An old tiger may not be able to chase down his prey like he used to,but put your head in his mouth and you learn his teeth are still sharp,” tweeted Garry Kasparov during his visit to Chennai,warning Magnus Carlsen not to walk into Viswanathan Anand’s famed opening preparation.
Ironically,though,it may well have been Anand who had put his head in the tigers jaws in games five and six.
Anand spent five hours at the board during game five,spent a sleepless night after the loss,and Carlsen sat him down for another long endgame battle in game six. It was no wonder that Anand cracked.
Irrespective of the results and the solid defence that he had put up for the better part of the ten hours that the two decisive games lasted,put together,Anand would know that it was not the most efficient application of effort. In fact,he was doing exactly what Carlsen wanted.
A tireless opponent
Anand was fighting hard,but the best he could have gotten out of the games was a draw. More significantly,the battles were being fought in the recognized Carlsen territory of endgames. Thanks to his fitness and superior technique,Carlsen can play drawn or drawn-looking endgames tirelessly and accurately until the opponent makes the fatal error,either out of pressure,fatigue or pure boredom. (Another Kasparov tweet to illustrate the point: “Tarrasch said,before the endgame the gods have placed the middlegame. Sadly for Anand,in the endgame the gods have placed Carlsen!)
This facet of Carlsen’s play was not something that was unknown coming into the championship. Most pre-match talk revolved around whether Anand would catch Carlsen out in the opening phase or if Carlsen would grind Anand down in the endgame. Then again,like Anil Kumble said of the ‘pickable’ googly he developed in the second half of his career,a batsman may know what is coming,but he still has to play it.
If Anand has not always been able to get the game to be played to his strengths,then some of the credit should go to Carlsen. Even so,there have been phases where Anand was not completely without options. A different choice of moves,of tactics,of openings,could perhaps have led to a different kind of battle to the ineffectual ones he has been fighting in the endgames so far.
In games five and six,Anand was faced with a couple of such choices. In the first of these games,Anand was playing black in a Semi-Slav structure and,early on,had a bit of an advantage to work with. However,a bishop retreat (13..Bc7) allowed Carlsen to exchange queens and knights and though it left Anand objectively better (he had the bishop pair),as early as in move 15,the game had the feel of a rooks and minor pieces endgame.
“Not to say Anand’s 13..Bc7 was objectively bad,probably it is fine & had many chances to hold draw. But fits Carlsen’s style perfectly,” said Kasparov after the game.
Anand had the white pieces in the next game,and this time seemed prepared for Carlsen’s Berlin defence. A novelty in the tenth move saw Carlsen think long and hard. He replied with Be3,contesting white’s strong light-squared bishop. If Anand had voluntarily exchanged the piece,it would have left black with doubled e pawns,and,after a pawn exchange,a weakness on b5. This would have given Anand the possibility of pressing on both sides of the board,and combined with an annoying knight-pin,given him a workable advantage in the middle game.
One can understand the difficulty of the choice. A rule of thumb in preserving the tension in the position is to keep the pieces on the board,something he had ignored in game five. Now he was required to do the exact opposite,and not just that,exchange a strong piece for a weak piece. Anand shied away from the exchange and soon Carlsen was able to neutralise,and by move 24 there were just the queens and the pairs of rooks left on the board,along with the pawns.
It is not that either of these moves were mistakes. They certainly weren’t the ones that decided the course of the game,but they may have been decisive in the sense that they let go of the chance to drag Carlsen out of his comfort zone.
Game 7: live on DD sports at 3pm