The world was waiting to see Carlsen’s first showing after winning the title. Botvinnik was probably turning in his grave watching Carlsen’s “preparation” for the Zurich Chess Challenge – yes, he did play training games, like the Patriarch preached, but Bill Gates doesn’t sound like the opponent he would have approved of. I remember back in 2011 when Kasparov was criticising Carlsen for neglecting chess in between tournaments (remember Carlsen-Giri from Wijk 2011?) but it seems Carlsen learned his lesson.
We live in modern times and things have changed since the time of the Patriarch. And we have a modern champion who epitomizes these times. Photo shoots, promotions, talk shows, advertising obligations, this is our modern world and Carlsen the superstar is very busy when not playing chess. I am sure he did some preparation before Zurich, but I think he was mostly relying on his baggage from the match with Anand. Nevertheless he was rusty at the beginning, as the blitz preview showed, but kudos to him for getting a grip and winning the last 2 games. I am sure he got an incredible psychological boost from his miniature against Anand, after all mating an ex-World Champion in some 20 moves is no small feat.
The real chess started with the classical part and for me the game with Gelfand from the first round was very impressive. Gelfand introduced a very interesting idea in the Fianchetto Grunfeld which equalised (I remember seeing a photo of Carlsen in his room in Chennai, with his laptop and cashews and a lot of books on the table, one of which was Avrukh’s 1. d4 volume 2). It was obvious that Carlsen was rusty (as he admitted in the press conference) but he spent some time in the opening and activated his myelin (check out The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle for this term) and from that moment it was vintage Carlsen. 15 g4! was the star move and even though he tried, Gelfand couldn’t handle the pressure.
After the high-quality draw with Aronian, the tournament was decided in the round 3 game with Nakamura. Carlsen was outplayed (he probably wrongly assessed these positions in his preparation) and was lost, but in spite of the +9 engine evaluation, things weren’t simple in a real game against a World Champion with the clock running down. Nakamura missed several wins and he couldn’t even draw afterwards. Nakamura has a score of 0-8 against Carlsen in classical chess and his arrogance and self-promotion (“I do feel that at the moment I am the biggest threat to Carlsen” on the cover of the latest NIC Magazine) only does him harm. More humility and modesty will make him more likeable and his results will improve, but that’s entirely up to him.
The game with Caruana was probably Carlsen’s smoothest game. Caruana got a bit ambitious (not trying to win, but trying to kill off the game immediately) with his plan of 16…b6 and 17…d5 and it was amazing to see that it was all Carlsen needed to take over the initiative. The rest was deja vu – relentless pressure and victory.
A few words about the others. Aronian was the other outstanding player, but again as in Wijk he lost in the last round and that spoiled it a bit for him. His game with Nakamura was his best effort, even though the American was in knock-down after his Carlsen shock (and a bit unwise opening choice – why go for the King’s Indian when you’re still reeling after such a loss?). Aronian was well-prepared as always and this result only confirmed his status as number 1 (or 2, for the Kramnik fans) candidate to win Khanty Mansiysk.
Anand still seems to be rather shaken, if not stirred. The impression is that he cannot really handle the pressure when put to him (the Nakamura game) and cannot handle his nerves (the Aronian game, there was no need to sacrifice the piece). His starting 3 losses in a row in the rapid were no consolation either. I wonder if he’s going to be the Ivanchuk of Khanty Mansiysk.
Caruana showed his resilience once again. I quite like it that he manages to keep his level very high even when not in top form. This is a sign of the highest class. His last round win against Aronian was huge for his self confidence and he showed this by destroying the field in the rapids. Gelfand had two lousy tournaments in a row and I attribute it to the instability that comes with age. You simply cannot maintain the same high level all the time and with age the downs are especially painful (Kramnik also has started to suffer from this, even though not to that extent). I already mentioned Nakamura and it will be interesting to see how he reacts to these setbacks.
Zurich showed that for the time being Carlsen is a class above the rest (with the exception of Aronian and probably Kramnik). Let’s see how far he can go.