Going Passive Magnus?

Magnus Carlsen’s domination in online chess continued with yet another win at the Chessable Masters. The win was convincing, beating everybody 2-0 in matches, but only because the other players couldn’t use the chances they were given.

The one thing I noticed during these matches was that it appeared that Carlsen was affected more than necessary by the result in the match. In other words, when he was leading he would often play for a draw, which is fine as long as it’s done properly.

A good case for a proper playing for a draw is the 4th game of the tie-break of his World Championship match with Karjakin in 2016. He played a solid opening and kept control throughout the game.

A bad way to play for a draw is to go passive and “hope for the best.” Surprisingly, that is exactly what Carlsen was doing in his final match with Giri.

In the first match, needing a draw with White to win it, Carlsen played a very passive opening:

This tendency towards passivity was also shown in his choices of openings when he played with Black. For example, in the first game of the first match he went for a solid, yet passive Slav set-up a-la Tiviakov:

In the second match the tendency continued. After winning the first game in great style Carlsen switched to bunker-style in the others.

In the third game he went for the English Opening and after 16 moves he was already slightly worse.

To his credit, Carlsen successfully managed to defend the passive position by setting up a fortress in the end.

The worst case was the last game of the match. Again needing a draw to win the match and the tournament Carlsen went for a very passive choice. It was his preparation until this point at least (he said that the move 18…a5 was in his files), but what puzzles me is why would he voluntarily go for this position?

Black’s last move was 18…a5

Even if Black is objectively fine here (which I doubt, though I’m sure Peter Heine did his work), why would anybody want to play in this manner, giving White all he wants and needs. Even more so, why play this when needing a draw?

Carlsen was outplayed and dead lost in this game, but thanks to a 1-move blunder by Giri he saved the game and won the match and the tournament.

It is quite possible that Carlsen is testing various strategies in these matches to see if he can get away with them. I am also pretty certain that he would never play like this in a high-stakes OTB game. Still, seeing him go passive like is a strange sight.

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