Thoughts on Carlsen

December 27, 2013

by Anand Bhaskaran

 Aron Nimzowitsch, an influential Danish chess-player and -writer, observed that “the beauty of a move lies not in its appearance but in the thought behind it.”  It follows that chess isn’t an easy game for a layman to appreciate: a move may not be properly adjudged beautiful or ugly unless one knows the reasoning behind it, the possibilities it considers, the insights into the opponent’s mind it incorporates. What you see is merely a player taking a little piece of wood and moving it from one square to another. What you don’t see is the tangle of intermingled calculations and emotions fusing into a move.

Even so, the game of chess has had its share of players distinctive even to the layman (a somewhat informed layman, you might argue; and yes, that’s probably right, I’d concede). Consider Mikhail Tal, the eighth world champion: one look at his daring material sacrifices — a knight in one game, a rook in another, why, even a full queen when he felt particularly adventurous — and you’d feel a giddy romance rarely felt in relation to a chess game:“The Magician of Riga” they called him, and it isn’t hard to see why. Likewise, a look at just a few of Tigran Petrosian’s games would be enough to convince you that here was a stubborn, ferociously defensive player — he was called “Iron Tigran” in fact, this chessical equivalent of Geoffrey Boycott. And in Bobby Fischer’s games you’d recognize a cold serpent-like menace, perhaps even sense the incipient onrush of madness.

With Magnus Carlsen, the current and 16th World Champion, no such immediate associations come to mind. The media has made its comparisons — with Mozart and Rafael Nadal — but these both seem forced and superficial. The Mozart association has nothing going for it apart from the fact that both men were child prodigies; the Nadal connect is marginally better, in that Carlsen’s stamina and grinding style of play is somewhat reminiscent of Nadal’s. However, it misses one important point about Carlsen’s style of play and that, I think, makes all the difference.

In his younger days, Carlsen would play with dare and vim — as an example, I need only cite the thrilling “Carlsen vs. Sipke Ernst”, a game played in 2004 when Carlsen was barely fourteen, wherein he played in the cavalier style of Tal. Doubtless he could still play that way today if he chose to, but at what cost? He’d likely be winning fewer games.

And that’s simply unacceptable to Carlsen. So no unnecessary risks, just the best move he can think of, move after move after move, flair be damned if that’s what it takes. Vladimir Kramnik, a Russian grandmaster and former World Champion, makes exactly this point when he says that every player has to decide on the style that makes him most effective: Kasparov played aggressively, he remarks, not because it would please the galleries but because it gave him the best chance of winning. Here’s where the Nadal association falls flat: I doubt Nadal could play like Federer even if he wished to, while Carlsen could well play in a different style albeit with slightly less success than he enjoys currently.

Playing in his style, Carlsen has achieved the highest Elo rating of all time, besides being the World Number 1 and World Champion for good measure. Whom, then, does he most resemble? I’d propose Donald Bradman. A peculiar choice, you might well say. But the Don’s batting was focused on scoring as many runs as possible. He scored only six sixes in his career — hitting the ball in the air clearly wasn’t compatible with his objective. He wasn’t as exciting as Trumper, as Carlsen is not nearly as thrilling as Kasparov. And then there’s the fact that the young Bradman would practice hitting a golf ball with stump instead of bat all by himself, for hours on end; likewise, little Carlsen would sit with a chessboard all by himself to play out the moves of the classics. And then there are the kindred stats that speak for themselves, Bradman’s 99.94 Test average to Carlsen’s 2872 Elo. So I say why not drop the comparisons with Mozart and Nadal and pick the Don instead?