Sunday, December 29, 2013

Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson's Insights About Magnus Carlsen

Scottish Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson, a three-time British Chess Champion (2004-06), has some fascinating insights about the specific traits that make World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen such a great player.

Rowson explains, "Carlsen is not an idealist or a performer like Kasparov, who loved the narrative, the drama, the quest. Magnus just wants to win. So while there is plenty of creative amplitude in his play, the underlying motivational vector appears to be relatively sombre and flat." Carlsen possesses what Rowson calls "depressive realism"--Carlsen has a very objective approach to chess and his play does not seem to be dictated by his emotions but rather by a detached, clinical evaluation of the position at hand.

Rowson vigorously disagrees with the contention that Carlsen defeated World Champion Viswanathan Anand not on chess merit but simply by virtue of being younger and more energetic. Rowson asserts, "Carlsen’s nettlesomeness lies in the difference between playing consistently accurate moves, and playing consistently accurate moves that also maximise the chances of inaccuracies from the opponent. The former style beats all but the very best Grandmasters, while the latter tends to beat them too."

How does Carlsen regularly dispatch the world's foremost Grandmasters in positions that are not only seemingly equal but also seemingly devoid of any semblance of meaningful winning chances? Rowson, who has faced Carlsen in tournament play, provides an interesting list of what he considers Carlsen's unique chess warrior attributes:
  • First, avoid errors yourself.
  • Second, play relatively quickly.
  • Third, see complexity where others assume simplicity.
  • Fourth, develop exquisite timing for when to change the nature of the position.
  • Fifth, navigate towards positions where there are no obvious moves.
  • Sixth, believe in your opponent's greater and ultimate fallibility.
  • Seven, keep going relentlessly.
  • Eight, be ever ready to pounce.
  • Nine, kill them without mercy.
  • Ten, smile for the cameras.
That 10 step program may seem simple but there is a real art and skill to playing chess in that fashion. Most strong chess players possess at least some of those traits--I call it "the art of doing nothing while accomplishing something," meaning that strong players can shuffle their pieces around without any obvious goal and yet somehow improve their position while not taking any serious risks--but Carlsen brings that entire tool kit to every move, every game and every tournament.

The first step, avoiding errors, is the most difficult one for chess players at any level. There are countless examples of elite Grandmasters blundering into checkmates, hanging their Queens and committing various other forms of chess suicide. Chess requires constant concentration for hours on end and for days at a time and even the smartest, most dedicated competitors have lapses.

The advantage of playing quickly is that it puts psychological pressure on one's opponent, who literally does not have a moment to rest; in tennis terms, the ball is always coming back over the net at him--and, assuming that one keeps the ball in play (i.e., avoids errors), this forces the opponent to send the ball back over the net as well.

Chess is a complex game that can sometimes seem simple, but even the quietest positions often contain a drop of poison. It takes imagination and concentration to sense danger in what appear to be calm waters.

A chess player is perhaps most likely to make a mistake when he is taken out of his comfort level; he thinks that he is going to be playing a pawn up middlegame but all of a sudden his opponent sacrifices the Exchange. What is the nature of this new, unexpected position? Such surprises often induce mistakes.

Carlsen has the ability to "do nothing" but most chess players lack the patience, board vision and understanding for such maneuvers. When there is nothing obvious to do, it is easy to go astray.

Confidence is so very important in all areas of life. I don't play chess at anywhere near Carlsen's level but even as a local/regional champion I can recall many games that I won mainly because I simply believed (sometimes erroneously) that I was winning and that brazen confidence boosted my spirits while perhaps rattling the confidence of my opponents.

No one ever won by resigning and no one ever held a lost position without displaying great tenacity. Carlsen just plows forward regardless of the situation; as Capablanca once said, the good player is always lucky.

Opportunity may only appear once in a five or six hour playing session but when that opportunity arises Carlsen recognizes it--and he does indeed "kill" his opponents "without mercy."

Rowson's last step is tongue in cheek--at least in terms of being a necessary trait for over the board dominance--but it no doubt has helped Carlsen to land many of his endorsement deals, providing him with more financial stability than most chess players enjoy.

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