Carlsen - not a real chess player?


In a recent interview at Whychess Alexey Dreev (at best #14 a few years ago) states that “Karjakin plays chess, in contrast to Carlsen”. He declares that Carlsen

“prefers to wait for his opponent to make a mistake rather than try to outplay him as real chess players do”

That Carlsen wins by waiting for mistakes is a surprisingly common description, but I think Spassky said it better when he meant that Carlsen always tries, no matter how dry the position may look, to create difficult problems for his opponents. It isn’t just “waiting” that produces mistakes by the opponents, it is their having to defend gradually worse positions against a stronger player.

Many players try to kill all play and grind out a draw against Carlsen, and when a 2750+ player tries to draw it isn’t easy to complicate things, like in Nakamura-Carlsen, where Tkachiev writes at Whychess that Carlsen’s going for the draw was “in no way justified”. Still it was Nakamura who went for a very dry line with white, and Carlsen said that he had tried hard to find a line that kept the position alive but failed. In his games against Wang Hao Nakamura played win-or-lose chess and lost both games, but against Carlsen he tried to hold a draw. This can lead to some draws where little happens, and some endgame grinds where Carlsen wins by “waiting”. Draw with black against a 2780 opponent like Nakamura isn’t too bad though, and Carlsen won his next games with black against players in the 2730s.

Tkachiev writes that no previous #1 played the openings worse than Carlsen. But he reached #1 at a much younger age than anyone else and hasn’t had time to get as deep preparation as players like Anand and Kramnik, who have been world class for 20 years. Still, if Carlsen’s preparation is as bad as it is being said, his play after that has to be even better to reach his results, but Whychess articles can be rather critical of Carlsen.

So even if Dreev isn’t alone in his negative views on Carlsen, implying that he doesn’t even play chess, isn’t a real chess player, etc, are quite condemning statements to make (about a colleague Dreev faces over the board, and played against the week before). Not least compared to Dreev’s views on himself: “I really am a high-level chess player. In the whole history of chess there’ve been perhaps 100 of those, and I’m one of them”.

Tkachiev writes that Carlsen’s performance in Biel provokes a lot of questions. According to Tkachiev one could try to explain it away by him not being in form, but concludes that there are good grounds to believe that it is a “systematic crisis”. Tkachiev’s conclusions were published before Carlsen’s last wins, but also then he had been very close to winning two other games. Tkachiev also means that the fact that Carlsen isn’t capable of finding new ideas is a long-established commonplace, and that it’s unlikely that he’ll ever become World Champion unless he does something about his openings. Of course Tkachiev also writes positive things about Carlsen, but on the whole I find it surprising that there is so much criticism directed towards him considering his results.

Sosonko recently complained at Whychess about the idea of having to write about Carlsen. He means that there used to be living legends in chess while now Carlsen is #1, a player who is a product of computerization and doesn’t learn from the classics (according to Sosonko), and, as he implies, there is nothing of any interest whatsoever to write about. The exasperated quote in the headline states “Sosonko: Imagine I had to write about Magnus Carlsen”, but it’s not like older top players like Botvinnik, Korchnoi or Fischer always were endearing personalities or particularly interesting apart from their chess. 

Another recent Whychess headline states: “Magnus Carlsen: Am I tired? What a stupid question!” Someone who doesn’t go through the article won’t understand that the quote is made up. What Carlsen does say on the question if he’s tired of interviews is that he thinks giving an interview is simpler than playing a game or preparing for it. In the headline Carlsen’s answer was changed to: “What a stupid question!”, which makes him sound a bit arrogant, but I presume this is unintentional.

On the whole the Whychess articles are interesting, even if the negative views on Carlsen sometimes feel exaggerated. He has after all won 11 of his last 16 tournaments, and lost one single game in ten months. The latest bunch of critical comments on Carlsen’s “disappointing” chess were published during Biel, where he has performed Elo 2929 with two rounds to go. Even if it “only” was a bit over 2800 at the time of the most negative comments it is still his eleventh 2815+ performance in a row, so talking about him having a “systematic crisis” seems premature.

Some links:


Highly fascinating post!!!!


Part of how Carlsen is described could have also applied to Petrosian or Karpov. I think calling Carlsen a non-chess player is overdramatic and poor sportsmanship.  His opponent could just as easily wait-out Carlsen, it he had the courage and the abilitiy.  More interesting is Gennady's remark about Carlen being computerized and uninteresting.  That is something that has concerned me for some time now, but I'm unsure how to express.  But I do think Genna is correct that Carlsen is probably the first really strong and complete product of computerization. But I'm not sure it makes him uninteresting.  Carlsen is a modern marvel for whatever reason.

There a lot to think about here.  Thanks. You made my day.


I agree. It sounds like sour grapes.  The idea of minutely imporving one's position, the accumulation of advantaes, has been around since Steinitz.


Carlsen is able to play so many different systems at such a high level, and to find plans from an 'equal' position, this requires a certain creativity as well as a great deal of preparation.  His technique in difficult positions is really quite outstanding; he is probably the most difficult person in the world to beat atm.

Carlsen always plays his games out and never agrees to early draws in classical chess AFAIK; there are few if any among his colleagues who do similarly.


Quoting batgirl.

Also Petrosjan was badly accused to never attack, but this doesn't stopped him to be world champion ( beating Botvinick) and be "the most difficult chess player to beat of all times".

Its also instructive that Botvinich itself ( who lost the final world match against Petrosjan) came in his defence telling:

"Its not true that Petrojan don't attack. Hi attacks when he think he have good change to have succes".

He also said: " Its enough for you do make not even an mistake , just an imprecision, and Petrosjan will find a way to make you pay all of it"

Last sentence ( and imho, the most fun one) about Petrosjan from Botvinik: " If Tall make a sacrifice, take it and then think. If I do a sacrifice, think and then take it. If Petrosjan make a sacrifice DON'T DARE TO TAKE IT!"

Those people that bash Carlsen are just afraid that they cannot win him. Everybody have his style, and the fact that they dont understand his stile maybe just prove that they aren't as good as him.


What Botvinick said about Petrosjan its a perfect example of sportmanship, and those that bash whos just better, are just pathetic.

Just my 2 cents.


Carlsen is a small forward. Tkachiev is like a sports commentor(AHEM Skip Bayless).


Tkachiev has a +1 -4 record against Carlsen. He's nowhere near qualified to comment on Magnus' play.


And plus, with computers around, people play the first 20 or so moves from book, and so it is hard to really improve on the main lines.

The best moves don't have to be exciting.


Wonder if he'll still be vilifying Carlsen, when in two years, he becomes the new world champion? 


Computers play games a bit differently from humans.  Some moves are very alien, but absolutley accurate and unforseeable to some of us.  Carlsen seems a product of computer training and can not only anticipate such moves, but create them.  This has nothing to do with any lack of understanding of chess, but perhaps an different, even deeper, understanding of chess, one outside the peripheral of those of us who avoid computer programs like a plague.  Really it's kind of scary.


They're jealous and they don't understand. Carlsen is just playing the next generation's kind of chess, eschewing computer battles.

Ask Lars Bo Hansen or Kiril Georgiev their opinion on this question... Smile


Sounds like sour grapes to me. Magnus is the #1 player in the world for one obvious reason: he plays better chess than all the rest!


Alexander Nikitin is a tough old man, that worked for the highest sports authority in the Soviet Union (The Sports Committee), and coached Kasparov. Now 77 years old he still helps Kasparov with his books, and said in an interview that they often argue but do not come to blows. So he is probably not all that easy to impress.

In 2004 Nikitin saw Magnus Carlsen for the first time, when the latter was 13 years old and played Aeroflot Open. Carlsen won against Dolmatov (that once had beaten a young Kasparov) in 19 moves, and after the game Nikitin walked around the playing hall with the scoresheet in his hand, telling everyone in sight: "This is the game of a genius". It's a nice story, and Nikitin sure knew a talent when he saw one (Carlsen was still in the 2400s at the time).

Carlsen has said that his first coaches were amazed at his computer illiteracy in chess matters. He didn't know what Chessbase was, didn't have any databases, and thinks that the computer basically had no fundamental influence on him as chess player, and that his chess understanding was formed without machine involvment. Maybe that is an exaggeration, but I do think some older players are more computer dependant. Carlsen can go wrong in the opening against better prepared players, but after that he seems to have some sort of human feel for positions that is unequalled at the moment.


I fully agree with activizedgentleman and fabelhaft here. When you look at Carlsen's games, you don't have the feeling there's anything computerized in the play (or maybe his stamina ?!). But technically, there's no blazing tactics (he sometimes miss them), nor 'strange moves'. What you see is someone who puts his pieces on the right squares and seemingly never makes any big mistake. Very Capablanquesque, with maybe a larger array of positions as chess has evolved.

The same in post-game analysis : no long variations a la Kasparov/Kramnik, just simple evaluations ("That's a bishop, and the bishop is stronger than a Knight in this position !", "I just felt it was the right way to play") coupled with the ability to see almost instantly what the right move should be (so huge intuition, and probably huge pattern bank).

Look at the game Nakamura-Wang Hao at Biel today, this looks much more like a computer game ! White moves his queen many times to keep an extra pawn and has half his pieces stuck on bizarre squares.


My opinion: It is completely opposite. Carlsen dominates, because his opponents overestimate computers in preparation and fail to prepare correctly to play their human opponents. They spend a lot of effort analyzing and memorizing computer opening lines instead understanding them and they give less effort learning human strategy. The last success of Gelfand in WCh candidate matches proved this. Karjakin, Ponomariov, Grischuk etc. play actually worse than Yusupov, Short or Nikolic 15-20 years ago.


"The same in post-game analysis : no long variations a la Kasparov/Kramnik, just simple evaluations ("That's a bishop, and the bishop is stronger than a Knight in this position !", "I just felt it was the right way to play")"

Yes, if one listens to for example post-game analysis between Carlsen and Radjabov one first gets the impression that Radjabov must be the stronger player of the two since he gives long variations while Carlsen's input is much less precise. But he just seems to somehow understand what is the best strategy.

I recently read someone (maybe Anand) saying that Kramnik had his openings analysed into the endgame. His preparation is so thorough that he sometimes doesn't have to play more than a few moves at the board. In some rare cases this doesn't work out well, as in a game he lost against Leko in their title match. Kramnik followed his computer until the end, where it turned out that the engine hadn't been looking deep enough to see that the line actually was lost for Kramnik and not his opponent. But that was of course an exception, and it's more common that it's the other way around, as in his recent win against Gustafsson in Dortmund, where Kramnik had analysed the line more or less until the end at home.

Karjakin also seems to be very good at preparation, in another Dortmund game he and Leko played a full game of 33 moves without adding anything to their home analysis, so the whole game was played "at home". Leko meant that his strong novelty would have beaten any other player, but Karjakin had already prepared for the novelty and knew the thin line to a draw.

Not that there's anything wrong with being well prepared, that's modern chess, but such things never happen in Carlsen's games. In that respect he probably does need to work more on his opening preparation, but he has said that he thinks it's boring to work too much on openings, and as long as he can get the results he gets and enjoys himself there seems to be no reason to change this approach.


I just had to look what Tkachiev wrote after the last rounds, and he still seems to be quite unhappy with Carlsen, as this selection of quotes show:

Wang Hao defeated himself!

Looking at Carlsen’s games you get the impression it’s precisely against him that people play their worst chess, and certainly below what they’re capable of.

Such play doesn’t open our eyes to a new approach to chess. It doesn’t make a bold aesthetic impression. 

Everyone’s probably already a little bored of the eternal refrain about how Carlsen, by playing in such a manner, is taking the path of least resistance and impoverishing himself in purely chess terms. And that if he doesn’t change his approach to the game at some point he’ll cease to be the clearly defined leader of world chess as he has been recently

Now he’s emphatically left the chess mainstream, which is something you can’t do even if you possess his talent – it’s a road to nowhere. Does Carlsen realise that, or is the lure of points obscuring his view?


I agree with Carlsen's approach to chess. I hope he will inspire people to do the same, and therefore revitalizes chess. Chess is a thinking game, and not a memorization game.


GM Lars Bo Hansen had interesting thoughts in one of his books about the impact of computer preparation. He writes it 'evens out the field', so stronger players have to find other ways to win games. He predicts that strong players in the future will be able to both 'transform themselves' (meaning play almost any type of game/openings depending on the opponent) and be able to find their way in 'strategically complex middlegames - ie. positions where there's no objective advantage but where the correct plan(s) is not that easy to find or execute. Do you know any player that meets Lars Bo Hansen's criteria ? Wink


My view is that of Hankas, even if so, what on earth is a real chess player?