Magnus Carlsen is the 3-Time World Chess Champion, he’s 26 years old, he’s probably the most talented chess player on earth, and I think he has a big problem.
Here is my “Magnus Theory Pt 1.” The TLDR version is: Carlsen transformed his style from a Tal-like swashbuckler, to a extremely conservative positional player that relied on stamina to wear down his opponents (who were usually older).
What do Carlsen and Tal have in common?
Both relied on sub-optimal moves to become World Chess Champion.
Tal loved to sacrifice material, even when he admitted it wasn’t ‘correct’. The most famous example is Game 6 of the 1960 World Chess Championship against Botvinnik. On his 24th move Tal sacrificed a knight for the initiative, activation of pieces with no immediate material compensation, and went on to win the game.
From what I’ve read in books, this knight sacrifice really frustrated some because if Botvinnik hadn’t blundered 2 moves later, the move would have gone down in the history books as a blunder instead of a brilliancy. Whether brilliant or a blunder, this move isn’t optimal!
Now what you probably think I’m going to say is: Carlsen won the 2016 WCC by sacrificing his queen in Game 4 of tie-breaks.
This is not one of the sacrifices I’m talking about. And to connect Tal and Carlsen because they both have sacrificed material in a WCC would be lame and a waste of everyone’s time.
The sacrifice Carlsen made on move 10 of game 3 of his 2016 match vs Karjakin is much more interesting to me.
Most people, who am I kidding, no one but me, will classify 10.Re2 as a sacrifice. When chess players think of a sacrifice they usually think of Tal trading a rook for a pawn, or a bishop sacrifice on f7, or h2, or a move that loses material for some greater gain. Carlsen isn’t losing material with Re2, so why do I call it a sacrifice? I look at Re2 as a sacrifice because Carlsen is losing something: the advantages of playing the optimal move. What is Carlsen gaining? A fresh position where he can try to outplay his opponent.
I don’t want to get caught up on semantics, you can call Re2 whatever you want: a sacrifice, a transaction, a strategy, whatever. The main point is: Carlsen is playing sub-optimal moves in exchange for fresh positions. Think of how similar this is to Tal: Tal played “non-correct” moves to create chaos. Tal’s assumption is I am better at chaotic positions, so I will pay material to create them. Carlsen is playing “sub-optimal” moves to create a new position, which is essentially chaos. Carlsen’s assumption is I am better at simply playing chess, so I will make sub-optimal moves to create fresh positions. Both Carlsen and Tal are willing to play “sub optimal moves” to steer the game into something their opponent could not expect. Both used this tactic at the highest possible level of competition, the World Chess Championship, and both won. Brilliant and Magical.
Carlsen uses this strategy often. Here are some recent examples. On his 6th move of the 5th 2016 WCC Game Carlsen plays the 10th most popular move 6.a4. Carlsen repeated the strange opening on the 2nd Tie-Break game of the 2016 WCC. In the 4th Tie-Break Game Carlsen played 5.f3 in the Sicilian. Here is a screenshot from the lichess opening explorer to give you an idea of how popular that move is.
If you don’t agree that Carlsen uses sub-optimal moves to create fresh positions go ahead and take a look at this game, then come back and we can talk.
Why is this strategy a problem?
Before I tell you why I think this strategy will pose long-term problems for Carlsen let me say, I am a Magnus Carlsen fan. I’ve been following his career for over 10 years, I think he’s great for chess, and I am in no way a ‘hater.’ The way that Magnus transformed his game to utilize this strategy is remarkable and brilliant, and rightly earned him the title of World Champion. It was a brilliant choice in 2013, but now I think this strategy will become a liability.
Reason #1– Playing sub-optimal moves is a strategy that can’t grow and mature the way other styles can.
Former WC Viswanathand Anand has the most notorious opening repertoire in chess. My favorite Anand game is his 2013 game against Aronian where Anand uses ‘left-over’ preparation from his WC match against Gelfand. Bear with me, if Anand’s opening repertoire was a tree, I think the tree would look like this.
Beautiful, wild, mysterious, deep, fecund, growing, ancient.
I’ve heard Carlsen lecture, his memory is unparalleled. I 100% believe Carlsen could play openings like Anand, but chooses to put his efforts into more effective areas of his chess game. No one knows what Carlsen has in his head but Carlsen. All we know is what he has shown us so far.
If Carlsen’s opening style was a tree I think it would look like this:
Tiny, mysterious, well pruned, and the work of a master.
But here’s the thing about this tree: you can only prune a tree for so long. Tree pruning, hair cutting and laundry are all tasks that have pre-determined ends.
Carlsen makes sub-optimal opening moves. What can he to do mature that style? Make his opening moves more sub-optimal? Bring an 8-sided die to every game with white, and before the game give it a roll, and move the corresponding pawn 1 square?
I can hear the commentators now “Welcome to the 2018 World Chess Championship. The players are about ready to begin Game 1, and Carlsen is bringing out his opening die. What will he roll today? Only the die knows. Oh, it’s a 6! Carlsen shrugs, puts the die back in his breast pocket and plays f3. Wouldn’t be my choice to open a world championship but you know the saying “you live by the die, you die by the die.”
Am I being serious or not? Yes
Reason #2- This style was developed to defeat a chess meta-game that has drastically changed, making it less effective.
I don’t hear the term “meta-game’ discussed in chess and probably for good reason. Chess is usually like weight-lifting, I can lift 500 pounds, you can only lift 450, so I’m going to win this weightlifting competition. The Style or what method you use to lift the weight isn’t relevant. All that matters is: can you lift the weigh or not?
Compare that to a game like Hearthstone, or League of Legends, or even NBA Basketball. In those games it’s possible to have strategy, method, or team that is most successful but not objectively best. In those games the ‘strongest’ doesn’t always win. Here’s how: There’s a new Hearthstone deck that’s using the most consistent and effective strategy, let’s call that “strategy a”. “Strategy a” gains wide popularity because people that use it gain a high win %. Because of “strategy a’s” popularity a counter strategy is developed, “strategy b”. “Strategy b” is only successful against “strategy a” and quickly gains popularity. Now that “strategy b” is becoming so popular a normal and basic “strategy c” is developed, because “strategy b” wasn’t designed to beat it. And finally now that ‘strategy c’ is gaining popularity, guess what is ready to come back? “Strategy a”!
Does the chess world have a meta-game? I don’t think so. But I do think Carlsen’s opening strategy is a reaction to an exploitable weakness, much like “strategy b” in the above scenario (but I also think Carlsen is the strongest weightlifter around). This choice made Carlsen a great match-up for Anand and Carlsen soundly won 2 WCC matches. Carlsen used the same strategy against Karjakin in their 2016 WC match in NYC. Carlsen did not win that match, Karjakin lost it. Carlsen won game 10 after a unbelievable mistake by Karjakin. After the match Carlsen admitted himself how close the chess world came to having a new champion.
Carlen’s strategy made him the king of the pre-computer world of chess, but I don’t believe it will serve him well in the post-computer era.
My prediction is simple: If Carlsen’s next WCC challenger is under 30 years old, Carlsen will have to stop making these suboptimal moves in the opening. If he doesn’t I believe he will be defeated.
Oh and yes, I have thought about what tree reminds me of Tal’s sacrifices: the weeping beech
Unreal, wonder inducing, strange, beautiful