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The black knight


As a boy, he played ‘table soccer’ while waiting for his opppenents to make their move. Meet Magnus Carlsen, the phenomenon from Norway who has earned the right to challenge Viswanathan Anand for the world title.

When India's national champion Surya Shekhar Ganguly tasted defeat against Magnus Carlsen, aged 13, at Dubai in 2004, he was naturally upset. However, Grandmaster Evegeny Vladimirov of Kazakhstan, who was part of Team Kasparov during his epic world title battles with Anatoly Karpov in the 1980s, had some 'comforting' words for the Indian. "Vladimirov told me that Carlsen was not as bad as I thought and that one day he will take Kasparov's place, " said Ganguly. The uttering was not hollow.

Norway's Carlsen not only went on to become world No. 1 but also overhauled Kasparov's all-time high Elo rating strength of 2851 eight years later. And now, after winning the World Candidates meet in London last week, he gets a chance to become the youngest traditional classical matchplay world champion after Kasparov. Carlsen is expected to take on our own multiple world champion Viswanathan Anand. The match is slated for November but there are chances that it could be organized early next year.

Carlsen, dubbed as the the 'Mozart of Chess', has the unexpected knack of playing symphonies with some personalities - be it Kasparov, Anand, Ganguly or Nielsen, another of Anand's seconds. He famously drew a rapid game against the 'Big K' at age 13 and then roped him in as a trainer before parting ways. When Anand was playing Kramnik in the 2008 World Championship match, there was a talk of Carlsen helping Anand with some lines of preparation. And now, they will cross swords against each other. If Carlsen is set to renew his opposition with Ganguly (with Ganguly being Anand's second), the former has made a coup of sorts by roping in Anand's former second Nielsen. The latter was Carlsen's most preferred coach during his teens.

You see, he is a master in the game of permutations and combinations, and more precisely, double-edged positions. His rise has been phenomenal due to many reasons. First, he is from Norway, which is devoid of a chess culture. Of course, before Anand's emergence even India didn't have a chess presence at the global level. But at least chess was invented in India and our very own Mir Sultan Khan created ripples from 1929-33 by beating former world champion Capablanca. He also won the British championship.

Norway's second-best player after Carlsen is at world No. 150 with Elo 2597 (almost 300 points below). When Carlsen was not picked for the 2002 Olympiad, he had said: "There is a tradition in Norway for picking players who are rated (mere) 30 points higher and 10 years older (than me). "

His off-the-board precision showed hidden attack even then. Even last week, after winning the Candidates, he didn't want to demean Kramnik (after all, he had conceded in 2004 that he learnt the game mostly from Kramnik's book) but his tongue was sharp enough. After conceding that the Russian was unlucky not to have converted some of the solid openings into victories, he added: "But then it shows that the game is not all about openings. "
Carlsen plays most of the main (Super GM) opening lines from both black and white sides comfortably. And he can also boast of a majestic middle-game and pregnant endgame. When he is on song, opponents' chess pieces come up with their version of a wardrobe malfunction.

Apart from handing Ganguly and Vladimirov insulting defeats in Dubai 2004, he won acclaim for his 29-move win over Sipke Ernest in the Wijk aan Zee 'C' event. (see 'board box' for detailed explanation). The same year he enjoyed the flashbulbs when he played 'King' Kasparov in a rapid match in Iceland.

A couple of years later, young gun and India's first woman GM Humpy played him at Wijk aan Zee 'B' section. "He was just crushing his opponents in this tournament. And when I was supposed to play him, it was assumed that I will have a torrid time, " said Humpy. "But thankfully, I survived after an almost seven-hour game from Petroff defence. "

Two years later, Carlsen confirmed his elite status by winning the Wijk aan Zee 'A' section. En route, he did the almost unthinkable for the players of his experience: defeat Kramnik, the then reigning king of classical chess, with black pieces! And in English Symmetrical opening (see board). Not surprisingly, his Hedgehog Defense hogged the limelight.

The boy who used to sit on the hand-rest of his playing chair and play 'table soccer' during his early international chess games, now became a man. Not just for sporting formal attire and a scholarly look, but also with his overall understanding of chess culture and the exemplary depth behind his moves. (Rated 2733 before Wijk, he gave a rating performance of 2824!). So much so, now he didn't show much interest in answering questions on soccer. The all-consuming game of 64 squares became his unwavering focus.

When the players reach Elo 2700, the stakes become high. Most of the hunters turn hunted in this phase. Many also just stagnate at this level. The example of India's own 'Prince' K Sasikiran is example enough. But Magnus has been different. Maybe age was on his side. He was less bothered about the 'problems in the position' and hence more willing to go for wins rather than scholarly, less-than-30-moves, agreed draws.

The majority of international masters spend their entire lives trying to improve from struggling Elo 2450 to comforting 2650. It took Carlsen two-and-a-half years to make that jump. After becoming a 2700 player, Carlsen reached the magic figure of 2800 within 17 months. In comparison, Anand took 13 years for this leap.

Of course, like Humpy said, "huge talent" has been driving factor behind Carlsen's rise. However, unlike most other games, chess is not just a game of skill but a game of knowledge too. Since each game is a 'series' of moves (and not repetition of process as in most other sports), one cannot just overpower an opponent or make a comeback after being in a tight corner. Usually, the position can be just lost or at best appear drawish. And most of the mistakes are punished with defeats at high-level chess. So nerves and knowledge are your oxygen to breathe normally.

To acquire so much knowledge at an early age (not passing some highly-crammed theoretical exam but practically becoming world No. 1) is as phenomenal as Carlsen's astounding progress before 2005 due to his prodigious talent. GETTY IMAGES
Carlsen has inferior head-to-head classical win-loss record against Anand (2-6 ), Levon Aronian (4-7 ) and Kramnik (3-4 ). So, what makes him great? One, he more than competes with the three named above. And secondly, he ruthlessly punishes players a rung below this elite field - all combined with presence, charisma and panache. Even when the positions are equal, he builds advantage brick by brick.
In the Candidates meet, Kramnik had a better score than him against the top three of seven opponents. But Carlsen bludgeoned the bottom field. Once asked about his role models, he had said: "I've never really had any role models in chess. My favourite player is still myself. "

On his rapid games with Kasparov, Carlsen had said: "I was not at all happy with draw. I should have won as white. With black I played like a child!" But the truth is, in Carlsen's hands, black pieces, generally regarded as a disadvantage, is child's play. The Fide website shows that of his last 97 decisive games with black pieces, Carlsen has won 65! His balance between attack and defence with black pieces against Anand will be truly tested in a match situation.
Humpy said: "Carlsen's middlegame is phenomenal. There is new position, new thought on the board. You don't get bored at all following his games. Even at a young age, he used to play both king-pawn and queen-pawn openings. He is practically more creative on board. Anand versus Carlsen will throw many novelties and surprises. "

Carlsen's diehard fans believe that it won't be surprising if he doesn't win the world crown at some point. It will be a pity. Of course, Carlsen still has age on his side.

However, if he fails in a couple of world crown bids, will he continue with the game? Huge success followed by momentous failures at young age in an individual sport can be destructive. In chess, it can be particularly crushing.

Top-level training in chess is not as simple as getting up early, following a strict physical routine and brushing up your game. You have to follow millions of positions of your prospective opponents and other players too, and numerous games are added in the database every week. If you are in the thick of things, you cannot sleep peacefully, the board position flashes in front of you and the pieces dance in your mind space. Only 23, Carlsen has proved he can do that with characteristic panache. But can he do it in the match against wily Anand?



Second-youngest GM in the world at 13.


Became the youngest ever qualifier for World Candidates matches


Won the Glitner blitz title in Iceland ahead of Anand, Polgar, Sutovsky


Won Wijk aan Zee 'A' for the first time


Turned world No. 1 for the first time


In October, overtook Kasparov's all-time high Elo of 2851


Won the Wijk aan Zee with a ridiculous margin of 1. 5 points and rating performance of 2930

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