Magnus Carlsen’s figure so looms over the chess world right now that his shadow stretches all the way to the World Championship final in November. As things stand though,the 22-year old Norwegian has little claim over Viswanathan Anand’s crown that many see as his before the year is over.
The No.1-ranked player in the world,rated higher than anybody in the history of the sport,will however have to get past an ensemble cast at the Candidates tournament in London,starting Friday,to earn the right to challenge champion Anand for the world title. The field includes the top-four in the world (Vladimir Kramnik,Levon Aronian and Teimour Radjabov,apart from Carlsen),and a combination of experience and talent in Peter Svidler,Alexander Grischuk,Vassily Ivanchuk and last year’s runner-up Boris Gelfand.
While the current assembly might be stronger and perhaps more motivated than the ones he routinely trampled on for tournament wins over the last two years,Carlsen’s raw talent and stunning recent form make him the overwhelming favourite. Carlsen is currently rated 2,872,a whopping 62 points ahead of Kramnik in second place. Rankings might be purely indicative of strength,but it is difficult to argue against Carlsen’s staggering form of late.
Since 2012,Carlsen has 26 wins from 63 games (win percent of 41.2),winning four tournaments and never dropping below second place in the rest. His record in the second half of this period has been even better. After July 2012,Carlsen’s win percent shoots up higher to 48.7.
Compare this to the two players considered his principal rivals in London: Both Kramnik and Aronian are close to their peak ratings,but their numbers hint at the speed with which Carlsen is opening up a gap with the chasing pack. From the beginning of last year,Kramnik has had 12 wins at 25.5 per cent,while Aronian’s (who pushed Carlsen to second place in Tata Steel 2012) 24 wins have come at 33.33 per cent.
Over the last 15 months,Kramnik has fallen to six losses in 47 games (12.7 per cent) while Aronian’s more enterprising play has backfired on occasion,resulting in 10 losses in 72 games (13.9 per cent). In the same period,Carlsen has lost just once (1.5 per cent).
Moreover,the length of the tournament,14 rounds over 18 days,is also seen to suit Carlsen’s style of slow strangulation. Not averse to stretching games past the six-hour mark until the opponent cracks in the face of his unrelenting accuracy and pressure,Carlsen will stand to benefit as fatigue kicks in,in the later half of the tournament. What the older players (Svidler is 36,Kramnik 37,Ivanchuk 43 and Gelfand 44) would gain in championship experience will be mitigated by Carlsen’s persistence.
So how does one stop arguably the strongest player in the game,one who wins more often than anybody else and barely ever loses? Commentators count three areas that can cause Carlsen relative concern. Firstly,his form with black. Twenty of his 26 wins since 2012 have come with white and his only loss with black. Secondly,Carlsen’s tournament wins owe something to his ruthlessness against the stragglers. London will afford Carlsen no such freebees. Thirdly,if at all Carlsen has a weakness,it is his opening repertoire. A universal player,the Norwegian is capable of playing any position with ease but the lack of perfected opening technique means Carlsen often comes out of the initial phase without much of an advantage. No game is over that early but perhaps the opening is an area he could be surprised in.
The Candidates tournament has been the site of surprises before but it will take an upset of epic proportions to stall Carlsen’s irresistible charge towards the world title.
World No 1 (2872)
Talent and form make him the favourite. He could be in for a slow start,being slated to play Aronian and Kramnik early.
World No 2 (2810)
The former champion may run Carlsen close but age and ensuing fatigue might count against him as tournament wears on.
World No 3 (2805)
Acknowledged by Carlsen as his main rival,the Armenian pushed Carlsen in 2012,but has tapered off a bit since.
World No 4 (2794)
The dark horse. Off the circuit for close to a year,rusty form and poor results with black might cost him.
World No 10 (2764)
Eliminated Aronian and Kramnik last time. Strong player,but motivation,managing his time have been issues.
World No 11 (2757)
Brilliant,eccentric. May lack consistency to win outright,but might prove crucial to the eventual order.
World No 14 (2747)
Surprised everyone in the WC tournament in 2005,finishing behind Topalov. A second upset run might be beyond him.
World No 17 (2740)
His strengths are preparation,focus. Last cycles finalist is the oldest player in the field and that may play against him.