Viking Versus Sepoy

The changing of the guard in the world of chess was achieved not by smash-and-grab play, but by herculean displays of patience

Chess

The prodigy: Magnus Carlsen in 2005

On January 1, 2010, just a month after his 19th birthday, the Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen became the world’s highest-ranked chess player — based on a system similar to that used by international tennis to establish the pecking order among the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer. But unlike tennis, there is also an official chess world championship, dating from Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886. Since 2007 this title had been held by the Indian Viswanathan Anand. 

Yet as Carlsen’s precocious pre-eminence became ever more marked, and Anand’s ranking began to slip (as so often happens nowadays with players the wrong side of 40), it was widely anticipated that the long-awaited world championship match between these two men from opposite ends of the earth would see the supreme title pass to another generation.

And so, before a passionate audience in Anand’s home city of Chennai, it proved. Carlsen scored the necessary 6.5 points (it was a best of 12 contest) with two games to spare, having won three of them and drawn seven. The last time the title was contested without the victor conceding a single loss was back in 2000, when Vladimir Kramnik achieved a “shut-out” against the defending champion Gary Kasparov. Interestingly, Carlsen chose exactly the same strategy Kramnik deployed to neutralise Kasparov’s favourite Spanish Opening (which is also Anand’s primary attacking weapon): the rock-solid Berlin Defence — sometimes known as the Berlin Wall. 

Not only was the Indian driven to despair by its impermeability, just as Kasparov had been 13 years earlier: in the pivotal sixth game of the match Anand actually lost against it. Having also been defeated in the fifth game, this was a devastating blow. In both those games, Carlsen demonstrated his greatest competitive strength: he has prodigious reserves of patience and likes nothing more than grinding out wins from apparently drawish endgames, indeed in positions from which most grandmasters would be perfectly content with a draw.

It would be too simple just to say that Anand blundered in those two endings. The question is: why? As the Indian’s friend, the three times British chess champion Jonathan Rowson observed: “The losses came from fairly simple positions, where clear thinking indicated few objective problems, but Magnus’s will and relentless accuracy wore Vishy down and the psychological pressure made it hard for him to calculate.” When one considers that razor-sharp rapid calculation had always been Anand’s forte, it is clear just how much pressure Carlsen must have exerted: or as the new champion said after the match, “I would like to take some responsibility for his mistakes. People crack in the world championship . . . that is what I really wanted to do, to make him sit at the board and play for a long time.”

Yet to Anand’s credit, in the ninth game, when a win would have still brought him back to within a point of his remorseless opponent, he threw all caution away and with breathtaking bluntness attempted to play directly for checkmate almost from the opening. Carlsen responded with equal courage, surprisingly spurning the safest lines, rushing to counterattack on the other side of the board and positively challenging Anand to land the knock-out blow.

As the game reached its final moves it was clear from Anand’s demeanour that he thought he might have found the huge punch that would rock the Norwegian warrior back on his heels. But Carlsen’s defence — as usual — was perfect. Victory was his: and with it the supreme title he had long felt was his due.

So here it is, the extraordinary climactic game of the most eagerly awaited world championship match since the epic struggles between Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov in the 1980s and 1990s: 1.d4! (Anand’s opening move deserves a mark of approval, not because it is objectively superior, but because he had got nowhere with his favourite 1.e4) Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 (And this is a brave and surprising decision by Carlsen. In effect needing only to draw, the Norwegian is true to his warrior instincts and plays the double-edged Nimzo-Indian defence) 4.f3 d5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 7. cxd5 exd5 8.e3 c4!? (Again, a remarkably sharp move by Carlsen. He is provoking Anand to go all-out on the Kingside — the champion needs no second invitation) 9.Ne2 Nc6 10.g4! (No turning back now) 0-0 11.Bg2 Na5 12.0-0 Nb3 13.Ra2 b5 14.Ng3 a5 15.g5 Ne8 16.e4 Nxc1 17.Qxc1 Ra6 18.e5 Nc7 19. f4 b4 20.axb4 axb4 21.Rxa6 Nxa6 22.f5 b3 23. Qf4 (After more than 40 minutes thought. Anand is trying to calculate all variations through to checkmate: but it doesn’t seem to be there) Nc7 24.f6 g6 25. Qh4 Ne8 26.Qh6 b2 27.Rf4! (Allowing Carlsen an extra Queen! But if 27.Rb1 Qa5 28.Rxb2 Qa1+) b1(Q)+ 28. Nf1?? Qe1! When Carlsen played this move, Anand looked most disconcerted and after a few moments’ thought resigned the game-and all hopes of retaining his world title. It is clear that his intended 29.Rh4 with the apparently unstoppable threat of 30.Qxh7 mate is now answered by 29…Qxh4 and after 30.Qxh4 Black is simply a rook up. However, if Anand had played 28.Bf1! then the struggle would still have been intense. For example, after 28.Bf1! Qd1 29.Rh4 Qh5 30.Nxh5 gxh5 31.Rxh5 Bf5 32.g6! Bxg6 33.Rg5 Qa5 34.h4 with the idea of h5 and it’s anyone’s game. 

Anand would of course have calculated this. But having spotted the defensive idea of 28…Qd1-h5 he then saw that after 28.Nf1 Qd1 29.Rh4 Qh5 30.Rxh5! gxh5 31.Ne3 Be6 he had a remarkable continuation; and as he said afterwards, “I started to get excited.” Why he had got so excited is this month’s puzzle. But tragically for Anand and his hundreds of millions of supporters, all this was immediately squelched by Carlsen’s 28…Qe1! 

Incidentally, one of the commonest types of blunder is caused by the so-called phantom piece. In this case, White’s phantom Knight on g3 (now actually on f1) blocked the path from e1 to h4. And as Anand said after resigning, the instant he played 28.Nf1?? he saw that Qe1 annihilated all his brilliant ideas. Chess is a cruel game: and never has that truth been so dramatically demonstrated — or with such portentous consequences.