Carlsen, Magnus vs. Karjakin, Sergey
There is little doubt that Magnus Carlsen has been the best player in the world for many years. It is only necessary to look at the world rankings to see that. When Carlsen beat Viswanathan Anand to become the World Champion in 2013, it felt overdue as Carlsen had been ranked No. 1 since 2010. Since then, he has successfully defended his World title(against Anand in 2014), won Rapid and Blitz World titles, and finished in the top three of most events he has played.
Carlsen’s dominance in the chess world is a bit like that of one of his predecessors — Garry Kasparov’s. But Carlsen’s aura of invincibility seems even greater because his wins often seem almost effortless. And with modeling endorsements and some great marketing tactics, he has a larger-than-life image in the public’s imagination. It is hard to imagine anyone else being the World Champion now.
Carlsen has been a crowd favorite from the start. He first came to international attention as the restless, unknown, 13-year-old kid who drew against Kasparov in a rapid event in 2004 (Kasparov was then ranked No. 1 in the world). Despite his youth, Carlsen was supremely self-confident and the confidence was justified as soon after that game, he earned the grandmaster title. It wasn’t just how Carlsen played, which was aggressive, it was also his unusual, almost lethargic attitude at the board, which was such a refreshing contrast to the intense demeanor of other players.
After his meteoric rise, Carlsen did not immediately adjust to playing the top players. He continued to play very ambitiously, as he had against lower-ranked opponents, but against the world’s elite, this approach often backfired. This was perhaps the most crucial period in his evolution as a player. He learned to control his attacking instincts and focus on what was essential. He cut down on his mistakes and allowed his amazing intuition for positional play to guide him.
The turning point came in 2009 in the Nanjing super-tournament in China. Carlsen won the event, 2.5 points ahead of the field. Just after, it was revealed that Kasparov had started to train Carlsen. This further bolstered the invincible aura around him. In January 2010, just after his 19th birthday, he became the No. 1 ranked player in the world – by far the youngest ever. But Carlsen’s play then was still a bit different from his trademark technique now. His style continued to evolve. He cut down on complications even further - which helped him avoid unexpectedly losing control of games. Nowadays, more often than not, it seems like his pieces magically land on the correct squares. Carlsen also combines good moves with excellent psychology.
He understands that most opponents will start making inaccuracies even in fairly simple positions if they are under pressure, so he never relents. And as the inaccuracies pile up, Carlsen extractswins from thin air, almost as if by magic. Playing an equal position against Carlsen is difficult for even strong grandmasters. His extraordinary technique is what truly sets him apart and makes his opponents fear him.
Still, he isn’t invincible. From time to time, there are reminders that he is only human. He has had quite a few troubling losses in team events. And in 2015, in the elite Norway Chess tournament, Carlsen lost four of nine games. He certainly seems to lose more often these days than he did a few years ago.
Yet, loses also seem to inspire him and he usually comes back even stronger. In the Grand Slam Final in Bilbao in July, he lost for the first time in his career to Hikaru Nakamura of the United States in the first round. He managed to channel his energy after that to win the next three games and crushed the field, clinching first a round before the end.
In both his World Championship matches against Anand, Carlsen had a big psychological edge. Anand often seemed intimidated by Carlsen, and usually wasn’t able to get the most out of his chances.
If Anand was intimidated, he is not the only one. Many other top players appear to struggle psychologically when facing Carlsen, with a couple of notable exceptions, including Sergey Karjakin, Carlsen’s opponent in the World Championship match. In the last few years, Karjakin and Carlsen have been quite evenly matched.
But, in the tournament in Bilbao – the last meeting before the title match — Carlsen won a nice game against Karjakin. The game was a typical Carlsen effort in which his opponent seemed to lose easily without even doing much wrong.
Parimarjan Negi is an Indian grandmaster who is the second-youngest ever to earn the title (at 13 years 4 months and 22 days). Ranked No. 90 in the world, he just finished his sophomore year at Stanford University. He can be found on Twitter at @parimarjan.