General Oct 15, 2020 | 6:03 PMby Colin McGourty

Kramnik on seeing Carlsen was “the next Federer”

Magnus Carlsen was on the ropes against Fabiano Caruana in Round 7 of Altibox Norway Chess, but the slow-moving game was the perfect opportunity for our commentators Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar to talk about just what makes Magnus so special. Kramnik in particular talked about how two encounters with 16-17 year old Magnus convinced him that we had a player who was not just a potential World Champion but someone who could dominate the game as Roger Federer did in tennis. We’ve selected the key 20-minute segment of the commentary, with a full transcript.

Vladimir Kramnik was glowing in praise for his great successor Magnus Carlsen

Vlad and Judit were commentating while Magnus Carlsen found himself in real danger of falling to a first classical loss in five years against world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana. The game ended in a draw that Magnus made from a position of strength - a perfect illustration of what our commentators were talking about! Watch the video below:

The segment starts from a discussion of whether it's possible to play at a high level nowadays without deep opening preparation. 

Kramnik: Magnus is maybe the only player who can manage to compensate it somehow and who still has chances to be number one maybe even not working on chess, but in general the importance of chess preparation nowadays is getting bigger and bigger.

Polgar: How is it possible that Magnus’ development was somehow improving in parallel his opening, middlegame and endgame strength? I remember when we were playing together in the London Chess Classic, which was quite some years ago, somewhere maybe in 2012, 2013, something like that, and I think Magnus was number 1, but he was not the World Champion yet. And you were telling me this sentence, it’s still in my ear, that, 

“well, with Magnus it’s ok to make a draw, but how to beat him?” 

And I remember that you were saying this and this was really keeping you busy, of course, quite a lot, that he’s got good and it’s not a problem to handle and balance, but how to beat him? How could he get so good, do you think, that he can keep it in such a balance that he’s not making drastic mistakes, and he was not doing it already then?

Kramnik scored an unbeaten +4 (a 2939 rating performance) in the 2012 London Chess Classic, but the event was won by Carlsen with +5 and a 2991 rating performance! | photo: Ray Morris-Hill, London Chess Classic

Kramnik: Yes, but that’s class. First of all, he was very quickly… usually most players they get this high class of play, it takes them time to reach this, you know by 25, 30 they become a really classy player, and Magnus he was a very, very high positional class player already at the age of 17, 18. That is, of course, his huge talent, and actually a core, I believe, of his talent, is this feeling for the position. 

He doesn’t need to think too much to know which piece to put where, he has a very, very delicate touch. He really feels the smallest, slightest nuances of the position.

I remember when I played with him the first Wijk aan Zee tournament, which actually he didn’t finish so well, on -3 or something, when he was 15 [Magnus was 16], in the A Group, but I played a game with him. It was a draw, and then we just analysed a little after, post-mortem on the board, just for 20 minutes, and for me everything was clear after that, because I could feel how delicate his feeling is for very slight positional changes – something I frankly not always can witness even with Top 10 players, who are 40 years old. 

I was trying this move, that move, and it was amazing to me that a 15-year-old boy, it was a very positional game, and then he would immediately switch his plan or set up his pieces differently in accordance with what I would do as White, and it was most of the time, in my opinion, totally correct. And then you could say, ok, at 15, at this age, to be able to catch it so quickly, that’s a sign of a huge talent, of a huge positional talent. I haven’t seen it… 

I can tell you even Kasparov didn’t have it at this age. 

It was really…

Polgar: What about Karpov?

Kramnik: I think Karpov not also. I saw his games when he was young. I think he slowly, slowly was building it, but it seems like for Magnus it was from birth, it was natural, it was absolutely natural, so that makes a big difference, and of course he’s young, he’s very motivated, at that time already. When you’re young you keep concentration very well, but usually what is the minus of a young player? You calculate well, but then all these small positional nuances etc., there you start to “swim” [drift], so to say. You start to make mistakes. And ok, he covered, because it’s his natural talent, he was covering this part of the game basically by nature, and then it makes you a very, very complete player, already at such a young age, which very seldom happens.

And also I have another story with Magnus, since I see no moves are played. I remember also another story, I think Magnus was 16 already, and already probably a Top 10 player, but that was also extremely impressive. I was very impressed, it’s a small thing which you catch, and then it’s not like a tournament victory or beating a World Champion at this age, it’s something which amazes you as a professional. For an amateur maybe it’s the other way around, but sometimes there are these small things which are amazing.

17-year-old Magnus Carlsen defended this position against Vladimir Kramnik in the 2008 Amber Tournament
I remember I played in the Monaco tournament. There is one blindfold, one rapid game. I don’t already remember who was doing how, but ok, I had this two-game match with him. One of the years, frankly maybe it was 2007 or, I’m not sure exactly, or 2006 maybe, and ok, I managed to win the first game with White. I was quite lucky, actually, it was very complicated, I think he lost on time, or he forgot the position in blindfold, and then I was playing Black in the second game. It was some Petroff, he played a random line, I slowly outplayed him, and we ended up in a position like I have an endgame, I have rook, bishop and 5 pawns against rook, knight and 4 pawns.

And the pawn structure is such that it’s actually quite difficult to win, I would say it’s really a 50:50 chance to win. It’s one less pawn, but he gets some control and he’s passive but it’s very difficult to improve. And I have like 7 minutes against 10 seconds. He’s playing on 10-second increment. Ok, basically it’s impossible to defend under such circumstances. It’s already quite a difficult position anyway, and I play, I play, I try, but finally 40 moves were played, it was a draw in the end, I couldn’t manage to win, and also what was amazing was that I could see him playing very accurately, slowly, no nerves, nothing, making many moves on 1 or 2 seconds, pressing the clock, not even pushing the clock, and ok, I was puzzled, how could it be? Of course you might not win this game, but how can it be that a person can defend.

So I thought ok, maybe I missed certain things. I come back to my room and I see out of these 40 moves he played something like 35 first line [of the computer], maybe three second line and two third line. 

It’s just absolutely amazing defence, playing on 10 seconds a difficult endgame, and I saw I didn’t make mistakes as well, it’s just that he defended almost like a machine on 10 seconds. It’s just absolutely amazing! That was something which puzzled me more than any brilliant sacrifice or tournament victory sometimes.

Then I understood. Ok, it was already clear before, but then it became clear. I think I even said that year, or the beginning of next year in my TV interview, to some European, I don’t remember whom, 

I said that in my opinion he’s going to be the next Federer. It was not obvious at all yet, he was just a Top 10 player, but I could see that not only he has good chances to be World Champion one day, but also that he really can be dominating the world of chess, because you barely see such a combination of class, character, very sportive character, high concentration, a fantastic nerve system for chess. 

It’s like made haute couture, everything is exactly in the right dosage.

Polgar: Same proportions…

Kramnik: Just the perfect proportions, yes.

Polgar: And also we shouldn’t neglect that his physical preparation is immensely exemplary, I think. 

I’m not sure we can say that we have had such an athletic World Champion before.

Kramnik: Garry was quite strong physically, he was making a lot of sports, but yes, Magnus is… it’s like he’s covering almost everything.

Polgar: I had the feeling with Garry that he was doing it because he knew that it’s part of the preparation, but with Magnus I have the feeling that he simply enjoys it and he likes it very much, and he’s not doing it only because it’s part of the preparation but he’s doing it because he loves it.

Kramnik: Because he loves it, yes, for me it was always like a torture! I did quite a lot when I was playing matches, but if not part of preparation I wouldn’t have done it, but for Magnus it’s quite obvious he just likes it.

Polgar: I saw the documentary about him and also I was reading a little bit the book about him and you hear stories here and there, and it was very interesting to see for me in the movie that actually his father was travelling with him and they were playing ball games, even in the room sometimes, so probably it’s because he was a kid, he had a lot of energy, and even if not all the time, he had the opportunity to go the soccer field or do sports with others, they were still throwing balls to each other in the room of the hotel, so it was like a very systematic preparation and I think we should highlight Henrik’s role in Magnus’ development was somewhat exceptional, I think.

Father and son together at this year's Norway Chess | photo: Lennart Ootes

I remember how amazed I was that I saw that Henrik was standing behind, and it was clear that whatever Magnus wanted he was around to help him out and be there, just there where he was expected to be for Magnus. It’s such an amazing human relationship between a father and son, that even today I think somehow Henrik feels so much what is the proportion that he has to be around, and when he’s not...

Kramnik: It’s a unique setting, because on top of it it’s very important that there’s a lot of support from people who are around you, they give all their time, all their soul, there is a big team which is working for him, not only chesswise, but managers and you’re taken care off.

Polgar: But this is only for the last few years. When he was a kid - because I saw parents and of course my parents were like that that they were so supportive that they were giving the direction for me, which direction to go, they were helping out who to work with, which tournaments to play in, and so on. In most of the cases parents would somehow like to give the guidelines to the kids and sometimes pushing it more than they should and sometimes they are just giving good directions, but still usually they are much stronger characters from the point of view to push which way to go, who to hire for training. And with Magnus, what I felt was that his father Henrik was really there watching his thoughts and trying to understand every thought of Magnus, and try to figure out, but it was always Magnus who directed the directions and then he just put in the small things, or bigger things, or things which seemed to be small from outside, but it was essential for Magnus to develop the way he did.

Kramnik: All in all it’s a unique setup, of incredible talent, incredible personal qualities like nerve system, physical etc. etc. and a fantastic setup of people around who are doing, I guess, a very good job to make him realise his full potential. So of course that happens very rarely, and that’s why we see such a unique player. 

I’m sure that in the history of chess he will stay as a very huge figure, if not the major figure, and we now, when we live and even play with this person, watch his games, we maybe don’t measure the scale of his achievements and talent, and frankly it is huge, absolutely huge.

Polgar: And now he’s in a very good period of his life, I think, we can see him being happy, being smooth, he’s visiting us every day practically, so you can see that he’s in a very good state. I remember when I was commentating on the last World Championship match between him and Fabiano, he was kind of struggling quite a bit and he had a very difficult period of time, I believe, and it was very hard to explain some of the mistakes he did, it was a huge struggle for him, you could understand it. And he tried, he tried, he tried, and for sure he worked a lot, and probably not less than before, but sometimes you get into such a crisis and I think that was a huge victory for him, maybe one of the most difficult World Championship titles.

That was very special, and of course the last game where he made a draw, if you remember, that he had a very nice position and he agreed to a draw, and it was an exceptionally interesting decision by him. He had to have such self-confidence and know what he’s doing, and I think maybe his coaches were not aware of it and I’m not sure his coach Nielsen was happy about it, but it was very clear that he has this very clear vision of what he wants and he goes accordingly, and actually he was right, looking back.

Kramnik: It depends! I still believe it was a mistake. I was very critical about it, and I still am, absolutely not from the sportive point of view. But ok, of course it’s his decision, and I think that even if you win it’s still not right, in my personal opinion. 

Let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t have done it, for sure, in any situation. Even if I know I’m going to win the tiebreak, because it’s something different than chess. 

Anyway, of course it’s his life, his decision, but it’s quite clear than he had a certain difficult period and… but we all have, everybody does, so I also know, I guess you too, Judit, that during your career you have some periods when just you don’t feel right, something is not right, and you don’t know what, but then, at least with me always, there was some moment when the new period was coming, when all of a sudden, also without any very big reasons, you start again to feel back in your shoes.

Polgar: But for him it was something that there was too much at stake, and I think obviously he’s a character and he’s a player, and that’s one of the reasons of his success, that he can always challenge himself, he always wants to improve, and he desperately loves to win.

Kramnik: That’s a problem, yes!

Polgar: And in this situation I think he just simply assessed the situation, what it is, and he realised before the game that the best chance I have is if I make a draw, whatever happens, and my mind is already switched to the playoff. Even though I don’t think he was happy to win the World Championship title in a playoff, but he said, ok, it’s still better to win in a playoff than not to win.

Kramnik: I don’t think he was risking anything! It’s more a philosophical issue. I can tell you why I was very critical. Ok, who am I to criticise? He has a right to do what he is doing, but I felt I have a right to tell what I think.    

It’s a more anthropological issue, philosophical, if you want. It’s about basically… how to say, you get challenges in life sometimes, and those challenges are sometimes very difficult, and I feel like sometimes life challenges you and you just have to go through it. 

It’s like your obligation, you’re obliged morally if you’re in this situation, it’s like a test for you, and sometimes it ends badly, but my feeling is that sometimes life puts you before a wall and tells you, ok, now you fight, now you show what you do, and that is the situation. Last round, ok, he’s better, actually risk-free, and millions of people watching, and for me I would feel like, “Ok, it’s a test”. If I’m the champion, if I feel I’m a real champion, a big champion, of course - Magnus is, of course, and it’s just my perception - I have to do it, even if I shouldn’t pragmatically. But it’s like, ok, even if I know that doing the other way around would maybe be pragmatically better... But ok, maybe I’m strange and old-fashioned. I don’t insist, but it’s just my point of view.

Little in chess could compare to the pressure Fabiano and Magnus played under in their London World Championship match | photo: Niki Riga

Polgar: I think it was a very interesting situation, and of course I understood in some ways, but I completely understood the critics of that. I remember I was also kind of having absolutely mixed feelings, but at the same time we can’t deny that we have an exemplary World Champion for different reasons, and actually even in such a difficult situation that he’s in now, he just went to the confessional booth, and we have a quick translation from that.

Kramnik: Excellent!

Polgar: So let me read it for you and for our audience. He said:

“I think now that Stockfish is in the preparations every day. I knew h4 was the critical move there, but I messed up immediately, like a dyslexic, in the various positions. I see a lot of things, but can’t quite put it together. I think when I played Na5 I may have underestimated his plan with g4 a bit. g4 now looks really, really dangerous.”

But actually we have h5 on the board!

“The only thing I can imagine playing is Qb6, I think, and take back with the king on f6. But it won’t be the most surprising thing in the world if he has something planned. We’ll see! If he can’t break through immediately I may be doing ok.”

So what a guy! What a World Champion, he’s suffering here, he’s going to get in time trouble - right now exactly he has one hour less than Fabiano, and he spends time to entertain us and the audience, to share his views.

Magnus not only managed to draw against Fabi but won their Armageddon game as well | photo: Lennart Ootes

Kramnik: But sometimes it actually helps, when you’re tense and you have a lot of emotions, lots of ideas of how you can play and what your opponent can do, and sometimes in this tense situation it might be even easier.

Polgar: You let it out!

Kramnik: You get rid of it. You get rid of this steam which is boiling there.

Polgar: But I think it’s simply a beautiful idea to have the confessional booth. It’s an option, it’s an alternative for the players – if they feel like it they can share, it’s definitely great entertainment and spice to the game, for the commentators, for us, and for the audience. But h5 was played, when probably it seemed like maybe he was more afraid of g4.

Kramnik: So yes, g4 was your move, h5 was my move, so you are Magnus Carlsen and I am Fabiano Caruana!

Polgar: I wouldn’t be ashamed of either, to replace the world no. 1 or the world no. 2! 

See also:

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