Features Nov 6, 2013 | 11:00 PMby Colin McGourty

Anand's greatest challenge

When Vishy Anand was in our studios in Hamburg I had the opportunity to ask him a question that had been going round in my head for some time: “Do you manage to enjoy yourself when you’re playing for the World Championship?” His reply was firm, forceful and accompanied by a small smile: “Yes, before and after”.  

World Champion Vishy Anand in the chess24 studio

He seemed enthusiastic about the many months of hard, hard work ahead of him – finding ideas, honing others and taking breaks for swimming. At the same time, both privately and in the videos, you could see that he was proud of his fine games and the preparation that had paid off in the past. He tried to convey how he’d felt during some of the crucial moments of his career – the tension, decisions he had to take, mistakes he had to acknowledge... Always, however, there was the good fortune to have been successful in the majority of challenges he’d taken on. I don’t know if he enjoyed it at the time, but it was clear that both of us enjoyed recalling it years later.

By David Martinez

Facing him in the upcoming World Championship match is Magnus Carlsen, perhaps the best player of all time and undoubtedly the most relentless in the history of chess. To list just three of his strengths: effectiveness in positions that are apparently simply, the ability to commit no clear errors, and excellent calculation, especially in positions with an abundance of options but when it’s impossible to go into any of them in any great depth. Can anyone show me errors Magnus has made in positions of that type? As if all of that wasn’t enough, he usually manages to avoid getting into any time trouble at all... Vishy, what’s your plan?

Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re Anand’s coaches or advisers. What could we recommend?

1) Exploit our strong point: the opening

What openings can we expect?

From previous matches we know, of course, that there will be a lot of surprises, with both players looking to wrong-foot their opponents. The elite-level debut of the Berlin from Kramnik against Kasparov or Anand’s 1.d4 against Kramnik have gone down in World Championship history.

But let’s take a look at Carlsen’s repertoire.

With White he plays e4 or d4 interchangeably. Since January 2011 he hasn’t gone into the Najdorf in a classical game... Yes, I also believe that’s a sign. Vishy, you have to look at that check on b5 or the queen capture on d4... But the most likely first move will be 1.d4... Should we play the Nimzo-Indian? I think so. Magnus usually employs the Capablanca Variation (4.Qc2) or 4.Nf3, followed on many occasions by Qc2. But things often didn’t go so well for him there... until his encounter with Anand in June this year, when he employed the Rubinstein Variation (4.e3), on that occasion followed by 5.Ne2. 

1. d4 ♘f6 2. c4 e6 3. ♘c3 ♗b4 4. e3 0-0 5. ♘e2 d5 6. a3 ♗e7 7. cxd5 ♘xd5 8. ♗d2 ♘d7 9. g3 b6 10. ♘xd5 exd5 11. ♗g2 ♗b7 12. ♗b4 ♘f6 13. 0-0 ♖e8 14. ♖c1 c6 15. ♗xe7 ♖xe7 16. ♖e1 ♕d6 17. ♘f4 ♗c8 18. ♕a4 ♖c7 19. f3 ♗e6 20. e4 dxe4 21. fxe4 ♕d7 22. d5 cxd5 23. ♕xd7 ♖xd7 24. ♘xe6 fxe6 25. ♗h3 ♔h8 26. e5 ♘g8 27. ♗xe6 ♖dd8 28. ♖c7 d4 29. ♗d7


The game was perfect for him – an apparently simple position with what seemed to be a fixed centre...  But after a couple of barely noticeable inaccuracies the white centre began to move, slowly but irresistibly, and Magnus scored an apparently easy win. I’m sure that was a big lesson for Anand. His job may consist of avoiding fixed centres, although that isn’t easy. But in any case, the task in these “openings” – if you can call everything up to the 20th move an opening – isn’t solely limited to memorisation. Vishy will have to put in serious work to get an even better grasp of the secrets of those positions, which will be the key to not suffering as Black. So Anand’s training will involve practice games starting in uncomfortable positions, complex positional exercises and the defence of small weaknesses.

Vishy by the lake in Hamburg, taking a break from filming

Magnus’ repertoire with Black is somewhat more predictable. Against e4 he’s usually responded with e5 recently, putting great trust in his handling of both the Breyer and the Berlin. Against d4, meanwhile, he plays the Nimzo-Indian Defence, and in case of 3.Nf3 he transposes to the Queen’s Gambit. Perhaps it’s time for Vishy to review his analysis of 4.f3 against the Nimzo-Indian. He already employed that in 2008 in his match against Kramnik, looking for complications in variations based on a fianchetto. That’s a possibility!

Of course Anand’s understanding of the Ruy Lopez is incredible, but as I don’t believe that at this level there are new plans, great ideas or refutations in the openings after e4 e5 I’d hazard a guess that we should once again look for ideas with 1.d4! By the way... lines with Bf4 have been gaining in popularity against the Queen’s Gambit in recent years. Perhaps that’s not a coincidence...

Ok, so we’ve already got a lot of work ahead – for our analysts... I believe we can get good positions, but what about our play?

2) The defence of “simple” positions

Simple, you say? Magnus Carlsen at the London Candidates 2013 | photo: Anastasiya Karlovich

We’ll try to complicate matters and seize the initiative, but Carlsen will also want to use his weapons, and at some point he’ll get what he wants. Therefore being prepared to defend equal positions accurately, in psychological as much as chess terms, will be the key to not “gifting” points. How can we do that? Take the best chess engine at our disposal and get it to give us a “bland” position – certainly one without queens and with no more than two or three pieces on each side. And try to hold it! Not just for our morale, but also to train endurance, one of the most important factors in the match. I’d suggest that Anand tries this training only after 4 or 5 hours of prior training, trying to simulate as far as possible the real conditions of a game, as fatigue is one of the weapons the young Magnus will want to exploit.

3) Endgames

There could be a big debate about whether Carlsen is indeed the best player of all time, but I don’t think it would be such a big debate if we reduced the topic of discussion to the endgame. Magnus’ magnificent endgame wins against other elite players have earned him the respect of the chess world.Carlsen’s handling of certain complex endgames is simply wonderful. In particular, we should try to avoid rook endgames with one or two minor pieces on each side, where Magnus’ results are simply spectacular.

To emphasise the point let’s take a look at the statistics, based only on classical games against elite players (+2700) over the last three years. It’s quite a curious picture! 

CARLSEN: In 28 classical games against 2700+ players in the last 3 years featuring rook + minor piece(s) endgames the Norwegian challenger's record is 9 wins, 19 draws and 0 losses!

ANAND: By comparison in 26 classical games the World Champion has 1 win, 22 draws and 3 losses

After a similar number of games (185 for Carlsen vs. 163 for Anand) and a similar number of endgames with rook and a minor piece for each side (28 to 26), Carlsen’s haul of victories is far superior (9 to 1). Vishy should perhaps be alert to the possibility of avoiding these positions in search of others more in his favour...

Of course all this is just a brief sketch of what might occur in the match, and let’s not forget we’re dealing with two players who’ve lost less than 20 games in the last 3 years. Experience tells us that previous results count for little and the fight will be fierce. 

In his matches to date Anand managed to win no less than three games out of 12 against Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov, although only one against Boris Gelfand. Of those seven wins three came with the black pieces - two in the crazy Meran Variation of the Semi-Slav with the well-prepared 14…Bb7 idea in both games. 

The position after 14...Bb7, which brought Anand two precious victories with Black in his World Championship match against Kramnik

The other was the Lasker Variation of the Queen’s Gambit in the final game of the match against Topalov. I don't think the colour of the pieces will be crucial in this match either. Both players are capable of unbalancing the position with Black and it’s even more likely that each and every one of the games in the match will be quite long. Carlsen will try to exploit what should theoretically be his greater physical presence. However, the rest day after every two games and training with regular pool and gym sessions will help the Champion.

Shall we venture a prognosis? Sorry... the games, and therefore the match, will be decided by small details. Let the party begin!

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