The London Olympic Games were of note, I suppose; but for those of us more interested in the 64 squares than in athletics, the real sporting excitement that the capital has to offer takes place this month at the Institute of Electronic Engineering, on the north bank of the Thames just across the river from the London Eye.
There, from March 15 to April 1, eight giants of the chessboard will play each other twice in a world championship eliminator, known as the Candidates Tournament. The winner — the player with the highest score after the 14 rounds — will contest a match in November for the ultimate title against the holder since 2007, India’s Viswanathan Anand. Both events are being staged by Agon, a company set up by a London-based entrepreneur, Andrew Paulson. He is a highly cultured American who made a fortune in Russia; it was partly through those Russian connections that Paulson persuaded the World Chess Federation to sell him the rights to stage the world chess championship cycle.
The might of Soviet chess is now a purely historical phenomenon, but its legacy is dramatically evident in this event. Of the eight players who qualified, seven were born in what was then the USSR, and they all to a greater or lesser extent owe their early training to the formidable system set up under the Communist regime. Those seven are, in world ranking order, the former world champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, Levon Aronian of Armenia, Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan, Alexander Grischuk of Russia, Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine, Peter Svidler of Russia and Boris Gelfand, now representing Israel.
There will be just one player from a different chess culture. He is Norway’s Magnus Carlsen; and this 22-year-old, though the youngest competitor, is the overwhelming favourite to win. He became the world’s highest-ranked player (according to the Elo system of individual ratings) at the age of 19, having become a grandmaster at 13. Carlsen’s Elo rating is now comfortably above that of any other player in history and almost 100 points above the highest achieved by the late Bobby Fischer — the last Westerner to be labelled the best in the world. Although mathematicians point out the element of statistical inflation in such rankings, even Fischer at his prime and magically transported to the modern era would have found Carlsen an awesomely difficult competitor to beat.
This is not simply a question of comparing two sorts of chess genius — an invidious task. Where Carlsen has an obvious advantage over the troubled American is that he is psychologically robust, in large part the result of a very stable family background, something that was sadly lacking in the case of Fischer. Carlsen’s career was initially managed by his father Henrik, a former engineer with Exxon (indeed, both his parents are engineers by profession, which makes the event’s venue peculiarly appropriate for the Carlsen family as a whole). Yet although Magnus is now a multi-millionaire, when he is not on the road his home is the basement of the family’s house in Oslo.
Henrik told me that he first identified his son’s peculiar talent when, even before his second birthday, the tot Magnus would spend hours solving jigsaw puzzles with more than 50 pieces. Henrik, a strong amateur chess player, taught his son the moves at the age of five, but the boy was not interested. It was only when he played his elder sister at the age of eight, and she won, that Magnus suddenly decided he had to become good — he couldn’t bear the idea of being beaten by her.
Of course, all boys are competitive with their siblings. Yet in Magnus, an extraordinary innate aptitude for concentration is allied to an almost preternatural competitiveness. Again, all chess grandmasters will have a strong urge to win. But Magnus Carlsen has become most feared by his peers for the way in which he will play on for hour after hour in seemingly dead drawn positions, and yet somehow his implacable determination can cause the mightiest opponents to crack and make a blunder they would never normally commit.
It certainly helps in this that Magnus is a very fit young man, with apparently limitless reserves of energy — at least when sitting down at the chessboard. But there is also no doubt that his sheer will to win intimidates even the strongest personalities. As one of his rivals admitted to me, “Magnus always plays his moves with such confidence. There is a definite aura about him.” That, at least, he has in common with Bobby Fischer. Viktor Korchnoi, who I believe is the only man to have played the two of them, has ascribed to both the effect of “hypnotising” the opponent. Anyway, readers of this column should at all costs try to see if Carlsen can do the same to his illustrious rivals on the banks of the Thames: Vladmir Kramnik in particular is himself an awesome competitor who will not yield a millimetre even under the most extreme pressure.
Should Carlsen triumph, he will, outside India, be widely expected to take the crown from Anand. Yet the title-holder is a vastly more seasoned match-player: it would be a fearsomely tough contest. The champion, more than 20 years older, has a lifetime plus score against Carlsen; but last year the Norwegian gained only his second victory at classical time-limits against Anand. I suspect this game will be giving the world champion nightmares, as Carlsen outplayed him with astonishing simplicity of means:
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ (Carlsen plays a move thought to be innocuous: but he wants to avoid Anand’s famed opening preparation in the main lines) Bd7 4.Bxd7+ Qxd7 5.c4 Nf6 6.Nc3 g6 7.d4 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bg7 9.f3 Qc7 10.b3 Qa5 11.Bb2 Nc6 12.0-0 0-0 13.Nce2 Rfd8 14.Bc3 Qb6 15.Kh1 d5! (Anand’s equaliser: his neat idea is that after 16.cxd5 Nxd5! 17.exd5 Rxd5 the pin regains his piece 16.Nxc6 bxc6 17.Qe1! Rdc8 18.e5 Ne8 19.e6! (Carlsen throws a pawn to disrupt Anand’s piece co-ordination) fxe6 20.Nf4 Bxc3 21.Qxc3 d4 22.Qd2 c5 23.Rae1 Ng7 24.g4! (Further constricting Black’s pieces) Rc6 25.Nh3!! (Very unobvious: Carlsen retreats the Knight, but it’s actually heading towards the King) Ne8 26.Qh6 Nf6 27.Ng5 d3? (Missing Carlsen’s idea) 28.Re5! Kh8 29.Rd1 Qa6 30.a4… and Anand, to the spectators’ surprise, resigned. But Carlsen will regain his pawn with Rxd3, and then will gobble up the weakling on e6. Meanwhile, the world champion’s entire army is in a state of horrible paralysis.