Hail the new champion in world chess. Still not 23, Magnus Carlsen ended the long reign of Viswanathan Anand after reaching the magical number of 6.5 following the draw in Game 10 on Friday.
When Carlsen qualified as the challenger for Anand’s crown earlier this year, it attracted the attention of the entire planet for various reasons. Firstly, the last few world championship matches were between players who had the experience of playing chess at the international level for over 20 years. All these contests, therefore, were played out more or less in a conventional manner. For the first time, there was a challenge from someone who had almost no classical matchplay experience but had become the world’s highest rated player. And for the first time since World War 2, none of the contestants was from east European countries which had dominated chess since 1945.
Experts felt it was difficult to predict the outcome because there were several untested factors. Chess amateurs, however, felt that Carlsen’s Elo rating mattered more than Anand’s experience. Most of the chess masters, however, felt that with his huge experience and extensive knowledge of chess strategy, Anand would be able to keep his title like in the last three matches. After all, it was going to be a match between one of the greatest masters of all time and a very strong youngster who had an approach of a street-fighter rather than a scholar.
While it is difficult to predict what would have happened if both were in the best of form, the match proved a one-sided affair with Carlsen dominating throughout. Yes, he was confused in the initial games and actually strategically outplayed by the champion but he never shied from fighting to the best of his ability.
I feel the turning point was the third game where Anand did not show the courage to take the challenge by capturing a free pawn which would have led to an almost certain win. Carlsen immediately sensed Anand’s psychological weakness - the champion preferred safer moves rather than the objectively strongest and most challenging options.
Here, we must also refer to what Anand had said a few months back. In one of the interviews, Anand had admitted that Carlsen had been playing at a higher level than him and he needed to raise his level.
An extremely astute observation but the measures taken by Anand seemed inadequate. It was obvious that though Anand was much better than Carlsen in strategic play, Carlsen was certainly superior in endgame and tactics - particularly the unforced ones. Apparently, Anand did not try to improve his level in these two fields, but instead chose to prepare openings deeper with the hope of avoiding endgames and double-edged tactics. This seems to be the obvious reason for the one-sided nature of the contest. With consecutive victories in games 5 and 6, it became evident that the world was going to see a new champion. Anand did play courageously in the ninth and 10th games, but it was already too late, taking into account the small number of games - just 12, compared to 24 in Fischer-Spassky or Kasparov-Karpov matches.
Anand began the 10th game with only an outside chance but rose to the occasion and played his most fighting game of the match rather than timidly handing over the crown. He played the ambitious Sicilian Defence against Carlsen’s King Pawn Opening. The day saw one of the most fiercely fought battles for the world crown, Carlsen winning a pawn in the middlegame and Anand winning it back. In the sharp endgame battle thereafter, Anand even managed to win Carlsen’s knight but it led to an obvious theoretical draw.
With Carlsen, a new era has begun. An era of fearless chess, less strategic play and more of aggression, tactics, initiative. As a player, I am grateful to the new champion for infusing life into the game which had started growing increasingly boring of late.
The writer is India’s third GM and has been playing chess for 42 years