The Terrifying Grinder Of Chess
A quick Google search reveals that The Grinder is also the title of a recently premiered TV show starring Emmy-nominated actor Rob Lowe.
But the grinder of this article is not a villain, a TV show, or an award-winning actor. His name, in case you haven't already guessed, is Magnus Carlsen.
Throughout his career, Magnus has demonstrated a unique ability to apply immense pressure in objectively equal positions. To an extent, every strong chess player has the capacity to "grind out" his opponent, to pose problems even in outwardly innocuous situations.
There is nothing inherently mysterious about this skill, and I have written about it in the past.
However, the consistency that Magnus turns lead into gold — especially with the caliber of his opponents — is nothing short of astonishing.
In this article, we will delve into this outwardly magical capability and try to understand how exactly Magnus grinds out his opponents with such apparent ease and regularity.
Two years ago, Magnus faced Vladimir Kramnik in round one of the 2013 Tal Memorial. The game unfolded rather uneventfully, and after only 24 moves the game had petered out into a lifeless, yawn-inducing ending. It was at that point that Magnus Carlsen might have agreed to a draw, but the grinder inside of him only began to sharpen his tools.
As I mentioned in the annotations, Carlsen did not win this game because of a momentary lapse of concentration by his opponent. Crucially, he resisted the temptation to assume that Kramnik would easily make the right decisions in such an outwardly innocuous position.
Frequently, this assumption happens at a subconscious level, and takes the form of a syllogism: The position is clearly drawn. My opponent is a strong, experienced player. Therefore, I should agree to a draw.
Just because material is limited (and the position is equal), the possibility of a mistake does not disappear. And Carlsen is perhaps the only human on the planet who truly believes this at a subliminal level.
The second game we will examine is no less impressive, and it highlights a mechanism that ChessBase programmer Mathias Feist perfectly encapsulates:
There is an equal position on the board, and the opponent thinks: this is dead drawn. I can play almost anything and there is nothing he can do. But Magnus plays on, seeking complications, setting up threats. He is narrowing the margin required to hold the draw. Soon his opponent is thinking: why is he still playing – I can hold a draw with any of these three moves. Then: I can hold with this move and with this move. And then: I still have one clear way to hold a draw. And under the strain of constantly having to solve deep and complex problems, more often than not the opponent will crack. Magnus wins not because it was in the position, he wins because he is Magnus.
And now, sit back and watch this exact process in action.
While it is possible to pinpoint an exact moment in which McShane went astray for good (48.c5), the seeds of his downfall were sown much earlier, in a position that most of us would not even dream of trying to win.
While it is impossible to truly verbalize the abilities that make Magnus into who he is, we can all try to emulate the individual skills and habits that enable him to make the most out of difficult situations. And with enough practice, you can become a grinder as well!