The disappointment of the result was reflected in Carlsen’s rating change after the game. Carlsen’s strength (a provisional rating of 2862) demanded a win against the 42-year old World Champion, rated a distant 2773. The draw actually pulled Carlsen’s rating down by a point.
The draw in the final round was a an anomaly for Carslen for one other reason. It is towards the end of the tournament, when players typically agree on tired and flat draws, safeguarding their tournament positions, that Carslen is at his ruthless best. At the Grand Prix Masters a couple of months back, Carlsen won three of his last five rounds. On the ten other boards, the rest of the field, which included the World No. 2, 5, 6 and 7, managed two wins. Carlsen, needless to say, defended his title at Bilbao.
At London, with four of the top six taking part, the field was as strong. This time, Carlsen did not have to rely on a late blitz. Five wins in the first six (of nine) rounds put day light between him and Vladimir Kramnik (no slouch himself with three wins in the period) in second place. The 37-year old Kramnik, at the end of the tournament, was second in the world and at his peak rating of 2809. Carlsen is more than 50 rating points ahead of him, a gulf that would technically designate any contest between Kramnik and him lop sided.
For a player to be so far ahead of the field and still keep his rating headed north in the Elo system, winning is more or less mandatory. This, in a sport where a draw is statistically the most probable outcome. Anand has won 22 per cent of his last 237 games. Kramnik has won 25 per cent of his last 282. The number for Carlsen, over a much larger sample space of 477 games, is 37 per cent.
It is not just Carslen’s compulsive ability to provide results that has made him the poster boy of a sport going for an image makeover. The text book definition of a child prodigy, Carlsen was the third youngest GM in the history of chess, beating World Champions while still in his teens. Still, his off-board image was far from that of a sterile genius. Carslen models along side Liz Hurley for Dutch apparel firm G-Star Raw, and his endorsements alone bring in more than a million dollars annually.
Even among players of his age, who are coming to occupy the top slots more and more, Carlsen is an exception. The pervading use of software and analytic engines has made players stronger overall, but their strength is based on predictable principles. The ability to access vast amount of data and analyse at depth is increasingly used in preparing specific tactics for individual opponents, based on their historic preference of certain openings and positions. Carlsen side steps this in a way that makes it possible to target the blind spots that come with such strength.
Carlsen goes against centuries of chess theory, dragging his opponents into non-standard openings where their preparation flies out of the window early in the game. Typically, Carlsen comes out of the opening at a disadvantage, but begins to turn it around in the middle game. A master at extracting blood from stone, Carlsen squeezes positions of apparent passivity for small advantages. This he turns into a tempo and almost invariably the tempo turns into a decisive edge in the end game. The battered foe, often working against the clock because he had used up time coming out of the unfamiliar opening, slips and slithers and finally commits the fatal blunder. Games last well over five hours. Opponents leave exhausted and without a point. For Carlsen, it is a routine win.
Top Elo ratings
2861 Magnus Carlsen
2851 Garry Kasparov
2825 Levon Aronian
2817 Viswanathan Anand
2813 Veselin Topalov