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Part 1: Setting the Stage: Statistics and Strategy

It’s now just five months to go until the World Championship match between Fabiano Caruana and Magnus Carlsen. This is the first of five posts where I will give my thoughts on what's going to happen in the upcoming match.

18 years ago

The year 2000 had a good start. I was at the beginning of my coaching career, and I guess like most of you readers, I was ridiculously addicted to chess. Even my mother was worried at one point. One day, I was asked to train this little kid named Magnus. I would have said yes to anyone who asked me for a lesson, so why not teach this little boy? After all, people said he was pretty good.

I remember I walked with him from one of my lessons to the local chess club. He was nine years old with a 904-rating. He asked me if I believed he would soon pass the magic number of 1000. I said "Soon, Magnus. Soon!"

He absorbed everything we looked at with amazing speed, and of course, I believed in him. One year later his rating was 1900 - that is three Elo-points a day! No wonder all chess kids in Norway had raisins and orange juice next to their chess board.

You know the rest of the story. Magnus became a Grandmaster at the age of 13, and people called him the Mozart of Chess. He’s now 27 years old, and king of the chess world.

What happened to Magnus is a real fairytale, but his success had a positive impact on me as well. Today I am also a Grandmaster, working for Play Magnus and teaching chess for a living.

In 2013 I went to Chennai to support him against Anand, and three years later I watched him defend his title against Karjakin in New York. It almost goes without saying that I have studied all of Magnus' games. I'll share my thoughts on what is going to happen in London in November in his match against Fabiano Caruana.

The Challenger's Problem

Despite being one of Magnus' biggest fans, I also think highly of Fabiano Caruana. He is a brilliant player, and just like Magnus, he is a great ambassador for our game. I have met him on a few occasions, and it's hard not to cheer for this guy as well.

Alright, let's dig into the chess.

Perhaps you remember Caruana's wins against Aronian and Kramnik in the Candidates? Like many times before, I was stunned by how well he handled the chaotic and tense games. He has a tremendous capacity in complicated and dynamic positions. Of course, Magnus is brilliant in these situations as well, but I believe this is where Caruana's strength lies.

I don't think Magnus' chances are worse in chaotic games, but he will probably do his best to avoid them. If Magnus manages to steer the games into relatively quiet strategical battles, he will be a clear favorite. Caruana's problem is that Magnus is extremely good at getting what he wants.

Precisely at this moment, I guess the members of Team Caruana are scratching their heads. What should they do to fight Magnus’ positional mastery and flawless end-game technique? The time is too short to level out Magnus’ superiority in this specific field.

I will look closer at Caruana's strengths in another post, but ask yourself; What would you have done if you were in his shoes? How is he going to reach the positions he is best at?

In the recent tournament, Altibox Norway Chess in Stavanger, Magnus beat Caruana twice, both in their blitz encounter and in the classical game. In both cases, Caruana lost seemingly equal positions. However, if you look closely, you will see that there is a similarity between these two games. And if you dig even deeper into Magnus's games, you will notice something that's fundamental to his entire style of play.

Magnus had the white pieces in both games, and in both games, he got exactly the type of position he is best at. But he didn’t get here by accident – his decision-making and opening preparation is not necessarily directed toward finding a knockout punch. Instead, it’s about positioning himself to get what he wants. Just look at what happened in their two games from Stavanger.
Diagram-1-Blogg-1-1

This is from their blitz game. Caruana’s bishop is bad, while Magnus’ knight has potential, even if it's not great at the moment. As long as there are potential improvements and tries in the position, Magnus will continue playing. One thing Magnus realized early in his career, is that everyone cracks under pressure if they face enough problems.

Diagram-2-Blogg-1

This is from their classical game. Caruana is a pawn up, but his pieces are tied up defending the d5-pawn. Magnus is terrific when it comes to driving his opponents into sad situations like this. Here Black is seemingly safe as everything is protected, but it's like a semi-zugzwang. As often happens to Magnus' opponents, Caruana tried to break out of passivity at the wrong moment and reached an inferior position.

You will not find an equal to Magnus when it comes to positions like these. I have no doubt that Caruana could have saved both these games in a World Championship match, but if he is faced with such problems often enough, the probability of successfully defending is not great.

To put it simply; Magnus wants positions like these. Caruana should avoid them.

The Statistics

During the World Championship, Sergey Karjakin frustrated Magnus with his stubborn defense. Magnus won only one out of the 12 ordinary games against “the Russian Minister of Defense”. The statistics between Magnus and Fabiano are completely different.

In their classical games, Magnus has beaten Caruana 10 times, while Caruana has won 5 games. They have played 17 draws, which means 47% of the games are decisive. Ultimately, it’s a clash of two different styles and we are not going to see a long streak of draws in November. A lot depends on who can get the games into their territory.

Making it look so easy

What strikes me is how easy Magnus makes things look. When I play a tournament, I sometimes try to “copy” Magnus’ style by asking myself what he would have done in this exact position. If I succeed, I feel proud because it’s a hard thing to do. What fascinates me is that Magnus does precisely this all the time, and he makes it look like the most natural thing in the world.

By going through Magnus' games, it's easy to see some consistencies in his wins. This is what Magnus is normally doing when he is executing his well-known squeeze:

  • He tries to steer the game towards a position where the opponent has no activity.
  • When he reaches a static position, he starts improving his pieces. He does this very patiently until they have all reached their potential.
  • If he manages to create a weakness in the enemy camp, he lines up against it. This way he is paralyzing the enemy pieces.
  • When he has succeeded in creating a weakness, he seeks to create one more target for his attack. His goal is to switch between attacking these two weaknesses. Eventually one of them will fall.
  • He is great at making favorable exchanges. He wants to exchange his passive pieces against the opponent’s best pieces, and ideally leave his opponent with only bad pieces.
  • Magnus will continue playing until all possibilities are exhausted. He knows that even the best players will crack under enough pressure.

All of this is well known to strong players. However, knowing is one thing, doing is something else. There is no equal to Magnus when it comes to this.

The following game is valuable to a chess instructor, as it illustrates Magnus' excellent technique and how he strangles his opponents.

Admittedly, the game was not one of Caruana’s best, but it demonstrates what Magnus is so good at. I am sure you will pick up a thing or two you can use in your own games.

The following was played in a rapid game in the 2016 Grand Chess Tour in Paris.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first post in our lead up to the World Championship in November.

If you liked it, share with your friends!

By Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen
Photo by Spectrum Studios

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