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Chess: Carlsen starts well but slows while little-known Swede impresses

Leonard Barden
·5-min read

Magnus Carlsen launched his campaign at Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee, the “chess Wimbledon” in style as the world champion elegantly defeated the rising star Alireza Firouzja, 17, by an imaginative attack.

Then the script went awry, as Carlsen’s next four results were all grinding draws against lower ranked opponents, while his limelight was stolen from an unexpected quarter.

Nils Grandelius, 27, Sweden’s No 1 but regarded as just a journeyman grandmaster, surged at the start with three wins including an impressive crushing of France’s world No 5, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

Related: The joys of being an absolute beginner – for life

After five of the 13 rounds Grandelius led with 3.5/5, followed by the world top two of Carlsen (Norway) and Fabiano Caruana (US), Pentala Harikrishna (India) and Anish Giri (Netherlands) all 3/5.

Carlsen’s performances throughout 2020 were commanding, nine online tournament victories plus first prize over-the-board in Stavanger, until right at the end of the year when America’s Wesley So upset his planned 30th birthday victory celebration, followed by the “deep funk” checkmate from Russia’s Daniil Dubov.

The world champion’s spoken thoughts in a pre-tournament interview gave a clue to his mood at Wijk. He was uncharacteristically introspective and downbeat, talking in terms of maintaining his standard in his 30s and retiring by 40 rather than seeking out new peaks and new records. Were his replies a premonition of the missed chances in those grinding draws to put his opponents under sustained pressure? Perhaps. What is sure is that the world champion now has plenty to prove before the tournament ends on 31 January.

The Norwegian can be watched in action as the games are screened live and free with running grandmaster commentaries on major chess websites from 1pm daily, excepting for rest days on 20, 25 and 28 January. Carlsen’s crunch game against Caruana, who is also finding wins difficult to come by, will be in the 10th round (of 13) on Wednesday.

Despite his late 2020 setbacks, Carlsen has little to prove online. Across the board it is a different matter. His record 125 games without defeat ended at Stavanger, while his official rating is still around 35 Fide points short of his peak of 2889 set in 2014.

Carlsen’s interview suggests that his overall performance target has shifted towards pragmatic stablility and edging tournaments by small margins. In late 2019, before the pandemic, he was aiming ambitiously for a new surge towards his 2889 record and then on to the summit of a 2900 rating.

“I feel that it should be possible to maintain a very high level as long as I am in my 30s,” Carlsen said. “The margin of error does become smaller and smaller, and that means you have to keep working harder and harder, but with the right motivation, I should be able to maintain a level where I feel that it’s worth keeping going. I don’t think it will be possible for me to keep playing at the top level if I struggle to score 50% in top events.”

What could be the “right motivation”? There used to be arguments over whether Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, or Carlsen was the greatest of all time but Fischer now has fewer supporters due to his minimal period as an inactive world champion, while for many Kasparov gets the vote because of his long period at the top.

Kasparov became world champion when he defeated Anatoly Karpov 12.5-11.5 in Moscow on 9 November 1985, and lost his title when he was beaten by Vlad Kramnik 8.5-6.5 in London on 2 November 2000. That is one week from a 15-year reign.

Carlsen won the crown from Vishy Anand when he took a winning 6.5-3.5 match lead in Chennai on 22 November 2013. To surpass Kasparov’s duration as champion, he will probably need to have defeated another four challengers by mid-November 2028.

Can he do it? In his optimum form, for sure. Would it be enough to make him the greatest in the eyes of the majority of chess fans and fellow grandmasters? That is less certain. Kasparov played fewer events, and the overall impression is that he had few real setbacks in tournaments, matches or individual games, and that he was always liable to blow rivals away with a dominating performance. For Carlsen, the big picture looks slightly but significantly more uneven.

Britain’s national chess league, the 4NCL, has tapped a rich vein of popularity as it begins its third lockdown season with more than 250 teams of four competing in the 4NCL Online in seven divisions. Matches are once a fortnight on Tuesday evenings, played to a comfortable time limit allowing up to three hours per game. A separate junior league has hundreds of players.

The pre-pandemic 4NCL had teams of eight who played on weekends at a central hotel venue, which proved too difficult for some distant teams. The over-the board version has been dominated by Wood Green and Guildford for most of its 28 years. In contrast, the online version has surging numbers, is attracting teams from Cornwall to Dundee, has two seasons a year rather than one, and is a more open competition at the top.

4NCL Online looks set to stay even if or when the pandemic is over, and its fourth season, expected to start this summer, should continue its rapid expansion. Its participant numbers are already comparable with the weekend congress Fischer boom of the 1970s.

3707: 1...Qb4+ 2 Kd5 Be4+! 3 Qxe4 Qc5 mate.