carlsen turns the table and ends the fight brutally fast.

The next game is a bit of a mystery to me as Kramnik lost it with two bad moves that happened between moves 42-44. When playing Carlsen in a slightly worse position my guess is that it feels quite terrible. First of all, one realizes that he will play it for another 100 moves and will try to squeeze the smallest advantage. Then, one will figure out that Carlsen is in such an optimal physical form that getting tired is something unthinkable for him. Then, he will not agree to a draw when a position is slightly better, such as a starting position we consider here in the game against Kramnik.

Carlsen has the better pawn structure and an extra pawn. It seems that Kramnik could have held it with patient defense. However, the Russian opted for a forced series of moves liquidating into a bishop endgame, where he eventually ended up being two pawns down. I think Kramnik must have been pretty tired by the end of the game to play a move like h4, as he normally does not make moves like these, especially in endgames - where his technique is impeccable.

The third position is from a blitz game between Caruana and Carlsen, hence the end of the game features some serious blunders, probably due to time scramble. Nevertheless, we can still learn from the game as it features some nettlesome moments.

For a King's Indian player like myself the initial position is probably equal, however Houdini will always like it for White. Carlsen makes a brilliant move 15...Bd7!? as if he exchanged the bishops. White would have gotten clear play along the d-file. Whereas now, White has to come up with some queenside attack to compensate for Black's expanding attack on the kingside. Black had some other plans at his disposal but Carlsen chose a kingside attack because especially for a blitz game it is the hardest plan to deal with and in the end Caruana did blunder terribly which led to a checkmate.

In the last position we see that move after move, Carlsen leaves Hammer with a wide choice of replies. There were plenty of forced continuations that Carlsen could have taken but he opted for maybe second best lines that left White with more choices and possibly more chances for mistakes. At no point however, Carlsen lost the advantage, even after the unfortunate 27.Nb5? - we are talking about the difference between the first and second line we talk about + or - 0.2 or so. After all it is a strength to believe in the opponent's, as Rowson put it, "greater and ultimate fallibility".

We shall continue exploring Carlsen's arsenal of positional ideas next week.


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