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On Magnus Carlsen

Moving towards the King

Carlsen, Magnus 1:0 Ivanchuk, Vassily (Mühlhausen, 2007)

We're going to study the current world no. 1, Magnus Carlsen. He is, of course, a very complete player, and it's enough to look at his results to see that he's incredible strong. But how does he do it? He's not an opening specialist like Vladimir Kramnik and his preparation doesn't seem too deep, but somehow he always manages to get positions from which he can outplay people. We can't, of course, cover everything in a short training session, but a year ago I had the opportunity to speak to his former coach and a fantastic player, Garry Kasparov, who mentioned Carlsen's incredible positional understanding. That's what we're going to focus on, while these lectures will also include some test positions you can try and solve to develop some of Carlsen's feel and understanding. In this game he played White against Vassily Ivanchuk, a man who's very hard to prepare against as he plays so many openings.

1. d4 ♘f6 2. c4 g6 3. ♘c3 d5 The Grünfeld Defence.

4. cxd5 ♘xd5 5. e4 ♘xc3 6. bxc3 ♗g7 7. ♗c4 c5 8. ♘e2 Magnus chooses the very principled Alekhine Variation, a classical weapon against the Grünfeld Defence. Alekhine was one of the first players to try this setup, while Boris Spassky also played some big games against Bobby Fischer in this line.

8... ♘c6 9. ♗e3 O-O 10. O-O The main crossroads of the variation.

10... ♘a5 This was played, for instance, in Topalov-Anand, and became very popular. I'm slightly sceptical about the move. Although it of course has its merits the drawback is obvious - the knight moves away from the centre.

10... ♕c7 The old main line, and a move played by Fischer against Spassky.

10... ♗g4 is very popular. Karpov and Kasparov played this in their 1997 World Championship match in Seville, and it's also featured in a number of other exciting games. The problem for White in this opening is that Black has so many interesting setups. It's hard to cover everything and Black seems to get interesting play in most of the lines.

10... cxd4 is another common move.

10... ♗d7 Peter Svidler likes to play this way and has done so on many occasions.

11. ♗d3 Forced.

11... b6 12. ♖c1 A very natural move.

12. ♕d2 e5 This has been tried in some modern games, including the Topalov-Anand game mentioned above.

12... cxd4 Given how the game went you might argue this is a small concession, as White gets the open c-file with his rook already in an excellent position to benefit.

13. cxd4 Note the marvellous placement of Carlsen's pieces. I've watched a lot of his games but never seen him with pieces on bad squares. They're always doing something.

13... e6 14. ♕d2 ♗b7 Black's setup is clearly designed to combat the move d4-d5, but the drawback is that 13...e6 has weakened the dark squares a little.

15. h4 A very interesting but also typical idea, which is still theory. White is showing his hand - he wants to attack on the kingside and therefore pushes his h-pawn with the aim of weakening Black's pawn structure.

15... ♕e7 A natural but slightly abstract move that was criticised by Carlsen. Black probably lost the game because of playing a little too passively, although strangely enough Ivanchuk didn't make any clear mistakes.

15... ♘c6 16. e5 was pointed out by Carlsen.

15... ♕xh4 would of course be the principled move, but the black queen is in big trouble after the forced line 16. ♗g5 ♕g4 ( 16... ♕h5 17. ♘g3 ♕g4 18. ♗e2+− ) 17. f3 ♕h5 18. ♘g3 The counterplay with 18... ♗xd4+ doesn't work, as after 19. ♖f2 ♗xf2+ 20. ♔xf2 ♕h2 21. ♖h1+− the queen is trapped. This line was no doubt well-known to both players and would of course also be easy for Ivanchuk to calculate at the board.

15... ♕d7 I'd put the queen on this square instead of e7, with the aim of getting some counterplay by attacking the d4-pawn, perhaps in conjunction with ♘c6. Black can also play ♖ac8 to exchange rooks.

16. h5 The obvious follow-up.

16... ♖fc8 This was clearly Ivanchuk's idea - connecting the rooks. Taking the pawn on h5 is of course out of the question as that would dramatically weaken the kingside. We've reached a critical moment. What would you do next? Try Exercise 1, which can be found at the end of this game.

17. e5! Carlsen really shows his hand and goes for one of his favourite plans. White concedes the d5-square, but at the moment Black can't make good use of it. Carlsen, meanwhile, will get play on the dark squares based on ♗g5 or♗h6. The pawn move is a little surprising, as often when you play e5 in the Grünfeld, weakening the d5-square, it's because something went wrong - for instance, there was too much pressure on the d4-pawn. To do it voluntarily he must already have thought very deeply about his kingside attack and decided the gains outweigh the losses. The move is a sign of confidence. Carlsen obviously knew exactly what he was doing.

17... ♖xc1 In this case exchanging pieces fails to dampen White's attack, as the rooks weren't really participating in any case. Ivanchuk's move weakens his back rank, but the bigger problem is that he loses time without generating any real counterplay.

17... ♘c6 Carlsen criticised Black's whole operation and said it might have been time to get the knight into play with this move. That may, however, be more a question of style. We've seen Magnus prefers to play with all his pieces and not only part of his army. For him having the knight on a5 would be an irritation and he'd try to get it back into action as soon as possible.

18. ♖xc1 ♖c8

18... ♕d7

19. ♖xc8+ ♗xc8 Black's bishop is now poorly-placed. A quick question - how would you continue the attack? Take perhaps five minutes, just as you would in a game. Try Exercise 2, which can be found at the end of this game.

20. ♗g5! This move has the same aim as ♗h6 - to exchange off the dark-squared bishops - but it does it via f6. The bishop also stops any counterplay involving the black queen coming to h4, and opens up the white queen's path to the kingside. Carlsen's pieces start to move in the right direction.

20. ♗h6 This was the other option, trying to exchange off the dark-squared bishops and then play h5-h6 at an opportune moment, with mating threats. Here, however, it encounters some concrete problems. After 20... ♗xh6 21. ♕xh6 ♕h4 Black has very decent counter-chances. For example 22. ♕c1 ♗b7 and Black's actively-placed pieces give him decent counterplay. White's h-pawn no longer looks so good on h5.

20... ♕c7 This natural move is perhaps another small mistake by Ivanchuk. He saw the open file, but with no entry squares it means little. White is given a free hand on the kingside.

20... ♕d7 21. ♗f6± Carlsen

20... f6 Trying to exchange some pieces. Carlsen analysed this move and pointed out that after the forced line 21. exf6 ♗xf6 22. ♗xf6 ♕xf6 23. hxg6 hxg6 he has a double attack on g6 and c8 with 24. ♕c2± .

20... ♕a3 After looking at the position very carefully I came to the conclusion that this would have been much more to the point. It prevents White from entering the kingside with his queen and generates a distraction on the other side of the board.

21. ♗f6 ♘c6

21... ♗f8 , trying to keep the bishop, is an interesting option. However, if play continued as in the game with 22. ♕g5 ♘c6 23. hxg6 fxg6 24. ♗xg6 hxg6 25. ♕xg6+ ♗g7 26. ♗xg7 ♕xg7 27. ♕e8++− Black has survived the attack without getting mated, but loses material and the game.

22. ♕g5 A very instructive moment. White brings his queen into the attack and completes the manoeuvre begun with 20.♗g5.

22... h6 Black felt he had to play this due to the huge pressure Carlsen has created on the kingside. A remarkable move now followed, so take your time to try and guess what it was. Try Exercise 3, which can be found at the end of this game.

22... ♘b4? seems logical, but White can simply play 23. ♗xg7 ♔xg7 24. ♕f6+ ♔f8 and now Carlsen mentions a small combination which he probably saw during the game: 25. ♗xg6! hxg6 26. h6+− The h-pawn is suddenly incredibly strong.

23. ♕c1! Typical Carlsen! All of a sudden the queen leaves the kingside to come to the c-file. Carlsen sees the whole board rather than just focussing on the kingside, as many would, and that vision is one of his incredible strengths. Something like ♕g4 would instead be more natural than the long queen retreat. What can Black do now? The pawn on g6 is hanging.

23... g5

23... ♕d7 24. hxg6+− and Black's position is in ruins.

24. ♗b5 The tactical factor of the pin on the c-file suddenly decides the game.

24... ♗d7 25. d5! With Black losing a piece the game is essentially over, though Magnus went on to convert his advantage in a very instructive manner.

25... exd5 26. ♘d4+− ♗xf6 27. exf6 ♕d6 28. ♗xc6 ♕xf6 29. ♗xd7 ♕xd4 Black has managed to get two pawns for the piece, but the compensation is insufficient.

30. g3 ♕c5 31. ♕xc5 bxc5 32. ♗c6 d4 33. ♗b5 ♔f8 34. f4 gxf4 35. gxf4 Ivanchuk resigned.


Exercise 1
Exercise 2
Exercise 3
Carlsen, Magnus 1:0 Malakhov, Vladimir (Khanty Mansiysk, 2005)

This is a position from Carlsen's game with White against the strong Russian grandmaster Vladimir Malakhov. Take about five minutes to consider how you'd play here in Carlsen's place.

19. e5! A very nice move, not only winning the e4-square for the white knight but also driving the black knight away. There are of course strong similarities to the previous game. Although in this case Black hasn't weakened his dark squares with e6 White has an excellent square on c5. White will again play on the dark squares, and from e4 the white knight will be able both to support the attack and jump to the weak c5-square.

19... ♘fd5 20. ♘e4 ♘d7 Malakhov tries to protect the c5-square and hold his position together.

21. ♕d2!↑ A very nice move which fits into the conception behind e5 and ♘e4. White is again planning to exchange the dark-squared bishops, if he gets a chance.

21... ♕b8 22. ♗h6 ♗h8 Black understandably wants to keep some protection on the dark squares, although it doesn't work out well.

22... f5 was perhaps more stubborn, but after 23. ♘c5± it's clear White has a very big advantage.

23. h4 Carlsen again brings more reserves into the attack.

23... ♘f8 24. ♘c5 The c5-square has been left unguarded, so why not conquer it with the knight? If Black tries to play 24...♘e6 then after exchanges the bishop would be miserable on h8 while the king position would also be weakened.

24... ♕a7 Strategically Black's position is very bad and may already be lost. Carlsen simply attacks on the kingside.

25. h5 ♘c7 Perhaps trying to prepare ♘e6.

26. hxg6 hxg6 Another quick question - what's the best attacking continuation? Try Exercise 4, which can be found at the end of this game.

27. ♗xf8! An elegant solution, simply taking the only piece capable of protecting the h7-square, while also opening up the queen's path to h6. The bishop was strong, but Magnus is a very original player with no fear of doing something unusual. This game shows his self-confidence.

27. ♘g5 would be the routine move, although White's advantage is so huge that with ♕f4 to follow it might also lead to a win.

27... ♖xf8 28. ♕h6 ♗g7 29. ♕h4 The huge threat is ♘g5 and ♕h7#.

29... f6 Black defends against the threat, but as soon as he starts to push pawns he creates new weaknesses, this time on g6.

30. ♕g4 ♔h7 31. ♘h4 g5 This isn't just ugly but already over.

32. ♕h5+ ♔g8 33. ♘f5 ♘e8 34. ♕g6 Malakhov resigned here. A sample line showing why is

34... fxe5 35. ♕e6+ ♔h7 36. ♘xe7


Exercise 4
Carlsen, Magnus 1:0 Anand, Viswanathan (Sao Paulo/Bilbao, 2012)

This position is from a great game - Carlsen-Anand, Bilbao 2012. What should White play? Try Exercise 5, which can be found at the end of this game.

24. g4! A relatively simple first move, at least if you ask yourself what Black wants to do. He would of course like to play ♘f5, and his dream would be to follow up with ♘e3. White therefore takes prophylactic measures to restrict his opponent's options.

24... ♖c6 A very natural move, protecting e6. Black needs to cover the pawn before playing ♘e8 to bring the knight to a better square. Perhaps you already saw everything when you played 24.g4! but this is another good position to stop and consider. Magnus played a remarkable move. Try Exercise 6, which can be found at the end of this game.

25. ♘h3!↑ An incredible move that drew praise from some of the world's top players. It's the sign of a confident chess player that Magnus has no fear of temporarily putting the knight on a bad square. He instead sees the benefits after ♕h6 and ♘g5. Black is probably already lost.

25... ♘e8 Black could try

25... ♕d8 26. ♕h6 ♔h8 How else can you defend against ♘g5? 27. ♘g5 ♕g8 Black can hardly breathe. One nice plan that has been suggested for White is 28. ♖e4 with the idea of ♖f4. If Black tries to regroup with 28... ♘e8 White has ( 28... ♖f8 29. ♖g1 White will follow up with ♖g3-h3 and a fantastic position.) 29. ♖fe1± , hitting the pawn on e6.

26. ♕h6 ♘f6 27. ♘g5 d3 Anand was of course looking to get some counterplay, but now Magnus found a game-winning move. Can you also spot the idea?

27... ♕a6 28. ♖e5 ♕c8 29. ♖fe1±

28. ♖e5! The threat is ♘xh7, and the situation is absolutely horrible for World Champion Vishy Anand.

28... ♔h8 This defends against♘xh7 but can't save the game as it concedes control of f7. White simply played

28... ♖d6 29. ♘xh7 ♘xh7 30. ♕xg6+ ♔f8 31. ♕xh7+− Just for our pleasure I checked this line right up until checkmate: 31... d2 32. ♕h8+ ♔f7 33. ♕h5+ ♔f8 34. ♖g5 d1=Q 35. ♕h8+ ♔f7 36. ♖g7+ ♔f6 37. ♖g8+ ♔f7 38. ♕g7# Of course a grandmaster doesn't need to calculate that far. It's clear White has a winning attack.

29. ♖d1+− ♕a6 30. a4 There's nothing Black can do. If he tries to defend the d-pawn ♘f7+ wins the exchange, while losing the d-pawn leaves Black in an absolutely hopeless situation. Anand therefore simply resigned. We've seen how good Carlsen is on the attack but also how fantastic he is at regrouping his pieces. In a way Carlsen resembles another great player, Anatoly Karpov, in his ability to restrict an opponent to such an extent that he simply can't breathe. Perhaps with his aggressive approach Carlsen is more reminiscent of the young Karpov, but in any case he can only be compared to great champions. You might also think of Capablanca, Botvinnik or Smyslov. His level is already amazing, and the way he's developed their approach to chess means you could almost describe him as a reincarnation of all those great players.


Exercise 5
Exercise 6

On Magnus Carlsen GM Artur Jussupow

Recommended level:



Artur Jussupow and Jan Gustafsson look at the reasons behind Magnus Carlsen's remarkable success


The goal of this eBook is to improve your chess understanding — and ultimately your tournament results — by studying the games of the young World Champion

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