Every generation is marked by a few great players, but they are eventually supplanted by younger ones. In 2013, a new era was ushered in as Magnus Carlsen ascended to the throne.
Every World Champion for the last few decades started out as a prodigy.
Boris Spassky became a grandmaster in 1955 at age 18 – at the time, the youngest in the world. Less than three years later, he was overtaken and surpassed by his great rival, Bobby Fischer, who qualified for the Candidates tournament to select a challenger for the title at age 15.
In the years to come, there would be Anatoly Karpov (World Champion at 24) and his nemesis, Garry Kasparov, who dethroned Karpov in 1985 to become champion at age 22.
Into this tradition of great young players stepped Viswanathan Anand.
In 1987, he became the first Indian to win the World Junior Championship. A year later, he was the first Indian to earn the grandmaster title. By the mid-1990s, he was unquestionably among the world’s elite and played Garry Kasparov for the World Championship atop the World Trade Center, a match that Anand lost.
It was only after the retirement of Kasparov in 2005, and Anand’s victory in the World Championship tournament in Mexico City in 2007 that Anand fully came into his own. He was 37 at the time, and finally undisputed World Champion. For the next five years, he fended off challengers, all of his generation. But it was inevitable that eventually someone from the next generation, another prodigy, would rise to challenge for the crown. To most experts, that next challenger had seemed all-but-preordained – it was Magnus Carlsen.
Magnus Carlsen during Game 5 of the 2013 World Championship match in Chennai, India.
Carlsen’s rise had been phenomenal. He earned the grandmaster title at the age of 13 years and almost 5 months – the third youngest in history. Over the years he steadily climbed in the rankings, piling up successes, even against the world’s best players.
Carlsen became the No. 1 player in the world in January 2010, when he was 19. Though Anand briefly overtook him in late 2010 and early 2011, Carlsen regained the top spot in July 2011 and has held it ever since.
Carlsen had a chance to play for the World Championship in 2012, but he had passed it up, protesting that the format favored players who had been seeded into the Candidates from previous cycles. His decision not to participate disappointed many fans.
The next time the Candidates rolled around, in London in March 2013, the World Chess Federation, also known as FIDE, had changed the rules on qualification, meeting some of Carlsen’s previous objections. The format was a double round-robin (each player faced every other player twice, once with each color). Despite losing in the last round, Carlsen won on tie-break over Vladimir Kramnik and earned the right to challenge Anand.
The World Championship matches of 2013, and later 2014, were real battles of the generations because Carlsen was almost 21 years younger than Anand.
The first match was played in Chennai (formerly Madras), India, the city where Anand grew up. No World Championship match had previously been held in India, so local interest was tremendous and perhaps affected Anand’s performance.
The format was the same as for all the matches since 2006: best-of-twelve classical games, with a play-off of rapid games (and then blitz) if required.
Play began on Nov. 9, 2013, with Carlsen having White. The first game was drawn after only 16 moves, with the Norwegian challenger looking somewhat nervous. He was apparently content to ease himself into the struggle against an opponent who was very seasoned in match-play. Even though a 12-game match is only half the length of the world title matches that were routinely played in the twentieth century, it is still a long-distance race, not a sprint.
Throughout the match, Carlsen mostly managed to avoid Anand’s opening preparation, which was one of his strengths in his career and which had helped him hold the title for five years. Carlsen also proved to be by far the more precise in endgames, pressing successfully for victories in endings in Games 5 and 6 that many grandmasters would have likely settled for a draw. Carlsen’s determination to squeeze every last minute advantage out of seemingly quiet positions was already his trademark and even the normally solid Anand made some surprising misjudgments in this phase of some games.
After two more draws, and with time running out to make up his deficit in the match, Anand went for an all-out kingside attack in Game 9. It looked very promising, although analysis afterwards indicated that Black could hold the draw. Suddenly, Anand made a terrible miscalculation at move 28 and had to resign after Carlsen’s reply.
Magnus Carlsen with the winner’s wreath during the awards ceremony of the 2013 World Championship match.
The score now stood at 6-3 with Anand needing to win three in a row to force a tiebreak. But Carlsen had the better of Game 10 and eventually forced a draw to take the title.
Some commentators started to write Anand off, even speculating he might retire, but only a few months later, in March 2014, he confounded all the doubters by winning the Candidates tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. Anand did so without losing any of his 14 games against seven of the best players in the world. He had earned the right to meet Carlsen again.
Their second match was played on neutral territory in Sochi, Russia, in a venue built for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Anand may have felt less pressure not having to play in front of a home crowd and he had certainly regained confidence from his fine Candidates result, but Carlsen was still the favorite to win.
The match, which began on Nov. 8, 2014, proved much more tense and dramatic than its predecessor. There was even one moment — though quite brief — that could have led to a totally different final result.
In the first game Anand lost the initiative with White but managed to hold the draw in a slightly tricky situation. In Game 2, he came under very heavy pressure and eventually cracked and lost. The difference this time was that he rebounded immediately as Carlsen fell into his preparation in Game 3. The Indian grandmaster won comfortably to level the score. Whereas Carlsen had not lost a single game in the first match, he now knew he was in for a tougher fight.
Two hard-fought draws followed and then came the sixth game and the decisive incident in the match, a surprising instance of mutual “chess blindness.” After 25 moves, Anand (playing Black) was under pressure in a queenless middle-game but Carlsen had some pawn weaknesses offering potential for counterplay. Then this happened:
At move 26 Carlsen wanted to transfer his king to the kingside and carelessly played 26 Kd2? allowing 26…Nxe5 (threatening …Nxc4 with check) which would have turned an inferior position into one that was virtually winning for Anand. But Anand rapidly continued with his plan of 26…a4??, after which Carlsen brought his king to safety with 27 Ke2.
The live video showed the relief on Carlsen’s face (he actually laid his head down on his arms, as seen above); he had clearly realized the blunder he had made but had managed not to give any indication to his opponent. Anand must have realized now that he had missed the moment; his position was now inferior and psychologically he seemed broken. Carlsen went on to win this game and take the lead in the match, whereas he could easily have been down one game.
A hard-fought draw followed in Game 7 in which Carlsen tested his opponent in a marathon endgame, just the type of situation where Anand had collapsed in the previous match. This time, though, he held the draw with accurate play.
Game 8 also was drawn, thanks to Carlsen’s opening preparation, and in Game 9 the Norwegian “wasted” a White, forcing a quick draw as he drew nearer the finishing line. In Game 10, Anand obtained a slight advantage but Carlsen held the draw; the score was now 5.5-4.5.
Though Anand had performed better than in the first match, time was again running out for him.. In Game 11, Anand, who had Black, looked as if he was playing for a solid draw (with hopes to win with White in the final regulation game). Then he suddenly saw an opportunity for active counterplay with a pawn sacrifice at move 23. The position was very unclear but his follow-up exchange sacrifice at move 27 was based on a miscalculation. Carlsen found the refutation and won both the game and the match. Although the end was disappointing, this had been a complex game worthy of a World Championship match.
EPILOGUE: The 2016 cycle leading up to the World Championship match in New York next week not only produced a new challenger, Sergey Karjakin, but one of a new generation. The changing of the guard is complete. And the match ahead looks very intriguing.
Karjakin and Carlsen are two former child prodigies (the youngest and third-youngest grandmasters in history, respectively), born in the same year (January 1990 for Karjakin, November for Carlsen) whose careers for many years developed in close parallel.
In 2007, Carlsen’s rating started to forge ahead and he climbed into the top five in the world. From 2010, after Karjakin moved to Russia and changed federations in 2009 (he was born in Crimea, in Ukraine, before it was annexed by Russia in 2014) Karjakin began to catch up. In addition, he won some important tournaments ahead of Carlsen, notably the elite Norway tournaments in 2013 and 2014. Nonetheless, Carlsen is much higher rated (2853 to 2772) and their most recent game, played at Bilbao in July, ended in victory for Carlsen, who also convincingly won that tournament. With his higher rating and greater match experience, the Norwegian is a firm favorite to retain the world title.