One of chesss truisms is that an error-free game almost always results in a draw. It is not just an explanation that players wheel out in defence of an uninspiring game but it also shows how sometimes what you can do on a chess board can be greatly limited by the ability and choices of your opponent.
Trailing 3-5 in the World Championship,Viswanathan Anand has got some flak for being unable to impose his sharp,tactical style of play on Magnus Carlsen. While this is true,it cannot entirely be regarded as a failure on the part of the champion. Clearly,there are areas Anand could have done better in there has been something amiss in the opening area,for example,and the loss in game six,down to a late blunder,was avoidable. Still,over the majority of the eight games,Anands troubles could be put down to a display of canniness that was not expected of Carlsen,playing his first championship match.
There are no surprises in a championship match but I had not prioritised e4, said Anand after game 8. Carlsen had alternated between two unorthodox openings with his whites until that game,opting for the Reti complex (games 1,3) and the English (game 5),and when he pushed his king pawn up front,Anand,as he perhaps inadvertently admitted after the game,was not exactly ready for it. A game that many regarded as a must-win for Anand ended in a draw after 70 minutes.
That was just the latest in a series of choices that have rather confounded Anand. In his first game with black,Carlsen had opted for a rare side line of the Caro Kann (1.. c6) and while this was not a complete surprise (he has played this before,but not often) it may well have been used as the first move in a set-up.
It (playing the Caro Kann with his first black) would have forced Anands seconds to spend a lot of time looking into the opening and that is one way of tiring them out, said GM RB Ramesh,while speaking of Carlsens choice. Indeed,Carlsen has not played the Caro Kann in response to Anands 1. e4 since.
The switch itself was a surprise and so was the variation he went for: the Berlin. Carlsen came into the championship with the reputation of someone who plays to win,something that was down to his extraordinarily high win percentage in tournaments and ability to grind out a result from seemingly drawn positions. It wasnt really expected of him to go for the ultra-defensive Berlin with black,a belief that might have tempted Anand to switch from 1. d4 (which he has played in all matches so far) to 1. e4 against Carlsen. Now,having faced three Berlins in a row,and having lost with white in one of them,Anand might be forced into a switch so late in the match.
Draw as a weapon
This negation of the opponents foremost weapon,his games with white,with a defensive line was a very practical choice,one that Carlsen has stayed away from in tournaments so far. A continuation of this philosophy was also visible in Carlsens overall approach to draws in the match. He may have pushed Anand into erring in equal middlegame positions for wins in games five and six,but Carlsen has also been flexible enough to use the draw as a blunting weapon. In the last couple of games,both quick draws,
Carlsen,ahead by two points,could possibly have tortured Anand in an equal position for hours on end. Instead,he was content with the half point,knowing that with fewer and fewer games left,Anand would have to take an enormous amount of risk to mount a comeback. This is another departure from the way he approaches games in a tournament.
This kind of percentage play is hardly the sign of nerves or anxiety. Rather,it is indicative of Carlsens firm grasp of the dynamics of match play. His inexperience in the match format has meant that any departure from his style has come as a big surprise,something Carlsen has made good use of so far,so much so that the final stumbling block may not even be Anand,but his own nerves.
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