NEWS COMMENTARY: The halfway point of the World Chess Championship passed over the weekend, and the favorite, 22-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, is poised for victory. After a slow and hesitant start – a deadlock of four drawn games and split points – Carlsen won two in a row and then forced defending champion Vishwanathan ‘Vishy’ Anand into a draw on Monday. That puts Anand, known as “The Madras Tiger,” most definitively on the ropes.
Carlsen now leads the 12-game match with four-and-a-half points, compared to Anand’s two-and-a-half, and needs 6.5 points to seize the crown. Anand, 21 years older than his rival, collapsed on Saturday as the tension in the contest heightened, and admitted to being disappointed on Monday that he didn’t manage to put enough pressure on Carlsen.
The Indian grandmaster’s home turf advantage in Chennai (formerly Madras) is rapidly turning into a burden, as the pressure of an enormous and enthusiastic public made his sudden losses even harder to bear. The country has nearly been in a state of sports mourning in recent days, as their cricketing legend Sachin Tandulkar retired and their world chess champion of over a decade appears in mortal danger.
On the other side of the world, frosty Norway continues to be gripped by chess fever. State broadcaster NRK’s decision to buy rights to broadcast every game live was a bold experiment even for a station that has run uncut “slow TV” footage of train and ferry journeys and burning fireplaces, but hundreds of thousands of Norwegians are tuning in even on the weekday mornings when the games are being played, local time. Chess has not just risen in status in Norway – Magnus Carlsen, thanks to high-profile hobbies like being an international fashion model, has become a global celebrity, being compared by the media to figures as varied as Mozart, David Beckham and Justin Bieber.
Chess sets under the Christmas tree
Chess sets have been declared Norway’s “Christmas gift of the year,” and shops are already reporting that customers are being put on waiting lists as stocks of the board game sell out across the country. Back in India, Carlsen remains focused on finishing the job he has started.
In the long process of qualifying for the title match, Carlsen has established himself as the highest-rated player of all time, based on the ‘Elo scale’ used to rank active competitors. Not only has the Norwegian opened up a yawning gap between himself and his nearest rivals, his rating has eclipsed those of previous giants like Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer.
But a title match is a radically different type of event than larger all-play-all tournaments. It is a long duel of nerves and psychology that Anand knows extremely well, and which Magnus has had to learn on the job. The contest has been billed as experience versus youth, with youth being even more formidable than usual.
Battle of wills
“Carlsen will be ridiculously difficult to play against,” Anand said in a surprisingly frank comment earlier this year. And it has become clear that he meant it.
The first two games of the match were short draws, with no sign of Carlsen’s patented determination. The Norwegian has terrified rivals with a mystifying ability to create winning chances from positions that appear so simplified and sterile that most other grandmasters would stop and agree to split the point. Carlsen has an unprecedented knack for finding ways to pose opponents problems until the board is bare. In contrast, Anand built his reputation on lightning quick aggression, and a flair for highly complex positions. In short, they can be seen as polar opposites, and success should depend to a great extent on how much they can impose their style on the other.
Carlsen appeared to be shaking off nerves in the first few games of the match. In the third game, with the advantage of the white pieces and first move, he drifted into trouble, and appeared to be in danger of a costly defeat. He escaped through resourceful play, but in the post-game press conferences a pattern was emerging – Anand was consistently pessimistic, not believing his advantages were enough to win, trying to avoid risk, and seeing danger in almost everything Magnus did.
“It is important that you don’t let your opponent impose his style of play on you,” Anand has said. “A part of that begins mentally. At the chessboard if you start blinking every time he challenges you then in a certain sense you are withdrawing. That is very important to avoid.”
The champion has either forgotten that wisdom, or has convinced himself that his time has come in the shape of the nearly unbeatable Norwegian. In the fourth game, it was Anand’s turn to be on the ropes. In arguably the most exciting tussle of the event so far, he generated the active complications he is famous for, held Carlsen at bay, and again the point was split. Despite overall encouraging results for the champion at this point, the steadily increasing tension and length of the games appeared to be inspiring Carlsen, and draining Anand.
Games 5 & 6
“I am trying to beat the guy sitting across from me and trying to choose the moves that are most unpleasant for him and his style,” Carlsen says of his own play. The next pair of games were undiluted Carlsen – long, drawn-out battles of attrition, where will power and nerves are as important as the moves on the board.
Anand, for some unknown reason, chose to try to play Carlsen’s game, and acquiesced to a defensive role, perhaps believing that if he could continue to neutralize the Norwegian, then Carlsen must take more risks to try to win. In both games 5 and 6 Anand nearly had the desired half-point in hand. In both, he made fatal mistakes, weary from defense, after solving a seemingly endless series of tests that the Norwegian appears to conjure up out of thin air.
The subtlety of Carlsen’s play makes a strong impression on expert observers. Former world champion Garry Kasparov expresses astonishment over how quickly Magnus plays the far from obvious winning endgame sequence in game five – saying “he just seems to know this” – implying that the Norwegian understands intuitively what even great players need to contemplate.
In game six, the expert commentators covering the move-by-move in Chennai were first disinterestedly awaiting a peaceful outcome, then bewildered by what they thought is a blunder by Magnus, when he executes what turns out to be his winning idea in yet another apparently simple position. At the post-game 6 conference Anand left early, visibly upset. Carlsen downplayed his lead, simply calling it “healthy,” and though equally visibly pleased, he remained subdued as usual.
As the players got ready for the second half, the chess public seems relatively united in hoping that Anand will at least go down fighting – and playing like the real Anand – rather than bowing out meekly after a series of defensive errors. Both players are enormously popular, and while there is huge support for a new champion capable of glamourizing chess, sympathy abounds for one of the true gentlemen of the game.
And although Magnus is still a very young man, he is a level-headed one who has already given thought to a title challenge, and how it may also affect his family and fans: “I hope someday I’ll become World Champion – and I’ll make all these people happy. But even if for some reason that doesn’t happen it won’t stop me getting pleasure from chess. I’m sure of that.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jonathan Tisdall is a grandmaster of chess, with his own title awarded in 1995. Tisdall is one of the few grandmasters in Norway and has followed Magnus Carlsen since the world championship challenger was a child, playing in the same club in Asker, west of Oslo. Tisdall also works as a freelance journalist and often has combined his chess and journalism careers, attending and covering major chess events around the world.