Total Domination

Carlsen is winning everything.

I have to admit that I like that. I enjoyed watching Kasparov win everything in the 90s. Perhaps I feel that chess is a game of kings and it needs a proper king to rule and show his strength.

In 1959 the third round (from rounds 15-21) of the Candidates Tournament was held in Zagreb. It was in Zagreb that Tal overtook Keres and established a point and a half lead over his main competitor.

It is exactly 60 years later (thanks to efforts of the world-famous Croat Garry Kasparov) that an event comprised of only elite players returned to Zagreb. In 1959 there were 8 candidates, in 2019 11 players from the top of the rating list.

The results of both tournaments were identical. One player showed absolute superiority. If Tal brought dynamism and creating a mess to the fore, Carlsen’s current domination is a result of a successful reinvention of himself.

There are several factors that Carlsen changed that made him the irresistible force that he is right now. Here I would like to take a look at one of them. His Opening Preparation.

Ever since the match with Caruana the Sveshnikov Sicilian has been Carlsen’s main opening against 1 e4. The Sveshnikov offers rich dynamic possibilities in many lines and coupled with the thorough preparation made before the World Championship match, which included practice games and serious memorisation of all the prepared lines, it has been a fantastic choice for Carlsen.

However, there are a few lines in the Sveshnikov where Black’s counterplay is stymied and I’m surprised why they haven’t been tried against him more often. For example:

Carlsen’s choice of the Sveshnikov shows his changed approach towards his Black games. Fischer once said that a dramatic change in his career happened when he realised he could play for a win with Black too. Now Carlsen is doing the same.

An illustration of this is that even in the rare cases when he’s not playing the Sveshnikov, this aggressive and counter-attacking approach is shown in the other lines he’s choosing. Here’s what he played against Caruana in Zagreb:

When playing White Carlsen mostly varies between 1 c4 and 1 d4, in both cases with clear preference for closed games. In Zagreb he played 1 d4 in all but one game (in which he played 1 Nf3) and here again he is showing a lot of new ideas in the openings. Quite a fertile ground for his new ideas has been the Vienna (perhaps understandably so as it has been one of Caruana’s main openings prior to the match):

Carlsen has also shown his approach in the Grunfeld, preferring the line both Karpov and Kramnik successfully used in their matches against Kasparov, the line with Be3. His last round win in Zagreb against Vachier was deceptively smooth.

I find it difficult to understand what Vachier’s preparation consisted of here, as he immediately ended up in a worse position, but that doesn’t diminish Carlsen’s own.

As you can see, Carlsen is playing the main lines now! Not only that, he’s also introducing new ideas in these main lines and this gives him even bigger practical advantage than the previous Carlsen-style of avoiding theory and going for offbeat lines.

I see this shift towards playing the main lines as the single biggest evolution of Carlsen’s general approach to chess this year. As the positions he’s getting after the opening and his current results suggest, he has hit the bullseye. The players will of course adapt to the new Carlsen, but for now he’s flying as high as ever. Personally, I hope it continues for a long time.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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