Communication theory states that one cannot not communicate. The first two games of the World Championship match between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen ended in quick draws,but must have given the opposing camps plenty of information to work with already.
Carlsen opened with the unusual 1. Nf3. The Reti opening had not been used in Championship matches for a long time,certainly not in the last 35 games that Anand had been a part of till then. Carlsen’s choice would have come as a surprise to Anand in a broad sense,but what the challenger wanted to achieve beyond this is rather unclear.
Home preparation is most effectively translated into an advantage on the board when the game proceeds along theoretical lines of an opening until one of the players springs a surprise. This deviation is either a move that has not been played before at all (a novelty) or a side-line that has not been explored too deeply.
At this stage,one player can bank on the results of the extensive analysis of his seconds while the other will have to find solutions to tricky problems over the board. You either run down the clock trying to find the accurate continuation or end up missing the thread altogether,or both.
It is relatively easier to pull off this kind of an ambush as white because the player who makes the first move is in a better position to steer the game in a particular direction. In a crude example,black may have a novelty prepared in response to a popular queen pawn opening,but if white opens with his king pawn,the trap will have to wait.
Looked at from this perspective,the Reti is not the best choice to usher an opponent towards an ambush. The problem in opening with 1. Nf3 is that black may counter in a variety of ways. In fact,the first game may have started out as a Reti,but eventually transposed into a fianchetto-Grunfeld.
Carlsen admitted in the post-match press conference that he was hardly in control of the game and wasn’t ready for the game to have developed at the pace that it did. His choice of opening was not a success,but what was it that Carlsen set out to achieve? It may not have been an attempt to trap Anand with his preparation at all.
Instead,he may just have wanted to play the opening like he would the middle game,trying to put his pieces on their best squares and see how Anand would respond to an unusual first move. Anand’s years of opening preparation and an intuitive understanding of the early phase of the game came through as he levelled the position fast. The game ended in a 16-move draw.
Anand opted for 1. e4,changing-up from the queen pawn opening he has almost exclusively employed across three title defenses from 2008. This alteration,though,was expected. Also,each player in a championship match has at least a couple of responses prepared for both the king and queen pawn openings. What was of interest then,was not that Anand switched back to the king pawn opening,but how Carlsen would respond.
The move 1… e5 is black’s most common response to the king pawn opening while 1… c5 (leading to the Sicilian system,considered black’s sharpest reply) is also tried frequently. Instead,Carlsen went for the relatively uncommon but respected Caro Kann (1… c6).
It was an interesting choice for a couple of reasons. Firstly,Carlsen has rarely employed the Caro Kann. Secondly,and more tellingly,Anand has played on either side of the Caro Kann many times,most recently during a 32-move win over Ding Liren with white at the Alekhine memorial earlier this year. Put the two together and you can see how it was a smart move on Carlsen’s part.
The Caro Kann caught Anand by surprise. Carlsen’s seconds have no doubt put the engines to good use studying the opening,and considering they have a big enough database of Anand’s Caro Kann games to work with,they must have come up with a concrete set of ideas. Also,if Carlsen had played an opening that Anand was completely unused to,the Indian would have been too wary to attempt anything sharp and their preparation would have gone waste. Anand,a championship veteran,sniffed danger just as the position got critical. He traded queens and settled for a draw in 67 minutes.
While Carlsen is unlikely to repeat the unorthodox 1. Nf3 in game three,the Caro Kann might be revisited some time in the championship. Anand’s seconds will have to come up with enough to convince him that he could play the sharp lines without getting ambushed,but that may require time.
Three days (Anand last played white on the 10th and will do so again on Wednesday) may be too little time for that,and moreover,the team will also have to help the Indian hold with black in the intervening game on Tuesday. It is uncertain if Carlsen will get back to 1. e4 for game three,but what is for sure is that he has shown a fair bit of guile at this early stage despite a lot being made of his inexperience in matchplay.
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